An isolated farmhouse with no phone or cell connection is far from the ideal place to start a new job, especially one that involves taking care of an elderly gentleman who might need help at some point. If Anna (Tarryn Wyngaard) wasn’t already concerned about her position, though, she is after meeting Sarel (Johan Botha), a former theologian with some very strict and unforgiving views and the person Anna’s supposed to be taking care of in director Jaco Minnaar‘s debut feature, Pou (Peacock). Coming off of the film’s Massachusetts premiere at Salem Horror Fest, Minnaar answered some questions about the project below:
Rachel Bellwoar: Having previously worked together with co-writer David Cornwell on short films, what was it about Pou (Peacock) that you knew this needed to be a feature film and not a short?
Jaco Minnaar: I originally tried to write it as a short but I just felt unsatisfied, like there was more to the story and the characters that needed to be explored to get to what it was I really wanted to do with it. Plus, it felt time for us to move on from short films which has rather limited reach and distribution possibilities. Making features was always the goal, and we finally felt ready to go for it. The story idea felt like it had enough to it for us to dig into and explore some aspects of where we come from.
RB: While the film could’ve opened with the scene at the bus stop, where Anna’s waiting to be picked up by her new employer, you instead begin by giving a little glimpse of what her life was like before she got assigned to act as Sarel’s caregiver. Why was it important to you to provide that bit of backstory at the beginning, instead of keeping Anna’s past a secret?
JM: It felt important to show where Anna comes from and what her personal struggles are to really tell her story. Without that I think she could have been a rather flat character and it probably could have been a more conventional horror film where a fairly interchangeable lead character comes up against some malevolent antagonist or force. It also gave more weight to Sarel’s character where we could see the far-reaching effects of his particular kind of evil. This then allowed us to explore the wider context of the world Anna finds herself in and how that impacts her personally. Anna’s story was a way for us to dive under the skin and into the psyche of Afrikaner (white South African) culture and explore its dark recesses from the inside out.
RB: Because Anna goes from one religiously conservative environment to another, it’s not immediately clear whether the rest of the world is equally conservative, or if Anna’s experience is specific to her. When did you decide to add the scene at the drag bar?
JM: To me the South Africa I grew up in in the 1980’s and 90’s was a super strange place. A kind of conservative patriarchy, a fascist theocracy full of tinpot dictators and misguided true believers. But then there are always these little cracks where life grows and one can find the people that manage to see through the bullshit. In a sense this is what the drag bar represents, that little oasis. The drag bar became part of the story early on when we wanted to create a kind of ally character for Anna. It was also inspired by a real place that I came across while on a road trip — a rather conservative small town in the middle of nowhere where there is a drag bar on the outskirts of town.
RB: Most of the film takes place in and around Sarel’s farmhouse. What was it like working with production designer Edward Liebenberg on this project, and do you have a favorite room in the house?
JM: We found that house after a long search for the right location and it is really quite special. Eduard Liebenberg was an amazing collaborator and I feel very lucky that I got to work with him on this project. He understood my vision and was all-in to make it a reality. All the production design and set work was done by only him and his partner Franco Meyer and they really went above and beyond to make a lot happen on a very tight budget and short timespan. To summarise shortly, Eduard helped find the various locations. Transformed a dusty, empty storeroom into an atmospheric drag bar. Sourced so much furniture and decor elements. Made all those boxes and boxes of documents and books. Built the peacock cage and sourced the featured peacocks. Built the wooden staircase with attic door into the single-storey house. And constructed the complete “attic” room set in an empty swimming pool so it could be flooded for a climactic scene in the film. As for my favourite room — the constructed attic set is very special to me but I also like Klara’s room with the doll’s house for the fact that those peacock curtains just happened to be in that room! It was just so perfect. So we immediately wrote it into the script. It now feels impossible to imagine the film without them.
RB: Given how isolated the farmhouse is, Anna’s situation could’ve been much bleaker if it weren’t for the hope of finding a sympathetic ear in Dr. Basson’s grandson, Jean. Did you always want to include a potential ally for Anna, or did Jean come into the script later?
JM: It’s sometimes difficult to remember just how exactly it all fell into place but I feel like most of the bigger story elements came into play early on and then it was a case of developing and arranging, finding the right connections, and working the details. The potential ally character in the form of Jean came into the story quite early in expanding the short story idea into feature length. A version of him existed in each of the many drafts we wrote. We knew it would be difficult to play only as a two-hander and once we started figuring out what we wanted to do with the character of Anna we knew we needed that person she could share with and also eventually to act her fantasies out with. And it worked in tandem with developing the doctor Basson character as an ally for Sarel, so we needed that balance.
RB: While the film is mostly vague about the year, Anna’s flip phone and Sarel’s rotary phone date things a little. What made you decide to use older technology?
JM: There were a lot of things that played into that stylistic choice of being non-specific as to when the story takes place and the older tech is a part of that. For one thing, we specifically wanted to go for something a bit more dreamy and not realistic. It was always more about a mood, a feeling, and idea of this place and culture. It was all part of making things a bit strange and surreal that worked with the genre. This is a kind of modern gothic tale so we needed to create a specific story world for that to work and felt a mix of styles and tech from the last few decades could work well. Then there were other reasons that I felt connected with some themes and ideas I wanted to explore about the culture and the place I grew up in but that is too much to try and explain and would include some kind of history lesson.
RB: Eventually Anna realizes that her friend, Vicki, bears an uncanny resemblance to Sarel’s daughter, Klara. Have you always been interested in the concept of “doubles” and why add that element into the movie?
JM: Yes exactly, I have long been fascinated by the trope of “doubles” in movies and stories. It is one of those classics of the weird and the gothic but then it also just worked its way organically into the story. It helped to create this throughline connecting Anna’s world to Sarel’s world and so eventually to the rest of the world. I think it works well as something uncanny and to destabilize the world and characters a bit. To blur the line between subjective and objective, which is always an interesting question. And this is specifically something we wanted to play with in the story. We are experiencing the story through Anna and with this element we are not quite sure whether this world is really weird, or if Anna is losing her stability, or both. Either way, it is unsettling and puzzling and we have to pay attention to figure things out. And hopefully it all comes together in some kind of way by the end.
RB: Is the story Sarel tells Anna about the peacock and the cherry tree based on a real fable or a complete invention?
JM: The story of the peacock and the cherry tree is completely our own invention. It was actually quite a bit longer with more detail and biblical references, in true Sarel fashion, but we cut it down to its essence during the editing process.
RB: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Jaco!
Salem Horror Fest ran from April 20th to April 30th.
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