If you know me, you know that I do not do camping or extended periods of time in the woods. There are just too many things that are hidden in the shadows, and I am not here for it at all. So you can only imagine how terrifying the new ecological horror film, Gaia (our review), is for me. Filmed in a primordial forest in South Africa, Gaia is about two survivalists who live off-the-grid and their devotion to the forest. I am a big believer in respecting the forest and leaving it as it is, because you never know who or what is living there. When you enter woodlands, you’re entering their home. This movie reminds you of that, and it is so fucking scary. To celebrate the Hulu premiere of the film for Huluween, I chatted with Director Jaco Bouwer about filming during the pandemic, what draws him to horror, and shooting in the woods.
PopHorror: What intrigued you about the script and made you want to be a part of the project?
Jaco Bouwer: We explored a more conceptual aspect of nature as the antagonist [protagonist]. The writer, my long time collaborator, Tertius Kapp, and I set some parameters that defined the foundation of the project. We wanted to explore the horror genre, nature being the main location and character; essentially a chamber piece of three characters. When we started working on Gaia, we spoke about the fine distinction between terror and horror: terror existing as the dread of anticipation—before the horrifying experience—and the horror of confronting an unspeakable fear, whether it’s a monster, extreme suffering, or our own demise. Initially, we spoke about taking a simple parable or myth and built on that. We were both attracted to the Abrahamic tale of the binding, the sacrifice of his son, Isaac, and from there, many drafts later, Gaia was born.
What sets this project apart from previous work, is that I, Tertius Kapp, and cinematographer, Jorrie van der Walt, undertook the risk to create the initiative and to produce ourselves. Most of our work is only available on local channels, but with Gaia, it’s the first time we have an opportunity to share our work on an international platform, and so far, the response has been phenomenal.
PopHorror: That is really amazing! I know that the film was partially filmed during the pandemic. What were some of the challenges you met and what changes needed to be made? Do you feel like it affected the film overall?
Jaco Bouwer: After a week into filming, production was halted due to the outbreak of Covid. We had to stop filming and were only able to pick up four months later. Suddenly what was fiction became a strange form of reality and a pre-apocalyptic film started to resonate more with cast and crew alike. We experience a searing grief and horror when the collapse flickers into view. We find it very difficult to contemplate, to think the unthinkable, to navigate the almost unbearable feelings which arise in each of us.
I don’t think the performances in Gaia would’ve had the same emotional undercurrent if it wasn’t for the pandemic and the interruption of production by the pandemic. My vision to construct a paranoid chamber piece about trust, betrayal, and survival was subconsciously fed by this new added sense of fear and uncertainty during that first outbreak of the Covid virus in the beginning of 2020 that manifested in cast and crew alike.
Not knowing if we would be able to finish the film. When the Covid lockdown was announced, we had only half a movie in the can. Not knowing where the pandemic would go and then four months later trying to juggle availabilities, considering a reshoot with new cast, etc. Due to Covid, some of our “epic” forest locations that formed part of National Parks fell through, so we had to find new locations on a private forest. But the greatest personal challenge was to keep the performances consistent considering such a significant hiatus in between. For example, an actor would enter a door, but the interior was shot more than three months later and vice versa.
PopHorror: Gaia is so visually stunning, and the scenery is just beautiful. How did you prepare for filming in the woods? Is it more challenging shooting a film outside?
Jaco Bouwer: We shot this film in a primordial forest in South Africa where you could really get the sense of something there that’s… older, greater than humanity.
I attempted a stripped-down exercise in cinematic exposition, to avoid the horror genre’s shaky-cam clichés but to approach the tale in a more classical, visual style. Lengthy still frames call on the sublime and the slowly encroaching object, taking visual inspiration from Brueghel, Goya and images of the Old Testament.
The location where we shot all the Gaia tree scenes was about a four km trek by foot only through the forest and on a slope of about 50 degrees. It was so slippery that I myself had three wipeouts on the first day. All gear and camera had to be carried down that valley and every time we did a new camera setup or angle, all had to be moved again. We were really fighting with nature on those days, especially shooting one of the main action fight sequences on this steep incline.
Yes, there is a strong and very visual storytelling element to the film. But my actors really stepped up to the challenge and were so professional and prepared that it translates these emotional undercurrents in the film, and of course our main character, nature, also contributed to this visual world. Even in the editing process, I found myself removing even more dialogue because the communication and tension was already there and communicated non-verbally.
PopHorror: What draws you to the horror genre?
Jaco Bouwer: Horror films are the best political commentary of our times. With horror, you can almost literalize feelings and go down a more expressionist route telling a story. Perhaps my background in theater informs insisting on tone and ambiance rather than traditional narrative.
I wanted the audience to have a visceral experience, to almost feel how it grows under the skin, not unlike seeing a scene unfolding in front of you in a theatrical context.
PopHorror: What’s up next for you?
Jaco Bouwer: There are a few projects in different stages of development. The same team that made Gaia possible would like to endeavor to make an Antarctic sci-fi horror. Personally, I would still really like to engage with an intimate period piece horror.
PopHorror: One last question for you, Jaco. What’s your favorite scary movie?
Jaco Bouwer: The Shining.
Thank you so much, Jaco, for taking the time to speak with us. Be sure to catch Gaia on Hulu now!