In Jaco Bouwer ‘s GAIA, an injured forest ranger on a routine mission is saved by two off-the-grid survivalists. What is initially a welcome rescue grows more suspicious as the son and his renegade father reveal a cultish devotion to the forest. When their cabin is attacked by a strange being, it’s clear there is a far greater threat in this unrelenting wilderness. To learn more about the film, check out our review.
Earlier in June, Dolores got the chance to talk with Jaco Bouwer, the South African director of the film GAIA, where they discussed filmmaking in the time of a pandemic, his perspective on the film, his interest in horror filmmaking, and the power to tell different types of important stories.
Editor’s Note: There are some spoilers mentioned in this interview, so we advise treading with caution.
I was wondering, especially after seeing that beautiful upside-down drone shot at the beginning of the film, what were you trying to show the audience with your film? With so many beautiful things and yes, some things that are frightening?
Jaco Bouwer: For me, it was like a love letter to nature. To really kind of show the beauty of it on one side, but then also the horror caught up in the same thing. For me, the idea of the sublime, as we see, there is always this push and pull between being in awe of the beauty and the horror of the object. I also wanted to provoke an atmosphere. It’s almost like the audience needs to feel it crawling under the skin. Those are the kind of ideas that I wanted to leave them with or provoke. In a bigger scheme or a bigger idea of thematics? Maybe for me, it’s as simple as showing or creating or imagining a situation of what if we humans are not the center of existence? To question that hierarchy in terms of human nature. Where we and all the other living things on the planet fit in. How did we get to this subject matter? I don’t think it necessarily started off with this idea. I think a lot of times ideas don’t necessarily work that way. There’s a sense of zeitgeist or serendipity and how things just kind of work out. In the beginning, there was not necessarily a Gaia, but there was still the need for nature as a character in the way that we saw it, especially with Tsitsikamma Forest, Tertius [Kapp] grew up in that area. We wanted to explore the horror genre. I wanted to have a small, manageable cast. We started talking about myths and parables and I got to Abraham and Isaac. From there, it kind of evolved. It started from there and many drafts later we had GAIA as a shooting script.
It’s wonderful to hear you say that. I think the film has a lot of different ideas and challenges the idea that we’re the apex of all the lifeforms on the planet. I thought it was interesting that the monsters, for lack of a better word, are in human form. That basically both the heroes and the monsters are human. I think that’s a rich and interesting dichotomy.
Jaco Bouwer: To have nature as the antagonist, in a way, it’s quite interesting for me because you have sympathy for nature. But then, she’s also a monster, and that duality I find quite interesting. In filmmaking, you start making up worlds and how things work in those worlds. I guess with spores in this form of nature, or Gaia, and that being a higher form of intelligence and how to communicate, through spores, through mycelium growth. For me, the creatures used to be Apostles. We cut so much stuff out because I don’t think it was necessary anymore. But they were Apostles carrying the gospel of God. That’s what the character Barend used to call them. So in a way, they are helpers for Gaia or part of her in trying to execute her bigger plan.
With nature being the antagonist, but using humans as puppets in a way, underlines the huge power that nature has. A power so strong that we can’t even fight against it really.
Jaco Bouwer: You could see her as the monster in a way, but I also wanted to suggest that if you really think about it, maybe we are the monster, or maybe civilization is the monster. It really kind of questions you about where your allegiance lies in terms of these kinds of things? Then you have the innocence of the boy who is manipulated by his father or indoctrinated in a set of beliefs. He created a reality outside of the human world. In the end, it’s kind of like a Biblical character or someone who is kind of like a suicide bomber going into civilization. Maybe that was Gaia’s plan from the beginning?
Possibly, and that’s the thing, I agree. I don’t necessarily see Gaia as the villain.
Jaco Bouwer: Good.
Maybe we’re the trouble and she’s trying to take care of it or teach us a lesson as it were. Switching gears, how did you work with the actors during the shoot?
Jaco Bouwer: Except for Alex [Van Dyck], who is a newcomer that I haven’t worked with before. I’ve seen him in other work. He’s untrained. I’ve worked with Monique [Rockman] before. Just before that, we did a supernatural series for Showmax. Carel [Nel] as well. I’ve worked with Carel in theater and television. So, I knew them from before. I think from the beginning Carel was who we wanted when we were set on the father and son survivalist aspect of the story. We felt that it had to be Carel. Then we phoned him and he was on his honeymoon. Then he said, great! I’m going to start growing my beard.
Then the shoot got postponed, so he was growing the beard for like five months. But as you probably know we shot for a week and then we had to pack up because of COVID. For me, that was quite tricky. Never mind what was happening in the world and everything. Not knowing if we could come back and then eventually we could get availability to work out, was really tough. Because crucial scenes had been shot, but some scenes in between hadn’t. To have that continuity in performance was really tricky to work with, especially with a four-month hiatus. So it was really important to kind of keep that kind of emotional continuity in terms of performances, but they are such good actors.
What I’ve said in an interview before, I do feel as well, with all that happens in a pandemic, with COVID, when we got back to shooting, we were all changed. The whole of humanity was basically changed because of COVID. I could really see it in the crew and in the cast. I think, subconsciously, it really brought an extra layer to the performances that might not have been there if it hadn’t happened that way. I’m just glad we got to finish it. Because there were some moments there when we weren’t sure that we would be able to finish it.
I’m glad you did because I think that it is a fine film.
Jaco Bouwer: Thank you. It was very difficult to make. Insects, nature, mud, accessibility of locations, only shooting it in sixteen days. Crazy.
That’s quite a feat. I mean, as I said, you have a very beautiful-looking film. Really, it’s, it’s striking.
Jaco Bouwer: I’ve got a lot of other thoughts about it, you know, looking at it. It’s like when you have worked, and you can’t help but really critically look back at it? I just have to let it go and let it have a life of its own.
Of course, as a filmmaker, you have a standard where you see it much more critically than an audience member. I’m really amazed to hear that you were able to film it in sixteen days during the pandemic. You said that Covid really changed the actors and the crew, did it change your ideas about the film?
Jaco Bouwer: I think it just becomes more layered in a way. I think if there was not a pandemic, one can look at this and it’s almost like, just another pre-apocalyptic film. But with the context we have now, we were not lucky, but I’m talking about the film coming out in such a time and having these kinds of themes or messages. It does put it in a different context. You know, you can just compare fungal infection and viral infection. It’s almost the same. My view of the future, not on the film, but of humanity itself. That’s another question of our time on this earth. But that’s another discussion. But yes, it did change. I think it changed everybody. Obviously, the work as well. I don’t want to say it, because it sounds like the pandemic kind of helped to make this film even more actual and layer it on another level that would not have been there.
What would you like the audience to take away from it?
Jaco Bouwer: Maybe it sounds kind of boring, but I think I’ve said it in the beginning. It’s just to leave them with the idea that maybe we are not the center of existence on earth. To maybe see things, other living things, and us in the same hierarchy. And there’s knowledge and intelligence in nature. We somehow with all civilization, industrialization, we are not connected in any way. But I think it’s just to leave a question that maybe we are just one of many species.
I think that’s an admirable thing. Do you have any new projects coming up?
Jaco Bouwer: Yes, I’m very intrigued by horror. I’m working on a political horror project. I’m working on a dark comedy thriller. They’re all different phases in development. There are quite a few. I’m a bit all over the place trying to get different projects in different phases going, because that’s kind of what you need to do, you need to have like 10 irons in the fire at the same time. But it’s also a nice time for me because I can really delve into active development which is great because I am really enjoying it.
GAIA is now on-demand, and we believe that it is a film that tries to show us our place in the world and gives us a warning that perhaps we should rethink our arrogant beliefs about nature and the other creatures we share this world with.
All images courtesy NEON.