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French connection forgoes Hollywood veneer

Published Oct 10, 2014


French director Jérôme Salle thought long and hard about making City of Violence, but in the end he couldn’t pass up the challenge, writes Theresa Smith.

Jérôme Salle’s first instinct when he read Caryl Férey’s book Zulu was that he couldn’t be the one to turn it into a film because he is not South African.

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The French film-maker (pictured) was approached by the production company which owned the film rights, but remained unconvinced, especially when he saw their first script draft.

“Orlando Bloom’s character was, in their script, a French guy working at the French embassy, or something like that.

“I said: ‘Sorry, but this is crap. The story is all about South Africa and Cape Town. You can’t do that, it makes no sense’.

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“I changed my mind after the first trip here because I realised that being a foreigner could be a positive. I didn’t have the weight of the past.

“So I said I’d want to start from the top and make it as South African as possible,” said Salle in an interview in Cape Town last week.

He was in town to do publicity for City of Violence, which opens today on the South African circuit.

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Working with French production companies turned out to be a boon: “No Hollywood studio would have said ‘yes’ to it because when they come here, they make Safe House, about American people. It’s always American heroes. You can have local supporting roles, but never local heroes.

“The French industry, not everything is perfect, but this is an important and very good point, that they respect the director and are open-minded. This was a new experience,” he chuckled.

Salle spent months in the country, meeting people and researching places, though casting turned out to be the longest process: “The most important thing was my decision not to come here with my crew, just my DoP and assistant were on set with me, otherwise it was a South African crew,” he explained.

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He co-wrote the script with Julian Rappeneau, though he started off his part of the process in French.

“Afterwards I came here and worked with people for all the different… idioms, so Afrikaans, the gang slang, and so on. It took me a while to fit to the reality.”

He stuck at it though, specifically because he relished the challenge: “It was my first English-speaking movie. It’s frustrating because sometimes I miss words… I spoke a little more with my hands and I got it.

“There were two challenges, language and, of course, the country, being here. I was looking for something a little less commercial to what I’d done before.”

City of Violence is Salle’s fourth foray as a director. The Tourist (directed by Florian Henckel van Donnersmarck) was an English remake of Salle’s first film, Anthony Zimmer, and he directed the two Largo Winch movies.

“This one is more gritty than usual. My second and third films were more commercial, big action thrillers. This one I wanted to be rough, it’s a bit of a different style for me, a different kind of story.

“I think it’s the best movie I’ve done so far because what I love is the balance. It has to be entertaining, but it’s not stupid, it means something, it’s talking about forgiveness.

“Most of the time you have blockbusters and you know what you’re going to get and art movies, they’re working for the festival, not the audience. Trying to be in the middle, it is difficult to write and finance and the audience now, it is worse than before because they are not curious anymore.”

The 2012 shoot was three months long, with 60 days of shooting because there was no second unit. While he worked closely with DoP Denis Rouden, a lot of the look of the film is also Salle’s own vision. Occasionally he even operated the second camera, especially during action sequences.

“This is a universal topic, talking about revenge and forgiveness. All wars begin with some kind of revenge. It’s the same all over the world. So, to be able to break this, at some point you need to be able to forgive, and you need justice in order to be able to forgive. This is a balance we are all looking for.

“Now, I have a few South African friends and I often tell them: ‘Sometimes you South African people, you forget to be proud of what you have done because you thinking it’s normal’. We do the same in France, this ‘aaaah, we are a terrible country’.”

Talking to Capetonians who saw the film at a screening for cast and crew, one person told Salle he could not believe that this was something that could happen on the Cape Flats.

“And, another guy he said: ‘I know this place, it’s exactly like that’. To which the first guy said: “No, this is impossible’.

“On the other hand, I had this conversation with Forest (Whitaker) in his trailer. It was a morning I was quite pessimistic, talking about that, the huge segregation still happening here.

“He told me: ‘Yeah, I can feel it, but on the other hand, 25 years ago, making this movie, you and me talking in the same trailer, that would have been impossible. So, you know, it takes time’.”

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