'Gates' welcome change of pace for Caton-Jones

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Rwanda report: After 10 years of working in the Hollywood system Michael Caton-Jones was ready for a change, which is exactly what his Rwanda set drama "Beyond the Gates" turned out to be.

Caton-Jones kick started his feature directing career in 1989 with the critically acclaimed independent film "Scandal" about the 1960s Profumo Scandal, the story of a British government minister's affair with a prostitute. After "Scandal's" success, Caton-Jones went on to spend a decade or so making big studio movies like "Doc Hollywood" (Michael J. Fox), "This Boy's Life" (Robert De Niro and introducing Leonardo DiCaprio), "The Jackal" (Bruce Willis and Richard Gere) and "Basic Instinct 2" (Sharon Stone). Understandably, he eventually found himself eager to tackle something more serious and meaningful.

"Gates," opening today in Los Angeles via IFC Films after its New York premiere last week, is an Adirondack Pictures, BBC Films and U.K. Film Council presentation in association with Filmstiftung NRW and Invicta Capital of a CrossDay/Egoli Tossell Production in association with BBC Films. Starring are John Hurt, Hugh Dancy and Clare-Hope Ashitey. Produced by David Belton, Pippa Cross and Jens Meurer, it was written by David Wolstencroft from an original story by Belton and Richard Alwyn. Belton had started developing the material after reporting from Rwanda during the genocide there in 1994 as a correspondent for "BBC Newsnight."

I was happy to have the opportunity to focus recently on the making of the film with Caton-Jones, who called me from London. "I was living in New York at the time and had been in Hollywood for a few years and I was kind of looking for something a little more substantial to do than just straight entertainment, which dragged me back towards Europe, " he said in an accent that leaves no question that he's a native of Scotland.

"When I read this screenplay I realized I kind of knew nothing about the subject matter. It had not been filmed (and there hadn't been) any great public debate about what happened in Rwanda. And I realized I knew nothing. I figured though if I'm quite smart and I knew nothing I'm pretty sure there's a lot of other people out there that didn't know anything about the detail of what happened. And really that was the beginning of it. I just got kind of angry as a citizen because (if) you're a filmmaker you get the opportunity to try to do something about that."

This was back in 2004. After getting interested in the material, he explained, "I came back to London and met with the BBC and the Film Council. It was an extremely low budget film and their question, of course, was, 'You've been in Hollywood. Can you do it for this amount of money?' They originally wanted to make it in South Africa and I didn't feel comfortable with that because, first of all, I can tell the difference between European cities and North American cities. Africa is a huge continent and I'm sure there are big differences culturally and geographically between (cities there). I had never been in Rwanda so I knew nothing of them, but I went out on a (reconnaissance trip) and I was amazed at how functional a society it was. I felt very strongly that if you're making a story about this subject matter you have to make it with the people that it happened to."

It's an interesting point of view particularly because "Hotel Rwanda," the drama about Rwanda that received three Oscar nominations in 2005, was actually shot in South Africa. "I understood why they went there," Caton-Jones noted. "To some extent, the differences between the films are one of approach. They were making a more Hollywood type film and to that end the veracity of the locale was not uppermost in their mind. For me, though, because I had less money, what I was trying to get was a far more accurate portrayal of what actually happened. Even though there was no (filmmaking) infrastructure there (and that) made it more difficult for me, there were untold details given over to the film."

Asked how the project moved ahead, Caton-Jones joked, "Well first they said, 'You've got to take a pay cut.' Essentially what I did was I went out for a five days scout and I went to the places that the story had covered and I met people (who had been involved). The BBC were wavering about whether they should make it or not at that point. I felt somehow I had to try to convince them. What I did was while I was there I quickly ran around with my camcorder and I interviewed survivors and I shot the city of Kigali." Kigali was where the Ecole Technique Officielle school was located that was used as a UN army base and then became a refugee camp. In 1994 over 2,500 Tutsi citizens took refuge there from machete wielding Hutu militia soldiers. Ultimately the UN abandoned those refugees and almost all of them were slaughtered by the Hutu. All told, some 800,000 people were killed during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

"On the plane back from Kigali," he continued, "I edited it on my laptop and by the time I arrived (in London) I had a presentation for them. Everyone thinks they know Africa through what they see on TV and what have you, but actually when you go there it's quite different. It's everything you've seen, but so much more. It's a completely functioning society. This was not a leap in the dark. It was not an act of insanity to go to this country. It was quite safe. It was actually safer than London, I found. Absolutely safe. You could wander about in the middle of the night and be completely safe.

"What makes it special as a country, of course, is that it's suffered this unimaginable trauma and no one wants any more trouble. They just want to get on with their life and keep their kids and have a roof over their heads. So it's completely safe, which is the opposite, of course, from what everyone assumes. So basically I made this presentation and that was the thing that got them all jumping up and down saying, 'We can make it and we should make it.'"

At that point, of course, they needed a screenplay. "David Wolstencroft was a very good television writer. He came up with the TV (series for BBC-1) 'Spooks,' but he'd never done any feature film work," Caton-Jones said. "Having been out talking to the actual survivors, I was very keen to take the detail of what I was discovering and put that in the script. Obviously, you have to invent dialogue and characterization, but the events that happened were extremely well documented by a group called Africa Rights Watchers. I had almost a minute by minute timeline of what happened and first hand accounts of it. So the events and the details in the film are extremely accurate. The characterizations, of course, you have to take some license with. But the events are depicted almost to the inch of where they happened and what had occurred.

"In Rwanda there was not only no filmmaking, but almost no entertainment culture. You go there and there's very little indigenous music because of what happened in 1994. So many people were killed that there's (no music) in the culture. They listen to music from outside (the country). But one thing I was very keen to do was to mix professionals with real survivors. So essentially I cast a bunch of professionals, some from Uganda and some (who) were exiled and living in London and an awful lot of locals with no acting experience whatsoever. Of course, there's good and bad in that sometimes. The lack of experience is tricky, but some of them are so natural that it forces the professional actors to lose their (acting) tricks and to behave in a much more realistic way."

Shooting started in Rwanda in June 2004 and lasted 45 days: "There was so little money it was all (the shooting days) there was going to be. If you didn't get it, it wasn't in the film. I knew that was the deal going in. Once you approach it that way, it's quite exhilarating. For instance, if we needed light of any height we would have people climb up trees and hoist lights into the trees. It was very good getting back to basics actually. It was almost like being in film school. You used every trick that you'd ever learned in Hollywood about the manipulation of extras and how to make it look bigger than it actually is. But you were doing it on such a small scale.

"One of the great benefits of doing it with a smaller amount of people is the amount of commitment that you get from cast and crew and because of the subject matter, the combination was really intoxicating for everyone. It really meant an incredible amount to the Rwandans because one of the things that you get a great sense of in Rwanda is this palpable feeling of having been abandoned by everybody at the time. And here we were actually coming there and asking them, 'What happened? How did this happen? Was it like this? Well, now you tell me.' And the sense of commitment from them was just phenomenal."

Looking back at production and what was most challenging, Caton-Jones summed it up by saying, "On the one hand, you had to be extraordinarily sympathetic and careful about dealing with people's history. It's easy for people to sit in Hollywood or London and watch a film and say it's this or it's that, good or bad, but my job was really to reflect quite sensitively what these people had gone through for an audience that could not imagine what they came up against. There were many, many instances of tears on the set from people who were having a tough time reenacting what they were doing or what had happened to them or to their families. And all that in tiny, tiny ways ended up in the film."

Asked what he hopes "Gates" will achieve, Caton-Jones replied, "Well, it's like the Holocaust. I really don't feel that you can have too many reminders of what happened. History is cyclical. To say this won't happen again, of course, is naive. Human beings are human beings and as soon as we forget about the way we treat each other, of course, it will happen again -- even though we say, 'Never again.' So for me, all I ever wanted it to do was to be part of a patchwork quilt of knowledge (about) something that we turned our backs on. For me, I was rewarded more than I could ever dream of by the experience I had and the connection with the people that I made. I was simply the conduit and if you want to know what it felt like in Rwanda at the
time this film will show you. There may be things you like or dislike about it, but the one thing the Rwandans have agreed on is that this is how it felt."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Mar. 31, 1989's column: "Hollywood handicappers have once again learned the hard way that it doesn't pay to predict what's going to happen Oscar night.

"While this year's Academy Awards did bring the anticipated -- and well deserved -- victories for 'Rain Man,' they also brought some stunning surprises in prime categories like actress, supporting actress and supporting actor.

"The critics are already picking apart the various elements of the Allan Carr-produced show and telecast. That's obviously a matter of personal taste. I can understand those who weren't knocked out with the opening Snow White number. On the other hand, I think the number featuring 19 young potential stars worked quite well...

"The first indication that there were some surprises ahead came with the supporting actress nod to Geena Davis for her fine performance in 'The Accidental Tourist.' The conventional wisdom had been that Sigourney Weaver would win for 'Working Girl' because she wasn't going to win Best Actress for her excellent performance in 'Gorillas in the Mist.' When Davis' name was announced, those who had envisioned a Weaver win now thought Weaver might be getting Best Actress, therefore explaining why she wasn't getting the supporting award. Of course, for that to happen the Oscar couldn't be going to Glenn Close, who was strongly favored among the handicappers for her outstanding work in 'Dangerous Liaisons.'

"Well, that thinking turned out to be half right. When the Best Actress Oscar was finally handed out it didn't go to Close -- nor did it go to Weaver. The win by Jodie Foster for 'The Accused' was a major surprise to those who had figured the Academy would vote for an older nominee who'd been around the track more times and was now due to be recognized. In Foster's case, the handicappers were misled by concentrating on her youth while the Academy members focused only on the excellence of her performance...

"Another major surprise came with the supporting actor award to Kevin Kline for 'A Fish Called Wanda.' Here the conventional wisdom had Martin Landau as the sentimental favorite to win for 'Tucker: The Man and His Dream...'"

Update: Academy voters continue to surprise us to this day, proving nobody really knows anything when it comes to handicapping the Oscars -- although it's certainly fun to try!

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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