Writer/director Bronwen Hughes on the South Africa set of Stander
If writer/director Bronwen Hughes’ career has taught us anything, it’s that there’s only one place an aspiring auteur can go after being personally invited by Steven Spielberg to make movies for his studio: straight to the top! But don’t try to categorize her just yet…
After trying her hand at kid’s films (Harriet the Spy) and romantic comedies (Forces of Nature), these days Hughes seems more interested in combining her new career as a moviemaker with the one she originally envisioned herself having as a journalist. She’s got a number of true stories on her development slate, the first of which will be this August’s Stander, starring Thomas Jane. Like Hughes herself, the character at the center of her latest picture is not easily definable: Andre Stander was a celebrated cop who also happened to be one of the country’s most notorious bank robbers. After being arrested and imprisoned, he breaks out and going on a crime spree. Add to that the political backdrop of apartheid and you get one hell of a true story that manages to effectively be a great action-political-historical-romantic film all at one.
In an interview with MM, Hughes spoke about that memorable meeting with Spielberg and why for her, interesting real people beat interesting fictional characters any day.
Jennifer Wood (MM): I guess the first question is just how you got started as a moviemaker? Is it something you had always wanted to do?
Bronwen Hughes (BH): No, I meant to be a journalist, and I think that explains why most of the projects on my slate right now are all based on true stories—including Stander, of course. I thought I was going to be a journalist, but I always took photographs. So when it came time to choose a university, the journalism school (I’m from Canada) just wasn’t a place I wanted to be for four years. So I decided to do a fun degree, like film and photography—thinking I would go back for a master’s in journalism. But I got sidetracked.
MM: I read that, after Harriet the Spy was released, Steven Spielberg called you to meet him on the set of Jurassic Park to get you to work with him.
BH: That’s the kind of day that just doesn’t happen to most people. [laughing] That was just an amazing day. When Steven Spielberg calls you, it’s a two-step process: you get the call from the assistant to say “It’s Steven Spielberg’s office calling and we’d just like to know if you’re available for a call with Steven in 20 minutes.” So, of course….
MM: You’re always available in 20 minutes!
BH: You stop everything and you sit there and you stare at the phone for 20 minutes, wondering what is going to be said. But Steven was amazing. He called me to come to the set where he was shooting Jurassic Park II and he drove me around in his golf cart and paid me incredible compliments and said “You know, I think you have a vision. I can see a vision in this film and I’d love you to make films for Dreamworks.” I don’t think, to this day, I have formed an entire cohesive sentence in Steven’s presence—that day included. But I said, ‘Well, yeah, okay.’
You know, it’s a crazy thing, because he and Walter Parkes of Dreamworks started sending scripts for my consideration and I said no several times! And it’s kind of like you’re unemployed, you don’t know if the phone will ever ring again and you’re saying no to Steven Spielberg! You have this vision of waking up as an old lady, in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, saying ‘I could have worked with Steven Spielberg!’
MM: But you eventually made Forces of Nature for Dreamworks?
BH: When I read Forces of Nature, I found something in there that I thought I could do a good job with.
MM: So you obviously must have something very specific in mind as to the kind of films that you want to make. What is it that appeals to you about a story to make you want to spend a year or more of your life telling it?
BH: I never meant to be specifically a kid’s film director, although it’s been very rewarding. All the letters I get from young kids who’ve seen Harriet the Spy and say “I want to be a writer.” So I never meant to do that primarily. Nor did I mean to be a romantic-comedy director primarily. But in the early days, I had a very specific ideas on what kinds of films I should be making—female leads, whatever. And it’s just such an impossible industry that you cannot manage your career with that narrow a field of view.
So I sort of abandoned a strategic approach to choosing projects and it’s really much more of a gut thing. If I read a script and I can’t stop thinking about it or I am happy to wake up every day thinking about getting deeply into what makes the man or what makes the character or why the scenes are the way they are. If there’s something about it that’s so compelling, that it’s not dismissed like dessert, then I know that it’s something I want to be a part of. That’s a wide-open definition that includes every kind of genre. As I do respond to scripts and take them on there’s kind of a pattern of extraordinary characters. I think I am much more interested in people who do extraordinary things—on the right or the wrong side of the law. There’s some kind of inspiration in someone who will go out on a limb like that.
MM: How did you first learn about the story of Andre Stander?
BH: It came in a pack of scripts that get proposed from my agent’s office. And I didn’t know a thing about it and the title didn’t mean anything—I didn’t know who he was or what the name was. So I started reading, like I did with every script in the pile. But by page 10 the riot scene had happened and I was agog—my jaw had dropped. I thought this was an unbelievable challenge for a filmmaker, and an unbelievable situation. And then he robbed the bank, so it’s like ‘Wait a minute, it’s not an apartheid movie; it’s a bank-robbing movie!’ Every turn of the page in the script was a complete surprise, and I’d never read anything like that before. It was kind of like a journey to read the script and I thought if making it is anything like the wild ride of reading the script it will be really something to be a part of.
MM: And you shot it all in South Africa, right?
BH: Yes. Even Florida, we shot in South Africa.
MM: What was that experience like? Were you welcomed into the community?
BH: It was a life-changing experience, for sure. A few things, though: there were wide open doors for cooperation because South Africa is really trying to encourage film production. So we had the help of the government and the help of the South African police. We shot in real-life locations, like the courtroom where both Stander and Nelson Mandela were sentenced; we shot in Stander’s real maximum-security jail cell. The crew was really dying to work on a story that was their own, so that was fantastic. There was always an undercurrent of “Damn Yankees coming in to steal our story,” though there was only one American on the entire production, who was Thomas Jane. So that was amazing.
But the country itself… It’s funny, I was having this conversation the other day with the production designer. We keep having these conversations with people where they ask “So what was South Africa like?” and we say ‘Oh, it’s like the Wild West—home invasions and car-jackings. The first day on the set, the camera operator was late because he arrived having shot a man dead between the eyes on the way to work.’ And people go “What?? Why would you ever want to go there?”
So then you have to explain what it is about the country that is so beautiful. Well, it’s a beautiful country—there’s no question that it’s physically beautiful. And there’s an incredible spirit in the transition that’s taking place. When we were there it was eight years since the end of apartheid—10 years since the end of it now. And there were enormous transitional problems. People didn’t get rich and have a Cadillac in their driveway the very next day after Mandela came into power, which shocks a lot of people—the idea that change doesn’t come as fast as they want. But there is this overwhelming sense of hope and spirit and just a positivity. There’s just an incredible optimism in people who have lived in these conditions; you don’t understand how these people can be so hopeful and yet they are, and that impresses and invades your senses. You just think anything is possible.
MM: How long a shoot was it?
BH: Well, it was a 69-day shoot schedule, although I spent—between the pre-scouting, the shoot and then returning for looping and the premiere—I spent a total of 10 months in South Africa. I travel so much that I actually spent longer in Johannesburg than I’ve spent anywhere for years!
MM: You mentioned it being a national story, and it is. What sort of responsibility did you feel to getting it right, and how did you go about making sure that happened?
BH: It was a big deal. When I first got the script, I thought in dramatic structure terms, or how I want to cover this and what kind of equipment we need. It’s like a dramatic exercise—it’s a filmmaking exercise—and you start honing in on exactly what you think it should be. Then I got off the plane in South Africa and everything changed. It was like twofold research: there was the research of Andre Stander himself, and I met as many people as I could who had known him. We talked to people who had never been interviewed for any sort of newspaper article or anything, so now I was talking to people who knew better than I knew and I realized that a lot of the original script that had been given to me had been written from newspaper articles. The press in South Africa, which was owned by the government, was so biased—so tabloidly—not in the slightest bit interested in a balanced or sympathetic portrait of the guy that was making them look bad. So when I got on the ground and met these people, they described a man who was totally different.
The revelation on the characters was to meet Allen Hale—to find out that he was still alive and serving a 33-year prison sentence—and nobody in the development of the script had gone to see him. So I weaseled my way into the prison—because you just don’t show up and say ‘Hey, I’m from Hollywood’—and said I was going to do a psychological analysis. So he met with me, reluctantly at first. But then he must have sensed the sincerity in my wanting to know the truth and he started opening up and he was a goldmine. He told me everything: how they did what they did, what they said while they were doing it, what the bank tellers said to them when they were being robbed, funny stories, how they went about it and what it felt like. It changed everything. I thought I was meeting these flashy bank robbers and turned out to be something so much different from that—something so much more political than the action movie I’d first been given—and that changed everything.
MM: So how much of the script did you change at that point?
BH: I did an enormous amount of writing. The major plot points of the script remained intact, because those were well-known: he was a cop turned bank robber who was arrested who busted out of jail and went on a spree. Those main plot points remained the same but what changed radically were the characterizations and the tone of the film. Like I said, it went from being a bad-ass, lowlife bank robber movie where they hung out in motels and trailer parks and sprayed bullets and did robberies like “Get down on the floor, motherfucker!” It went from that to being these gentlemen robbers who took great delight in pushing the limits, upping the ante and getting away with more and more audacious ways of making the police look bad.
MM: Andre Stander’s life is really a complete contradiction: while at the same time he’s a celebrated cop, he’s also one of the country’s most notorious bank robbers. How did you work with Thomas Jane to help create a character that could slip so easily from the role of police officer to loving husband to bank robber, etc.?
BH: We had nonstop conversations. Even while he was on the set of Dreamcatcher, up in the frozen arctic North, he was working on his South African accent and thinking about it. He was really throwing himself into it as early as he possibly could.
Andre Stander was the ultimate chameleon and Thomas, of all the actors that I considered for the role, could do that so well and with great conviction. Thomas couldn’t come to South Africa as soon as he would have liked, but I was there, so I would transcribe every conversation I would have with the people who knew Andre Stander and let him know everything I knew. There were so many contradictions in what people said about Andre. And at first I thought they’re all lying and they don’t really know this guy at all and they’re just trying to get on the bandwagon of a movie or something. But then I realized that that is in fact the truth of Andre Stander: he is whatever he needs to be to get along in any given situation, which made him a great undercover cop.
Thomas was up for that and the thing that Thomas needed to play at all times through the movie was the two levels of things going on: while he is a swaggering gang leader, he is also so tortured inside at having crossed a line that he can never cross back and how the things he loves are slipping through his fingers, never to be retrieved. So the great acting challenge was to constantly play those two opposing forces in most scenes and that’s what Thomas can do. He’s a real actor; that’s what a real actor can do. He can say one thing, but mean another.
MM: You had mentioned before that when you were first envisioning your career and the kind of movies you wanted to do, you wanted to have a strong female character‚which was an interesting part of this film. Stander’s wife was really a very strong and powerful figure in the story. Was that part of your writing process—to make sure that there was that role?
BH: You know what, thank you very much for noticing. I’m going to take full credit for rewriting the wife because the original role was much more about this loving wife who was there for him no matter how he fucked her over. And just couldn’t wait to have sex with him over and over again.
Yes, I completely rewrote the wife in two ways: one was the idea that he makes a great promise to her at the beginning of the movie, when he marries her for the second time. He promises that she will be in his mind no matter where he finds himself; that they will be open with one another and this is the vow they make. And then, of course, in a very short time, he is leading a completely double life and she is the very last person to know. To me, this is so offensive that a wife would not forgive him so readily, but would be pissed. So, although she deeply loves him, she is not going to fold and not going to be a complete pushover.
MM: What’s interesting is the social message in the film—and the fact that it’s because of the apartheid crisis that he even begins doing this. The film really proves that it’s difficult—and erroneous—to just put a label on someone as a good guy or a bad guy yet, in Hollywood, people seem to want to do that with every film and every character. How do you describe this character and what do you hope people will take away from the film?
BH: You kind of sense that things are not always what they seem… From the film, there’s enormous debate around the character of Andre Stander with people—and the riot scene gets a lot of attention. I heard one spontaneous discussion erupt, where these people started discussing how ineffective it is, through history, when a government sends in a military force to impose peace on a people. It never works and yet they keep doing it. And so that, to me, is the takeaway: it didn’t work then! You bring in guns to impose peace—it’s kind of a contradiction. [laughs] So I would love discussion to come up on that kind of thinking.
As for Andre Stander: ultimately, it’s a cautionary tale because he gets his comeuppance. But to me, I don’t believe Andre Stander thought the whole thing through from the beginning. But having done it once, he gets a sort of buzz out of it and realizes he has crossed the line. So he does it again, and again and keeps going. Oce he’s on that spiral, he can’t come back. So in the end, it’s kind of an enormous sadness and nothing has or could replace the emptiness he feels. So I guess just consider the lines you cross.