Laughing with a purpose

Ronnie Apteker is the founder of Internet Solutions (IS). He sold it to Dimension Data in 1996 at the beginning of the dotcom boom. He has just written and produced a film called Purpose that is set in, about and against the United States. He is also about to launch a weekend of South African comedy called Laugh Out Loud.

He is 35 years old, doesn’t dress or drive flashily, constantly makes notes on a serviette with a stubby space pen and talks like a cross between a Joburg joller and a character from a David Mamet play. He is what every producer should be and most never are: intelligent, passionate and sincere.

Who are you?

I was always interested in electronics. I built, like, a robot when I was about 12. [Former Mango Groove keyboardist and director of Purpose] Alan Lazar, who was my school friend, ironically introduced me to computers.

Where did you study?

Wits. But I was always working. I was working four nights a week at a restaurant, Saturday and Sunday at a fleamarket, tutoring at varsity and studying for my master’s.

What exactly does a company like IS do?

We allow, for example, the computer system of Sasol to talk to the computer system of Anglo American. We get computers talking. We’re matchmakers for computers.

Did some kind of crisis motivate the story of Purpose?

The business wasn’t going astray. My life was going astray. I thought the world had gone a bit mad. And then people say to you, “Ronnie, why do you work? Retire.” I’m 30 years old. What do you mean, “retire”? I love working.

So you made a movie instead?

Purpose wasn’t so much an idea about making a movie but about inspiring people to think about the purpose of their work. It’s a very spiritual piece of work. It wasn’t a commercial venture. In the same way IS wasn’t a commercial thing either. We [didn’t make money] due to any financial strategy or genius. We were following our hearts.

Did you approach any local filmmaker and/or producers?

I spoke to quite a lot of South African filmmakers, but nobody inspired me in the slightest. Everybody here said let’s shoot the film [set in Silicon Valley] in Cape Town. They didn’t want to leave their comfort zone. I didn’t feel that anybody I spoke to here wanted to make any sacrifices.

Why don’t South African films sell?

Because they’re indulgent.

Did you write the script on your own?

I wrote a 60-page treatment. Then Alan wrote the first draft. We [and two friends] wrote 12 more drafts and had a shooting script. I took five trips to America, the rest was via online.

How did the film sell?

The whole thing was quick. Two years from conception to selling, which was a miracle. We signed all the contracts off on August 11.

A month later it was September 11. We wouldn’t have sold anything. The whole world froze. We were very lucky in some aspects and very unlucky in others.

What do you mean?

In America, if a studio buys your [independent] film and says, “We’ll put the money in your account tomorrow”, they change their minds. “But you signed a contract?” “Well, sue us.” And unless you’re prepared to sue them, what are you going to do? I’m some soft, gentle soul from South Africa. I got no chance. They knew it. They laughed at me. By the way, did you like Purpose?

I thought it was a respectable little movie.

It’s a respectable big movie. So now you’re doing a local comedy show?

Laugh Out Loud came about from my being friends with a bunch of stand-up comics. Me saying to them, how can we elevate this art form in South Africa? How can we make an investment to elevate the stand-up comedy landscape? And we came up with a scenario in which a lot of people would basically work for free, but in doing so we’d raise money [for the Reach for a Dream Foundation]. And what the comics get is the opportunity to create this one-hour show reel that will be on TV and that has world-class production value.

What’s next?

After this I’m going to dance and get drunk. I want to sleep. We’re working 16-hour days on Laugh Out Loud. We’re trying to get 7 000 people into the Sandton Convention Centre. But because it’s for charity everyone is helping. And from an IS point of view we’re doing something socially responsible and it will be fun. Once it’s done.

Laugh Out Loud will take place at the Sandton Convention Centre on November 15 and 16 from 8.30pm, starring Mark Banks, Bevan Cullinan, Chris Forrest, Rob Fridjhon, David Kau, Kagiso Lediga, Tshepo Mogale, Riaad Moosa, Stuart Taylor and John Vlismas. Book at Computicket. For more info see the website at www.lol.is.co.za. The film Purpose opens in South Africa this weekend

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