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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).

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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