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DID YOU READ

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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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.