DATE February 27, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Writer and director of the South African film,
"Tsotsi," Gavin Hood, and lead actor, Presley Chweneyagae,
discuss making the film
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
One of the movies nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Foreign Film
has just started opening in theaters around the US. It's a South African film
called "Tsotsi." That's a slang word for "street thug." My guest, Gavin Hood,
directed the film. He's a white South African who studied film making at UCLA
and then returned home and made educational dramas about HIV/AIDS for the new
Department of Health. Hood also wrote the screenplay for "Tsotsi," which is
adapted from the novel by the acclaimed South African playwright Athol Fugard.
A little later we'll meet the star of the film.
"Tsotsi" is set in a shantytown on the edge of Johannesburg where a
19-year-old, aptly nicknamed Tsotsi, lives with his gangster friends. Tsotsi
is the one most lacking in compassion or empathy. In one scene, he carjacks a
BMW and shoots the woman who owns it. It's not until he's driven off that he
discovers her baby is still in the car. The film follows Tsotsi as he tries
to care for the baby and is changed in the process.
Gavin Hood, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want you to describe the opening scene,
the scene in the train.
Mr. GAVIN HOOD: The opening scene where there's a man who's somewhat
brutally stabbed on a train, I think that, you know, there's this young gang,
led by this young man who calls himself Tsotsi, which means "thug." He doesn't
even present himself with a real name. He's living behind this angry mask,
and he leads this rag-tag little motley crew of thieves and, you know, one of
the things they do is look for vulnerable people who look like easy targets to
And one of the individuals that they see on a station buying something and see
that he has cash is an elderly man. And he boards the train, they board the
train with him. Trains are very packed, very crowded, and they've selected
him. As the train moves up, they--and there's a lot of noise in the train,
and they move towards this man, they surround him. And they--one of the gang
carries what is actually a sharpened bicycle spoke. It's quite a frightening
implement that, you know, I'm almost afraid to describe it. If you stab
somebody up into the heart with one of these sharpened bicycle spokes and
jiggle it around, it leaves very little blood and does a nasty job.
Anyway, he sort of sees this man draw this bicycle spoke and kind of play with
his tie while the gang's around him, and he obviously thinks, `Uh-oh, I'm in
trouble.' The idea with the gang, of course, is just to intimidate the
individual and then pickpocket him and go through all his pockets, and he'll
keep dead quiet out of fear, and then they'll just--the train will come to
another station and they'll run. But, unfortunately, in this particular case,
the man, as somebody goes for his pockets, objects rather loudly, and without
a moment's hesitation, the man with the spike kills him.
So the movie begins with a fairly graphic and unpleasant scene which pretty
much pushes the audience away from those characters and especially the title
character of Tsotsi. Now, the idea of that is this is really a tough journey
that--it centers on themes of redemption and forgiveness and empathy and asks
us to what extent can we empathize with someone who, initially, we are truly
repulsed by? So that was the challenge of setting up the character in
somewhat of an ugly way.
GROSS: And this opening scene is the first of several violent scenes in which
we're introduced to Tsotsi and the other thugs that are his friends. And I
think you handle it really well...
Mr. HOOD: Thank you.
GROSS: ...cinematically, because I mean, here you're making a point with all
of this. It's shot really well, it's horrifying, and at the same time, it
doesn't feel just kind of like gratuitous violence.
Mr. HOOD: Well, thank you for that, because I think, you know, one of the
things about violence--and most South Africans at some point have experienced
violent crime, and I've been mugged--Presley, who's going to join us later,
has had his own mugged experience, my mother's been carjacked twice--the thing
about this moment of violent crime is it's not sort of movie violence where
there's multiple gunshots and things going on, although obviously that
happens. But most crime is very sudden. You know, a single gunshot does
awful damage. It's not the moment of violence that is truly shocking, it's
the aftermath. So what we try to do in the movie is I hope that we haven't
indulged the violence. It happens very suddenly, it's not sort of--there's a
fight scene where he beats up Boston, who's asking too many questions and
making him feel truly uncomfortable.
GROSS: Boston is one of his friends, right?
Mr. HOOD: Boston is one of his friends, who, after this moment on the train,
is ill, because this is not something that they--that hap--sometimes--usually,
the victim just keeps quiet and they get what they want, but every now and
then something goes wrong. And Boston can't cope with this particular one.
And he feels physically ill, he is physically ill. And the others are kind of
saying, you know, `You were sick, you know, you haven't got the stomach.' But
of course they're all a bit shaken, and they're trying to hide it. They're
trying to hide behind this mask of toughness back in a bar where they're
sitting together, trying to be tough. But Boston's not coping and he's
getting increasingly drunk, and he keeps asking Tsotsi these probing questions
about, you know, `Tsotsi, that's not a name. What's your real name? Every
man has a name from his mother.' And he keeps asking these questions until
eventually Tsotsi punches him full hard in the face and beats him. Now, we
were going to do that scene, you know, just to be a little lighter for a
moment, my stunt coordinator's like, `OK, so we're going to get breakaway
tables and they're going to go through a glass window,' you know, and I'm
saying, `You know what? I don't want to disappoint you, but actually, the one
punch lands, he tries to crawl away under the table, the table is thrown
towards the audience, at the camera, you don't even see what happens behind
the table, we just see a fist going up and down, and--four or five times--and
then Tsotsi runs out of the shebeen,' the illegal drinking place as it is, and
we then, then only do we see the face of the person who's being punched. And
it's in bad shape, which is, you know, a few punches, heavily delivered, are
unpleasant. So you don't need to indulge it say--to make your point.
And the shock is how we as characters, as people, deal with the effects of
violence. And that's really what the movie then becomes about, is how you
rediscover your humanity when you've been through or behaved violently or been
a victim of violence.
GROSS: Now, this movie is about young people who grew up in the townships...
Mr. HOOD: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...incredibly poor. Tsotsi, the main character, is basically orphaned
at a pretty young age...
Mr. HOOD: Yes.
GROSS: ...and grows up on his own without any kind of attention from or
comfort from parents.
Mr. HOOD: Yes.
GROSS: But all the crime that these--all the people that these young thugs
prey on, they're black, too. So it's not a South African movie which is about
conflicts between black people and white people.
Mr. HOOD: Right.
GROSS: It's about young black people preying on other black people. And
they're preying on other thugs, they're preying on other poor people, they're
preying on middle class suburban people. So I'm interested in the fact that
it's not a racial movie in that sense.
Mr. HOOD: Well, I think...
GROSS: I mean, it's not a black/white movie.
Mr. HOOD: No, and I mean, in a way, I almost wish we could say it wasn't a
black/black movie either. I mean, it's just a movie about people who are
black in these circumstances, and I sometimes feel, you know, at what point
are we allowed to say that these people are people and these are their
circumstances and not draw attention to what color people are? Because crime
affects people of all color. You know, there are victims of crime who are
white, there are victims of crime who are black, poor people are victims of
crime and don't have the economic resources to put up big walls, often, around
them, and wealthier people do. And in the movie, the wealthier couple that is
carjacked and who lived behind walls are black.
But the point, really, was to say, `Let's examine, if you like, the dynamic
between the haves and the have-nots, which is more of a class issue than a
race issue.' Although the two are often linked, they are not the same, and we
have a very strong, fantastically, you know, it's wonderful that we have this
very strong, rising black middle class, and indeed, wealthy class. But we
still have issues of poverty. And there's...(unintelligible). You know,
poverty is a huge issue that we have to deal with. He doesn't phrase that in
terms of race, he phrases it as a phenomenon called poverty which affects poor
people. And increasingly, there are even, in fact, more and more poor white
people because that job reservation that they had under apartheid is gone.
GROSS: Now, early in this film, this young gangster carjacks a suburban
Mr. HOOD: Yeah.
GROSS: Shoots her.
Mr. HOOD: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Drives off with her car, only to find that her baby is in the car and
he has to figure out what to do with the baby.
Mr. HOOD: Yes.
GROSS: So, he accidentally has this baby now. He doesn't know how to deal
with it. He diapers it in newspapers, carries it around in a shopping bag and
leaves the baby alone in his shack when he goes out.
Mr. HOOD: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And one day he comes back home to the shack to find the baby covered
in ants, as if the baby were like some rotting fruit that he'd left out that
was covered in bugs.
Mr. HOOD: Yes, mm-hmm.
GROSS: It's a really horrible scene. You know, I think a very well-done
scene. And I'm wondering how you found a parent willing to have their baby do
Mr. HOOD: Well, let's hasten to say, and you know, I'm going to give
something away on air, but I think it's important. It is a movie, and I think
the most important thing about a movie is that you don't harm anybody or--and
so the ants in that scene are done in computer-generated graphics.
Mr. HOOD: I mean, I almost feel bad giving that away because I hope it
doesn't detract from the scene because it's an important scene. So on the one
hand, I wish I hadn't said that, but on the other hand, as you've asked, you
know, mom would never have allowed us to put ants on her precious child's
face. And the scenes with the baby were extremely tedious, frankly, to shoot,
because there are scenes in the film where the baby cries, and of course, mom,
if the baby cried for more than 10, 15 seconds, wanted to pick it up out of
the shot and give it a hug and then we'd come back later and carry on. We
also brought babies into the studio at the end, four or five babies with their
mums, and the sound man just recorded every sound when they screamed when the
nappies were being changed, or--and we then used these sounds for shots when
the baby is off screen or whatever, to help us create a performance from a
three-month-old. I spent ages next to the camera, you know, going
`kootchie-kootchie-koo,' `pht-pht' and doing whatever I could to get reaction
shots that I could then edit in to--with the work that Presley Chweneyagae
does so beautifully, where he's essentially--we've storyboarded a scene, and
we know what emotional beats are required, but you can't ask a baby to act it
through. The baby does whatever it does. So you do the work on the actor,
knowing what reactions you want, and then Presley goes on home and we stay and
keep working with that child until we've filmed enough to get the various
reactions that I know I need to take off on this board. It was a nightmare,
to be honest.
GROSS: Well, you have a lot--the baby's adorable and there's a lot of really
cute baby stuff, but there's also some parts where the baby is terrified or
just really uncomfortable or starving.
Mr. HOOD: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So how did you get the more "baby in jeopardy" kind of reactions?
Mr. HOOD: Well, you, say, we have these shots of the baby on the table where
it's going to have its nappy changed, and it's very traumatized. You lay it
on the table, you've lined up the camera, you've lit it, you lay it on the
table, and at first, the baby's fine, it lies there, and you know what? After
about 10, 15 seconds of lying on this hot table, it does get uncomfortable and
it starts to object. It goes `Ahhhhh,' and it starts to move its arm around.
Then mom says, `That's fine,' and now the baby's gone. Well, now you've got
that one shot except that you need it on that--so that scene took two days.
And I'd like to think the baby was not traumatized. We did have twins, so
they shared the load. And as I say, the rough stuff with the ants was done in
computer graphics. But when you edit this all together and then you use
sounds from other babies and you create this very intense moment, it looks
like you've got a very traumatized child, which is the idea, and it's quite
upsetting for a moment. But, guys, it's a movie. We work very carefully, and
we have--you know, it's the same with the scene with a dog that is pretty
unpleasant, and you have the animal anti-cruelty people on set, and actually,
can I tell you quickly the story of the dog? It's--you know, we had...
GROSS: Please. This is a dog who's--I won't give away how it's kicked...
Mr. HOOD: No, it's OK.
GROSS: ...why it's kicked or anything, but it's an emotional and narrative
pivot point in the movie. So this dog is kicked a couple of times and those
kicks break the dog's back.
Mr. HOOD: Yeah.
GROSS: And we see the dog in pain, unable to move and just whimpering.
Mr. HOOD: Yeah. So you have to train a dog to crawl as if it has a broken
back and so you think you're really prepared and they train four or five dogs,
the trainers, and you come and see them six weeks later and you've got two
weeks to go before shooting and all these dogs crawl very nicely for the
trainer. And there's only one problem: they were all wagging their tails.
They're so pleased that they're pleasing the trainer. This is a disaster.
And that is why the dog in the movie is a Rottweiler that has no tail. You
know? Now, I don't feel good about telling you all this, it's going to spoil
the film. Oh, goodness me. This is not good, Terry. You should cut all this
out. You put me on the spot.
GROSS: Well, it's going to be effective anyway, I think. These are very,
very effective scenes.
Mr. HOOD: Forget you heard all this.
GROSS: Now, the story, "Tsotsi," is adapted from an Athol Fugard novel that
was written during the apartheid era, and it takes place in the very early
days of apartheid. So you've updated it.
Mr. HOOD: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Why did you want to the story in contemporary South Africa and not
make--you know, use the story but not make it an apartheid story?
Mr. HOOD: Well, partly because I don't think its essence is an apartheid
story. And that's not to apologize in any way for apartheid. The fact is
that Fugard's work has always been profoundly focused on character and the
socioeconomic and political environment is brought to your attention because
the character is fascinating, and they're living in a skewed world. So the
back story of how Tsotsi becomes an orphan in the '50s, in the novel, is
essentially because his parents are political activists, at least his father
is away, presumed to be a political activist. His mother is dragged away one
night by the security police. It's very traumatic for the kid. He hides in
the chicken coop. His father comes home, realizing that the mother has been
dragged away. He's truly traumatized. The dog's barking, which brings us to
the dog scene, the dog's barking like crazy, the man is not coping
emotionally, he's furious at the world and this damn dog keeps barking and he
kicks it. And the child witnesses this brutality without any understanding of
its political, if you will, context. And therefore, the trauma on the
individual is again, a political system that is affecting an individual which
the individual knows nothing about. And he runs, and he becomes an orphan and
Now, from then on, the story's a parallel because it's really about a kid
who's angry and distressed and frightened by the world, has lost his mom and
dad and has to raise himself. And has lost this nurturing that he had
briefly. And when he comes into contact with this baby that's three months
old, there's some impulse to nurture but he doesn't want to reveal that to the
other tough members of his gang. So he hides the child in his shack and tries
pathetically to take care of this kid, can't, and that's why he takes it to
this young woman who he compels at gunpoint to breast-feed it, and so begins a
slow shift to a reawakening of his humanity.
Now, that story, and the story in the modern context, are exactly the same.
So the only real issue is, well, how does he become an orphan in modern-day
South Africa? Well, thankfully, we have a very healthy constitution, we have
a democracy, we no longer have this rotten center, but we nevertheless still
have social problems, one of which is the effect of the HIV/AIDS crisis, where
we have a 25 to 30 percent HIV infection rate, which is a huge crisis, and we
have a lot of orphans. And so we simply modified the back story of Tsotsi to
being a child who lost his mom to AIDS, father is not coping, he--the boy want
to hold mom's hand, the father thinks mom is sick, doesn't understand, which
was true of the early '90s because I worked in HIV making educational programs
for years in those--for three years in my early work as a film maker, and
tells the child to get away from the mother because he fears he's going to get
sick. We now know that of course, he wouldn't. But then, the dog starts
barking because the father's aggressive, the father's drinking because he's
not coping with this crisis of illness, which he doesn't understand, and we're
back in the same scene.
GROSS: My guest is Gavin Hood. He wrote and directed the new South African
film, "Tsotsi." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gavin Hood and he wrote and
directed the new film, "Tsotsi." It's a South African film that's nominated
for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
The story is set in a township in South Africa. Tell us where you actually
set the story.
Mr. HOOD: Well, we have set it in pretty much, you know, the toughest
shantytown kind of neighborhood on the outskirts of Johannesburg. So one of
thing--pressures we feel as film makers is is this definitive of every
neighborhood? And no, it's not. But it is--there are significant numbers of
tough shantytowns that have grown up around the city, mainly because people
have come from many parts of the country in search of a better life. And so
the language in the film is tsotsitaal, which is gangster speak, and because
people have come...
GROSS: It's like a township dialect?
Mr. HOOD: Yeah. It's almost like a patois. We have 11 official languages
in South Africa and people are coming--you know, the Zulu people are coming
from Zululand and Sutu people and Swana people and many people come to the
city. And in the shantytowns, there are kids mixing with each other from very
different languages. And I--these aren't different dialects. Sometimes, I
think, in speaking to an American audience, it's--people sort of think, oh,
there's black people and they have various accents. Actually, you have to
think more in the European way of saying there are Germans and French and
Italian people and they're all European. Well, we have Zulu and Xhosa, Sutu
and Venda, and these are nations with their own traditions and six million
Zulu people and five million Xhosas. And people come together in these, and
they really do speak different languages. And then this language, which is
quite extraordinary, has evolved. You hear some English, some Afrikaans,
Zulu, Xhosa, Swana, as these communicate. And so they might go home to mom
and speak pure Zulu or pure Swana, but out on the streets, they're all mixing
together and speaking this amazing kind of dialect.
GROSS: Why did you want to use this dialect? I mean, just in practical
terms, no one outside of South Africa will know it and a lot of movie goers in
South Africa won't know it. And just in terms of practical movie terms, now
you have a subtitled film...
Mr. HOOD: Yeah.
GROSS: ...which will probably be a little harder to distribute, might get
fewer viewers because of that. Some people don't like subtitled films. So
this has like practical repercussions. So why...
Mr. HOOD: It does, yes.
GROSS: ...why shoot it in this like shantytown dialect and then end up with a
Mr. HOOD: It's a great question, Terry. Because when the film is in
English, first of all, there's minimal dialogue, I hasten to say. I knew the
film would be subtitled, so the sub--the dialogue, we were very strict about
sticking to that script so that the dialogue, I how, and the subtitles read
really quickly. It's not like you're going, `Oh, my goodness. I've got to
keep up.' I don't think the lead's character says more than two words for the
first 20 minutes of the movie. Movies are wonderful places to tell story's
vision. I wanted to have, where there was dialogue, and there isn't a lot, I
wanted to give you--the audience, the flavor of this place. And part--you're
getting the visual flavor, because you're seeing it. But if you were to--if I
were to take you by the hand and lead you into the shantytown, you wouldn't
hear English. So you're actually depriving your audience of part of a sensory
experience of being in a world that has an audio quality to it as well as a
visual quality. And when actors in South Africa have to tell their stories in
English, and it's not, for most South Africans, their first language, there's
this barrier because you're having to work in another language which means
that you--what is essential to this film is a deeply honest, emotional power.
And Presley is so effective in his own language and there's no barrier to him
finding that emotion, which there might be more so if he was working in
English, although his English is superb, I hasten to say.
GROSS: Gavin Hood wrote and directed the new film, "Tsotsi." He'll be back in
the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, more with the director of the film, "Tsotsi," and we meet
the star of the film. Also, we talk with Marc Weingarten about his new book
about new journalism. Among the people he profiles are Joan Didion and the
late Truman Capote, who are both on the current best seller lists.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Gavin Hood. He wrote
and directed the new South African film, "Tsotsi," which is nominated for an
Oscar in the category of Best Foreign Film. In a couple of minutes, we'll
meet the film's start, Presley Chweneyagae, who mostly did community theater
before Hood cast him. "Tsotsi" is about a young street thug who lives in a
shantytown outside Johannesburg.
How familiar are you with the kind of shantytown that you filmed in?
Mr. HOOD: Well, I mean, as you know, I'm a white African so I did not grow
up in the shantytowns. But my first work outside film school, I was hired by
the Department of Health to write and direct very low-budget, what we called
educational dramas, principally, in the early '90s and the mid-'90s, about
HIV/AIDS, teenage prostitution, drug addiction issues, child abuse issues,
that the department wanted to use in schools and indeed, on national
television, to talk about these--this looming--well, this crisis that had
emerged in AIDS, when the country was in complete denial about it. And it was
very tough because there were certain people in the Department of Health who
were committed. But most people didn't want to know because we were in a
state of euphoria with a new country, with new constitution, with new
democracy. How can you come with this bad news? Just go away. So it was a
very strange time. But I worked in the townships and in the shantytowns and
in the inner city. And it was a fantastic three years of my life in terms of
really helping me get to know my own country in the broadest possible sense.
GROSS: You shot two different endings...
Mr. HOOD: Yeah.
GROSS: ...for you movie, at least two different endings. You know, as you
said, this movie is about people who--one person in particular, who's really
thuggish and brutal, who's totally lacking in empathy and compassion.
Mr. HOOD: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And we wonder through the movie, are they capable of redemption.
Mr. HOOD: Yeah.
GROSS: And we'll find out at the end. And you shot a couple of endings.
Now, usually, when somebody shoots a couple of endings, I think, OK, they're
going to see which one plays better in the shopping mall testing group, which
ending's going to sell more tickets.
Mr. HOOD: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: My impression is that's not why you shot different endings.
Mr. HOOD: No. We genuinely had a struggle with how to end the film and
particularly because the book ends in a certain way, and that way was
appropriate because things seemed so hopeless. I've talked to Athol about
this subsequently. And things--when the story was originally set in the '50s,
segregation and apartheid was just getting worse and worse and worse. And so
the way the book ends felt appropriate. It was deeply tragic. The end of the
movie is still pretty tough, but there's a note of hope, and I'm afraid to
give anything away, but what I hope it does, is it's slightly more open-ended,
and I hope does two things. It has a hint of hope so the movie has hope
because we do now have a healthy core and a constitution from which we can
build a better country. But we have to face up to the challenges such as HIV,
that have hit us, and poverty. But also, I hope that the ending allows people
to go out and talk about what they feel. I don't want the film, in any way,
to tell anyone what to feel. At the end of the film, you are challenged to
decide what you feel about this character. And you can make up, in a sense,
your own ending because it has a certain open-endedness. And some people feel
he should go to jail for the rest of his life and other people want to take
him home and give him cookies and tea and adopt. I've seen both these
reactions. Probably the truth lies somewhere in the middle because he has
done some pretty terrible things. But hopefully, by the end of the film,
you've begun to empathize with someone whose life at first appeared very
different from early on, but you realize that perhaps with a different roll of
the dice, this could be your life.
GROSS: Well, let me just say, my guest is Gavin Hood. He wrote and directed
the new film, "Tsotsi." It's a South African film that's nominated for an
Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. And let me here introduce the star of
the film, the actor who plays Tsotsi, a young thug living in a shantytown in
South Africa, and his name is Presley Chweneyagae.
And Presley, are you there?
Mr. PRESLEY CHWENEYAGAE: Yes, I'm here, I'm here.
GROSS: Welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Oh, thank you. Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Tell us how you first heard that this film was being shot? How did
you first learn that you could audition for the film?
Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Well, it was actually when I was doing "Hamlet." I was
playing Hamlet at the South African State Theater, and that's where my agent
saw me. And I was still doing my matric, and so she told me to finish my
schooling first then we could talk. And after I fished my matric, which is
like the last grade in high school, she gave me the script and then I had to
have a meeting with Gavin and then, yeah, we talked about the script and I
initially auditioned for this part, Butcher, the guy with the spike, but I
asked Gavin if I could audition for Tsotsi, and he gave me the chance. So
yeah, that's how I got the part.
GROSS: Presley, you're playing a character in this who, for most of the
movie, is really utterly lacking in empathy for anybody else. He's kind of
incapable of feeling anything and he's responsible for a lot of brutality.
Did you know anybody like this? Have you been exposed to anything like this
that you could draw on in your performance?
Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Well, yeah, definitely, because I grew up in a township
myself and I know guys like Tsotsi who really do bad things. So it was just a
matter of taking all those people and making them one person. And also to
draw from myself, like emotionally, go to those--that place, and you know, if
all experience crime, like Gavin said before, and I got mugged another time.
I was...(unintelligible)...and it was like two days before my performance and
so they hit me with a butt of a gun and I was bleeding and they took my bag
and they ran with it. But luckily, I had a T-shirt from a drama festival that
I was in, written "Stop Crime," so probably they got the message.
GROSS: So now I read about you that it was your mother that really encouraged
you to take acting lessons, in part because she didn't want you to be exposed
to a lot of crime, didn't want you hanging out on the streets.
Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Well, yeah, that's true. That's true, because you know,
like I just told you, that I knew--I know guys like Tsotsi. So it was part of
my mom's idea to drag me out of the township, sort of, because my school was
like outside the township and where I was attending drama classes was like out
of the township, too. So I go to school and then after school, I run to my
drama classes, and I'd get home around about 7:00, so I don't really get to
see people. And that really helped me a lot because I think later on, I
started understanding that--like gaining some kind of confidence and
commitment to the craft. So I was really thankful for that.
GROSS: And your mother is a police inspector?
Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Yes, she's a police inspector, yeah.
GROSS: What was it...
Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: And my dad...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead. And your father, too?
Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Yeah.
GROSS: Oh, gee. So what was it like growing up with a lot of kids who were
potential criminals and having parents who were police?
Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Well, it was a bit crazy because my mom would tell me
about--like maybe if she was at crime scene and she'd say to me, someone would
say, `Presley's mom, please, please, please don't arrest me,' you know, things
like that. And you ask yourself, `Who's that guy,' you know? So it was a bit
crazy but I don't really entertain that side of crime.
GROSS: In your performance in "Tsotsi," you're not a very verbal character in
this. You have a very hardened expression on your face during most of the
film. And you're obviously not letting anything in. You're not letting any
emotions in, and you're trying to project toughness on to other people. Your
job, in part, is to intimidate other people. So can you talk a little bit
about getting that kind of tough exterior, that kind of hostility on your face
and that kind of impenetrable quality, and using that without having a lot of
dialogue to define your character?
Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Well, one of the things that drew me to love this character
so much is, you know, I think, as an actor, it's always important to look at
the character at, because I think, as an actor, one must change, sort of. So
when we were working with Gavin, he helped me a lot to--because we worked from
a basic point of generating from the inside, and then emotions could leak out
after that. So I can't really explain it, but I really had to go to that
place. I remember, I was so mean because the character is so, like he's
isolated, sort of. He doesn't really want to talk to people and he's really
mean. So I kind of like behaved the character for me to believe in what I was
doing. And I gained--you know, like I can't be all lovey-dovey when I'm
supposed to play this guy, so I was detached to a whole lot of people in terms
of family-wise and my girlfriend and all that. But they kind of like
understood that I was working. And I remember I was so mean that Gavin
sometimes had to force me to say thank you to some of the runners, and you
know, it was a bit crazy.
GROSS: Gavin, what's your reaction to that?
Mr. HOOD: Well, you know, Presley is, in a way, the most extraordinary
method actor, and almost self-trained. And my job was just to help him
transition from being a superb theater actor where the work is about the
lines. But he has this extraordinary emotional depth, as I think you can
hear, and an extraordinary incisive intelligence. And it was just--when we
were on film, just perhaps helping him to trust his stillness and just
allowing that inner emotion to be generated and we'd generate it together.
And it's beyond the scope of this as to how we do that, but you'd generate
that emotion so as Presley said, you want more going on in the inside than you
allow to leak out on the outside, Bad actors emote; good actors generate the
emotion and then try and hold it back. And then when it explodes, it comes
from a very deep place. And that's what Presley's talent is. He has this
amazing ability to do that. But he also sometimes--I got worried at some
points because he worked so deeply, and he didn't want to talk to anybody on
the crew. And every now and then, someone would bring him something and he
didn't say thank you. So I'd say, `Pres, hey, it's OK. Just say thanks, you
know, mate. You're upsetting some of these guys.' But he didn't mean it. And
I shouldn't even really have said that because his work--I mean, the crew
thought he was unbelievable, because he was. And I never had to wait for one
second for him. He would sit quietly if the scene was happening. Other
actors go off and have a jolly old time and they're playing a game of cards.
Then you have to spend time getting them back into the scene. Not so with
GROSS: Presley, a couple questions for you. Is this your first movie?
Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Yes, this is my first feature film.
GROSS: What was it like for you to see yourself?
Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Well, it was very difficult at first because I remember
they played some clips at the wrap party and I couldn't really look at the
movie because I was feeling like that all over again. So I walked out. But I
think it takes time. Like after awhile, you get used to it because it takes
GROSS: You walked out of your own movie, huh? Let's hope a lot of other
people don't do that.
Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: No, no, no, I don't think they will.
GROSS: What was it like to go from stage, and particularly from a really big
performance like doing "Hamlet," to kind of dialing back the emotion for the
character that you had to play on screen in "Tsotsi"?
Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Well, yes, it was a bit different because it was my first
film and I think it was just a matter of adjusting because stage, everything
is a bit big and on screen, you can't lie, and everything has to be clean and
subtle. And I think Gavin really helped me a lot in doing that. And I mean,
even in the first week, you know, getting to my marks and whatever was a bit
of a problem because I didn't want really know about stuff like that. But you
know, the crew and Gavin and the cast, almost everybody knew that it was my
first film and they were very supportive. So that's how it worked out.
GROSS: Has your mother seen the movie?
Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Well, yes. She saw the movie and she was just crying. She
was crying. She was very happy because she's never missed any of my shows and
she said to me that she's seen all my plays but this was the best that I've
GROSS: I want to congratulate you both on the nomination of "Tsotsi" for an
Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
Mr. HOOD: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: And I wish you good luck with it and I thank you both for talking with
Mr. HOOD: Thanks very much for having us on the show.
Mr. CHWENEYAGAE: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: Gavin Hood wrote and directed the new South African film, "Tsotsi."
Presley Chweneyagae stars in the film. It's just started to open in theaters
around the US.
Coming up, Truman Capote, Joan Didion and the new journalism of the '60s and
'70s. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Author Marc Weingarten discusses his new book "The Gang
Who Wouldn't Shoot Straight" and Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood"
and the movie "Capote"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Two of the writers profiled in a book about the new journalism of the '60s and
'70s are back on the best seller list. The success of the film "Capote"
turned Truman Capote's 1966 book, "In Cold Blood," back into a best seller.
Joan Didion's best-selling memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," won a 2005
National Book Award. My guest, Marc Weingarten, is the author of the new
book, "The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion and the
New Journalism Revolution." Weingarten describes the writers he focuses on as
journalists who began thinking like novelists, not in the sense of
fictionalizing their reporting but in developing a novelist's sense of
character and drama. I asked Weingarten where he thinks Truman Capote's "In
Cold Blood" fits into the new journalism.
Mr. MARC WEINGARTEN: I see it as an absolute seismic shock in the way that
people approach nonfiction writing. Capote was so meticulous in researching
this story of the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas, spending six years
delving into the murders, the minds of the two murderers themselves, the
family, the town in which the murders took place, etc. He also, frankly, took
a lot of creative license in his work, using interior monologues and sort of
delving into the heads of his characters, which was criticized by his editor
at the New Yorker, William Shawn, who was really ambivalent about even
publishing the piece because he felt that it was fabulist, that Capote had
really tinkered too much with nonfiction. But in my opinion, it's an absolute
masterpiece and sort of a--I would say it's sort of a precursor to a lot of
the procedural fiction that we read now. But I just think it's a brilliantly
written book and a lot of these writers read that book and absorbed that book
and learned a lot of lessons from it.
GROSS: You know, it's interesting. You say that William Shawn, the editor at
the New Yorker when "In Cold Blood" was published, had serious reservations
about even publishing it. In the movie, "Capote," William Shawn is portrayed
as saying to Truman Capote, "I'm going to make you a star," and Shawn travels
with Capote and answers Capote's phone in the hotel room when Capote's not
feeling up to it himself. Is that a misportrayal?
Mr. WEINGARTEN: Correct. I love that film, but that was the one thing I took
issue with because having talked to Lillian Ross about this issue, Lillian
Ross being a longtime staff writer at the New Yorker as well as William
Shawn's lover for many years, she told me that yes, Shawn really didn't like
the piece, he was very uncomfortable with Capote taking so much creative
license. And the New Yorker was such a stickler for facts with one of the
most buttoned-down, fact-checking departments, and Shawn just thought that it
just wasn't appropriate for the magazine. So there was a struggle there
before it was published. And in the film, yeah, Shawn is really portrayed as
a champion of the piece. But to my understanding, that wasn't the case.
GROSS: You talk about how when Truman Capote first went to Kansas to research
the murder story that "In Cold Blood" is about, he really stood out. What
stood out about him?
Mr. WEINGARTEN: He was gay. I mean, that's the short answer. Here was this
gay Southerner turned New Yorker, very flamboyant, I think even more
flamboyantly dressed than he's portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the
film. With that voice and that manner and people were really turned off by
him. People didn't really know who he was, even though he had already
published "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and other books. And it took Capote's
skill as an interviewer as well as his companion, Harper Lee, who helped him
out tremendously in opening up many doors to him.
GROSS: Yeah. Harper Lee, his friend, is best known for writing "To Kill A
Mockingbird." Exactly what did she do to help Truman Capote when he was
researching "In Cold Blood"?
Mr. WEINGARTEN: Well, I think she had a lot of finesse in the way that she
approached the residents of the town, particularly the women. And she was
able to sort of subtly draw them out in a way that Capote initially maybe
couldn't have done. So--and she was also his stenographer. Keep in mind that
Capote never jotted down a single note or used a tape recorder when he
interviewed all these people in Kansas. And it was up to--now, he claims that
he had, what was it...
GROSS: Like a photographic memory?
Mr. WEINGARTEN: Photographic memory, correct. But in fact, she was
beautifully scribbling away many times.
GROSS: Many times, but not all the time?
Mr. WEINGARTEN: Many times, but not all the time, correct.
GROSS: Capote described "In Cold Blood" as a nonfiction novel. What impact
do you think the book had on nonfiction that was published after Capote?
Mr. WEINGARTEN: The way he structured the piece, the way he wrote various
scenes, the way he used dialogue, it reads like a novel. So I think writers
that came after Capote--now, this--"In Cold Blood" was published in the '60s
so he was working contemporaneously with a lot of these writers. But I think
a lot of writers were influenced by this narrative skill and the way in which
Capote brought this sort rather prosaic murder story to life using his skills
as a novelist. So I think that was very influential.
GROSS: I want to move on to another journalist who you write about in your
book on new journalism, and that's Joan Didion. And she has a wonderful book
on the best seller list that's a memoir about a year of grieving after her
husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a sudden heart attack. It's
an amazing book. I mean, she seems to stand back from her own grief as she's
experienced it. She just kind of record it as accurately and in as much
detail as she can. How would you describe her place in new journalism?
Mr. WEINGARTEN: I think her influence is twofold because she was great at
two things. Early on in her career when she was freelancing for magazines
like the Saturday Evening Post, she was doing a lot of straight reporting
pieces and they were just--they were quite good. And her eye for detail was
novelistic, her ability to capture the essence of her characters with a few
deft strokes was uncanny. And she was a very good reporter and she did these
pieces. Now, the other thing she did, of course, for these personal essays,
which are very sort of self-searching, extremely sensitive essays about her
life and her psyche, and those, arguably, were even more influential, not in
terms of new journalism, just in terms of people writing about themselves, the
personal essay form. But she does have this ability to examine herself and
her emotional makeup in a way that I don't think any other writer even does.
GROSS: My guest is Marc Weingarten, author of the new book, "The Gang That
Wouldn't Write Straight." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Marc Weingarten, author of the new book, "The Gang That
Wouldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion and the New Journalism
What are some of the ways that you think the new journalism, the novelistic
approach to writing about actual events, affected newspapers and magazines and
continues to affect what we're reading today in newspapers and magazines?
Mr. WEINGARTEN: Well, it might have had a pernicious influence, I'm afraid,
because Hunter Thompson, who was writing for Rolling Stone in the '70s, became
such a rock star by placing himself in his own stories, and this led to a lot
of really bad Hunter imitations, and when people thrust themselves into their
own nonfiction narrative. And so you know, there's been a lot of bad,
first-person writing that has been done in the wake of Hunter's stuff. But
newspapers, I don't see it too much. I see it more in magazines like the
Believer. Are you familiar with David Edgar's...
Mr. WEINGARTEN: Mm-hmm.
Mr. WEINGARTEN: Yeah. I think they do some really amazing narrative
nonfiction pieces that are definitely new journalism-esque. And I still think
the New Yorker does some great work like that, ironically enough, because at
the start of my book, there's a story about Tom Wolfe, basically attacking the
New Yorker for being a horrible, has-been magazine in 1965, sort of
positioning himself and the fellow new journalists in opposition to what the
New Yorker was all about. But of course, the New Yorker still continues to
put out great stuff. But I guess you might see it more on the Web, although
I'm not so impressed with what I read on the Web, particularly. The blogs,
which I think are too hastily written. I think journalists need editors to
really do their job right.
GROSS: You know, I read a lot of nonfiction books, in part because I host
Mr. WEINGARTEN: Right.
GROSS: And one of the things, you know, one of the things I sometimes have a
problem with in a lot of nonfiction books now is the amount of dialogue.
Dialogue in scenes where I know the writer wasn't there and the writer often
says in the introduction that this is dialogue that was reported to him, you
know, from--by the interviewees who said, `Here's what I said and here's what
was said to me.' But it often, not always, but it often reads like a kind of
fake re-creation of something. And it sometimes makes me a little distrustful
because I figure, well, you can't really say word for word in quotes what
somebody said 20 years ago in this room that you weren't in.
Mr. WEINGARTEN: Right. Well...
GROSS: Would you--do you think that that's something that's happening a lot
more since the new journalism era?
Mr. WEINGARTEN: Yes. Yes, no question. I mean, it was definitely endemic
to new journalists, particularly people like Jimmy Breslin, who was very--who
used a lot of made-up dialogue with impunity. But I think that writers do it
out of fear more than anything else. I don't think they're trying to pull the
wool over anyone's eyes. I think they're afraid that their story's going to
be dull if they don't use dialogue.
Mr. WEINGARTEN: And so they resort to inserting--you know, I don't think
it's a hoax they're perpetrating. I just think they're afraid people are
going to turn off. Yeah, I think that's definitely a legacy of these guys
that I write about in my book. But I think one could be judicious about it
and if one doesn't get too fanciful, I think it's OK. But if it's a situation
where you're really heavily using so much dialogue that you didn't hear, then
it just becomes absurd, well, then that's just no good.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. WEINGARTEN: Thank you very much, Terry.
GROSS: Marc Weingarten is the author of the new book, "The Gang That Wouldn't
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.