Zeta Peach and Bryce Donson Talk Filmmaking On the Fly

We spoke with Cape Town-based independent filmmakers Bryce Donson (director) and Zeta Peach (writer and co-director) about the production of Intim: Rayne, the first in a series of short anthologies exploring romantic intimacy and its variations.

Did the project start with the character of Rayne, or the concept itself?

ZETA: It came from wanting to explore one person and the types of relationships they experience… thinking about how relationships impact people, what they bring to your life and how they affect the way you look upon everything else. I really appreciated that you could have different kinds of relationships with different kinds of people at different stages of your life.

As soon as you meet someone, and you learn these things from them, there’s a part of you that holds onto what you take from that person. So, while they’re completely separate relationships and connections, they affect you as a person, and that’s what helps to make the next relationship different. So, that was the purpose of the anthology feel to the film.

And Bryce, how did you join? Were you approached with a complete script or were you involved before that point?

BRYCE: We were busy working in post on our grad films. That’s a time when you tend to feel very burnt out; ‘How am I gonna take a break once this is done?’ I remember Zeta coming up to me, semi-sheepishly.

They said: “I have this script, and we’d be interested in you directing it”, I said “Sure, send it”, but I was probably going to say no, because I was sort of done. But I read it and I could see it. That’s always the first part; reading it I could see how it would be shot. The big in was that it was relatable. It’s very specific, but there’s still a universality to it.

Also, it was very fresh. I’ve always wanted to direct something that I hadn’t written. Often with the scripts I would get, it would be something I could maybe write myself, but this was something that would be impossible for me to write. My approach to directing it would also have to be different from anything I’d done before.

ZETA: I’ll say, the sheepish-ness… I was hesitant to ask you because having worked with you; you’d been my favourite director. Having to approach a director for the first time with a project that I’ve written, since my main role on every other film I’ve made was either producing or sound, it was daunting. I did also know that you were burnt out and I felt, if Bryce says no, I’m not sure. I tend to be specific about the types of crews that I like making films with, to look for people who are passionate about the project, who see themselves in it.

The direction of the film seems to adapt from one vignette to another (it’ll float around for the intimate tent scene, but for the awkward first date it’s totally locked down). Could you speak to how you visualized the short?

BRYCE: Starting out, we discussed whether there was a through-line between the vignettes. I liked taking each as its own story, but it was impossible for me not to tie it together visually in certain aspects. One of the main goals we had was that the audience at certain points feel uncomfortably close to these characters, like they’re inside of these moments, so we’d emulate the emotions of the characters with the camera’s movements. When characters are comfortable, it’s more fluid and we’d move the camera around a lot more, or when it’s stilted, so is the camera. For that tent scene, it’s such an awkward conversation for the audience to be privy to. I remember reading it and thinking ‘oof, can you imagine being a fly on the wall for this’.

We also tried to not cut too often for that scene. If you edit something it can feel arranged, so big ups to our editor Greg Battle because that was a tricky one to cut. I kept asking “Can’t we just let this go on a bit longer?” We tried to build the sequence with us getting closer and closer; it starts with a high angle shot and then goes tighter until we get that intimate kiss, very close with them.

I handled this film differently from a lot of the others I’ve done. If some of my other work was classical music, this was jazz. I would sit and watch the rehearsal, with a shot planned, and think that it would be a shame to keep the camera still for this coverage. The DOP and I would take it off the tripod and try to move around, feel things out.

Would the next entry in the Intim cycle follow Rayne as well, or branch out?

ZETA: It wouldn’t necessarily follow Rayne. What I would like to do, eventually, is have certain characters from this first film appear in other entries. I would definitely follow different characters, because what I’d like to do is explore as many different types of storylines as possible. Not all of them are going to be polyamorous, not all of them are going to be genderqueer, not all of them are going to be in Cape Town. I’d like to explore different people’s intimacies.

For an independent production as independent as this, you certainly didn’t make it easy for yourselves. Over a short running time, there are quite a lot of locations, a long casting call… Were there any challenges of note during shooting?

ZETA: We communicated really smoothly about most of the logistics, but one thing that stressed us all out, but me especially (since I was, together with our producer, Tino Hluyo, kind of in charge of this specifically)… [laughs] Deciding who was going to play Rayne gave us hell, because we actually had someone who was supposed to be our lead and things didn’t go according to plan. We only ended up making our new lead official on the actual day of the shoot, via a referral.

All of the other actors were secured some time in advance, but we had this conversation about whether we were going to cancel the shoot or keep going with this small amount of hope. I had it in my head that ‘if we don’t shoot this thing now, it’s not going to happen’. Everyone would be leaving Cape Town, going their own ways. When you’ve got that momentum going, you need to utilize it. I was running on that and we honestly struck a massive pot of luck.

BRYCE: We did have trouble with one of the locations as well, what made the rest simple was that our producer was brilliant. When you scout for locations there’s a lot of specifics related to how you imagine the scene to look, but for this script we wanted it to be an homage to Cape Town, the kind you don’t see in the ads. ‘Cape-Town-core’ was thrown around a lot on set, like our version of Mumblecore. That made it a lot easier, because we were able to go to places like a corner store that we all knew and had passed so many times, or this spot on Kloof street. It was easier for us to say ‘Oh, this works’.

That said, the first day we shot at the corner store location, we’d got what we needed, and on our way to the next location Tino said that he doesn’t have a phone, so someone else would need to send out the call sheet. We were kind of teasing him the whole time, “You can’t be the producer and not have a phone!” The next day he still didn’t have one, so we asked him why and he was getting very cagey. Third day, we asked him to confess and tell us the real story. It goes like this:

He had gone to draw the cash for the corner store shoot, but his card had a limit on it, so he was only able to pay them half that day. Naturally, the owners, seeing these fresh-faced filmmakers, thought he was just not going to pay them. “We need some form of collateral”, and they gestured with their eyes towards his laptop bag. He says he considered it but decided ‘No, I need my laptop more, so I’ll give them my cell phone’. He didn’t tell us any of this. We would’ve been fine to chip in, of course, but he didn’t want to disturb us while we were prepping. He just gave them his phone and the cash and said: “I’ll be back tomorrow with the rest and to get this back”.

But, because the shoot was so hectic, he didn’t have the time. When he told us this, he still hadn’t gone for two days. The next day we went to get his phone, and they didn’t want to give it back because it had “been too long”. [laughs] Apparently the price had gone up. I asked him if he wanted my help. “No, this is a producer thing”, and then he was in there for like 20 minutes. There was a point where I went back in to see if everything was alright. “Yes, everything’s fine”. Apparently, it was just a standoff. He refused to move, so they gave him his phone and took the other half of their money. That’s a testament to how great of a producer Tino is, but also to how tricky it is to make movies on the fly out in these streets.

Well, as you said, this is a Cape Town homage, but you took the film to Berlin not too long ago. How did they take to it over there? Was there an appreciable difference in the audience’s reaction?

ZETA: I showed some of my friends in Berlin the film at first, and what was very surprising was that their perspectives on a lot of the scenes were vastly different from that of a lot of people in Cape Town. It comes down to; in each scene there are sides that you can take. For instance, the argument with Acacia in the bedroom, which is basically about controlling the autonomy of a person. “I think you’re hurting me because we’ve had this conversation, and we’ve agreed you wouldn’t talk to this person, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” A lot of people in Cape Town sided with Rayne because ‘you’ve had the conversation; you’ve spoken about the boundaries’.

In Berlin… I think it might be down to a more open culture, a more open spirit that certain places in Europe have. A lot of people I know there are polyamorous; they were saying that you shouldn’t have had that conversation in the first place. ‘Why are you trying to take control of someone’s autonomy? To tell someone they shouldn’t be talking to this person’. It gave me perspectives that I hadn’t realized I’d put into my film. Hearing how other people interpreted it, it showed me that the Cape Town community, though it’s similar to many other queer communities in the world, there are still massive differences.

I’m curious whether you have different perspectives on the change Rayne goes through from the start of the short to the end?

BRYCE: That’s a very good question because I think you picked up on something. Zeta and I somewhat disagreed on this. It doesn’t affect the film, it’s more about how you read it. In prep I felt that it was a coming-of-age story. Even though we don’t know the order of these vignettes, you can kind of piece together how they self-actualize. The way I think about film, there has to be some form of through-line. So, when we were editing, I would be like “Ah, yes, I see it!” and Zeta would be like “Nah, it’s not really there”. To me, at the beginning they’re in a certain space and at the end, even though it’s a kind of hectic way to self-actualize, they’ve grown. What I like is it’s ambiguous, what the growth is, but there is still growth.

ZETA: I tend to go for the more non-chronological view. It’s the concept of the film. Even in my own life, I don’t see myself going from A to Z. I think, there’s just no order, and you’re constantly learning something. Constantly f*cking up and reconceptualizing our lives and settling into different parts of them. I don’t think one point is significantly better than another; just different. I see Rayne as moving through the vignettes and being very different in each. Rayne’s learned all these different things and this is the way they’re expressing it.

BRYCE: Something funny about leaving so much up to the audience’s interpretation is that for the first time I would have a crewmember come up to me with a question and I could say “I don’t know” without them looking at me like ‘What? You’re not prepared’. [laughs] Tebogo Majikija, who did the sound, or Greg in the edit would be like “Oh, so they definitely did this afterwards”. “I don’t know, what do you think?” That was very freeing.

ZETA: It was also interesting having actors ask about the characters, because I had an idea of what I wanted them to be, but I wanted the actors to take it and make it theirs. On set, we would do blocking or rehearsals, and I would get questions like “What happened before this? How long have they been together?” To a certain extent I was talking out of my ass, which I would let them know. ‘I haven’t fleshed this out as much as you may think. I want you to find what you can latch onto for this character and then we can work to bring this character to life’. So, it was really cool coming up with these character stories for the actors on set.

What was the most fortuitous example of inspiration striking?

BRYCE: We were shooting a scene where two characters are lying in bed discussing their exes. There wasn’t quite enough light, but the aim for that scene was to make it kind of ethereal. I can’t remember who said what, but it came down to me saying: “It would have been cool if we had one of those star projectors because we could cover the actors and the ceiling to get the light we needed”, and Zeta was like: “Oh! We have one of those, we just have to drive to get it!”. That’s one of my favourites, because it works so well for the scene, and came so spontaneously. It never would have happened if we had stuck exactly to what we had in our heads or if we didn’t have the time to sit at that table and talk about it. Also, I handled that light specifically, and it was my first time being a gaffer. It’s a very stressful job, so shout out to all the gaffers. [laughs]

ZETA: The end-credits scene is similar. The actor who played Rayne is also a musician, and on the very last day of the shoot we were unwinding, and they were about to go to a gig with their guitar. I remember asking; “Do you wanna jam? It would be cool to hear you play”. So, they came up and just started playing this beautiful, beautiful song. The contents fit perfectly with the film. Bryce comes up to me, gets the DOP, and we’re all like ‘this could work for the credits, let’s get the camera’. All we asked them to change was the pronouns, since the character has a lot of different partners. And now that’s the send-off for our film.

For a film that trades off chemistry and a feeling of authenticity, it’s a lovely way to end things.

BRYCE: What’s funny about that is we still did two takes, just in case. [laughs] You wait and then you perfect.