Nothing is wasted
by Gregg Thompson | 10 minute read
“You’re only fully qualified to make a film just after you’ve finished making it.”
– James Cameron
“That’s a wrap on Ali,” I call out.
The room erupts. It’s peak winter in Joburg and our ballerina has been freezing her scantily clad ass off for two days in a converted horse stable. She high fives Kieron, her dance partner. He bundles her into into a warm blanket and gives her a hug.
It’s been a strange shoot. We’ve just filmed the remains of our ornate Feral costume being pulled by unseen hands through a large hole in the base of a bed. I was expecting some authority figure to invade our set, ala Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition, to tell us that this was ridiculous and we should stop filming immediately.
Now I’m standing off to the side of our set admiring Kruger’s eerie, custom-built headboard. An image flickers on the screen of my mind – a tight shot of Ali’s hand purposefully curling its fingers between the wooden posts. This moment could signal the start of her revenge on the Creature that has been tormenting her.
It’s late now. We’re all cold, tired and over it. I can let this go and keep peace in the moment, or risk irking our crew to get the shot we need.
I peer out the entrance to the stable. Directly opposite our gloomy Feral set, horses are grazing in a peaceful, golden hour glow.
It’s early 2011. I’m sprawled on a patch of grass outside a friend’s house daydreaming to the song “Feral” from Radiohead’s “King of Limbs” album. I’ve just returned from London after the first poverty-inducing year of an MA at the UK National Film School. It was a unique, but frustrating exercise in navigating dense Anglo bureaucracy. I’m desperate for a creative outlet.
The Radiohead track is deeply hypnotic. Yorke’s voice forms indistinct murmurs that are woven into the song like an arcane wind instrument. The track carries me away. I hit repeat and keep visualising. This is a process I stumbled on when I was a young kid, making videos in my head before I fell asleep .
Typically, on the first listen one or two key visuals light up in my mind. These are the central images that link all the others. I don’t know what they mean yet, but I try not to overthink it. The process feels analogous to lucid dreaming or meditation. The moment that I become self-conscious I lose my foothold, slip out of state and break the spell.
This was the first image that came to mind for Feral.
From the treatment:
On the synth cue, a shadowy CREATURE appears behind the Woman.
The Creature is part Nosferatu, part sinister, bastard version of a “Where the Wild Things Are” beast. It forms a dark, angular shape behind her, replete with white, luminescent eyes.
I keep repeating the track and connecting the visual dots. When about 70% of the mental video plays, it’s time to write it all down.
In the original treatment, I had a convoluted notion of rotating between dozens of cameras to mirror the hypnotic effect of the track. It was overambitious for a zero-budget short film.
Life got in the way. I shelved the Feral project and moved on to other things.
“I always wanted to be a rock star, but no-one would have me,” he laughs.
It’s late 2014. I’m interviewing fashion designer Roman Handt for a short film I’ve been commissioned to make for Lisof fashion college. It’s the first time we’ve met, but we hit it off instantly over a shared passion for music. I get a call from Roman a while later: “let’s make something great together.”
For a few months, Roman, Liz and I meet every Friday night over red wine, riffing about our favourite songs, art and videos. We talk in ever-increasing circles about what our film might actually be. After one hangover too many, I finally go off to write a treatment.
“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”
Writing is hard work and I’ve secretly been dreading this part. What if I can’t translate our concepts into something we can actually put in front of a lens and film? What if we’ve just spent months talking complete horseshit?
I’m halfway through the agonising first page. I pause. Recap. I’ve written about a creature lurking behind a strange headboard.
I dig up an old copy of the Feral treatment. I brace myself for the same sinking feeling I had when I watched “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” for the first time as an adult.
The treatment is weird, dark and fucked up. Perfect.
I draft a carefully-worded mail to Roman and Liz highlighting the merits of heading in this direction. I hit send and wait.
Boom. They’re in. Production starts a few weeks later.
Dust has settled on the project now. Here are some random insights that came from making Feral.
Write it Down
There’s a school of thought that no great ideas are ever lost; we need only trust our brains to offer up the right memory, idea or insight at the exact moment we need it. Sounds awesome.
But our brains are not to be trusted. They are mushy, murky, ever-shifting organic blobs of stuff. We should not be relying on them to manage the efficient archiving and retrieval of all of our good ideas.
I can barely remember if I showered this morning, so it’s unlikely that I would have had remembered the Feral treatment if I hadn’t written it down at the time. Some ideas, maybe even good ideas, are just plain forgotten. Let’s write them down.
You’ve got the Music in You
I visualised to the Radiohead song as I wrote the treatment, we played it on set during filming (until our dancers couldn’t stand it anymore), and I edited the first assembly to it. Then I threw out the track and worked with my sound designer, Paul, and great music by Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, to build a completely different sonic landscape. Feral may have been inspired by a specific song, but the film exists independently of it now.
I love the notion of using music to directly motivate new work in other mediums – moving images, photography, art, design, screenplays, t-shirts, whatever.
From the original treatment:
The Woman is frozen with terror. She faces forward, but her gaze SEARCHES for the Creature behind her. It skulks around her menacingly.
Our 180-degree rotation is punctuated with close-up FLICKERS -we HURTLE towards the Woman in extreme close-up, then quickly move wide again.
Director Robert Rodriguez talks about imposing artificial limitations on his productions to force his team to find creative solutions to problems. He believes that restricting time, money, or resources gives his films a “spark that you can’t manufacture.” The rest of us are lucky enough to have all the restrictions we could ever need. Winning.
48 hours away from shoot day, our VFX artist jumped ship. We were forced to jettison the more ambitious shots in the treatment and take a more low-fi approach.
In the end, our ad hoc, under-exposed, “grainy-as-fuck” look was more a necessity than a creative choice. The real choice came in deciding between having something exist imperfectly in the world, or perfectly not exist at all. For a reformed anal-retentive, this is a new paradigm.
Let’s take Rodriguez’s cue. Embrace limitations, and if we don’t have enough, create them.
Play the Field
Collaborating isn’t just fun, it brings momentum to projects. If a creative relationship hadn’t formed between Roman and myself, Feral wouldn’t have happened at all.
Collaboration also leads you down unexpected paths. The most fascinating part of making Feral was translating some traditional elements of filmmaking into other mediums. Prosthetics became clothing. Traditional performances became dance choreography. It was a true creative collaboration.
I love screenwriter Craig Mazin’s view that the “A film by” credit in filmmaking is weirdly insecure. It’s so true. If you didn’t make the costumes for it, perform in it, art direct it or light it, how was a film made “by you”?
Someone needs to creatively steward the project and curate ideas. But really, these awesome humans made Feral.
Nothing is Wasted
Writer Derek Sivers suggests saying either “Hell yeah! Or no.” when it comes to making major decisions. This may be sage advice, but I’m not sure that life is so binary. I’ve made decisions that were not a “Hell yeah!” at the time, but led to situations, projects or relationships that turned out to be pretty awesome.
I returned from London in 2006. I started working at Ogilvy. There I met one of my best friends, Tania. She later moved to Lisof fashion college and introduced me to its founder, Shana. Shana asked me to make a short film. I met Roman while filming it. And this led to Feral. Returning from London was not a “Hell yeah!”, but making Feral was.
Old ideas can find new life downstream. One project can weave into the next in an unexpected way.
Nothing is wasted.
So, I’m standing near the headboard, angsting over whether I should drag my long-suffering leading lady out of the comfort of her blanket.
I remember the old filmmaker adage: “Pain is temporary, film is forever.” It’s a bullish, macho sentiment, but true.
I reach for my crusty old Pentax 50mm.
“We need one more shot with Ali.”
Feral – A Fashion Film
Written and Directed by
Roman Handt, Heleni Handt and Gregg Thompson
The Creature / The Feral
Alison Lee Sischy Smith
Director of Photography
Editing and Grading
Kruger van Deventer
Hair and Make-Up
Sound Design & Final Mix
Milliner & Stylist
The Fashion Lab
Puppeteer / Puppet Design
Cate Rissik, Kritzia De Freitas & Jacques van der Merwe
Special thanks to
The Waterfall Polo Estate