'Sleeper's Wake': In the jungle of human emotion

Local director Barry Berk (left) with actor Lionel Newton (in pink), on the set of Sleeper’s Wake. (Blid Alsbirk)

Local director Barry Berk (left) with actor Lionel Newton (in pink), on the set of Sleeper’s Wake. (Blid Alsbirk)

‘Not an easy sell,” says Barry Berk frankly and perhaps slightly apologetically, of Sleeper’s Wake, the movie he has adapted from Alistair Morgan’s novel. It stars Lionel Newton as the significantly named John Wraith, a fortysomething man who, suffering an enormous trauma, retreats to a small seaside enclave to recover — only to find there a jungle that is emotional as well as physical. Sleeper’s Wake a stylish and powerful film, as befits the cinematic debut of an accomplished TV writer and director.

But not an easy sell.
Not that any South African movie is an easy sell. If it’s a comedy or a musical, however, and more so if it’s in Afrikaans, it stands a somewhat greater chance of making some money in the domestic market.

Berk knows the numbers: “If you make a film for R8-million and it’s for a South African audience only, say it’s an Afrikaans movie, you’ve got to do R16-to R18-million before you make any money back. You can’t make a big whack and put it into another movie. So then you have to make movies for four, five million.”

Is that, I ask, more or less what Sleeper’s Wake cost?

Berk laughs, coughs, utters a syllable that could be either yes or no.

You never talk about the budget, he had told me earlier, when we were discussing how the film was financed: mostly “privately”, as it happens, plus some backing from Anant Singh’s Videovision.

You do, however, speculate about how much money your movie could make, based on your knowledge of what other South African movies have made — which has to be compared with the budget, which almost all local producers are at pains to conceal. We know that Leon Schuster’s movies (and they are always at the centre of any talk about the South African film industry) can make up to R37-million, but Berk points out: “Ah, but they cost 20, 25 to make ... All those stunts are expensive. They are big productions.”

The contrast with the place in the market of an “art movie” such as Sleeper’s Wake is inevitable. “One of the distributors said to us: ‘We’re comparing this to Retribution, in terms of box office.’” He laughs when he gives me the number.

Bums in seats?

No, he says, rands. He laughs some more.

An actor’s director
We talk about Berk’s adaptation of Morgan’s novel; how the film’s ending is not that of the novel. It drops the epilogue of the novel, which shows the protagonist some time later, after the main events of the book. Rather, it leaves us, with the protagonist, “engulfed by the jungle”.

Is there redemption for this character? Is this a redemption story? I think not; I can’t think of a moment that offers him redemption. Berk disagrees, pinpointing the moment he sees as redemptive (or partly redemptive) for the protagonist.

He tells me the story of finding the actor who would play the young woman John Wraith meets in the seaside enclave: how he was sitting in a restaurant, discussing the role with a collaborator, when he looked up and saw someone who, he said, looked exactly the way he imagined the character to be. Turned out the person he saw in the restaurant was, in fact, an actor — Jay Anstey, who had done some TV work, and was just ready to make her movie debut.

Anstey is, indeed, very good in Sleeper’s Wake, and in a role that could easily have descended into being a mere screen on to which various male fantasies could be projected. But the whole cast is excellent in the movie, testifying, no doubt, to Berk’s being what is called “an actor’s director”.

Deon Lotz, last seen in Oliver Hermanus’s Skoonheid, is a rocklike presence in Sleeper’s Wake, distinctly scary but also touchingly human. It’s possible to feel for the characters in the movie without, as it were, actually sympathising with them. It’s amazing, too, to think that an actor as good as Lotz worked primarily in hospitality for 13 years.

And then there’s Newton.

“First time I met Lionel was at UCT drama school,” says Berk. “He was playing Hamlet. Later, I wrote a play called Hanna Hanna and he was in that, and we did The Good Soldier Svejk together. He was very comic and also very dramatic.

“He brings a slightly broken quality to a role, but he also has a very naturalistic comic talent. As soon as I saw him on camera I knew he was right for Sleeper’s Wake. He brings moments of levity to what is, basically, a very dark story.”

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

Client Media Releases