This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.


Phillip Noyce on “Catch a Fire”

Posted by on

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).

Watch More

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

Posted by on

The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

Watch More

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

Posted by on

Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

Watch More

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

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

Posted by on
GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

Watch More