Phillip Noyce on “Catch a Fire”

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By Dan Persons

IFC News

[Photo: Focus Features, 2006]

Give director Phillip Noyce this: The man knows how to distill injustice and oppression into compelling tales of individual action. Having previously tackled Australia’s attempt at institutional genocide in “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and adapted Graham Greene’s examination of corruption in pre-quagmire Vietnam in “The Quiet American,” Noyce has now turned his sight towards South Africa and the final, brutal throes of apartheid in “Catch a Fire.” Scripted by Shawn Slovo, daughter of the former head of the African National Congress’ military wing, the film focuses in on the real-life story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), an apolitical refinery worker who’s radicalized after suffering torture at the hands of the government’s Police Security Branch. Pursued by his tormentor, Colonel Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), Chamusso volunteers to aid the cause of liberation by staging a single-person sabotage run on his former employer, an odds-defying attack that became the stuff of legend. I got a chance to sit down with Noyce in New York:

There’s no shortage of high-profile heroes in the fight against apartheid. Why focus in on someone like Patrick Chamusso?

When I was a kid, my grandfather was a preacher, an Episcopalian, or Church of England, preacher. And, for better or for worse, my parents would give me to him to baby-sit me. So I went on his rounds. It’s enlightening to go on a preacher’s rounds, because he generally visits people who are in distress, and when people are in distress, they are most revealing of themselves — sometimes in personal crisis, sometimes in sickness. That was when I became fascinated with just ordinary people, the extraordinary stories that are behind all of us, and that we all keep and often don’t tell, except to the confessor, to the preacher. Or we take them to the grave.

You’ve managed to work both sides of the fence in the industry, doing major commercial work and following up with these recent, more personally-invested films. What do you get out of the likes of a “Catch a Fire?”

It’s more segmented than that. Before I went to work in America in 1990 as an immigrant worker, I was making films just like this in Australia. Since I returned to Australia in the year 2000 to make “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” I’ve been living mainly there. So it’s like two different me’s. As much fun as I had with my family in Los Angeles as a migrant guest worker, I was just that: making genre films that are about the universality of experience, but thrillers, essentially. Returning to Australia allowed me to make a film whose true story ran in my veins, to make films about subject matters, issues, characters that I really cared about.

It was “Rabbit-Proof Fence” that reminded me why I wanted to make films in the first place: to reach out to people; to touch them. I think that stories like “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and “Catch a Fire,” stories about ordinary people who are faced with extraordinary circumstances and find unexpected resources — these kinds of stories are very inspiring.

You seem to keep coming back to the idea of colonialization and legacy of violence it creates. Why?

Probably in some ways, it’s the extremity of black/white relations in Australia, which is a puzzle that I just can’t get my mind around. It’s a very sad story. What these films have in common are the characters of Alden Pyle, played by Brendan Fraser [in “The Quiet American”], the chief protector of Aborigines, played by Kenneth Branagh [in “Rabbit-Proof Fence”], and the Nic Vos character, the white police officer: three white men who think that they have the answer for the indigenous people that they are missionaries to.

Do you see Vos as essentially a compromised…

…person? Yes, very compromised. I’ve never met a policeman or policewoman who didn’t join to do good. But the job can sometimes be corrupted, and perhaps no more so than when, as in this movie, the character is faced with an extreme circumstance. A police officer swears to uphold the status quo, the rule of law, of the land. When the laws are corrupt and the system is evil, you’ve still got to uphold it. What do you do?

Talking to those police officers as I did — to many of them, ex-police officers in South Africa — I realized that they all saw themselves as Africans. That was a strange concept to me: How could a white person think of himself as African? And yet many of them lay claim to 300 years or more of continued residency in southern Africa. Some of them said, “Well, I’ve been here longer than Patrick Chamusso, than his forefathers. I’m African.” Others said, “We were fighting a vicious, determined enemy, who was determined to destroy everything that we’d fought to build up here.”

The scenes of Patrick’s interrogation really seemed to blur that line between the real world and the world you’re recreating in front of the camera. Did you feel compelled to intervene at any point?

It was necessary for Derek to go into a zone during those scenes, and he did. He may not be aware of it, but he lost contact with reality. He was having to go through a process of incarceration, of destabilization — you could call it torture or call it interrogation… extreme interrogation, deprivations of food and sleep and water, physical coercion, mental torture… During that period, which I guess was over about three weeks, he really did start to levitate emotionally. He was floating, and he became particularly vulnerable, especially to Tim. They started to play up perpetrator and victim on and off the set. You can see this process going on, and you try to stay out of it, because it’s an alchemy that you’ve actually set up. You want the characters to be possessed by the emotions and the extremities of the situation. I only stepped in a few times — I didn’t have to do much.

Judging from what the cast members have said, I gather there was a dynamic building between the on-set advisors representing the police and those representing the freedom fighters.

There was, but one of the more remarkable scenes was to see Patrick Chamusso, who was on-set at the police headquarters, and Hentie Botha, the police advisor who himself had been in the Special Branch and had admitted to knowing of the use of torture techniques in interrogation, to see them conspiring with each other — which I only saw when I saw the making-of documentary. There’s this scene that’s captured there when they’re in the back room as they talk about how the rehearsals were very soft and gentle, and they’re both agreeing: “{Tim Robbins has] gotta be tough if he’s gonna play a Special Branch policeman.”

But this is the story of South Africa: You can have, on the one hand and for those sequences, someone who’d suffered incarceration, interrogation and torture, and he’s working with Derek and training him, and on the other hand someone who had supervised extreme interrogation techniques and torture, and they’re like two soccer coaches — one of them over in that corner and one of them in this corner. Only in South Africa could that happen, could the two of them be standing side-by-side, working together to tell this story.

“Catch a Fire” opens nationwide on October 27 (official site).


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.