Spling on his Career as a Film Critic, Barry Ronge and the Oscars

You’re listening to The Drive Show. I am Wilné (van Rooyen) and I’m very honoured today to be speaking to what we would call the trusted independent South African movie authority. He is a massive, massive name and I think I’m very excited to be chatting to him. It’s the one, the only Stephen Aspeling, better known as Spling. Welcome to MFM.

Hey Wilné, what a wonderful introduction. Thank you.

Well, you are an icon or you know, very, people look up to you. They’re like, if they want to know something regarding movies, they go to you. So I have a couple of questions for you, just in a broad sense for people that don’t know what you do. What do you do?

So much, you know, it’s actually grown organically. I started writing a review a day for a year just to prove that I loved and was passionate about film criticism. And from there, it grew organically into writing reviews on a weekly basis for some websites and then magazines and newspapers and radio stations. Just talking about films, I’ve got a show called Talking Movies on Fine Music Radio and that is broadcast on MFM. And yes, so it just kind of grew in all directions. And now I’m a judge. I serve as a juror on certain film festivals. And I’ve also got a boutique script consultancy called, which is all about assisting directors and screenwriters with their scripts to get them to their full potential. So loads of things and things that I never expected when I started writing.

And what was it that you didn’t expect?

I didn’t expect there to be so many different avenues and roles for the role of someone that’s just doing a blog with film reviews every single day. I didn’t see how far it would actually take me. And now I’ve written a book as well called The Essence of Dreams: An Anthology of Film Reviews. So it’s kind of just like if you had to list like the different types of roles that branch out from one simple movie critic thing, it’s incredible. It’s just like a tree of different branches. So yeah, I never anticipated that when I started out.

And something I read is that there was a specific scene in the psychedelic elephant dance from Dumbo that influenced you to become who you are. Let me just say, that scene traumatized me for some other reason as a kid. I was absolutely afraid of it. So how did this very specific scene inspire you?

I think because it stirred me so much. I think it scared me and like you as well. It was something I’d never seen before. In terms of animation, it was something that I didn’t think was possible. This was still the days of 2D animation where everything was drawn.

And I also was scared by another film called Dot and the Kangaroo where they blended live action with animation. And there’s thing called the Bunyip and this rock mural painting comes to life. It’s based on a myth, an Australian myth. And that also frightened me, but those are the things that stayed with me from that era of watching and being exposed to these things that maybe were not quite for someone as young as I was at the time…

I learned how to use the VCR at the age. VCR is a VHS machine. It’s a tape thing that a lot of listeners may not have actually ever seen, but it’s like a tape cassette… a Walkman from that retro space, a very similar thing, but for video. And apparently my mother says that I was able to start using that at the age of four. So that’s probably where it all started. And maybe I don’t even have the earliest memories coming through from some of the media I was exposed to.

And tell me, how did the name or the brand SPL!NG come about?

So that’s quite an interesting story. And it’s quite a simple one. My surname is Aspeling. And when I was very young, I used to walk with a bounce in my step. So Spring, Aspeling, Spling. It just kind of all came together. And it was quite funny because when I was in junior school, I was called Spling. I didn’t tell anyone about my nickname when I went to high school in another town, Grahamstown, now Makanda. And Spling came up again. And that’s why I called it the movie brand Spling because I wanted to make a success of it. I wanted to make sure that I was going to stick to this thing. And using something that was so personal and dear to me, like my own nickname, to drive it was just something I thought that would really power at home.

Yeah. And it’s really cool. And you also mentioned, you know, What if you could give more detail about what that is?

So that’s quite a generalist kind of script consultancy. And what I mean by that is that someone will come in, they’ll have either an idea for a film that they want to develop. They’ll have the beginnings of a script. Maybe it’s in the first draft phase. Maybe it’s been through 10 drafts and they’re wanting to just give it a script polish, which is just to kind of make sure it’s all in the right formatting.

I also give consultancy in the way of ideas and trying to upscale things and punch things up a bit in terms of taking a script from a sort of five out of 10 to like a seven or eight out of 10. And just advising people when they need those notes. Because the thing with screenwriting is that you get so up close to the wall that eventually it stops making sense. You stop seeing the detail. You have written and rewritten so many times that when you look at it, you’re filling in the blanks with your head. You’re not actually seeing it very objectively.

And that’s where we step in because we’re able to see it for what it is at that point. We haven’t had a history with it, which means that its impact value really shines through. And I think that adds value from a trusted voice, trusted opinion from someone who’s had like over 16, 17 years within the industry… has watched loads of movies. That kind of advice and expertise really goes a long way.

Yeah. And with your expertise and all of that, the fact that you do reviewing, like basically it’s your bread and butter, does that kind of take away the magic from actually enjoying a movie or do you have a way of separating it all?

I kind of started with the end user experience in mind, if you could put it that way, in that I’m not trying to analyze it to death. I’m actually trying to watch it from the perspective of an average moviegoer and letting it not wash over me too much, but just trying to say, well, what was this experience like?

And when you’re on a film set, the way that people talk about film is its tonal qualities. You say, “we want the scene to be quite haunting”. And then people know what that means because they’re talking from different departments and they’ve all got their own specialities. And so it’s much easier for someone to understand what that means in trying to relay that vision.

And that’s kind of what I’m doing. I’m just trying to watch it in a way that I can explain what the experience is going to be like for someone… and the way I do it is I try to defend it. So I try to build a case for what that film rating is and why it’s that. I don’t just say it was kiff or it was something else… I just try to give it a rating, give people a semblance, an idea of what to expect, and then also try to distill the essence of that film into a capsule review.

Yeah. And you’re actually, or you’re part of this thing, the five-part series on Barry, is it Ronge or Rong?

Barry Ronge.

Ronge, that you actually produced. And it’s a massive thing. He was an icon in the journalism world. Tell me a little bit about this. How did you get to be part of this whole five-part series?

It happened quite serendipitously because when Barry passed away, he’s a media icon, triple threat across TV, radio, newspapers. He had a column, he wrote books. He was to, he’s kind of like, if you think of film criticism as a religion, he’s like one of the highest sort of holy figures. And what happened is when he passed away, I was, you know, he was an inspiration to me and I wrote an obituary about him. And then his partner of 47 years, Albertus van Dyk, contacted me and he was just really moved and wanted to show his appreciation.

He thanked me and we’d been in touch ever since then. But then because the house that they’d stayed in for 30 years was put on the market, it was sold. And suddenly it was my last opportunity to actually be in that space, be in that sanctuary, be where Barry lived, see how he lived, see his office… be in the garden, be actually, I think he passed away at that home. So it was such a once in a lifetime opportunity that I just thought I’ve got to fly to Jo’burg. I’ve got to meet with Albertus. And while I was there, I decided to interview him and we spoke about Barry as a tribute and also in a bid to try and find a place for the 1,700 film book collection that he’s left behind as a commemorative thing. So we actually are still on that quest.

Okay, I was about to ask if you’ve found a place yet?

Yeah, we haven’t really come close to finding a place. A lot of great suggestions have come through, but it is a real commitment because you are offering up a space that… you also need to find the right space, the right spiritual home for it. Because these books and his memory, you know, he’s got a photograph of Charlize Theron with her hand on his tummy.

Yeah. And you know, he was that famous. He went to the Lord of the Rings set, got all the signatures in a book from all of the big stars. And, you know, he is like a film critic royalty, I suppose you could say for South Africa.


So a big name, a big presence. And you need to have a look and find out more about Barry because he was such an interesting character. Viral before viral was a thing.

Yeah. And tell me, this is just from myself, from all the movies that you’ve reviewed so far, what is one movie, this is really difficult, one movie that people have to watch?

The first movie that came to mind when you said that… I have got my three favorite films of all time. But this one, actually, it’s four now. But this one jumped to mind. So I’ll just speak about this one.

It’s called As It Is in Heaven. It’s a Swedish drama. And it is just so powerful. When I watched this film, we it’s about a conductor that moves to a small town. He’s had a bit of a nervous breakdown. Yeah. And he leads this choir, small town choir who’ve come to the church that they practice in with their own issues.


And it grapples with all these issues as a romantic interest comes into play. And he finds his inspiration all over again. And it sounds like quite a hokey kind of thing. But it’s it’s so powerfully done. And it touches on so many powerful themes that it makes it a must-see. And in the cinema, when I watched it, it got a standing ovation.

Oh, wow.

It ends on a sort of scene that that makes sense to you as to why that would happen. But that is probably the only film that I’ve been in where the entire audience actually stood and clapped. Yeah, as the credits rolled. So that’s a very powerful film called As It Is In Heaven. And it’s got subtitles, which means you can read a bit. Yeah. But yeah, that’s a real powerful.

Well, I know what I’m watching this weekend, because I’ve been told I don’t watch enough movies. But, you know, also, the Oscars are coming up. What are your thoughts in general about the Oscars? Because there are people saying, yeah, but these award shows this that this, you know.

Well, Ricky Gervais says that you should just release a list of names and be done with it. It is an interesting one, because the Oscars has taken on a slightly different space to most awards ceremonies. Most times, these are just industry specific things. And with most industries, they don’t have the entire world watching who got, you know, most improved typewriter or whatever it is. And so the Oscars has developed this, this glitz and glamour thing, and people look up to it. And it’s such an honour to actually walk away with a golden statuette.


…that that legacy persists. But now it’s finding that, you know, it’s become very dated. There are a lot of political, with all awards shows, there is politics.


But because there’s such a spotlight on this one. And because it’s so heavily geared towards America and trying to service the rest of the world at the same time, it’s created quite a few different problems. And so I think, because we also have the internet, and it’s just created so many shards of different ways you can consume media, there aren’t one or two channels where you can watch something and the Oscars is one of those things.


And so, you know, being able to have video on demand, people can watch it when they want to watch it. So why actually tune in to watch the thing live? Yeah, it’s struggling with its numbers. And it’s, it’s starting to lose a bit of its relevance because of trying to do such an overcorrect for all the things that have happened in the past that have now become problematic.


So I think it’s, it’s still got importance, it’s still relevant in terms of the industry. But I think it’s struggling to hold on to the viewership of people seeing someone walking down the red carpet, being all like, look at me.


And, you know, the awards themselves have to be campaigned for…


Something that a lot of people don’t know is that they actually launched these ad campaigns to try and get their film into the spotlight.

Oh, wow.

And to pitch their people for the best awards. So that also comes into play when it comes to the… the nomination process and awards. So it’s not a very, it’s not the most integritous awards ceremony. But it is still right up there. And people talk about it. So as long as people are talking about it, like we are now, it’s going to stay in that sort of space.

Yeah. Okay. And for the people that, you know, would like to listen to what you have to say, when can they hear you? Because I know you’re on the lunch show. What is your slot? And also, where can they find you on social media?

Social media, it’s at Spling Movies, /Spling Movies are pretty much everything. I’m not on TikTok, but I am on Twitter, open bracket, X, closed bracket.

Yes. And Facebook and Instagram. So that’s one of the places. @MovieCriticSA is my personal Twitter feed. And is the website. So that will take you to all those avenues. Yeah, I actually think it’s quarter to two. And I can’t remember if it’s a Wednesday or Thursday. It’s just relaunched today, I think.

Yeah, okay. Okay, fantastic. Well, Spling, thank you so much for taking the time out to come all the way to studio. This has been a very fascinating chat. And it’s an absolute honour to have met, you know, a very iconic person like you.

Thank you so much. And thank you for having me.

Anytime. So there you have it. Definitely somebody you need to follow for all your movie reviews. And you know, icon.