It’s been a big few months for South African cinema. The Wound was selected as South Africa’s official entry into the Oscars, in the category of best foreign language film. They weren’t the only films up for the spot; also in contention was a certain Western film set in Apartheid-era South Africa: Five Fingers for Marseilles.We at BTG Lifestyle were fortunate enough to catch up with screenwriter of Five Fingers for Marseilles, Sean Drummond, and got the chance to pick his brain about the process of writing the screenplay, making the film, and what’s next for him, along with creative partner Michael Matthews who have both recently been signed to talent agency WME.
The idea of overnight success is great but people don’t see the years of sweat and blood that have gone into it
Dean (DR): Firstly congratulations on the hugely positive reception of your first major feature film Five Fingers for Marseilles. Secondly, congratulations on being signed to WME! Your career, alongside that of Michael Matthews seems to be blowing up. How long has it taken to get to this point?
Sean Drummond (SD): Thanks for the congratulations, man. We’ve been working together for about twelve years, we’ve been running Be Phat Motel for almost exactly ten years. The day that the Five Fingers for Marseilles trailer came out was exactly ten years to the day that we registered Be Phat Motel as a company. We unofficially started in 2006 and then in August 2007 we registered Be Phat Motel. You say our careers seem to be “blowing up” – I mean, the idea of overnight success is great but people don’t see the years of sweat and blood that have gone into it. So it’s been a long ride, up and down, for the better part of a decade, maybe a little more.
To get to see parts of the South Africa that we’d never seen before and that people don’t get to see very often was awesome
DR: You and Michael have been creative partners for a while. How would you describe your dynamic?
SD: We’ve been creative partners for twelve years. I was writing at UCT (University of Cape Town), he was directing at City Varsity, and he came over looking for scripts we made a very light collaboration for the first film and then we carried on working together from there and started Be Phat Motel. We are obviously great friends, we started as creative friends and then became actual friends, so that’s cool. The dynamic is good. I mean, I think we’ve built the company up. There was a time we worked all day every day together as a Be Phat Motel crew and we don’t do that anymore. I think we’ve been good at separating but yeah the partnership and the creative understanding in shorthand is really solid. I think part of what’s exciting about now as we get to be separately a director and a writer and then together as a writer/director team and as a producing partnership is we get to explore some cool opportunities.
You have to be prepared to prove yourself, not just your ability but your commitment time and time again because that’s how you earn people’s respect and good faith
DR: We read that while crafting the Five Fingers for Marseilles narrative you took a 5,000-mile research trip around South Africa. What was the experience like and how important was it to the script writing process?
SD: We did 5,000 miles – or 8,000 kilometers – and, to be honest the experience itself was great. I mean, to get to see parts of the South Africa that we’d never seen before and that people don’t get to see very often was awesome. And then to be able to tap into this interesting cultural space out there as well, with all the towns and that sort of failed colonial heritage and all the things we talked about and how the people there have sorted of adapted to life in today’s South Africa. As a way of getting to know your country it was pretty challenging and pretty inspiring and it was incredibly important to the script writing process.
We had the bones of the story, but knew we wanted to try to fit it for production purposes to an actual place and we found the town Lady Grey that we ended up shooting in and it couldn’t have been more perfect for what we had envisioned. So then staying there and actually writing around the location and meeting people and hearing their stories I would say it was incredibly important. There was so much realness and so much story that we had in the original draft of the script, it was about 200 pages long, and then we ended up trimming that down over time. The first treatment and outline for the story I wrote in town. And then I would go back every year, do some writing there. Generally I didn’t write the first draft of the script in Cape Town as I was getting away but I don’t think I wrote too much of that in Lady Grey, I would just go back for rewrites and that sort of thing. It’s environmental writing, you know? Just being in the space and in the story as much as possible. So being out there definitely helped.
DR: When all the dust settles on Five Fingers for Marseilles, what will you be diving into next? Any exciting new projects in the works?
SD: We’ve gotta release Five Fingers for Marseilles in April, so that’s obviously a big focus, along with our new representation States side with WME as agents and Management 360 as managers. Then Apocalypse Now Now is the next big one with Todd and XYZ films we’re pushing pretty hard on that. We’ve got projects work Todd and XYZ films and also with Asger Hussain and Yaron Schwartzman at Game 7 films who were our co-producers on Five Fingers for Marseilles and were instrumental in getting the film made. We’ve also got a TV show called Acts of Man that we’re in early development on also probably with XYZ films, and that’s a supernatural psychological police thriller – a really slow burning thriller. It’s set in a small town in KwaZulu-Natal and looks at the colonial, missionary, religious hangover that a lot of small towns have and it’s a town that begins a witch hunt after a girl is found and they’re trying to root out who had brought the devil into their community, because it’s quite a ritualistic killing.
It also plays on the old Apartheid-era cult unit and one of the characters is sort of a relic of that unit. He’s coaxed out of a self-imposed exile because of some shit that went down when he was in the unit. Three city cops get wound deep into the fabric of this town that’s eating itself, with some pretty unexpected reversals and results. There’s the question of is there or isn’t there something supernatural going on and then some of the answers to that question turns out to be quite surprising, so that’s one we’re excited about.
So those two are the big ones but I’m also writing on a supernatural dark fantasy project that’s set in Miami, featuring a bunch of kids. It’s based on a magazine article called Myths Over Miami and a lot of actual Latin American and Santeria folklore, and really interesting aspects that have fed into this world of these kids in the shelter system in Miami. So yeah, that’s a good one. It’s called The Blue Lady and it’s pretty exciting too.
Personally I’d rather be more than the sum of all my influences
DR: Any advice for SA writers, directors, producers looking to make a name for themselves in the film industry?
SD: Believe in your stories. Work on what’s true to you. Don’t try and craft something that isn’t authentic to yourself or feel true to yourself, based on what you think the market or producers want to see. I think nobody is going to push and believe in it as much as you do so back yourself and go. Be prepared to put everything at stake. If you want it bad enough, go the distance. Just meet people and be true to yourself. People can smell inauthenticity I think. You have to be prepared to put the time in, it’s not going to happen quickly.
You have to be prepared to prove yourself, not just your ability but your commitment time and time again because that’s how you earn people’s respect and good faith. We’re seeing a lot of that. All of the respect and love and support that we’ve felt since Five Fingers for Marseilles came out and since all the news about the signing to WME, a lot of the enthusiasm is because people have seen us pushing for so long. People genuinely seem to be happy for us, because we put so much at stake for so long. We’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of support we’ve been getting, which is great. I think we learned a lesson there because we’ve always tried to have really good faith and operate really well so yeah I think we’re seeing that.
My own take on writing is also how collaborative it is and films are always the sum of many parts
DR: What’s your favourite movie?
SD: Geez, tough list. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I’d say. Pan’s Labyrinth. Or The Warriors, which might be unexpected choices. Jurassic Park is the film that made me want to be a filmmaker. I was obsessed with it when I was about 11-12 years old. Just watching how they brought that world to life, I had a book about it that I would obsessively read about the making of. Yeah, that for me is the one.
DR: Who’s your favourite screenwriter?
SD: This is always a tricky one, because as soon as you list, people start to compare or limit your work. Personally I’d rather be more than the sum of all my influences. Obviously there are writers I do love. My own take on writing is also how collaborative it is and films are always the sum of many parts. Is that cool?
DR: That’s cool. Really great answer. Ok, this last one is going to require some thought. You’re hosting a dinner party and you can invite five people, alive or dead, who’s sitting with you at the table?
SD: I really have to think about this one…
#1: Guillermo del Toro
#2: Werner Hertzog
Three more guests… tough…
DR: We could make it a Dinner for Five – including you? So just two more guests?
SD: No I want all my guests! Haha. Just tougher than I expected.
#3: Jeff Goldblum
#4: Kamasi Washington
I want to say Woody Harrelson but this dinner is getting kinda generic now. Uhm…
#5: Jordon Peele
DR: That’s a really good li-
#6: Tim Curry
#7: Michael Keaton
Shit, now it’s overbooked, oh well…
#8 Rosario Dawson
#9: Linda Hamilton
I’ll call it there. Should be an interesting mix. It’s a bring and share and it might end in a jam session.
DR: With Kamasi Washington I imagine it would. Thanks so much for your time, Sean.
SD: Thank you!
Read our spoiler-free (mostly) review of Five Fingers for Marseilles and let us know what you think about the film if you have seen it already. If not, are you looking forward to it? Hit us up in the comments section.
View the trailer for Five Fingers for Marseilles here:
View the proof of concept short film for Apocalypse Now Now here: