I’m a huge proponent of finding the light in the dark; the hope that my characters hang on to, and often that light shines brighter when the world they’re in is dark.Stephen Nagel
Stephen Nagel is an independent writer, director and producer based in Cape Town, South Africa, making films under the BTG Productions banner with fellow filmmaker Dean Ravell. They are already skilled at delivering weighty themes with a piercing eye and a lightness of touch: I’ve followed Stephen and Dean’s work since 2016’s Breathe Easy. That was a truly collaborative venture (you can read my earlier interview with Stephen here); filmmakers around the world wrote, funded and produced their own stories about people in their own countries responding to the same world-ending event. Stephen’s segment within that film, Detour, about a Black couple trying to escape the impending apocalypse, was one of the most impactful.
Since then, he and Dean have made Day Zero, another apocalyptic drama, and MIA&I, about a “helpful” robot taking over its owner’s life. The pair’s latest short film, Protégé, which wrapped this summer, is about a journalist and private investigator who is sick of how the justice system fails victims, and what happens when she tries to turn vigilante.
Tell us about Protégé.
At the centre of the film is a conversation about gender-based violence in South Africa; a candid conversation about how the justice system that’s supposed to protect victims, often fails them. In Protégé, a vigilante arrives to deliver justice to her target: a man who beats his girlfriend, but soon finds out that someone else got there first. An expressive and meaningful conversation about GBV ensues. We’ve framed this discussion on gender-based violence through the lens of a thriller film which we feel is an entertaining genre that many people gravitate towards.
Making the main character a vigilante was important for us. Most often when GBV is depicted, the character whose point of view one is experiencing is usually a victim being brutalised in real time. We’re doing a different narrative that flips the script and becomes a more intellectual discussion around morality as vigilantes must deal with their own thoughts and feelings about what they are doing.
The films of yours that I’ve seen are always entertaining, but the themes — the end of the world, AI and identity, violence against women — are pretty dark. What draws you to those ideas?
I gravitate towards exploring the darker side of human nature, but my tastes are quite varied. I think a lot of entertainment tries to hide the bad stuff, paint over it, or the other extreme: showcase it in gratuitous fashion. I don’t consider myself a nihilist or pessimist; I’m generally optimistic about the world, and believe it or not, I’ve got a sense of humour. I just believe that we need to have raw conversations about the darkest parts of humanity in a way that is honest and authentic. I’m also a huge proponent of finding the light in the dark; the hope that my characters hang on to, and often that light shines brighter when the world they’re in is dark.
People don’t have to be perfect model citizens to have a voice… making sure my imperfect characters do is important to me.
You’ve written about Protégé: “Our characters don’t always have to be perfect model citizens in order to earn the right to be able to talk about important subjects in society.” I love that and think it’s so important.
There are two popular paths for characters these days: the true hero, or the anti-hero. The former is your classic superhero type, and the latter is often a villain who the writers want you to root for. I believe there are so many normal, interesting people that live in the spectrum in between and beyond those archetypes, and I’m more interested in exploring them. Our story scrutinises the law, and in the court of law (and public opinion), it’s commonplace to point at the perceived imperfections of people to discredit them. That notion has fascinated and often irked me. People don’t have to be perfect model citizens to have a voice, and so making sure my imperfect characters do, is important to me.
Protége is meant to be our first taste of these characters’ worlds. How are you planning on continuing their stories?
Yes! We have two feature-length scripts already written. We’re even considering a series to further explore these characters. One of our feature scripts is a low-budget, single location post-heist film, and the other is an intense serial killer murder mystery. We put a lot of effort and resources into making this film, and we hope to showcase this as a proof of concept for a much bigger world. We’re so excited about these characters and this world, and we hope we get the chance to explore more of it.
There’s a great indie filmmaking phrase I heard from you: “running and gunning”. What is that and how does it affect how you get films made?
Running and gunning basically means just picking up a camera, pointing it at someone or something, running into a location you definitely don’t have a permit for, and shooting your scene as quickly as possible. That’s the most basic breakdown of it. It’s lots of fun, and quite stressful. Often, you’re creating on the fly because your actors and crew don’t have time to rehearse in a location or adapt to unexpected changes in the environment. It’s nerve-wracking but also exciting, and it forms really strong bonds between collaborators as it requires constant problem solving.
We’re trying to move away from that kind of filmmaking as we build out a bigger team of creatives on this journey with us, and pool more resources to make our films. But we have a special place in our hearts for that kind of filmmaking.
Without the right connections it can take a long time to get noticed. You’ve manage to keep the standard high with each short you’ve made. How do you keep the momentum going, and stay positive?
It’s tough, we don’t have any connections to give us an easy pass. Just the other day I joked that we have built our own door to get into the industry. Now we’ve got one foot in and we’ve realised we have to build our own table to sit at. We’re the carpenters of South African cinema! I need to cool it with the metaphors. On the bright side, we’re not building alone. We have amazing people supporting us. It’s difficult, but as corny as it sounds, the stories call to us. We write and make films because we want to see these characters and worlds brought to life.
People have responded so graciously to our passion though. Whether it’s the amazing cast and crews who join us on these projects, or the crowdfunding backers who support our projects monetarily; or those who just send a good word for moral support, we feel the love every time we pursue a new project. It’s really difficult to make films on a small budget, but we’re hoping that Protégé really opens doors for us to get more resources to tell our stories.
How supportive is the South African / Cape Town arts scene of young filmmakers? What’s the South African movie scene like in general?
We have found a lot of support from other creatives on the fringe of the industry like us, with some support from those actively working in the industry. We have also built an awesome team of amazing creatives who work with us on projects consistently. They are phenomenal people. Most people in the formal film industry in South Africa are technical crew working on imported content. Cape Town is a big location draw for international productions because it’s affordable.
I want to see more South African content on the world stage, but I think we need to take bigger risks to get there.
In terms of storytelling, local content producers are quite entrenched in the soap opera market which is quite huge. There has been a shift as additional resources are available now with streaming providers making more original content from South Africa, but much of that is reserved for people already established in the industry.
There are certain types of stories in South Africa that producers gravitate to over and over again. I’m waiting for the South African scene to be more open and diversify so we can see more genres from local creators getting resources allocated to them. I want to see more South African content on the world stage, but I think we need to take bigger risks to get there.
I loved last year’s MIA & I, which had some really interesting ideas about identity and what can happen when you’re don’t have other, outside relationships. What was the genesis of that film?
I’m a huge fan of Black Mirror, specifically how it comments on our relationship with technology, framed in a believable science fiction world that feels like it could happen any day now. I wanted to explore a similar story with a unique concept. I don’t think anyone has done a body swap story between a human and android, so I’m quite proud of that originality. It was really about exploring what makes us human (the big question) and also how the self is defined by our perception of ourselves and how we relate to and interact with the world and people around us. I think about these things a lot, so I love exploring these deep concepts through storytelling.
Filmmaking often doesn’t go to plan. Are there any strange (brilliant or awful!) set day experiences you can share with us?
On MIA&I, we were filming during the Rugby World Cup when South Africa won the final. We had to pause to let everyone watch our team win and celebrate, and also had to pause in between takes as we were shooting in an apartment building, and the neighbours kept cheering at random moments. It was way more fun than it had any right to be.
More recently, on the set of Protégé, we had load shedding planned (rolling blackouts) and the scheduled time for the blackout came, and nothing happened. We took lunch, but then everyone was just sitting around and chatting while we waited for it to happen, and it was such a surreal contrast to the usual super focused and high-paced environment on set. We got straight back to work after a while, but it was an interesting moment of limbo that just felt like we were on another planet for a while.
Last time I interviewed you, you said if money was no object you’d create “a sci-fi epic in series format for TV. It would span over seven seasons and would involve tons of world-building”. Is that still your dream project?
Yes! I have written the pilot, and have a treatment ready. I’ve had a few producers circle the project, but no real bites yet. I’m still hoping that one day I can make that show. It’s called World Without End. I have a lot more projects I’d like to do now, but that one is still a favourite.
Pick your dream movie dinner party guests: from behind or in front of the camera, characters or performers, alive or dead.
I would have loved to have a dinner with some of the greats like Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky; maybe some of the French New Wave regulars too (I love their audacity). I’m a bit of a film geek so I would probably just like to sit there, eat my food and listen to them talk about life, and movies, and poetry. But this answer would change, depending on which day you asked me and my mood.
You can watch Stephen and Dean’s films here, free of charge: