SxSW 2021 Interview – GAIA director Jaco Bouwer and writer Tertius Kapp

GAIA is not about a loving earth mother. It’s a predestined purge that will make human history irrelevant – the flowers at the end of the anthropocene.

Having its World Premiere in the Midnighters Section at SxSW Online, we speak with GAIA director Jaco Bouwer and writer-slash-producer Tertius Kapp. 

Welcome to SxSW! Is this the first SxSW experience for both of you?

Tertius Kapp: It is. SXSW has been an event on our cultural radar for so long, it seems unreal to be part of it. Wish we could have been there in person too!

So let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on in the past!

TK: A long story! Jaco and my paths first crossed when he directed a play I wrote in 2011. The content was edgy, involving prison culture, politics, masculinity and sex, and many people were nervous to put it on stage. Rooiland went on to win most of the major awards, for all aspects of the production, and that really opened my mind to new possibilities. Some years later I was commissioned to write my first film, Dis ek, Anna, which also won a lot of awards, so I realised I should really consider this a full-time occupation. Some time later I started development on a supernatural TV series called Die Spreeus (The Starlings) and it seemed obvious to ask Jaco if he would direct it. Since then we’ve done a lot more TV work, together and independently. 

At one time, I became known as a writer who took on ‘rough’ topics, a situation that perpetuates itself. Another recent credit is Griekwastad, about an infamous family murder. It stars one of South Africa’s actors who made it in the US, Arnold Vosloo, especially known for his work in THE MUMMY.

Jaco Bouwer: My education was in theatre and I specialised in directing. I’ve had the privilege of working with very talented writers and other theatre makers alike over the years. My transition to film was via television. I find feature film closer to theatre whereas tv can be so fragmented at times. Although I’ve done quite a lot of television series and films made for tv Gaia is my first feature film. So for me it somehow feels only the beginning of my film career which excites me a lot.

How did GAIA come together?

JB: For me there were some parameters that set the foundation of the project, we wanted to explore the horror genre, nature being the main location and character, essentially a chamber piece of 3 characters, initially we spoke about taking a simple parable or myth and building on that. We were both attracted to the Abrahamic tale of the binding, the sacrifice of  his son Isaac, and from there many drafts later there was Gaia.

TK: On Gaia, we decided to take the step up to producing our own work (the producers are also respectively the writer, cinematographer and director). While filming the TV series Die Spreeus, we had a discussion about the way forward in our careers, and we decided we were able to empower ourselves if we were all prepared to invest the time and energy to create something of value. 

Obviously, the first person who would have to believe enough in the project to get it going, is the writer. So that put some pressure on me. I cleared time out of my calendar and started researching, reading everything I could about new discoveries in biology, mycology and ecology.  I have some background in archaeology, and its implications for philosophy and psychology are quite compelling. But I was amazed at all the recent discoveries that I could never have dreamt of, including ideas around distributed forms of intelligence and fungal networks.

So when we had a script we were more or less happy with, we started putting together the team, much the same as the one who made Die Spreeus, known in our circles as The Dream Team.

We had to work out a pretty complex structure of financing, which is designed to empower the crew. Our partnership with kykNET Films was key there.  Location scouting was fun, as I had been going to the area for holidays since I was born. Production meetings were held at people’s homes or coffee shops, all very DIY.  When it came to shooting, we moved into a massive manor house at Forest Hall, and shot in the surrounding forests. Until, however, we had to pull the plug as we were going into lockdown. Six months later, with a lot of wrangling, begging and stubborn grit in between, we managed to return and finish up. I still remember the relief as we wrapped, knowing that once in post, the virus couldn’t stop us. 

We were also fortunate that the post team, headed up by Leon Visser, him and Jaco Bouwer/director were so motivated that they cut a sizzle reel during our hiatus. That meant we could start shopping around so long, in the middle of our shoot. So when we were finally done, XYZ were on board and we entered for the major film festivals. And here we are – about a year and a half after I started writing, and well beyond our expectations. 

What keeps you going while making a project? What drives you?

TK: Even when we are struggling to make something work, there are always flashes of brilliance, of what it could be. It may take some irrational behaviour, but if you focus on those breakthroughs, and believe that they will keep coming, then they do. Of course you run a risk of chasing windmills, but if you’re into the work and not distracted by the peripheral things that come with it, the chances of it working out are much better.

JB: Deadlines and dates! I think it’s my cast and crew, we inspire and feed off each other. But sometimes it’s just an image or a feeling that I would like to capture or share with an audience, and this search to find it or communicate it drives me.

What was your biggest challenge and what was the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

TK: I touch on it above. The biggest challenge was, after us taking the big responsibility to produce our own work with all the risks it entails, and doing it in a way that really benefits the crew, to then be tripped by a mysterious virus. It was just unreal. In those anxious moments before the announcement came through, there were some heavy words spoken about what our plan was. My only response was “I have no plan for a global pandemic.”  So that moment was  a real test of character for the whole collective. The most rewarding moment is an easy one; wrapping the shoot, knowing we were safe, and obviously being accepted into SXSW.

JB: Not knowing if we would be able to finish the film. When Covid lockdown was announced we had only half a movie in the can. Not knowing where the pandemic would go and then 3 months later trying to juggle availabilities, considering a reshoot with a new cast etc. Due to covid some of our “epic” forest locations that formed part of National Parks fell through so we had to find new locations on private forest. But mainly for me was to keep the performances consistent which were now stretched out over more than 3 months break in-between. 

I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the visual design of the movie and how GAIA was made from a visual perspective!

JB: We shot on ARRI Alexa Mini. ArriRaw OpenGate 3.4K. Sony Zeiss Compact Prime lenses. We mostly used 25mm and 35mm, there are moments on 50mm as well. Then we also used a 100mm macro lens for macro shots and extreme closeups.

From the early location scouts we did I felt that there is so much verticality in the forest and to try capturing it I felt we should use a different aspect ratio. Not just to capture the height of the trees but also a “narrower” frame to create a sense of claustrophobia. So less negative space to create a certain oppression on the characters surrounded by forest. It is very subtle but there are actually 4 different aspect ratios used in the film to subliminally guide the viewer through the arc of the movie. 16:9 in the beginning, then most of the movie in 1.55 ratio, then “underscoring” the buildup to the climax it changes slowly over a few minutes to 4:3 and then the epilogue in 2:1.

I felt it necessary to try to portray father and son living in the forest in isolation for ten years as authentic as possible. After many meetings with my production designer and wardrobe we felt it necessary to explore that everything our 2 characters in the forest used and would wear must be handmade. So all their utensils and hunting equipment were handmade, as well as the clothing and garments they wore were also hand stitched, woven or knitted. 

I attempted a stripped-down exercise in cinematic exposition. To avoid the horror genre’s shaky-cam clichés, but to approach the tale in a more classical visual style. Lengthy still frames call on the sublime and the slowly encroaching abject, taking visual inspiration from Brueghel, Goya and images of the Old Testament.

We were inspired by seldom observed parts of nature. The carpenter ant, for example, becomes infected by the “zombie ant fungus” of the genus Ophiocordyceps. Inserting itself into the ant, the fungus takes over its autonomy, hijacking its central nervous system to force it to lock its jaws on a plant, while the fungus grows a spore-releasing stalk from the ant’s head, replicating itself into the ant colony, reproducing exponentially. We found this combination of animal and plant inspiring in our research and portrayal of Gaia. 

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW Online?

TK: We’ve done some work for streaming platforms etc, but it’s the first time we get to share our work on such an international platform. The most exciting aspect of that is finding your audience, the peers spread all over the world who will resonate with your work. Out of that we expect to form productive new collaborations which should open up possibilities that were not available before.

Clearly this is such a different time with virtual festivals and online screenings. How do you feel about releasing movies in this current format and how do you feel audiences will see most films in the future?

TK: One misses the potential for chance interactions – often they lead to great creative shares that then create new opportunities. But on the other hand, getting used to a space where physical presence is not a necessity does make it possible to get access to people and places that otherwise would not have been physically possible. 

I do believe we’ll go back to red carpets and fancy dresses in a way, but I hope we don’t lose the virtual element either. Being in two places at the same time seems to be part of the future anyhow

Where is the movie going next? More festivals or a selective release?

TK: Our sales agents, XYZ, are putting together a festival strategy, but we are also very happy to have a distribution deal with Decal and Neon, so this is being determined in collaboration with them. 

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or work in the business. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into filmmaking, especially now as things are evolving at such a fast rate?

TK: I have most experience in writing, so I’ll speak to that. What ends up on the page is the tip of the iceberg so don’t expect people to understand that. 

JB: It’s not the healthiest practise but I need to totally immerse myself in a project. I approach each project with all I’ve got, as if it’s the last one I’ll do. 

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

TK: That’s tough, we’re a bit more limited in the festivals we get to attend. I do have a vivid memory of seeing MULHOLLAND DRIVE about 20 years ago at a local arts festival. Like the rest of the audience, I think I’m still processing.

JB: Yes locally we don’t have the same access to film festivals like in other parts of the world but I was at IFFR in 2009 and saw the premiere of Ming-liang Tsai’s film VISAGE, and since then I’m a huge fan.

This film and many others like it will be showing at the virtual South By Southwest taking place March 16-20th. For more information and to register for the festival, point your browser to!

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