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Oscar winners Adrien Brody, Kevin Spacey praise young SA director

“I was born to play the role, I was always that guy,” says award-winning actor Adrien Brody half-jokingly about being the lead in South African director Mark Middlewick’s short film, The Mascot.

Sitting next to the up-and-coming director at the London West Hollywood Hotel last Saturday, the two share laughs and thoughts as if they were old friends, instead of two professionals who spent just two days together in June making a short movie.

Selected as one of three winners of this year’s Jameson First Shot film festival, The Mascot is about a man (played by Brody) who loses his long-standing job as a mascot for a basketball team.

Asked how he prepared for the role, Brody says: “There are a lot of parallels with the role [of the mascot] and the life of an actor, and the aspect of rejection that exists. So the circumstances and the characters’ reactions to those things may be extreme, but within that it illustrates the indifference of life and how harsh it can be, and how we must move on after loss.”

Vision to excel
The Mascot, which premiered at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles last Saturday night, contains a stark and simple aesthetic, while it’s less than 10-minute plot journeys through raging emotions of passion, loss and anger.

The laid-back yet pensive Brody, who won an Academy award for his role in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, speaks thoughtfully and eloquently about the movie and its 28-year-old maker.

“Mark is fantastic … Roman is in a league of his own,” he says in response to my question about how he felt being directed by an emerging filmmaker such as Middlewick compared with being directed by Polanski and other renowned directors such as Spike Lee.

“Mark has the confidence and the vision that’s necessary to excel, as well as to make sure that the film’s vision is retained. It’s wonderful to work with someone who has a wealth of knowledge and experience to impart … and [who can] elevate you. 

“But I gravitate towards challenge: if you look at the movies that I’ve chosen, I’ve always tried to choose something that’s very different; that has a degree of risk, that is unpredictable and that forces me to try something new. And that’s the journey and the beauty of being an actor. The beauty of being in any artistic profession is to experiment.”

Middlewick’s script was selected from 1 700 entries for the Jameson Film Festival, alongside aspiring American filmmaker Travis Calvert’s feel-good film The Library Book and the quirky and twisted Boredom, by Canada’s Stephan Tempier, which all star Brody as the lead. The three films were made in Los Angeles under the mentorship of Trigger Street Productions.

High-powered team
Taking place for the fourth year now, the festival is presented in collaboration with Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey and Trigger Street Productions, headed by super- producer Dana Brunetti of The Social Network and 50 Shades of Grey fame. 

The festival kicked off last Friday with a day of filmmaking, related workshops and panel discussions at Siren Studios in Los Angeles, ahead of the movie premieres, which took place at Paramount and were attended by big name actors such as Lawrence Fishburne.

“I just wanted to see Adrien in that [mascot] costume; it’s just such a funny idea,” says Spacey about the panda suit Brody dons in the film. Speaking to the Mail & Guardian while seated next to Middlewick, Spacey recovers from chuckling, straightens out his grey suit and explains why The Mascot was one of the winners.

“There’s a number of things we’re looking for in terms of our film selection. From the production sense it’s … can we make this production in two days, does it offer difficulties in terms of location and is it practical and contained? And that was certainly the case with Mark’s film.

“Next we look at what [projects] offer Adrien three distinct parts in three different kinds of films. And then it’s about the filmmaker and the sensibility that they put across: they have to show their previous work, and they have to present themselves.”

Middlewick, a graduate of the University of the Witwatersrand, was a nominee for Best Short Film at the South African Film and Television 2015 awards for Security, and the music video he made for local musician Nakhane Touré landed him a Best Object of South Africa award at last year’s Design Indaba in Cape Town.

Spacey adds: “As a team, including Adrien, we look at where they [the directors] will be in 10 years, so we’re looking at someone’s potential and not just where they are right now.”

Potential for growth
Despite his confidence on and off screen, Middlewick tells me and Spacey of his trepidation at making the film. “I was really worried coming in to this that I’d be going to America and I’d be put into a mould of the cookie cutter – but I didn’t face that at all, and that was amazing and quite emancipating. Jameson First Shot is very supporting of your view and unique take on something.”

And, according to the director, unlike the popular perception of emerging filmmakers wanting to leave their home countries to live in Hollywood to make films, Middlewick shares his excitement about going back to create art in South Africa.

“Instead of trying to imitate something else or make something I presume people would like to see, I want to make something that I understand is true to me and that I’d want to watch.”

To that, Spacey adds: “This is a very valuable thing to hear because one of the things I believe in very strongly is that very often emerging talents will think: ‘Oh I want to go to Hollywood’ or ‘I want to go there’, when in fact South Africa has a remarkable history and has extraordinary stories that have not yet been told.”

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Stefanie Jason’s trip to Los Angeles was sponsored by Jameson Whiskey

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stefanie jason
Following studying towards her Film & Media degree at the University of Cape Town and North Carolina State University, Stefanie Jason began work as a copy editor and writer for various South African publications, including Bona, True Love and Sowetan, as well as the Mail & Guardian. For the M&Gs arts & culture supplement Friday, she writes about art, music & lifestyle when she isnt relaxing, traveling or checking out Joburgs many art galleries.

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