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Last week, UCLA Extension screened the Oscar-nominated South African film “Tsotsi” as part of its popular Sneak Preview series. While the film more than meets the artistic criteria for such a screening, it holds special significance for UCLA Extension: The film’s writer/director, Gavin Hood, earned a certificate in Film, Television and Video from the school’s Entertainment Studies and Performing Arts Department (ESPA) in 1992.

“Tsotsi” (South African English slang for “gangster”) traces six days in the life of a young gang leader in the Johannesburg shantytown of Soweto as he cares for a baby he’s inadvertently kidnapped during a carjacking. While uniquely South African in context, “Tsotsi” explores universal themes of violence, poverty, memory and self-fashioning.

Before attending UCLA Extension, Hood had graduated in 1988 from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg with a law degree. “It’s not like I was a lawyer and then became a filmmaker,” he explains in a soft South African timbre. “I was an actor and very keen stills photographer and my parents had been actors when they were younger. But South Africa’s film industry was very, very small, and it almost seemed unrealistic to pursue a career in film at home … There was, at the time, only one film school [in South Africa]

“I managed to last for 4 months as a lawyer in the real world before I left and started working in theater as an actor. It was tough at first but I managed to get a break … I got a role in a South African television series where I first began to really learn about working in film.

“At a certain point I thought, well, if I want to take this career very seriously I should go to a place where I can really study screenwriting and directing … I would love to come to Los Angeles and go to a really good film school. Maybe it was the fact that I’d had an academic education,  but I felt like I was ‘busking’ a little bit in the film business because I hadn’t been properly trained.

“What I liked about the Extension program was, since I was already in my late 20s, I wasn’t sure I could go to a full-time program with people just out of high school.  And the Extension program was very appealing because it catered to people of all ages and many different disciplines and I felt I might gain a lot – and indeed I did as it turned out – from taking classes with people who were already established in other disciplines.

“It was a great environment where you learned not only from the lecturers – who in the Extension program were people who worked in film – but also from the people in your class because of the experience they had in other fields … In writing classes you would find actors, directors and cinematographers, and similarly in all the other classes.”

Hood’s was a 2-year course of evening and weekend classes (UCLA Extension is designed for working adults) held mostly on UCLA’s Westwood campus.

“It was a really good mixture of theory and hands-on experience,” he recalls. “The cinematography classes started off with all theory and then there were more practical classes including programs where you actually filmed a scene and where each person in the class worked in a different capacity: as the camera operator, as the lighting person, as the grip. Everybody on that particular course brought a scene they directed – brought in their actors and directed – and on their shoot they were director and everybody else filled in the other positions. “The follow-up cinematography class in those days was sponsored by Panavision, so we would go down to studios and we would have all of Panavision’s gear – lighting and camera equipment … We had such great gear that our lecturer said, ‘Enjoy this, because this might be the last time you get any kind of gear you want.’  Certainly when I started working professionally I didn’t have remote-control zoom lenses on Panavision cameras … in fact it took me until I got my first feature to get to work with that type of gear again.”

After graduating, Hood returned to South Africa in 1993 and took a job writing and directing educational dramas (on Betacam videotape) for the Department of Health, working in the shantytowns of the townships making programs centered around issues like HIV/AIDS, teenage prostitution and child abuse. These won him an Artes Award (the South African equivalent of an Emmy) for “Best Contribution to Educational Programs.” 

Hood was then able to realize the making of his own short, “The Storekeeper.” Set in rural South Africa, “The Storekeeper” is a about a shop owner who is repeatedly robbed by a thief. The two characters never actually meet, so there’sno dialogue, yet it succeeds as a narrative.

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This was in the pre-digital era. “It’s shot on 35mm film using the smallest, cheapest 35mm camera we could find!” Hood laughs. “But I was determined to shoot it on 35mm film because one of the obstacles that I was finding to getting my first feature film made was that I’d only worked in educational television on videotape.

“That film began to win awards at various festivals including a Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival, and then it won the Grand Prize at the Melbourne International Film Festival in Australia, which qualified it for Academy Award consideration in 1998.”

Though “The Storekeeper” didn’t make the Final Five for the Oscars, it garnered enough attention to enable Hood to make his first feature film. The screenplay he’d written while at UCLA Extension, “A Reasonable Man,” was picked up by British Screen, a UK organization aimed at nurturing young writing talent (Hood has dual British/South African nationality).

“My teacher in the program in screenwriting [at UCLA Extension] was a man called Stan Chervin, and I’m hugely indebted to Stan for his encouragement when I was writing that film as a student.”

“A Reasonable Man” was shot in 4 weeks, for  $1 million, with Hood playing a young lawyer and Nigel Hawthorn (“The Madness of King George”) playing the judge. Though not released in the U.S., “A Reasonable Man” sold to TV across Europe and in Australia and got a good review in Variety, which also named Hood as one of its “10 Directors to Watch” in 2000. All this Stateside recognition enabled Hood to apply for a fast-track green card and start dividing his time between L.A. and South Africa.

Meanwhile, bizarrely, he directed a Polish film, “In Desert and Wilderness,” which was shot in Africa. Though Hood speaks no Polish, his experience of conveying stories without (or with minimal) dialogue stood him in good stead, as did his acting training.

“I also took a lot of classes with a wonderful acting teacher, Eric Kline, at the Film Actor’s Workshop [in Los Angeles] and the performance techniques of Eric … it’s not really about giving an actor a line reading, it’s about helping the actor find what the emotion is beneath the scene and helping the actor focus on the other actor – so that your line comes as a genuine response to what you’re receiving from the other actor, not just in terms of the line, but the body language, the emotion and everything else that’s floating underneath the line and between lines … that technique was very useful and now I feel comfortable working on films in a language other than English.”

“[In Desert and Wilderness] was an opportunity to shoot on a bigger budget – $4.5 million – on Super 35mm cameras, wide-screen, with an epic story involving elephants and camels and young children trying to find their way back to their parents across the continent of Africa.”

Though Hood wrote Tsotsi’s screenplay in English, the film’s dialogue is delivered in Tsotsi-Taal (“gangster-speak”) – an informal mixture of a number of South Africa’s 11 official languages found in the townships.

“I kept the dialogue to a minimum – I think the lead character only says two words of dialogue in the first 20 minutes. So a lot of the story is told visually … really the universal language of cinema is emotion and emotional beats.

“I really enjoy being able to make films that are focused on what we have in common as people, which is our emotional response to one another and to situations … in “Tsotsi” it’s a young man who’s lost his mother at an early age and he’s struggling to take care of himself in a pretty difficult environment and he hides behind a mask of anger. That story could actually be set in Moscow, or South Central L.A. or in Mexico City.”

Before making the film, Hood re-enrolled at UCLA Extension’s ESPA for a quarter. “Just to take a single class in visual-effects cinematography,” he explains.  “Because it was one area that I hadn’t taken in my [original] course and, although “Tsotsi” appears to be a film with minimal visual effects, actually there are quite a few – the ants on the baby’s face, for example.

“Also, I did a digital intermediate process where we were able to further work the visual look of the film in post-production.  We scanned the 35mm film into computers and then, using a program called Discreet Lustre – which is essentially like Photoshop for motion pictures – we were able to further enhance and work the look of the film.

“Whenever I feel an insecurity in a certain area of filmmaking, there’s a course on offer at UCLA Extension – in this particular case, visual effects.  I have no intention of becoming a visual effects supervisor, but as a film director you want to be able to understand as much as possible about what is possible in various fields … UCLA Extension gave me the vocabulary, if you will, to have a more informed discussion with other specialists in that field.  UCLA Extension gave me the confidence to go out and build a film career. Whenever I feel insecure I have, and will, go back and take another class.”

[

So Hood’s understandably proud to be returning to UCLA Extension to discuss his movie at its Sneak Preview screening.  “There’s something very exciting about feeling that an institution that gave you the confidence to go out into the world and make films is inviting you back when you’ve been able to go and implement what you learned.

“I feel proud and excited and thankful to UCLA Extension for welcoming me back.  It’s affirming, I think, for UCLA Extension and affirming for me to feel that I delivered on what they taught me … As a student you want your teachers to feel that you were worthy of the efforts they put into you, and I think as a teacher – because I’ve also given classes in South Africa – it’s always exciting to see someone that you’ve taught deliver in the real world.”

“Tsotsi” will open February 24th in New York and Los Angeles with a national roll-out to follow.

 

ast week, UCLA Extension screened the Oscar-nominated South African film “Tsotsi” as part of its popular Sneak Preview series. While the film more than meets the artistic criteria for such a screening, it holds special significance for UCLA Extension: The film’s writer/director, Gavin Hood, earned a certificate in Film, Television and Video from the school’s Entertainment Studies and Performing Arts Department (ESPA) in 1992.

“Tsotsi” (South African English slang for “gangster”) traces six days in the life of a young gang leader in the Johannesburg shantytown of Soweto as he cares for a baby he’s inadvertently kidnapped during a carjacking. While uniquely South African in context, “Tsotsi” explores universal themes of violence, poverty, memory and self-fashioning.

Before attending UCLA Extension, Hood had graduated in 1988 from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg with a law degree. “It’s not like I was a lawyer and then became a filmmaker,” he explains in a soft South African timbre. “I was an actor and very keen stills photographer and my parents had been actors when they were younger. But South Africa’s film industry was very, very small, and it almost seemed unrealistic to pursue a career in film at home … There was, at the time, only one film school [in South Africa]

“I managed to last for 4 months as a lawyer in the real world before I left and started working in theater as an actor. It was tough at first but I managed to get a break … I got a role in a South African television series where I first began to really learn about working in film.

“At a certain point I thought, well, if I want to take this career very seriously I should go to a place where I can really study screenwriting and directing … I would love to come to Los Angeles and go to a really good film school. Maybe it was the fact that I’d had an academic education,  but I felt like I was ‘busking’ a little bit in the film business because I hadn’t been properly trained.

“What I liked about the Extension program was, since I was already in my late 20s, I wasn’t sure I could go to a full-time program with people just out of high school.  And the Extension program was very appealing because it catered to people of all ages and many different disciplines and I felt I might gain a lot – and indeed I did as it turned out – from taking classes with people who were already established in other disciplines.

“It was a great environment where you learned not only from the lecturers – who in the Extension program were people who worked in film – but also from the people in your class because of the experience they had in other fields … In writing classes you would find actors, directors and cinematographers, and similarly in all the other classes.”

Hood’s was a 2-year course of evening and weekend classes (UCLA Extension is designed for working adults) held mostly on UCLA’s Westwood campus.

“It was a really good mixture of theory and hands-on experience,” he recalls. “The cinematography classes started off with all theory and then there were more practical classes including programs where you actually filmed a scene and where each person in the class worked in a different capacity: as the camera operator, as the lighting person, as the grip. Everybody on that particular course brought a scene they directed – brought in their actors and directed – and on their shoot they were director and everybody else filled in the other positions. “The follow-up cinematography class in those days was sponsored by Panavision, so we would go down to studios and we would have all of Panavision’s gear – lighting and camera equipment … We had such great gear that our lecturer said, ‘Enjoy this, because this might be the last time you get any kind of gear you want.’  Certainly when I started working professionally I didn’t have remote-control zoom lenses on Panavision cameras … in fact it took me until I got my first feature to get to work with that type of gear again.”

[

After graduating, Hood returned to South Africa in 1993 and took a job writing and directing educational dramas (on Betacam videotape) for the Department of Health, working in the shantytowns of the townships making programs centered around issues like HIV/AIDS, teenage prostitution and child abuse. These won him an Artes Award (the South African equivalent of an Emmy) for “Best Contribution to Educational Programs.” 

Hood was then able to realize the making of his own short, “The Storekeeper.” Set in rural South Africa, “The Storekeeper” is a about a shop owner who is repeatedly robbed by a thief. The two characters never actually meet, so there’sno dialogue, yet it succeeds as a narrative.

This was in the pre-digital era. “It’s shot on 35mm film using the smallest, cheapest 35mm camera we could find!” Hood laughs. “But I was determined to shoot it on 35mm film because one of the obstacles that I was finding to getting my first feature film made was that I’d only worked in educational television on videotape.

“That film began to win awards at various festivals including a Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival, and then it won the Grand Prize at the Melbourne International Film Festival in Australia, which qualified it for Academy Award consideration in 1998.”

Though “The Storekeeper” didn’t make the Final Five for the Oscars, it garnered enough attention to enable Hood to make his first feature film. The screenplay he’d written while at UCLA Extension, “A Reasonable Man,” was picked up by British Screen, a UK organization aimed at nurturing young writing talent (Hood has dual British/South African nationality).

“My teacher in the program in screenwriting [at UCLA Extension] was a man called Stan Chervin, and I’m hugely indebted to Stan for his encouragement when I was writing that film as a student.”

“A Reasonable Man” was shot in 4 weeks, for  $1 million, with Hood playing a young lawyer and Nigel Hawthorn (“The Madness of King George”) playing the judge. Though not released in the U.S., “A Reasonable Man” sold to TV across Europe and in Australia and got a good review in Variety, which also named Hood as one of its “10 Directors to Watch” in 2000. All this Stateside recognition enabled Hood to apply for a fast-track green card and start dividing his time between L.A. and South Africa.

Meanwhile, bizarrely, he directed a Polish film, “In Desert and Wilderness,” which was shot in Africa. Though Hood speaks no Polish, his experience of conveying stories without (or with minimal) dialogue stood him in good stead, as did his acting training.

“I also took a lot of classes with a wonderful acting teacher, Eric Kline, at the Film Actor’s Workshop [in Los Angeles] and the performance techniques of Eric … it’s not really about giving an actor a line reading, it’s about helping the actor find what the emotion is beneath the scene and helping the actor focus on the other actor – so that your line comes as a genuine response to what you’re receiving from the other actor, not just in terms of the line, but the body language, the emotion and everything else that’s floating underneath the line and between lines … that technique was very useful and now I feel comfortable working on films in a language other than English.”

“[In Desert and Wilderness] was an opportunity to shoot on a bigger budget – $4.5 million – on Super 35mm cameras, wide-screen, with an epic story involving elephants and camels and young children trying to find their way back to their parents across the continent of Africa.”

Though Hood wrote Tsotsi’s screenplay in English, the film’s dialogue is delivered in Tsotsi-Taal (“gangster-speak”) – an informal mixture of a number of South Africa’s 11 official languages found in the townships.

“I kept the dialogue to a minimum – I think the lead character only says two words of dialogue in the first 20 minutes. So a lot of the story is told visually … really the universal language of cinema is emotion and emotional beats.

[

“I really enjoy being able to make films that are focused on what we have in common as people, which is our emotional response to one another and to situations … in “Tsotsi” it’s a young man who’s lost his mother at an early age and he’s struggling to take care of himself in a pretty difficult environment and he hides behind a mask of anger. That story could actually be set in Moscow, or South Central L.A. or in Mexico City.”

Before making the film, Hood re-enrolled at UCLA Extension’s ESPA for a quarter. “Just to take a single class in visual-effects cinematography,” he explains.  “Because it was one area that I hadn’t taken in my [original] course and, although “Tsotsi” appears to be a film with minimal visual effects, actually there are quite a few – the ants on the baby’s face, for example.

“Also, I did a digital intermediate process where we were able to further work the visual look of the film in post-production.  We scanned the 35mm film into computers and then, using a program called Discreet Lustre – which is essentially like Photoshop for motion pictures – we were able to further enhance and work the look of the film.

“Whenever I feel an insecurity in a certain area of filmmaking, there’s a course on offer at UCLA Extension – in this particular case, visual effects.  I have no intention of becoming a visual effects supervisor, but as a film director you want to be able to understand as much as possible about what is possible in various fields … UCLA Extension gave me the vocabulary, if you will, to have a more informed discussion with other specialists in that field.  UCLA Extension gave me the confidence to go out and build a film career. Whenever I feel insecure I have, and will, go back and take another class.”

So Hood’s understandably proud to be returning to UCLA Extension to discuss his movie at its Sneak Preview screening.  “There’s something very exciting about feeling that an institution that gave you the confidence to go out into the world and make films is inviting you back when you’ve been able to go and implement what you learned.

“I feel proud and excited and thankful to UCLA Extension for welcoming me back.  It’s affirming, I think, for UCLA Extension and affirming for me to feel that I delivered on what they taught me … As a student you want your teachers to feel that you were worthy of the efforts they put into you, and I think as a teacher – because I’ve also given classes in South Africa – it’s always exciting to see someone that you’ve taught deliver in the real world.”

“Tsotsi” will open February 24th in New York and Los Angeles with a national roll-out to follow.