Carey McKenzie, a former Cambridge and NYU Film Programme graduate, is the writer and director of new local film, Cold Harbour. Although she already has a number of prestigious awards next to her name, including The Grand Jury Prize Award for a nuclear weapons documentary titled Original Child Bomb, and a win in the Cannes 2006 Short Film category for B is for Bomb, Cold Harbour is her debut as a feature film director.
I read that the making of Cold Harbour was put on hold because you couldn’t find a producer and sufficient funding?
(This she quickly corrected, and explained the real reason it took four years before Cold Harbour could be made.)
I found my way to Tendeka (Tendeka Matatu, the producer from Ten10 Films) quite quickly. He and I were talking about it and within a year of me writing the first draft, which is quick, we made good progress in development. I got the script ready and then there was a global financial crises. We were pitching in New York at the time when the economy crashed and next thing the money just disappeared. (referring to The Great Recession when US economy plunged in late 2008 early 2009)
Do you think with the South African film industry producing such good work at a large scale lately, that perhaps now is a good time for Cold Harbour, as appose to 4 years ago?
I would have wanted to make it four years ago, but of course I’m ambitious and I want to go faster. But there are many things where you have to trust the flow. Like Tony (Tony Kgoroge, lead in film as Sizwe Miya) is great at the age where he is now.
You wrote with Tony in mind, is this the way you usually work, with specific cast in mind?
I don’t know. When I write I very often have an actor and a location in mind – not a specific house, but a part of town or place in the city. And then yes, you can transport it somewhere else, but maybe that’s just because my imagination feeds on those realities.
You had a really diverse and talented cast to work with. Could that be credited to the cast or your directing effort?
It’s a team effort, starting from the casting director, Moonyeenn Lee, who was extraordinary. We are talking with experienced actors like Tony and Fana (Mokoena, who plays Specialist) down to people doing their first film. They’re all constant professionals and they really care and really do the work without an excess of ego. For example, the living room scene between Venske (Deon Lotz) and Sizwe (Tony Kgoroge) where Venske says integrity is a luxury. While he has most of the lines, it’s all about Tony’s reaction.
The DOP wanted to shoot it from this side first, wanting to do a wide and this and that lighting. You always shoot from the one side then the other, right? But I wanted a lot of Tony’s reaction and it all takes time. It was a night shoot and Deon gives everything with every take, even though the camera is behind him. Then there was a difference in opinion, but he (Deon) had the stamina to carry through with such generosity, because he knew that Tony is working off him so he can give his best work. That’s just one example. They all conveyed a great deal of commitment while collaborating with me and the rest of the team.
Being a crime-thriller, it is mostly a serious atmosphere. Were there any off-set mood traditions to lighten mood?
Every feature film has its own culture, which is very special and fun. We definitely had that. It was a very tight unit, not a lot of people in the core. So everyone was working really hard. There was lots to do and not a lot of time. It was fun. It was very hard going into winter. It was very cold and people were in the water. But there was such humility among the cast, no one complained about the conditions at work. The unit guys did amazing stuff with very little resources. Like Tony didn’t get what he got on Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. The dressing room was a tent. Like we had a movie star, Yu Nan, in from Beijing, in a tent, yet she never complained. They all made a commitment with a first time director and that’s what touched me.
You are currently working on a new script, Revolution Song, about the life of Miriam Makeba. How do you choose what to write about?
I know the original producer from living in New York – we have friends in common. Because of a friend of a friend, I happen to stay with her one night and she told me about the idea and showed me pictures. I decided I’m writing that, one way or another. And it was another year, possibly two, before she took me on. I needed to do work that she felt showed that I was the right person.
Sometimes there’s something that I see and I like. With Revolution Song, there’s life rights and music rights. That will be the producers job to get, because it is so complicated to put it together. I don’t control over that material. So I didn’t go, “I want to write a Miriam Makeba story”. It’s more like, “How much money are you going to give me?” (She shares a laugh)
Like I found this feminine sex researcher, that I hope to get to write about. I read about her auto biography in the Guardian. She was a scapegoat in a anti-feminist backlash. She’s a feminist and blonde. She’s sexy and she’s straight. Feminists gets a bad wrap. A feminist can be really stylish, sexy and opinionated – that’s my view of feminism. There’s this idea that it’s not the storyteller who writes the stories, but almost like the stories grow you – that maybe the material chooses you because you have the right life experience or you are at the right place at the right time. It’s very special when you have that sensation. I’ve been cast, I’ve been requited for this story that’s ready to be told. You are a channel.
Peggy Delport, whom I spoke to, is not well known – she did most of her work during the apartheid years. She said that she feels the paintings already exist and what she is doing is just taking them down. When you are writing it is helpful to have these notions, because you have to kind off extend your critical faculty in order to allow your subconscious mind to speak. And if you doubt yourself, too much or criticise yourself too much, too early, you’ll never do it.
Martha Graham wrote this wonderful quote, “It’s not about you. You’re a channel.” Get your ego out of the way. It’s your job to respond truthfully and sincerely to the impulses around you to keep your channel open. To do the best you can with what you have with as much integrity and honesty you can muster. And just to trust that it will speak to someone.
This does translate on screen, nothing felt forced or overly theatrical.
My approach, and Shane Daly’s approach as cinematographer, is that we should make choices that serve the story. You don’t shoot beauty for the sake of beauty. You don’t move the camera to show off how well you can do it. You serve the story with the performance with the frame, with whatever that thing is. My style of direction, what I’m striving for, is to sort of be invisible. I don’t want you as the audience to be watching me. Sometimes people will say, “Well that’s not very art house”. Well, call it whatever you want, I want you to feel the story. Maybe a style evolves – like Jonathan Demme. He did Philadelphia, the first aids drama, with Tom Hanks and then he did Silence of the Lamb, completely different. And of course it’s different. He is telling a different story. Alan Parker did Midnight Express and then he did Birdy. Every filmmaker is different, and we should celebrate that.
Will you be writing and directing all your films or focus more on one skill?
Both. Writing is quote boring – alone in a room. I love collaboration. I love the challenge of working with a lot of different people at the same time. For me, the happiest part of film making is on set and in the edit. Your hands are in the dough, you know what I mean? You are making a film moment for moment.
And finally, what do you do just for you?
Yoga. I have a little project wherever I lay my mat. So my tourist project is to photograph where I lay my mat to do yoga at various locations in and outdoors. The photos are available on Facebook (you have to be Facebook friends to view it unfortunately). Sometimes indoors, very picturesque and sometimes there are palm trees. The idea is you practice wherever you are and you work with what you have at that moment.
A soft knock on the door indicates that our time is up. With our final goodbyes, I smile and feel somewhat at peace. There is a serenity about Carey McKenzie.
“There is vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and will be lost… You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” – Martha Graham
Cold Harbour release nationwide on 25 July.