In a genre traditionally associated with America, South African film Five Fingers For Marseilles offers a startlingly different entry into the Western genre.
It tells the story of five childhood friends–Tau, Unathi, Luyanda, Bonging and Lerato–protect their colonial township of Marseilles, near the border of Lesotho, from oppressive forces. Together, they are the Five Fingers. But tragedy strikes when Tau takes things too far, and the Fingers are divided until Tau returns from prison, decades later.
Marseilles has fallen under control of “The Ghost”, a dangerous outsider who rules with an iron fist, unopposed by the jaded adults who used to be the Five Fingers. Met with cynicism and doubt, Tau must unite the town against The Ghost and bring he Five Fingers back together to save Marseilles.
A trailblazing original that pays tribute to the great Westerns that came before it, it is one of the most unique and beautiful-looking films of the year. Crucially, it is a distinctly African film that has plenty to say about the stagnation of South Africa following the end of Apartheid, a period that should have brought great change and prosperity, and the lasting scars of colonialism. The name of the town itself, Marseilles, is testament to that history.
Cinema Escapist sat down with Director Michael Matthews and Writer Sean Drummond, both of whom also produced the film through their Be Phat Motel Film Company together withAsger Hussain and Yaron Schwartzman from Game 7 Films, to talk about a film almost a decade a making. Among other things, they discuss how the story came to life during one epic journey across South Africa, the intricacies of creating a compelling villain, the process behind the film’s incredible music and the international response to the film on the festival circuit.
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Beyond a love of Westerns and wanting to create your own, where did the idea for the story come from?
Sean Drummond (SD): We were researching and road-tripping for another project, and just to get out and see some of [South Africa]. We’d always loved Westerns, and we were travelling through these landscapes that had this very epic, expansive Western feel, and finding these little towns, totally unexpectedly. We drove past this road sign for a town called Marseilles and thought it was so surreal that there was this town called Marseilles in South Africa that it demanded further exploration!
We went there and travelled around the Free State and the Eastern Cape, round the border of Lesotho, and found a whole bunch of these towns with European names that obviously had been [part of] this former Colonial [period, where] people had come and planted their flags to hark back to where they came from. It was such an interesting space, set into this landscape, that it just felt like a perfect place to set a Western.
The Western is always about the taken and the takers, [and this area] just felt like a good place to explore what happens to those who are taken from, and then why [they’re] given a chance to restart- almost like a new frontier. The townships attached to these old Colonial towns have now become towns in their own right. It’s a reversal of the idea of the frontier because it’s [all about] the people who were left behind.
Over the rest of the trip, we conceptualized the bones of the story about these guys who were kids in the town and fought against the oppressors, and then as there is a rebirth, they are the ones on the frontline of it. Then there were the political connotations of South Africa, and almost anywhere that has been oppressed and had to find itself [upon liberation], or been given a chance to free itself.
We did 5,000 miles around the country [on our research trip], visiting small towns, looking for locations to film, until we found (the town of) Lady Grey, which turned out to be the perfect location, and virtually everything in the film was shot within a 20 mile radius of the town.
Did you both, along with cinematographer Shaun Lee, see the setting as a stunning backdrop from the drama in the town, or more of a character in its own right? Would you call this film “Landscape Cinema”?
Michael Matthews (MM): It feels like a combination. We didn’t know exactly what we were looking for but knew exactly what we wanted. The starting point was when we found the town (Lady Grey), because of how it looks. We met the people living there, and got a sense of the town, and then wrote the script following our time there, and [discovered] its layout and a little bit of its history, and we visited all the surrounding locations and found interesting things like the abandoned tunnel and the train lines.
Those all fuelled the story a lot, and then [the film] became a lot about land, because there’s a lot of history to the land itself. The script developed from the location, infused with the outside Western archetypes. A lot of it came from working on the story in the actual [location].
As you developed this, were you inspired by any South African films and folklore? Did you look to the likes of Moustapha Alassane and his film The Return of the Adventurer?
SD: I’m not sure I’d say it was inspired by South African folk tales, it was inspired by a lot of history. So we would go into towns and chat to people about things that had happened there. [We heard] a lot of stories about how townships were formed and moved, and people had, in some cases, their houses burned down, because some communities wanted to move them so they could build dams or railway lines. Some of the poetry of [the film] almost definitely does come from the Sesotho culture and their relationship to the land, but I don’t know if there were specific stories or films that inspired us. A lot of the classic archetypes [in the film] come out of American Westerns, obviously, and old Samurai [movies].
MM: Not a lot of South African stuff, specifically. Some African films, but there was nothing we were watching going “I wanna try to do something like that”. We watched a lot of things we felt were thematically or tonally similar [to the kind of film we wanted to make], and watched a lot of Westerns so we felt we had that knowledge. Then we left a lot of that behind and just worked on the film trying not to take specific ideas from something, so it became its own kind of movie.
Something that not enough people are talking about is its blistering score by James Matthes, which is one of my favourite elements of the film!
MM: [The score] is incredible, to be honest. We thought it’d be one of the first things that people would bring up!
It’s something so inherent to the DNA of a Western! What was the discussion like between you to craft this music?
MM: It was a long development, because the project took seven or eight years to make, and we’ve worked with the same core team (including James) for ten years. Jamie had known about it for a while and had written temp stuff years earlier. Then as we got closer [to starting production] and it became much more real, and we were putting the work in, it was a question of “how do you make sure it’s not too Western?”, so it’s not copying any Western films.
If Morricone was going to do a South African Western, what would he do? He wouldn’t be using instrumentation from other things he’d done, he’d approach it as a very new thing!
But at the same time, Western music has got such a unique voice – how do you follow that without copying something else? Making sure it feels like it sits with the African continent, and that we’re not trying to make it sound like it’s taking place somewhere else. So we went around in circles, but it came down to [James] playing with a lot of different instruments and trying to get the combination of classical, strong score, but also [asking himself] “what instruments can we bring into it so it [sounds] original, and separate to things we’ve heard before?”
[James] came across a guy called Derek Gripper, who plays a one-string Viola in the same way that a lot of old African cultures used to, specifically the Khoisan culture, and he’s very good at recreating that [sound].
SD: One of the things Jamie did was coming to the location and recording a lot of stuff on the set, like an actual choir from the town, and took some big drums out to the [nearby] gorge and beat them, then recorded that. So a lot of the drum pulses in the score are actually from the landscape itself, and you feel that size and power. He went out of his way to capture the feel of the landscape. Jamie’s phenomenal- I think [the score] is a staggering work of genius.
Unlike many Westerns, you do a great job fleshing out your lead female character, Lerato (played by Zethu Dlomo)
SD: It’s tough, because the Western is traditionally such a male-dominated genre and we were really conscious of it. There was a lot of rewriting- in the first few drafts, Lerato’s character was a lot thinner than we wanted her to be. Obviously, such she’s an integral part of the story, so we got a lot of great feedback from female actors and collaborators, including out casting director. Zethu, who came very late to the project, just brought a real strength to the role, and depth and complexity, which really brought it to life even more than on the page.
I think it’s still such a male-dominated film, we can’t not acknowledge that, but we really wanted to make sure Lerato was a strong role, and hopefully we succeeded. If she’d just come across as a really weak vehicle for the [actions of the] men [that would have been a concern], but we’ve had some really great feedback about her.
The child actors are amazing! Can you tell us about the casting process involved there? I assume you needed to spend more time working with them than the adult actors?
MM: The kids were all from the town (Lady Grey). There’s lots of other smaller roles in the film- featured extras, cops, bar patrons- that were all cast from the town [as well], but otherwise it was an [established] South African cast except for the kids. We cast from a group of about 60 kids in the town. Sean worked a lot with them in pre-production and during shooting. The innocence of these kids is what really worked. It was risky and we were worried about [casting local children] – it’s a big call [to make when] they’re in 15 minutes of the film and they have to carry to entire front half!
SD: It must be crazy being a kid in a small town, and to get that opportunity [to act in a film]! Because the adult leads are all well-known South African actors, the kids must [have been] terrified to be playing the younger versions of their favourite stars. We watched them evolve over the course of the shoot from being very timid at the start to, by the end, being these confident, outgoing little stars! For better or for worse… we may have created monsters!
I think they’ll all go on to have great careers. They all wanted to be actors, the school they’re at is an acting academy, so they all had a basic desire and knowledge [beforehand]. They’d never done screen stuff before, but they’d done some stage [work], so we were able to work with that. They really threw themselves into it.
We did a lot of instinct exercises to try and get the theatricality out of them, that they’d get from working on stage, and create these characters from the inside out. I think it helped that they were all peers, and they could hang out day-to-day and develop a relationship like the Five Fingers have. You feel a lot of that genuine connection on screen.
Every good Western needs a great villain. I love how exaggeratedly evil Hamilton Dlamini’s Sepoko, “The Ghost”, was – that voice!
SD: The role on the page was so tough and complex, we knew we needed someone excellent to knock it out of the park. We [assembled] most of the original cast five years before shooting, when we first thought it was going to get made. [Hamilton] was one of the last people we cast. He’s best known (in South Africa) as a comedian, we weren’t sceptical [about casting him] but we struggled to imagine him in the role. But he auditioned and blew us away and we thought “there’s a presence here that’s hard to describe”.
Did you intentionally set out to create an archetype so wicked that our heroes and audience could unite in hatred of him? Or do you see him as far more layered and complex than that?
MM: What Hamilton had was a weight of character that came in and dominated everyone… his presence in the scenes he’s in outweighs everyone else, and that’s hard to find. He was written [as] a little bit more theatrical and full of life, like Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York, but we never found anyone who fit that [mold] properly. So changing direction, where the character is more internalised and feels solid and heavy by not moving much, resonated more and made the character work.
In terms of the complexity of the character, he was written as more complex than he is in the movie, in a way. We cut some scenes that made his character more complicated and easier to empathise with, because then you weren’t sure [whether he was a villain or not].
SD: We streamlined the complexity that was there on the page… but no villain is compelling unless they truly believe in what they’re doing. Anyone who’s bad for the sake of it is quite thin. “The Ghost” believes he has a divine calling, he thinks his purpose is to be a judge of man. He comes into the town because he sees all these broken people and he pushes them to confront their brokenness. He’s existing parallel to everyone else, an outcast in the same way as [our lead protagonist] Tau, and he’s made it his purpose to be a divine judge.
He makes a good point in the film- there’s a power vacuum in the town, and he’s there to exploit it because if he doesn’t, then someone else will.
SD: It’s partly that, and it’s partly the idea that he gets these guys to confront who they really are. There’s a satisfaction in Tau finally standing up to him- The Ghost recognises the true hero in Tau and keeps pushing him, which allows Tau to [recognise] that himself.
A character I particularly love is Dean Fourie’s Honest John. Was he intentionally there as comic relief, bringing lightness to proceedings? or is there more to him than that?
SD: He inverts that idea of the comedy sidekick and making it a white guy, we thought, makes a strong statement. [For example] in a classic Western, it’d be a Mexican [playing] the comedy sidekick.
If you look at the greater theme of the movie, [Marseilles] has never been free and it takes a new generation to fix it. The liberators often hold back from true liberation, which you see here [in South Africa] with the ANC (African National Congress, the party of Mandela who have been the dominant political power in South Africa since 1994). They lost sight of what the goal was – hope for a new generation without the baggage of the past – and a lot of White South Africans feel like Honest John, in this limbo and not knowing what their place is [in Post-Apartheid South Africa].
What Honest John realises in the movie is that his place is to join the fight alongside this new generation of Black South Africans who can carry the place forward. You don’t want to hit people over the head with the message, but it’s baked into the story and hopefully people respond to it. It’s about finding that within a comic relief character, who is one of the innocents of the story who has the least baggage [in amongst so many broken people]. He was written to be one of the hearts of the film.
Another element that works is the use of the Sesotho language; was there ever pressure to make it a primarily English-language film?
MM: It definitely made it more difficult to make the film, and there was a fair amount of pressure. There were points when we didn’t know if we’d get the film made, and we thought making it primarily English would let us fill roles with some well-known people who weren’t South African to help finance it. But we kept ourselves in check, including our American partners at Game 7 Films, who bought into the idea of keeping it authentic. It would have lost an integrity if we made it more English-language, and it becomes a different film.
I always thought you could make it more English-language if you made the film more over-the-top and fictional, like Sukiyaki Western Django, but we were trying to be a lot more real and honest to the place [that the film is set in]. If people were talking English, it just feels like something’s missing. We always felt the people who would want to watch this movie wouldn’t want to watch that version of it.
Being African and Foreign Language isn’t an easy sell in the marketplace, there’s no existing model for it where people are excited to see that [kind of film].
What do you hope people will take away from the film? Are you satisfied if they are simply entertained? Or do you think they’ll pick up on the subtext about Colonialism?
MM: People have picked up a lot more on the thematic stuff than we thought they would. It seems to be at the forefront of conversations about the film, less of the Western gimmick and more about the colonial themes in it, and what it’s trying to say about the cycle that’s continuing (of power vacuums and nothing really changing despite liberation), of where South Africa is and generally where global politics is at. It’s seemed to resonate with people quite a bit.
SD: We want people to be entertained, as well as aware of the issues presented. If all people get out of it is being entertained, then that’s great. But if people get more out of it, and they’re challenged and they ask questions, then even better. But I don’t think it’s a necessary criteria for whether people have enjoyed the movie or not. That’s the magic of cinema, you can affect people or you can entertain them, or both. The fact it’s had such a great response in the UK, in the US, in Busan, in Japan where it just sold, is so great because it says the themes are obviously transcending beyond Africa.
There are big niche audiences for Eastern Cinema and Scandinavian Cinema (for example), in places like the US, and there’s been less of a focus on African Cinema but I think that’s starting to change. There’s more African offerings on the festival circuit, and if that means we’re at the start of an up-trend towards [wider] recognition of African cinema, it’s a good thing. that goes back to your question about language, too. We fought hard for the Sesotho language because we knew it would set the film apart, rather than trying to film it in English and play Hollywood at its own game, which is a losing battle. It should be something that’s proudly African.
Five Fingers for Marseilles is on general release in South Africa on April 6th. It will be released in various territories worldwide later in 2018.