Pieter du Plessis is a writer and director whose first feature film is slow-burning crime drama thriller, Dust. The dystopian film follows the story of a young woman whose family find asylum at an isolated farm. Dust stars Shana Mans, Michelle Bradshaw, Kaz McFadden, Gustav Gerdener and Danielle Goodall and will be closing the Durban International Film Festival. Spling caught up with Pieter to find out more about what went into the making of this tense film.
How did the story idea for Dust come to you?
Dust was originally a concept for a short film that a few friends came up with over lunch. We never got around to fleshing it out further, but something about the idea kept nagging at me. So I started developing it as a feature, and as these thing go, it changed quite a bit in the process. I got intrigued by the idea of a slow-moving film that feels like a cage closing on the lead character as she tries to find her freedom amid competing forced conspiring to keep her where she was.
Dust is set in post-apocalyptic South Africa… was there a desire to explore the futuristic setting more?
Dust is set nowhere and everywhere. I steered clear of making it too specifically bound to any one place because I wanted it to play as a kind of universal mirror to the things happening in our world right now.
The future setting allows us to play with a world that’s both wildly different, but eerily similar to our own, to implicitly ask questions about the world we currently inhabit. I built a whole backstory for the world, but decided to keep it vague in the film itself, allowing the viewer to imply backstory through production design and dialogue between characters.
I always find implied world-building much more evocative than explaining everything clearly.
What made you choose the Highveld as your location?
Initially, I wanted to film Dust in the Karoo, but my friend and mentor Darrell Roodt convinced me that there is a special sort of desolation to the highveld winter. It’s a more realistic vision of what ecological collapse would actually look like. Everything struggles for life, it’s dry and dusty, with blackjacks and thorns everywhere.
Dust has some strong western vibrations… which films did you use as a reference or were you influenced by?
It definitely has Western vibes. The wonderful thing about the post-apocalypse is that, if the world falls far enough, it can degrade all the way back to the middle ages.
I was very influenced by No Country for Old Men, which is a neo-noir western. Neo-westerns like the limited series Godless also inspired the feel of the world quite a lot. The Hateful Eight was also wonderful, in how new information changes the relationships between characters, and the relationship of the audience to those characters.
Can you tell us a bit about the soundtrack… what mood were you trying to establish?
We were always wary of putting too much music in the film. We wanted it to be sparse and quiet, so that you are constantly hearing the wind in the background, things clanking: the sounds of an oppressive and ever-present world.
So when we did add music, it was very much to support the emotional affect of the sequences where it is used, which is great because it creates so much contrast with the quiet that any music added suddenly hits you very hard.
The film has a heavy atmosphere and an almost poetic sentiment… was there ever a desire to slip into a sparse script with longer shots?
Thanks a lot for saying that. We were definitely going for a slow, poetic feeling to the film. The script was actually pretty short, allowing me to slow everything down a lot and revel in the little moments that happen between the words.
Whenever I write something it’s almost always overwritten. So I had to go back and prune aggressively, trying to take out any superfluous words. And then, once the actors come and embody those words, you often find that more can be dropped while they convey the idea with a single look or reaction.
Is Dust close to what you envisioned in terms of production design?
Part of the joy of film is its collaborative nature. Working with the cinematographer and production designer, we played around with ways of making the film visually-striking. Letting others into the process often leads to great discoveries. And everyone pitched in and worked really had to make the world feel alive.
So it’s not what I had envisioned initially: in so many places, it’s better.
Dust explores themes around toxic masculinity… was there an effort to downplay or shed your own frame of reference in writing the screenplay?
I don’t know if anyone can ever shed their frame of reference. All experience is mediated through the lens of all that has come before. For the world to be intelligible at all requires that we embrace our frame of reference, and then try to learn how it distorts the world, and factor that into your experience.
I leaned into my experience: of the experiences of the women in my life, in the experience and origins of toxicity in myself, of what I see around me. This film is very much about social structures and how people engage with and perpetuate social structures, even when it is detrimental to themselves or the people around them.
In representing toxic masculinity on screen, one always runs the risk of inadvertently glorifying or reinforcing it. How did you find the right balance?
The construction of masculinity in our culture is currently a very fraught subject. I try not to take a specific position around the issues included in the subtext of the film. With regards to masculinity, specifically, I tried to create characters that exemplify different versions of masculinity, down to the young boy exploring his emerging sexual awakening and how he starts mirroring the behaviour around him.
There is always the issue of glorifying violence and toxicity when representing it on screen but because our film is locked to the perspective of the victim of these things, I would hope that our empathy lies with her.
I don’t have some God’s eye view with the correct response or message around this. All I can do is try to weave themes into my film and hope that it stirs a response in the viewers. I hope people talk about things, wonder about characters’ motivation and the differences between them. If my film can be thought-provoking, I’ll be happy.
This is your first feature film as director… was it easy stepping up and what were some of the challenges?
I have luckily been in the film industry for a number of years now, and had the opportunity to work on multiple productions in multiple roles, so I have a very good idea of how a set works.
Being the director is a completely different beast though. Everyone looks to you for the answers and decisiveness is key. And working on a small budget, you have to stay on your toes and be ready to address issues creatively.
A director is only as strong as his or her collaborators and I was fortunate to have an incredible team collaborating with me.
It wasn’t always fun, and it was seldom easy, but I learned a lot from making this film that I will hopefully take onto the next one. Directing is the most fun I’ve ever had doing anything. There’s just nothing like it.
Given the current socio-political mood, it’s interesting to note that the film has an entirely white cast… was this intentional?
We thought about this a lot and decided that, with the themes and situations in the film, having either the attackers or attacked be people of colour would be perpetuating problematic ideas. I did not want the film to necessarily be about race relations, rather focusing on other problematic social structures.
Especially with the fraught conversation around race in our country, the film could very easily be seen as being about farm attacks, or racial oppression, which are all important issues that need to be addressed. They were just not the issues I had envisioned addressing when writing the film.
Adding race to the mix would have added unwanted layers of meaning, and we felt that we wanted a more focused viewpoint in the film without muddying the waters. I do believe representation is super important, though, which is why I’m explicitly writing people of colour as main characters in the two feature films I’m currently working on.
Dust broaches modern feminism with a spectrum of viewpoints… what message are you hoping audiences take away from this drama thriller?
I am hoping they walk away from it thinking about situations and themes in the film. I’m hoping it stimulates conversation, and thought. I didn’t want to make the film preach. I wanted to try and represent a kind of reality as honestly as I can, and have that speak to our current world. I hope people see something about toxic social norms and traditions, about how we perpetuate cycles of violence and how it forces everyone to become complicit. I hope viewers think about their roles in creating and perpetuation social structures that they take part in.
Mostly, I want them to have a good timing watching the film that leaves them with something to think about.
What’s your favourite memory from shooting Dust?
I remember being on set and looking at the frame: Shana was giving this wonderful performance, with Thomas Revington’s incredible moody lighting in the great set that we had. It had just come together so perfectly, and the realisation just came over me in this flood of joy: we were making something really special here.
Given the upheaval of the pandemic, what are your current plans for your film?
We are currently sending it on the festival circuit and will hopefully find a distributor there. With the pandemic’s effect on production, the need for new stories is more intense than ever. I hope we can fill a bit of that hole.