A Chat with Phillip Noyce, Director of Catch a Fire
by Roger Durling
Director Phillip Noyce continues his recent streak of historical dramas (Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American) by exploring the true story of Patrick Chamusso, a South African oil-refinery foreman wrongly accused of sabotaging his workplace in 1980 during apartheid. Its plotline allows Noyce, who also directed Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and Dead Calm, to apply his action-movie skills. And so Catch a Fire, which stars Derek Luke and Tim Robbins and is currently playing in Santa Barbara theaters, constantly keeps you guessing, even until the very end. I recently spoke with the director. What was it about the story of Patrick Chamusso that compelled you to film it? I’d always found that the South African experience is a beacon to the rest of the world in terms of conflict and resolution. There were prophecies of rivers of blood flowing in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and everywhere if ever black rule were come to pass. Not only did it not come to pass, but the country is even more prosperous and peaceful, in some ways, especially in one important aspect. After 400 years of divide and decades of apartheid, the last 10 years have been glorious in freedom but also forgiveness. I think they’ve shown the rest of the world how to do it like no one else has in the history of humankind. This story seemed to be of this one man, an ordinary man — not Mandela, not Tutu. An ordinary man seemed to encompass that whole lyrical story of South Africa.
This story happened 20 years ago, but it has an immediacy given current world affairs. I do think that if we look to the past, we can find a way to the present and the future. We weren’t thinking about today, but we were thinking about then. I was only thinking about today in terms of the ending of the movie.
I understand Patrick Chamusso was part of the production. Well, he advised us; he was directing sometimes, constantly telling Tim Robbins to be nastier; and telling the actors working as the bosses in the oil refinery scenes that they had to not treat the black workers like they’re in the rainbow nation, but try to remind them what it was like — well not remind them, tell them — because they were too young to know. And he was constantly on his cell phone talking to Derek Luke. So he had a big influence. It was his story. This is his version of his story, plus the police records and the records of his trial. But mainly this is his story as told by me, a messenger, with the help of a few hundred South Africans. How did people in South Africa feel about you telling the story? They were certainly receptive. We’ll probably see some interesting press when the film opens in February in South Africa because the issue of outsiders telling stories, of white people telling black stories, and so on, is a valid and important issue. All I can say is I tried to be the messenger and the storyteller, with all these people being channeled through my ability to say “action” and “cut.”
Can you talk about how the casting of Derek Luke came about? We were determined to cast a South African actor, but everyone said, “You should give the rest of the world a chance.” We searched in Nigeria. We searched in London. Finally, we came here, to Los Angeles. We brought some South Africans with us and Derek walked in and walked out about 10 minutes later, and there was just no one else who could play the part. His quiet strength, you know, just seemed to have that quality of a gentleman and yet of someone who had a flame lit in his belly and you just knew it would explode unless he would do something about the pain.
I had the pleasure talking to him at the Toronto Film Festival, and he mentioned visiting Nelson Mandela’s cell. I was afraid that he wasn’t going to be able to make the breakthrough, because it seemed that he was becoming burdened by the responsibility of it all — the accent, all the slang; officially, there’s 11 different languages in South Africa. It felt like he was going to drown. Then he went to the cell. And he spent a lot of time sitting in Mandela’s cell, and I really think something happened in there. Stuff went through him and he came out, and he was like coming out of prison; he was a new man. And from that moment on, he seemed to grip it all. I think something did happen in there and probably just because it was such a vital ingredient in the whole fantastic South African revolution — that cell, that prison.
One of the things I admire is that you give equal time to Tim Robbins’s character and his side of the story. Why was that important? I think it’s not interesting unless the so-called movie bad guy can be explicable. If we can identify why we would have done the same actions, no matter how heinous we think they are, then I think that’s a valid portrait of any character. Everyone has their reasons for doing something, whether it’s madness or sanity. And I think that this character, Nic Vos — whom I met — they all have their reasons, and I would say that no policewoman or policeman would start their career wanting only to serve, save, and protect.