Natasja Fourie and Kate Verity Wilson

Meet the team behind the short film 13

Interview by Jaclyn Bethany

 Still from  13  courtesy of Natasja and Kate.

Still from 13 courtesy of Natasja and Kate.

Jaclyn Bethany: How did you two meet, and then how did the idea behind 13 originate? How long had you both been developing it? 
Kate Verity Wilson (Producer): Natasja and I were introduced by a mutual friend who used to work with Shorts International. I was impressed by Natasja’s first short film, The Man With the Heavy Leg, the script she had written for 13, and her photography book—she has an amazing eye. I responded immediately to the script, which was original, challenging, genre-defying—all things I like in material.

Natasja Fourie (Director, photographer): 13 is based on a short story called Dertien (translated as Thirteen) by the Afrikaans writer André P. Brink. My mother studied Afrikaans Literature at university and I found this short story bundle called Bolder on her bookshelf dating back to the 1970s. I had a read, and this story really resonated with me. I believe André wrote it while he was living in Paris in the 1960s. When I first moved to London 12 years ago. I was struck by how little people spoke to one another on the tube or in public. The lack of daylight in the winter made those first few months seem very gloomy. I found those days and some of those early city living experiences quite isolating and lonely. Dertien reminded me of those days. I immediately contacted André and asked him for the rights to adapt the story for the screen. He liked my first draft, and then my writing partner Robyn Pete and I set off to work. Unfortunately André passed away soon after we negotiated the rights. His wife, Karina Magdalena Szczurek, also a brilliant writer, helped Kate and I acquire the full rights for the adaptation after his death. André died aged 79 on the night of my 29th birthday in February 2015, aboard a flight from the Netherlands to Cape Town. He was returning from Belgium after receiving an honorary doctorate. 

Soon after Kate and I went into development, I found out that I was expecting my second child. We managed to do some preparation work during the pregnancy. I also found out around the time that we had won the Screencraft and Bondit Film Fund to help develop the project. The guys at Screencraft, Cameron Cubbison, and John Rhodes, as well as the team at Bondit (Matthew Helderman), really helped to propel this project forward.

We finally went into production in November 2017, and all post-production was completed November 2018. 13 will be screened at London Short Film Festival later in January as part of a program called London Lives, and it will be shown at UK and International Film Festivals throughout 2018. We will then explore distribution options after our festival circuit.

 Still from  13  courtesy of Natasja and Kate.

Still from 13 courtesy of Natasja and Kate.

JB: How did the story change from conception to shooting? What were the challenges of getting the film made?
NF: The story changed a lot during the shooting process, and it took a different turn in the editing room. During the production, there was no time for hesitation. We were faced with some challenges and restrictions, mostly because of the budget, but we found creative ways to work around them. Although we had to make some tough decisions, I believe we managed to capture the essence of the story and the original intention of the film. 

JB: As a photographer, Natasja, did you have a very clear vision for the visual feel of the film? How did you work with your DOP to help craft both the central character, Lukas, and his visual journey? 
NF: We made a decision quite early on that it had to feel like an intimate, immediate, and introspective journey—a mental journey of decline. Shaun Harley Lee, our cinematographer, and I referenced Son of Saul for the camera work. Shaun and I had already worked on a few other projects together, so it was really easy to collaborate on some visual ideas with him. I also liked Alan Clarke's Elephant. Ultimately, it had to be a claustrophobic experience—like the city, the commute, and the tower block were slowly suffocating Lukas, slowly killing him. We decided very last minute to shoot 4:3 to exaggerate the feeling of being trapped. This was a good decision.  

JB: This film really follows one character, Lukas, with no dialogue. This is a unique and challenging prospect. How did you work with actor James Harkness to help craft both the character and his journey? 
NF: James Harkness is a bright young actor. During the casting process I read an interview with him where he delved a bit deeper into his background and upbringing. I was fascinated to learn that James had been brought up in a high-rise council building in the Gorbals in Glasgow. A serious incident involving an axe fight in an elevator landed him in hospital, and this was the turning point for James. I liked his work, but after reading this, it just felt that he was the man for this film! A real diamond in the rough.

James had a good sense of the character and of how he wanted to develop Lukas. We listened to each other’s ideas. I liked the idea of Lukas being new to the city, perhaps a character that could also relate to a European immigrant. We discussed the fact that London had been dubbed the loneliness capital of Europe with its inhabitants less likely to know their neighbors than any other city in the EU. We spoke about the relationship between mental health, urban loneliness, and suicide for men in the UK. We decided not to do any rehearsals and to just go for it on the day. I will definitely jump at the chance to work with him again. 

 Still from  13  courtesy of Natasja and Kate.

Still from 13 courtesy of Natasja and Kate.

JB: How did you put together your team? 
NF: Shaun (DOP) and I had already worked together on a  few other projects, and I was keen to work on something more narrative-based with him. He has a very sensitive eye and brought some interesting ideas to the table. I loved Adam Biskupski’s editing work on The Goob. I was also familiar with his commercial work. I pestered him a bit and, after eventually arranging a Skype call and talking through the project, he agreed to cut 13. I was thrilled to have Adam on board. Edwin Metternich at Framestore brought some beautiful, emotive coloring to the film. Edwin is brilliant, and he would always be my first choice when it comes to color. 

The sound design is a vital part of the storytelling, and it was crucial that we brought in someone super talented. We decided to shoot the entire film without any sound recordings on set, with the the aim to give the sound designer a blank canvas. This was obviously a real challenge, as well as a great opportunity for complete creative expression. There was only person we had in mind for this project, and it was supervising sound editor and sound designer Joakim Sundström. I don't think he needs any introduction. His work is phenomenal, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to collaborate with him on 13. He has a beautiful, curious mind and a real passion for what he does. I hope we can work on features together in the future. Our art director Boadicea Shouls was another bright young mind with whom to collaborate. 

Perhaps it is people with a real passion for their craft that attracts me to them; perhaps this is how Kate and I put our team together. 

JB: The locations in the film are very distinctive—characters of their own, in a sense. Were these specific buildings mentioned in the original script, or were they found during pre-production? 
KVW: Shoreditch Town Hall worked out brilliantly, but it was very much a last-minute solution to finding a space where Lukas could be a night security guard. In the script, it is a factory. I liked the idea that Lukas was working in a space utilized for socializing and celebration when he wasn’t there; then, when he’s working, it’s just quiet and empty. It added to the sense of isolation.  

NF: Kate and I both liked the idea of Ernö Goldfinger's Trellick Tower. These Brutalist buildings were built after the war years with great prospects of socialist utopian living, yet unfortunately, these dreams are far from the reality that these tower blocks have become. Kate lent me her book on Goldfinger, and I loved learning more about his original intentions with his designs. This is how I envisioned it in the screenplay:

“LUKA comes to a corner, lights half a cigarette, and leans. ‘Olympic Heights’ towers above him. Monolithic slabs of roughly finished concrete. A bold monumental building from the Brutalism era. Its dark and menacing presence is intimidating—by far the most imposing building on the street.”

Trellick Tower was the first building that came to mind when we started our location research. Many people now associate large tower blocks with social problems. The fact there’s a lack of street layout means that the estates themselves often feel very enclosed. A lot of these post-war estates were built without community engagement in the development of the plans, although they were ironically intended by architects and planners to improve the way people lived. I think after the tragic Grenfell disaster, it’s time to completely rethink tower living.

 Still from  13  courtesy of Natasja and Kate.

Still from 13 courtesy of Natasja and Kate.

JB: Have you both always wanted to be filmmakers? What are your first distinctive film memories?
KVW: Honestly, my first memory of watching a film is of Bugsy Malone. It remains one of my favorite films and, it’s the reason why I worked for Jodie Foster, who was my first boss and sponsored me for my U.S. work permit. Seriously! 

NF: I don't recall a defining moment. For me, it was an organic transition from painting and photography to writing and filmmaking. I work in different mediums, and the concept will determine the medium. I grew up in South Africa, and our access to independent art films were very limited. Many international films were banned or censored in South Africa during the ‘80s. This obviously impacted our cultural views on film. 

I remember accidentally stumbling upon David Lynch’s Lost Highway in 1997. I was 11 years old and obviously way too young to watch this film. I think my mother or her boyfriend had it on VHS from the video store and forgot to return it. I watched it after school one day while I was home alone  I was scared and blown away at the same time. I had never seen anything like it. It transported me into another world, and I think that is what film needs to do. 

JB: It has been both a remarkably challenging and progressive year for women. What advice would you give to young women wanting to work in film?
KVW: Go for it! My daughter wants to be a filmmaker, and I have no intention of stopping her. 

NF: Firstly, well done for all those women who are coming forward and speaking out! The film industry needs more female voices. Women should not shy away from the industry because it has been historically male-dominated. Female directors and filmmakers often bring a different dimension or sensitivity to filmmaking and the storytelling process. The female gaze needs to be explored, and the time is now. If you have a story, go on and tell it. I think it is safe to say that the world is now changing for the better for women in film, and it can only go upwards. There is no more time or place in this industry to tolerate any form of discrimination or abuse. 

JB: What’s next for each of you this year?
NF: I am developing an erotic drama thriller with my writing partner, Robyn Pete. It is a story of revenge, sexual jealousy, and greed, and it deals with themes that explore sexuality and identity, all viewed through the female gaze.

KVW: Fury Films has a slate of features in development and a couple of shorter works that are commissions and gallery pieces. I think 2018 is going to be a very good year for us. ★