Ernst van Wyk on ‘Vlugtig’ – Expanding the Vision

Spling sat down with Ernst Van Wyk, who provided us with some candid insights into his work as the writer and star of Vlugtig.

Vlugtig is based on a short film. Where did the original idea come from?

The original idea, to an extent, was not my own; the director Marinus, who’s also a character… he entered a concept for the Silverskermfees. You pitch a concept and if they like it they let you through. You write it and they give you some budget for it. So in 2017 he pitched a concept. We had met at an acting course, and we saw each other at an audition a few months later and he told me he’d entered Silverskermfees and I told him I wanted to make a bunch of short films.

So we actually made a project together; a very cheap, indie thing which actually came out really well. And he liked my writing style, so when he got through at Silverskermfees, he told me he needed to bring a writer and a producer to the initial rounds so that they can judge whether or not you can actually pull it off, that’s when he asked me to write it.

So, the very first draft was basically the two actors on a train discussing this theatre director, and the entire film would have been the discussion on the way to their rehearsal, and the end would have been on the platform when he comes to pick them up and something weird happens – I can’t remember exactly what. So, when we got through, we changed it a lot, and I thought it would be more interesting to see what the director does with the actors. Having been an actor myself, I know what it’s like to work with a director who’s intimidating or who you look up to.

I thought it would be a nice experiment. If I write it from that perspective, what happens then? Obviously, 90% of the thing is in my imagination so it would mostly be things that I would think could possibly happen, so I tried not to write anything too far out or extreme. I tried to keep it within the realm of realism, so that it would be tangible in a way, not only for actors but also people who experience similar work dynamics.

I think that contributes to the feeling that anything could happen in the film, but that it’s been restrained. That darkness is always threatening, the suspense teases the possibility of something like the lead axe-murdering the director, but –

I think a lot of the critique we got for the film was because it doesn’t do that. People wanted some sort of satisfaction, but I think the restraint that Simon learns throughout the movie is also part of the process that he went through. He needed to learn how to be aggressive and be a monster in a sense, but also balance that with the restraint that comes along with being an adult. You don’t just give in to your primal urges. So part of his process was not only learning not to be a wuss, but also learning to not only be a monster.

Also, with the director playing this sort of – not devil’s advocate, but even though he’s kind of a bully, he helps this actor uncover a new level of talent within himself. He almost has to be grateful, even though he’s been through hell, for that experience because he’s come out the other end so much more in control of his person – his humanity.

That’s an interesting point because we had an interview directly after the premiere, where we discussed this. I asked the director an arbitrary philosophical question; If I could ruin your life for a week to make the rest of your life 20% better, would you want me to do it? He didn’t really give me an answer, but I think another question would be, is that right or morally acceptable? If you know in the long run it would improve their life by whatever margin, is it right to do that to someone. There’s no right or wrong answer, but it’s one of the questions I was asking in the film.

You know, I saw a review, where someone was criticising that. They said: “Ugh, the film makes it look like it’s fine to treat people like that”, and for me the film isn’t saying that, the film is asking that. Is it something that you would like? I think people sometimes neglect to see that the director also took a risk; he knew it could end badly. There was a sacrificial element to it, pushing this guy that far.

vlugtig film

What prompted you guys to turn it into a feature film?

Right after the Silverskermfees I spoke with another producer who liked the concept. He told me he wanted to make it into a feature, but he wanted… I don’t want to say “more of an indie”, because it already was considering the budget we had, but he wanted to make it with a very, very small budget, on a much smaller scale. So, I worked with him for a while and wrote the script, and just after writing the first draft I could see that his vision for what the film should be and mine were worlds apart. So, we just sort of amicably decided to go our separate ways.

A few months later, Marinus, the director, came into contact with someone who knew the producer from The Film Factory. This producer enjoyed the short film, and he had thought it would make a nice feature. So he hit us up, we sent him the draft, he liked it and told us: “You know, this is probably the direction this is going to have to go in”, he’s going to have to change it a little before he can sell it to KykNet as a feature. So it was nearly four years of thinking “I hope it actually happens this time”. Eventually, it finally did happen; we filmed it four months after Covid hit, so at a very unexpected time.

I suppose it was suited to that environment, since a lot of it is outside and you’re working with three primary cast members. Were there any delays?

So, we were supposed to film in April, I think, just as Covid started. We ended up filming in August. A few months delay, not too bad. And, like you said, because it’s such a small scale project and because it’s isolated- I think when we went to the location, the cast and crew were isolated, we were booked in a lodge and temperature checked every day – I don’t think Covid would’ve gotten in there.


What challenges were there in adapting the short film which you didn’t anticipate?

I tried to write very organically; I didn’t plan much of it. On a personal level, I wrote the script next to my brother’s deathbed. That’s something that I think influenced it a lot. My brother had a brain tumour and he was in a 9 month decline, and I had to write this script – a lot of times literally next to his bed, taking care of him, keeping him company. On a personal level, it was a very challenging time.

In the script, typically when I write, the first third and the last third are super easy. I know what I want to start with and where I want it to end. I was fortunate that the short film existed; that was kind of the middle to some extent. I could just build upon it, so I basically just started in the middle, and I just wrote what happened for Simon to get here, and what happens for Simon once the shit hits the fan.

I think the base process for writing the first draft was… I don’t want to say easy, but the events were easy to write. The challenge was the character, how the character would react, trying to understand Simon, putting myself in his shoes. “How would I react to this situation”. I think I tried to hurl as many realistic obstacles as possible into Simon’s path, and try to figure out how he would navigate it as honestly as somebody in his shoes would try to do that.

Tell us about the preparations for your character?

With the short film, there was an opinion that I was too young to be Andreas. At the time I was like 30, and we heard this through the grapevine, that they think I’m too young for it. So for the feature, there was a while where I thought that maybe – if they don’t want me as Andreas – I’ll play Simon, having gone through the audition process. I was happy- lucky to remain in Andreas’ role, I’m still pretty young but it’s a little more realistic that he’d have accomplished as much by that age now.

The more I wrote the character, the more naturally it came. If you spend four or five years writing a character, you just know the person. In the same sense, I basically wrote Simon with Arno in mind, and even when we were filming, I would say 80 percent of the role was what I’d written and envisioned, but 20 percent he would do something and I would think ‘This isn’t what I wrote for Simon but it kind of works better’ because he fits in the role better than I do, better than I can write the character, he can embody the character.

Vlugtig behind the scenes

99 percent of actors won’t be perfect in every role, especially when there’s fatigue or when you don’t shoot chronologically – also sometimes you write a scene and on set it doesn’t work “Nobody talks like this, now that we’re here on set it seems sticky and it doesn’t seem to want to work”. You can prepare for the character about 80 percent of the way, and then on set something else comes forward.

A lot of the actions I did weren’t written, just taken in the moment. It’s nice to portray a character you’ve written. You can take liberties. People can’t question: “Would the character do that?” – “Yes, he would.” It was nice for me on set to improvise things, and then have feedback from the director. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but having the freedom to try something new as this character, that wasn’t in the script.

Did you model the character of Andreas on anyone? How biographical was the process?

I can’t say I modelled him after someone specifically, who I tried to recreate or alter. People who are in the film industry, writers or whatever, watch a lot of movies, so probably he’s an amalgamation of a bunch of different characters, scenes or lines that I’ve enjoyed. I can’t think of a specific instance, though I guess to an extent the closest would be the conductor from Whiplash – the unpredictability of him. Having an element of “What is this guy going to do next?”. You do something and expect him to freak out, but instead he blows it off, then something smaller- he just freaks out about that. If you had asked me three years ago I might have been able to give a more concrete answer.

It’s quite an intimate cast. What was it like working with Arno and Jane?

The first time I met Arno… He looks like this American high school bully, handsome and charismatic. Not that I judged him, but I thought I kind of knew what kind of a person he is, but he’s just such a cool guy. He’s a blast, he’s so funny- you wouldn’t expect him to be that funny. I really adore him. Obviously, I knew him from the short film, but Jane I met when we were doing the wardrobe for the first time and we didn’t speak much.

We had a lot of chats on set, we filmed in Tzaneen, and almost daily we’d have half an hour to an hour long chats about the script. She would ask about my interpretations of the character; more than any other actor I’ve met she does a deep dive. She makes notes, studies the script, tries to get exactly in her character. For Arno and I, there’s an element of winging it, but I’d like to say Jane had the best work ethic of anyone on set. She tried to get every word, down to the inflection, perfect.

Vlugtig behind the scenes

Tell us a little bit about the cameos? You must have been well connected to garner that list?

Haha. Well, I didn’t have any fingers in any pies as far as casting, that’s all the producer’s hand. I will say that Tobie Cronje is such a cool guy. Obviously it was my first time meeting him, and he told me that he’s been in like 400 theatre productions, but this is his first time saying the word ‘drol’ in any production. That’s probably my proudest accolade.

Being both screenwriter and actor, did that complicate or simplify the filmmaking process for you?

Both. Each new experience is nice, for starters it gives confidence. If you work with the right people, the experience is worth a lot. I have worked with producers where, not to criticize them, but you don’t gel that well. Like with Danie Bester, the producer, his input into the script, he’s very experienced, so I think he knew when to push something and when not to go too hard on you. If I really felt passionately about a line that he wasn’t sure of, he would give way and allow me to do it. That’s not always the case on other projects. He navigated it more diplomatically. Sometimes in our pride we think we are very right. We know exactly what’ll be best. But I think the entire process taught me to sit back and be a bit more objective. Sometimes you’ve got to kill your darlings. I’ve written many projects in the past where I’ve felt “This is going to be such an amazing scene, the dialogue is so great”, but then actually it comes out kind of awkward.

The film had a mixed reception, you felt it had been misunderstood. What do you put this down to?

People are entitled to their opinions. If someone approaches me and they made an effort to understand the movie, that’s a nice way to enter the discussion. If you don’t agree with the theme of the movie, that is the theme of the movie, the point is to have a discussion. If the movie doesn’t say what you want it to say, that doesn’t make it bad.

In the world that we live in, you get a bunch of reviews not just for the film- it’s from people on Twitter accounts and YouTube videos, there’s a bunch of people just having a go at anything they don’t agree with. I read a few reviews and they’re critical and make good points, and I appreciate anybody who makes an effort to understand it and then critique it, rather than just off the cuff list everything they found annoying or boring or philosophically wrong about the movie.

Most media, if it tells a story, it can’t really be wrong, it can only be something you subjectively disagree with. If somebody thinks I’m a bad writer or actor, that’s fine and that’s a matter of taste. I just have an issue with political interpretations of something that is not written politically. I enjoy dialogue about anything we differ on, so if somebody wants to query some aspects of the film, I’m more than happy to answer them.

Vlugtig behind the scenes 3

If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?

There are a few parts of the film- I can’t really say I could have done them differently, but in terms of the editing, some things I think were important didn’t come through that well. Not because of the ed- In terms of the dialogue and in terms of the scenes. I can’t remember the specifics, but there were a few scenes where I thought that ‘this might’ve been too cryptic. I might’ve done better writing this a little more on the nose.’ Obviously in my mind it makes a lot of sense, the puzzle comes together perfectly, but that’s because I wrote it. I think in some regards it might have been more accessible to put one or two more pieces on the table for people to not have to make such logical leaps to understand the entire picture. That might be an experience thing. It’s hard to know. You don’t want to spoon-feed, but you also don’t want to make it uninterpretable.

I’m a part-time ‘dominee’ for the church, and there’s an element of… when you prepare a sermon, you don’t want to say a bunch of things that people should do, you should try to lead their thought-process. In the teachings of Jesus, there’s a rhetorical element. He tries to get people to think rather than tell them what to do or how to behave. To think about the questions.

In terms of your faith, were there themes you leaned into, or are your film work and faith separate worlds?

Being a person of faith is not a call to be a wuss. It’s much more constructive to be a strong person, to be a person who can act of his own accord, but in the best interests of civilization. If someone’s a dishrag, someone you can walk all over, it just makes them a weak person. I think it’s universal that if you’re a strong person, but also a kind and polite person and a good person, that you’re much more useful to society compared to someone who doesn’t know how to stand on their own two feet.

What are your thoughts on the local film industry?

I have a huge admiration for the quality of films that we’re making considering the budgets. I honestly have no idea how they spend the budgets overseas. If we had those budgets we would make super cool stuff. Also, with our short films made with very little money, you have to get creative to make it entertaining. You don’t have money to just throw CGI at it, blow up a car or two, you have to think outside of the box if you want to engage the viewer. So, I think there’s a lot of creativity.

It’s sad for me, in a sense, especially with Afrikaans films, not to point fingers, but I think there was a bit of an era where Afrikaans films were really… like, shallow and ‘common’. Most of my peers still don’t watch Afrikaans films because in their minds it’s just going to be another slapstick comedy. People farting in faces, silly stuff. When some of my friends saw Vlugtig they said: “This is great! I didn’t know Afrikaans people made movies like this!”, and I told them: “You know, we’re not the only good Afrikaans movie”. Depending on if you think it’s a good movie. I think the Afrikaans movie industry needs to recover from the stigma that it’s making poor movies, because the opposite is true.

Where do you think we could improve as an industry?

It’s hard to say without sounding like you’re criticizing other people. I think playing it safe is… there’s an upside and a downside. Part of the issue is, with the limited amount of money that goes into films, when a film gets made it needs to be relatively safe, in that KykNet or whoever is paying wants to know exactly what’s going to happen with this.

The consequence is that you can’t really do anything too out there or too weird, which in many cases is a good thing, because you don’t want some guy fresh out of film school to just make whatever his heart wants, because you’re never gonna get your money back for that. To find the balance between experimenting with new things and keeping it safe.

In some regards it would be nice to see more… different actors, I think. I was privileged to act in this film that I wrote, so I’m very grateful for the people that made that happen, in that regard. But, even if you’re on Instagram, a lot of the commercials aimed at Afrikaans people have got the same people in them all the time. I think you overexpose these actors. Short term it does well, but long term impact of exposing people to the same actor too many times might not be that great. But, I’m not an expert.

I’ve been to acting workshops where I’ve met some amazing actors who can’t get anywhere, and they never get a break. There’s nobody in particular to criticize for this; if I cast a film, I want an actor I know can do the job, not an actor who’s a bit of a wild card. It’s valid, I just think… I don’t know if you’re an MCU fan, but Thor: Ragnarök I found really, really enjoyable, and Thor: Love and Thunder I thought was kind of boring and way too silly and I didn’t enjoy it that much. And from what I understand, with Thor: Ragnarök it was Taika Waititi, and he had people overseeing him. And with the next one they kind of gave him free reign, which failed.

I feel like you’ve got to have this wild, creative person who has the weirdest ideas and wants to do the wackiest shit, but he needs somebody to tell him, “No, no, wait, that’s too far”. In that regard, you want mature people; a director who’s not going to throw his toys out of the cot because he can’t get what he wants. You need a bunch of people who are willing to compromise, and listen and have a discussion and not, like, try to enforce their own will. It’s a fine balancing act in many regards.