Anton Burggraaf

Spud is a movie to watch for a many reasons. It’s the first time that an English-language feature has had this much local attention, from the media and public alike – including a ready-made phalanx of die-hard fans of the original book. Many are hoping for a success approaching that of Leon Schuster. It’s time, isn’t it? It’s also the first time a local film has had this much money thrown at it, with a budget rumoured even a year ago at over R30-million. And with a universal story, a stuffy colonial setting, cute schoolboy coming-of-age antics and a renowned British star in the cast, perhaps even international success?

Judging by the film’s opening weekend box office results, we may see something delivered on those promises. Spud grossed R2.9-million between Friday and Sunday evening, 3 to 5 December, which is nothing short of remarkable. Heather Vorster of Nu Metro publicity says it’s an enormous success for a local film, simply because it’s the highest grossing opening weekend for a South African film outside of only four Schuster titles. The film was released countrywide with 83 prints. In comparison, Schuster’s most recent film Schuks Tshabalala’s Survival Guide to South Africa (2010), opened with 110 prints and earned R3.5-million on the opening weekend.

But why should we be so concerned about the money?

Because, quite simply, a sustainable mainstream industry needs feet through the cinema door as much as it needs vision and talented people to make its films. International product is historically much easier to sell and only niche local films have made it big. Local releases through the mainstream distributors have limited success at the box office unless you are Schuster, and more recently, Danie Bester – whose Afrikaans-language films are steadily growing a popular base. If home-grown genres, or brands (like Spud), can be successfully exploited and can gain an audience, we may see a much more robust industry produce more local work – work that is self-funding instead of investor sponsored, work that ups the quotient of quality product and work that has international legs.

That Spud is a movie playing in the big league is not happenstance; the film has been some years in the making. Ross Garland, producer, and John van de Ruit, author of the book on which the film is based, are long-time friends. They began a discussion when the first Spud book started making the bestseller lists, and when sales began to prompt talk of a sequel, but it was when the book started doing well internationally that their talk got serious.

Watch speeches from the Spud premiere in at Montecasino Fourways, Johannesburg, on 3 December 2010:

For Garland – who has a track record with Rogue Star Films of relatively diverse projects – Spud also presented an opportunity to leverage a rock-solid brand. His previous films, barring perhaps the superlative U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005), have not had the same ready-made appeal for notoriously unadventurous local film audiences. For Garland it is the dire absence of market-ready projects that made the idea of Spud so attractive to him. “We don’t have a lot of original screenplays hanging around. Spud was an opportunity to take the book fan base into the movies.”

Garland is thrilled at the first weekend’s box office triumph. “I was nervy coming into this weekend,” he said. “It is uncharted territory. If we had pulled R2-million it would have been a good shot as a start – and this is a third higher than Nu Metro expected.” While chuffed, he remains cautious and is loath to predict where things may go. “We’ll let it run for another weekend or two, to see if the pattern holds.” Vorster is equally cautious: “It’s hard to tell where this will go. December always throws the formulas out, because people have disposable income.”

But it’s pretty clear that if the pattern does hold, then Garland and company are in for a very happy (and productive) new year.

That Spud is part of an impressive upswing in local content generation is not in doubt. We have seen the emergence of self-funded indy films, brand films, and medium-size producers exploiting niche markets. It’s all in all an exciting time to be riding the wave.

Garland agrees that there has been a vast improvement in delivering quality film to the market. “If you look back, there’s been a significant jump from five to seven years ago. I think Danie [Bester] has done amazing stuff and it feels like its paying off now, but I think it’s been building incrementally since 2006. His stuff is very different to the Willie Esterhuizen brand Poena Is Koning (2007) and it’s the product of film school. It gives so much more confidence to the industry that this is happening now.”

But Spud is really in another league, if only because of its budget. Garland remains tight-lipped about exactly how much the movie cost, but dismisses rumours that it was as much as R40-million. “It’s a big, big budget for a South African film, that’s true. It’s a good budget.”

There some thought behind the budget: with the possibility of Spud doing well in the US teen market, Garland and fellow producer Brad Logan decided to seriously consider more weighty numbers. “I think everybody agrees how impressive District 9 (2009) was and it cost US$30-million. The filmmakers clearly said to themselves: this is what we can make. No one suggested making it for less. If they had made District 9 for US$3-million it wouldn’t have been the same film. So I thought, if you are ever going to take a punt at a local film and this is the one then this is how we can make it.

“I’ve made smaller films for much, much less. I’m a big fan of low-budget films. We are doing one at the moment.” Here Garland is referring to 31 Million Reasons, currently in production. So in the case of Spud it’s really about owning up to the possibilities, and being frank about production needs – and about economies of scale.

But will the film do well overseas?

“Over 90% of stuff here does not travel so you can never go into it with too much expectation,” says Garland. “But we have the sales agent for Tsotsi (2005) working with us in the US so that will help. I’ve been through this before with U-Carmen eKhayelitsha. We’ll be at the European film market in February next year.”

For his filmmaking compatriots, Garland has nothing but praise. He did not know director Donovan Marsh who cold-called him to say he was the right man for the job. Garland had taken note of Marsh’s Dollars and White Pipes (2005). “When he called me I gave him a hard time. But then I watched Dollars again and it was good writing. I was debating a few options but I took a punt with Donovan.” On the scripting, Garland says it was “very much a stumble-through”.

Because the Spud books are written in diary format, they contain no ready-made dialogue that a scriptwriter can tweak for a fast-track first draft. And with this undeveloped source material, the filmmakers were also not sure about ditching the narration altogether – in one incarnation they did, only to go back to the voice-over narration. In the end they felt the narration had to stay to honour the spirit of the book.

How profitable the film will be and if it will travel will be revealed in January. Only then is anyone likely to make a sober decision about whether this is a valuable filmmaking model and whether the next Spud book is destined to for the bug screen. “And before everyone turns 21!” Garland quips.

But how has the film itself been received? Reviews have been varied, from lukewarm to over-enthusiastic. Shaun de Waal of the Mail and Guardian found it “a slight comedy, larded with cute sentiment” and “reasonably well made”. Barry Ronge wrote in the Sunday Times that it was a “wonderful film: hilarious, serious and, above all, hopeful … a great movie, beautifully filmed and acted”.

Whatever your view, ardent fans of the book will no doubt delight in seeing their favourite characters spring to life, and they will surely go in numbers. With this many advocates, many more converts will doubtless join. That may very well be at the heart of the matter and may prove the astuteness of Garland and company.

On the film-versus-book debate, the last word must go to the Spud author, John van der Ruit, who blogs on the Penguin website. He laments at the frequency with which he is asked about to compare the movie with the book:

“A nasty catch-22 for any author as one is cordially invited either to slag off your own work, or the movie based on that work, with little hope of evading the question in anything less than an afternoon’s worth of explanation. This repeated question naturally inspired some pondering about the point; why is it that people are almost instinctively wired to compare a film to its source material? How can the experience of reading something for days/weeks be equated with that of viewing something else for 100 minutes? It is the equivalent of asking, “Which is more enjoyable, five days in Bali or two hours in Paris?”

Hmm. Two hours in Paris?