Clive Will on ‘Time Spent with Cats is Never Wasted’

Clive Will’s black-and-white docudrama, Time Spent with Cats is Never Wasted, is a thought-provoking and visceral slow cinema arthouse experience. After being unable to award the artful film an /10 rating, Spling decided to interview the auteur behind this brave, enchanting and beautifully constructed directorial debut.

The film’s title is unusual… credited as if by Sigmund Freud but disputed, what was your inspiration and what obstacles have you encountered in marketing the film?

The film has a rather misanthropic sentiment, this quote seemed to really capture that. I like film titles that are thought-provoking and don’t always need to get spelled out; spoken as a key moment of dialogue or pose as the McGuffin. The film marketing side has been a very real challenge. Internationally the film has captured attention. On the home front I think few understand it. It was one of the shortlisted films for the Oscar submission. It was seen by a leading distributor, they pleaded with me to make the submission. I think as a local distributor they knew it was vastly different to anything else on offer. As you know the NFVF never submitted a film for the first time in 15 years.

“For those that did meet the set criteria, the independent selection committee decided that these projects did not appropriately represent marginalised communities.” – NFVF

I know my film was one of very few that met the criteria. The biggest stumbling block was the Academy were very strict this year again on the streaming criteria. What does this statement say. As with any artistic endeavour it’s hard to get momentum. The film was selected in competition at the Jozi Film Festival. I also attended the JBX film exchange. Showmax representatives spoke about content and demand. It was said they wanted and needed authentic African content. Enough with misery. What was missing was an authentic African Christmas movie. So you can well imagine that marketing this film has been tough.

This is a bold feature film debut… what were some of your apprehensions going in and just how much of a passion project is it?

There is always apprehension to any endeavour. The film is about a man pitted against his society. I spent some years in a children’s court battle. The opposing legal team were on the back foot and hired a new advocate to come and make a serious play. This man, who greeted me with a friendly smile outside the court, arrived inside and gorged me like a hungry lion.

Without knowing me, he made sweeping judgments and claims. I was a terrible father, undeserving of being a dad. He was so aggressive the magistrate had to caution him. This was not a fight about cars and holiday houses. This was an issue around the well-being of minor children. After this experience I had a complete breakdown in my understanding of humanity. Would mothers and fathers, dressed and acting as lawyers and advocates, come to court and behave like this, to earn a living?

So the project is very close. Possibly somewhere between therapy and catharsis. In truth I was probably so in need of the project, that it overrode my apprehension. As I worked alone, the pre-production actually took several years. But apprehension is always close.

I understand your lead was not a professional actor before Time Spent with Cats is Never Wasted was conceptualised. How ambitious was this casting decision in retrospect and how easy was it to guide your lead?

I looked at a lot of movies before I set out. I liked the films with people I did not know as actors. I also had a sense that the actor would be used almost as a prop, more than an actor. It would not be wordy. I would be making him do very physical things.

Finding cast was hard. Initially people were reluctant to come. Those that did were rather dull. I eventually set out on foot door-to-door and invited people to castings. Chris, the lead, says he remembers me arriving at his gate on a Saturday and doing just that. He was my best option, but far from being a dead certainty. He had dreadlocks down to his lower back. I asked him if he would cut his hair for the film. Even though he agreed I only cut it days before we started filming. In truth I was unsure right until I had no other option.

I had showed test footage to a casting director buddy of mine. She was unconvinced and gave me some acting school scenarios to do with him. After which, even I was unconvinced. I did approach two professional actors. One flew to Cape Town… we sat and chatted. Both seemed excited. However soon came the long list of issues and concerns.

My partner eventually said to me, go for it. You always thought he could do it, you had an idea of how to work with him, just go for it. In the end it worked out. I never really had an option. Maybe my gut was right, maybe I got lucky. Chris is amazing, he has an ability to move that is so gracious, it’s like poetry. Some people can be in front of camera, others just can’t.

The film carries a docudrama realism and subverts categorisation without bending to traditional entertainment values… why do you think it’s so important for us to have films like Time Spent with Cats is Never Wasted?

Hmmm, does the world need art? I can’t be sure. When you see the crowds at the Louvre chasing a selfie with the Mona Lisa, I tend to think not. But we all know those who choose a life without art, tend to have remorse and existential crisis later in life. Those that choose art face it earlier and die poor. [laughs]

Who is to know what it will take to get humanity to the next evolutionary step. Maybe films like mine reminding us of our foibles are the very thing hindering us. Possibly artists holding a mirror to society does shake them up. We will have to wait and see in ten years time if Mubi still exists or Netflix have bought them up and used their offices to build server space! In some way I sleep better at night convinced mine is a more noble approach, maybe thats all we can strive for.

Time Spent with Cats Is Never Wasted

There’s a shot of a sign for Hutchinson, did the railway town’s tragic desecration spur your imagination or themes on this project?

The film is meant to be nameless and placeless. I had considered painting the name out, but thought most don’t even know where it is. The destruction in South Africa is devastating. It is the face of so much that is wrong. So yes it bolsters what I am saying about humanity. Also a validation of mine and the character’s dislike of bureaucracy. It just meant that I could embrace these textures rather than try to cover them up.

Was Time Spent with Cats is Never Wasted always going to be a 3-hour odyssey and is there a longer version?

The cinema of old was longwinded. Able Gance’s 1927 Napolean ran for 5 and a half hours. I think he was aggravated they cut it down. Film length has always been a debate. Maybe it has something to do with clothing fashions. You can sit for longer in bellbottoms than you can in skinny jeans. I immersed myself in some pretty obscure cinema to get where I wanted to go. The genius of Bela Tarr’s, Satans Tango over 7 hours, really opened my mind.

I used time almost as a technique. The film is a long hard struggle. It’s about the very notion of frustration. I worked to lead the audience into judging the character, then as it progresses they feel guilty. By the end they want to reach in and help, but can’t. Now they have to sit through his agony, sit with their guilt. You and I know time does heal, but it takes a long time. So with the time I offered up, you can be nothing but uncomfortable, frustrated and anxious. So yes it had to be long.

A visual masterpiece, what has the response been like from audiences and at festivals?

The film does appeal to the art and cinephile audience. I would still like to see it play to a much larger audience in South Africa. I really feel people would love it. South Africa’s population has a rich culture of storytelling. Sadly, we don’t have a cinema culture, cinema is a mass-based entertainment form. We have expensive cinemas in hard to reach places, not ideal.

Festivals have loved it, some wrote to say they wanted to include it but it was just too long for their programming. I screened at the Labia, had several emotional letters from people who had profound experiences. Others missed the appeal and felt it was long. My distributor raved about it, said she wanted to do a box set edition with The Wound and It’s Not A Burial its A Resurrection. So maybe mixed bag would be the best description. It’s not a blockbuster, so maybe it’s a slowburn. But I do think it will stand the test of time.

Time Spent with Cats Is Never Wasted

The film has a photographic visual intensity – what was your process in writing the script and how closely did you stick to screenwriting convention?

People have observed that it has a documentary feel. Some have even thought the whole thing was some unscripted true story I happened to document. I am flattered. I had written several scripts in the past, have been in many meetings and talks. Money for filmmaking is always a tough one. Everyone wants a script. It gets carried to lunches and meetings, but I think often they don’t even read it.

The director has a pile of cocaine, orders a steak, slugs back a beer and regales scenes, shots and expensive filming equipment. His enthusiasm weaves this magic illusive tapestry together. Producers sit and ask for the dessert menu, telling their young girlfriends they will get them a part in this man’s crazy vision. The bill arrives and the director disappears to the toilet, his steak untouched. The producer’s girlfriend runs after, less enthused by the part and more lusting for cocaine. The producers left talk about ex-wives, maintenance and the repairs on their sports cars.

I know I am being facetious, but truly most commercial film people have the attention span of a nat. I love nothing more than getting script advice from producers who have never made a film, or producers who had their 21st birthday at the school tuck shop. The film business is sadly a place where bravado and gumption get people very far. I may have gone way off course here. But again when one starts to immerse oneself in real cinema you see how many people start with a notion and then just go. The systems we have now are slave too, it’s just one system, Hollywood. This was a system looking to be a business model.

Unlike some of the true savants of cinema, I was not brave enough to go onto set with nothing. I had a script, I had a very real structure. The script was not in a printed classical script style document, but it was the same thing. There was improvisation of shots and angles, but with the actors I had and the time I had, there is no freewheeling happening.

Where you really start to improvise is in the edit suit. I shot scenes I never used, I created moments from shots that their initial intentions had been quite different. Editing is where the true magic happens, that for me is real scripting. I remember reading an article where Denis Villeneuve talked about being in a catastrophic place with the edit of Arrival (2016). He was convinced it was a lemon, dead, nothing. He never had shots he wanted, never had time or money for more. He credited his editor for coming up with an ending and sequence he said was fashioned from nothing, true alchemy.

Time Spent with Cats Is Never Wasted

Can you tell us more about the choice to film in Xhosa, are you fluent and if there were many hidden challenges?

I wanted the film to be a foreign language film, that was strategic. It was never going to be too dialogue-heavy so I thought I could get away without too much complication. We translated on the fly, again an amazing accomplishment for non-professional actors. Maybe our naïveté for the challenge allowed us to just go for it. I gave them words and notions, they told me how it needed to be said. I worked with tone, you can tell if a delivery is angry, happy or tense. I focused on tone and rhythm. I feel if you had to watch the film without sound or subtitles, you would still know what is going on. Almost like silent cinema. I like that Xhosa uses animals and behavioural observations in many of its proverbs. I found a book on Xhosa proverbs while on a holiday. The elephants trunk is never too heavy for it – this is golden!

I understand you filmed in colour with the intention of going black-and-white. How do you think this improved the final production?

I always knew the film had to be in black and white. I ran a camera test with cameras in colour mode and black-and-white mode. I tried using coloured filters as we used for black and white photography, but it does little in digital. In the end shooting colour and being able to use the colour as a device to manipulate black and white tones is almost what we used to do with filters in the old days. With the test footage, I had made up several LUTS, day, nite, interior etc. These we used on the monitor, so we always knew what we were aiming for. Digital is amazing in that regard. Black-and-white probably is its most helpful and beneficial when it comes to wardrobe and art department. It saved me huge amounts of time. On occasions as I edited, colour images would pop up, people would be lured in and ask me why I don’t finish in colour. I was never looking to go that route. It’s purist cinema. They say a second of screen time is perceived as three seconds. This framed world is quick and easy to digest. However, we have so many tools to sway and exhaust the audience. So by limiting one’s pallet you do narrow down the viewer’s attention.

As an auteur, were you closely involved in editing your film? How would you say the story evolved from writing to shooting to the final cut?

I edited the film almost in its entirety. It was mostly a cost decision. Who could ever afford to give me the time I needed. I would love to work with an editor – any out there reading this. I did a 9 odd hour assembly. Got to around 4 or 5, and then was massively stuck. Larissa Hollis, painter and ex on-line artist offered to help. She was amazing, taking the time to look through, push-pull and play devil’s advocate. You can have true moments of clarity, but you can find yourself confused and stuck. She was able to ask me the questions I needed to ask myself, offer an insight I was not seeing. Her contribution was massive and I have credited her.

There were some big departures from what I had planned, but the tone and message is all there. For example, I filmed the lead actor flying in the real helicopter. It still warms me to recollect his face with the delight it wore when he went up. That in itself makes me glad we did it. But it was not right for the edit. It was too much of an escape, too optimistic, it allowed the audience a reprieve, so it had to go. Those can be tough decisions, but once there is clarity you can make them.

The other thing I can say is the ending never changed. We all know the one where people say the film needs a new ending. The ending is surely the fundamental reason one made the film. I can’t understand how one could set out to make a film and not have an ending. For me that would really take some balls. I also can’t understand that you would not be massively involved in an edit. Sure, make notes, go away… let someone else do the work. But you surely still have to come back and look, agree, disagree. I can’t imagine that as a director you can make a film and not be integrally involved in the edit process.

Time Spent with Cats Is Never Wasted

You filmed in arid conditions in the Northern Cape. What was most challenging about this time of drought and were there any happy “accidents”?

The Karoo was my go to very early on. I knew the production value would be immense. It has its challenges with heat, dust and wind. But these are also part of its charm. The film shows shimmering heat, dust devils and powerful winds. Things that if you script would require special effects teams and piles of money.

However, anyone who knows filmmaking know these are all barriers to healthy gear and crew. It’s tough out there. We would shoot morning, have lay offs midday, or work interiors. Then go out again in the afternoons. Water is a very large part of one’s day, ironic as its scarcity in the surrounds contributes to its harsh beauty. The Karoo was going through one of the worst droughts in history, for me that translated into low foliage and wide open spaces – visually great. I know for the farmers and general community it was devastating. There were many amazing accidents. I cant tell you how many shots I saw later in editing and noticed birds flying through.

Did you ever lose perspective in being so immersed in this project and how did you recalibrate some level of objectivity?

I don’t think I have ever had any objectivity. That’s the beauty of film-making and being an artist. If I was a documentarian I might have had to deal with those conundrums. I remember reading a Kevin Carter interview regarding his vulture and baby photo. He was angered when asked what happened after the photo was taken. That’s the world of journalism. I can stage that very scene as a film-maker and no one asks me that, it’s just a film. I think to be a film-maker you probably need to be born without objectivity. I don’t think that was the case for me, that’s why it took me longer than I had planned to get here.

Perspective is however something I lost on many occasions and recalibration was necessary. Recalibration becomes so much a part of your day, you feel like an old virus-ridden Macbook getting rebooted after every task. I think Orson Welles said film direction is the most overrated job in the world. You are a traffic cop just ushering people along, all the while making a giant series of compromises, something like that. He is right, your vision never seems to be truly met. It’s like reality vs the dream world. Someone wakes you from a most splendid dream and you just wish you could get back there. However, as I tell people you learn to persevere. Then the perseverance seems to pay off. You see some footage, or an edit and you can’t believe you did that. Chances are the next day you notice a whole crop of faults and rush to fix them. Then some weeks later you revisit and can’t believe how beautiful it looks. Perspective is to a degree important, it’s a dance with the devil.

Time Spent with Cats Is Never Wasted

Much like Apocalypse Now, there will probably be some controversy around the treatment of animals in Time Spent with Cats is Never Wasted… how did planning these shots work?

Hmmm, so interesting as you are the first to ask. I was trying to use the animals in a way that would make the audience judge the lead. People today find their animals in the refrigerated aisles of a supermarket. So I was hoping that they would eventually see the hypocrisy in any judgement. I got permission to shoot in a local abattoir, but at the last minute they got cold feet. Although the world’s majority eat meat, the world’s majority does not like to see or discuss its processing. I heard about men who were slaughtering cows and they had no reluctance to let me film it. Chris never really had any moral dilemma when I asked if he would do it. He has grown up out of the city and far closer to nature. Not sure an actor would have been so keen.

The chicken was meant to be stolen and then we would see him eating. So one would be a live chicken the other would be a prepared chicken. The live chicken was bought from a vendor. Once filmed, Chris asked if he could have it to take home and eat. When I asked who would kill it, he laughed, “me”. I then asked the crew, what would be the difference if he killed it here with a camera rolling or he took it home and killed it in his garden. No one could answer. That was how the sequence came about. All other animals were roadkill found or acquired. The baby chicken, he/she is a double. A local chicken farmer sold us a live chick and a dead one. The live one gets swopped out as the camera pans and the dead one placed in. My stance is as long as there is meat-eating taking place on earth, any discussion around the treatment of animals is mute.

There’s a poetic thread throughout your film – do you want audiences to interrogate your work or would you rather leave the interpretation up to each viewer based on their frame of reference?

I don’t mind. I love to talk life. That’s why I made a film. Making a film is committing to talking to a rather large audience. I can’t understand why David Lynch has always refused to talk about Eraserhead. Let’s talk, for sure. At the same time I don’t mind that everyone has their own take away. I certainly would not dictate a response or be offended if some one was to disagree with mine. I hope or wish that if nothing else my films will generate some level of conversation.

Time Spent with Cats Is Never Wasted

There are some distinct allusions to systemised old world racism – how would you say these cutaways provoke current conversations around the legacy of colonialism and ambitions of decolonialism?

I think people see what they want to see. I don’t think I was so much looking to engage in the colonisation debate. The past is important, however it should not cloud or overshadow the now. I was more looking to talk around the human race. Where we are, how we treat each other? I want to ask these questions because I want to know what is holding us back. I love this excerpt from Bela Tarr talking about Tarkovsky. “Tarkovsky is religious and we are not… he always had hope; he believed in God. He’s much more innocent than us – than me. No, we have seen too many things to make his kind of film… he is much softer, much nicer. Rain in his films purifies people. In mine it just makes mud.”

I buy some of this. Understand I love Bela Tarr, he is probably my God. But I don’t buy all of his stance. For as brutal and harsh as his films are, I think he is a big softy. When you want the world to be all right, but it’s not and you can’t fix it, what do you do? Make a film about its ugliness.

Time Spent with Cats is Never Wasted is an absolute labour of love – how did you keep the fire burning and what advice would you have for others trying to summit their creative vision?

It is a labour of love. If you have the love, you probably don’t need my advice. You always hear film-makers say, just shoot. It really is the best approach. If it’s crap, don’t show it. If its crap but you think you can fix it, reshoot. Hitchcock drew and storyboarded every frame. He built sets and locations to match his frames. Roy Anderson does something similar today. This has crazy cost implications. But understand this is just one way of making films. Maybe there are two pieces of advise, shoot and watch films. As you go you will stumble across an approach you like.

There are an inordinate amount of beautifully composed shots, which would you say is your favourite?

I love photography. I was going to shoot the film loose and fluid. At one time I shot tests with the DJI Osmo. Then I started to think about timing, editing and the non-professional actors. Then I was reminded of the slow films I liked. I realised I could have more time and control working this way. I could embrace the composition in a more deliberate manner. There are some very real odes to master composition. I even drop the Mona Lisa in.

A favourite is hard.

Time Spent with Cats Is Never Wasted

Your film’s overtly arthouse… what would you say is the ideal way to watch it in terms of audience, venue and setting?

Keith Shiri was the curator of the Johannesburg Film Festival. Just go look what this man put together for an audience. Two weeks after its Venice launch he has Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale showing at Sandton. We were 8 in the cinema.

One can shout about cinema all you like. I just saw Only in Theatres – The History of the Laemmle Theatres, a beloved 84-year-old arthouse cinema chain in Los Angeles. It’s a great doccie if you get the chance. They’re still going, despite it all. Who can say? We do all love cinema, but the world has changed. We love steam trains, but no one wants to commute on one. Some guy resurrected Polaroid, maybe arthouse cinema gets another moment under the sun. The pendulum does swing Democratic to Republican. I just think when you have seen these types of films it’s hard to go back.

So for me I will watch them anywhere I can. Yes I love a cinema, but if that’s not a reality, they’re still worth seeing on a laptop. Many cinephiles talks about the cinema and the collective audience experience. I don’t feel the same. I think it’s this collective type feeling that terrifies me about live theatre. For me a film is a more intimate solitary experience. I don’t want to talk or hold hands, I find popcorn delicious but disturbing while engrossed in film. I do remember the cinema having a very profound impression on me as a child. Dark, loud and strange. The people are either lumps or silhouettes, obstacles you must navigate to find your seat. So for me I love the big screen, but collective cinema I don’t bow to.

Being a 3-hour foreign language art film from Africa, Time Spent with Cats is Never Wasted is about as niche as it gets… has it been difficult to circulate and promote? Is this your “monument to individuality”?

It is proving tough. Yes I knew I was pushing out the boat. I had coffee with a producer the other day. We talked about another film-maker and his film. He told me the guy hates his movie, wishes he never made it. I don’t have those issues. He produced a commodity, distributors have their hands firmly grasped on it. His film is being seen, mine is battling for an audience. Which is better? Maybe the film sits a bit lofty, maybe I am feeling a tad alone. It’s the cinema versus movie thing. It’s a tough one, as we all want to be heard and recognised. But at what cost? Do you want to be seen for what you want to make and say, or just be seen. Comes back to the art and commerce debate.

What’s the most satisfying compliment you’ve received about the film so far?

You must be on a cloud after the success of yesterday’s screening. Your film is a triumph of slow cinema. Your spare, still frames have so much to see, give time to think, to get uncomfortable. And the cinematography is perfect. Those skies! Chapeaus Bas!

I am sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet you and hope this can be rectified soon.

Best, Thomas Burstyn

Time Spent with Cats is Never Wasted has a raw intensity… how much of you is in this film?

Too much. You know how Brando spoke about the fact that he gave of himself. He left a part of him up there, there was no acting. I feel that way. It’s real and honest, it might not be what everyone wants to hear, but it’s what I wanted to say.

If you could do it all over again, what about the entire filmmaking process would you change if anything?

It’s all about the result. The fact that I got a result is itself a big deal. I got to a place where I was happy that I had something I could actually put out. The process can be brutal. Some say working with a big crew is easier, Pedro Costa said it curbed his very existence. It would be nice to have more help, but with help also comes responsibility. I do like doing a lot on my own. Maybe if anything I would like to have known what I do now know about finishing audio for a film. Audio is tough! Possibly an area that is just so open and so lacking finites. It is easy to get lost in the world of audio. It’s one of those worm holes that can really take up your time. I would encourage any film-maker out there to do some work and know what they looking to achieve with audio.

Time Spent with Cats is Never Wasted is a provocative tale filled with rich symbols and political undercurrents. Being your directorial debut, would you say this artful cutting edge is where you’re most fulfilled as a director? What can you tell us about your next project, Thus Spake Zolani?

Most certainly it’s a style I like. That said maybe it will see some changes along the way? One wants to have a style but also not be repetitive or boring. Auteurs can most often keep telling the same story over and over. So packing is important.

My next piece has style similarities. In some ways it could even be seen as a part 2. In the first film we end and our lead has just disappeared from frame. The next film starts with a character lying in the veld. They were not specifically written as parts, but I am sure people will tie them together. In the first film he tried to appease and quell. The next film sees a character dish out revenge and punishment. Maybe it’s part of where I got. At first I was sad and angry and wanted to comment, then I wished I could exact revenge. This way I get to do it, but without having to do jail time.

The film is a multi-faceted revenge film. Maybe thinking a revenge film would be puerile and self indulgent, I dressed it up as a whole lot more. Or tried to hide it. The title is stolen from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. So both films have Nietzscherean title references, hopefully that makes me look smart. Where Zolani departs from Zarathustra, is that he arrives knowing nothing. Rather than being a prophet he comes open and ready to take lessons from the men around him. Sadly, his human experiences quickly lead him down a dark road. In search of meaning he finds guidance in the words of a daytime TV evangelist. Next thing we know Zolani believes he has been instructed to kill Johnny Depp!