Theresa Ryan – van Graan is a film producer. She heads up Penzance Films in conjunction with Oliver Hermanus and spent seven years as Head of Productions at Moonlighting Films. During this time, she was SA Production Executive on Season 4 of Homeland and actively involved in the servicing and pre-production of the films Invictus, Safe House, The Giver and Mad Max: Fury Road, amongst others. In addition to working with Oliver Hermanus on his previous film The Endless River, she is the co-producer of his latest film Moffie, which arrives in local cinemas on March 13th 2020.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I was always drawn to the arts. I did ballet, I was an ice skater, I did ice shows as a little girl in Durban. It always drew me in. Even when I got to Matric and I was, due to parent pressure, going to do a law degree, at the very last minute, I ended up doing a Bachelor of Arts and studying drama. It’s just something that has been in my blood. I’ve never gotten away from it. I think I also grew up in a home where my mother used to play a lot of old films. She always took me to the theatre as a child. I grew up with an affinity for the theatre because my mother had one as well.
What was your time like at drama school?
I studied at the University of Natal. The focus on that time as well was very much in terms of theater. There wasn’t very much else. The Film and Television sector was very tiny at the time, so there wasn’t really anything that one could study during a drama degree in terms of TV and Film. It was only much later that I fell into producing. Doing the drama degree was very much a lot more theory as opposed to anything else but I’m very glad to have had that background and that knowledge of having studied drama and wanting to be an actress myself. There’s a certain insight into the processes. As a producer, I find it integral because there is an insight into the process between the actor and the director. I am able to manage better from a producer’s point of view because I have some sort of understanding of that role. And I still do every now and then have a sneaky itch to do something myself again but for now, this is definitely where it’s at and where I’m most comfortable.
How did you get involved in the production side of things?
I was living in Johannesburg and a friend of mine was an editor and she worked for a company called Devereaux Harris & Associates who, at the time, had the contract for Channel O on DSTV and they did music videos and they needed some help. I got called in to go and help on a music video. The rest, as they say, is history. I went in as an art department assistant to help Leigh Ogilvie, who is now a very well known commercials director in South Africa and it was a music video for Johnny Clegg for a song called Crocodile Love. I was just so desperate to be involved in any way I possibly could that I drove across town to be there. I don’t even think I got paid. It was just a case of really wanting to be involved. After that experience with music videos and Channel O, I joined a company called Peak Viewing, which at the time were doing children’s feature films and that’s where my path with long-form feature films started. I fell in love with the process.
What was it that attracted you to Moffie?
I was on a sabbatical at the time that the project came about. I had been involved in Oliver’s last film, The Endless River, and subsequent to that, I had taken a sabbatical and actually moved out of Cape Town with my family and my two young sons and decided to take some time to be a mom. Oliver and I had obviously kept in contact during that time and I had been helping with various budgets and things like that for him. Eventually, last year, when they got to the point where they had done a long road of casting, they were kind of ready to go and he was like, “I need you to come back in now. You need to make a decision.” It was an easy decision to make but not without its challenges because I still live out of the city. I live in Stanford, just past Hermanus. My sons are 10 and 8 years old and they are in school in Hermanus, my husband also works in the industry but he works predominantly on international films overseas. So it had a whole bunch of challenges. I jumped in with both feet and it has been the most extraordinary year and a half of my life and probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. This film is one of the things, aside from my children, that I am most proud of.
What was the producing process like for this film and how does it compare to previous projects that you’ve been involved in?
There are obviously different kinds of versions of producing or different kinds of types of producing. I was brought in as the South African Co-Producer to line produce the film; do all the hiring of the crew, make sure that everything that we needed for Oliver’s vision was there. Eric Abraham and Jack Sidey are the main producers for the film and they were more involved in the creative decisions in terms of the casting [and] writing the script but my role was to just make it happen and to work very closely with Oliver to do that. We carefully curated the crew so that we had an environment in which we felt we could get the maximum. When I say maximum, I don’t mean overworked. I just mean that everyone was on the same page. That we could create something with people who were invested in the film. That’s what we did. Subsequently, I’ve continued on and have now taken on the role of distributing the film as well, which has been a challenge because I haven’t done that before. It’s been a bumpy ride but it’s also been exciting to have something new to figure out. It’s also been really great to follow a film all the way through to its distribution into cinemas.
It’s a very male-driven story which features a lot of men in leadership positions on the creative side of the film. You are one of very few women involved. Why this project and how do you feel this film benefitted by having your voice as one of its producers?
What’s interesting is that although during the filming process there were probably more men involved than women, in this process now, distributing, marketing and publicity of the film, it’s an entirely a women-driven team. We have a powerful women-driven design team, we have an amazing social media designer and our PR company is also driven by women. It’s actually quite weird how at this point all of a sudden there’s this corral of women who are driving this project forward. It’s been an amazing process actually. I feel very drawn towards this film because I am drawn to the meaning. My son is on the autism spectrum, high functioning but on the autism spectrum and so I have a great understanding of dealing with someone who is different and the social consequences of that have been a very hard road with my son. And so when I see something like this and I see people being shamed or publicly called out for their differences, I immediately kind of jump into tiger-mother mode. I just think about all of those women who sent their sons off. As a woman, my maternal instincts kicked in on this film and I just wanted to take care of all of these boys. The project is very close to my heart. It really is. The message is so much stronger than anything to do with anyone’s sexuality. It’s about being kind, it’s about inclusivity, all of those things. I think those insights are what, as a woman, I perhaps bring into the fold.
What do you hope this film contributes to the South African cinematic landscape?
Well first of all, to South Africa as a whole, I hope that this film stands up as a piece that transcends the cinematic landscape and that it is a piece that all South African’s get to see and look at a slice of history in South Africa. What we could only ask for is that it spurs a conversation about these topics and then, to answer your question in terms of the cinematic landscape, it also spurs a question about that in terms of the types of films we should make and how we can make them and taking them abroad, making sure we make films that are not just for a niche audience [and] that are interesting for a wider audience. There are another couple of films that have been doing exceptionally well at the moment. Another female producer, Cait Pansegrouw, her film This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection, has just won an award at Sundance. I think it’s important that we make content that can travel. From that perspective, I hope that our film somehow helps with that.
As a producer, what are the stories you feel you gravitate towards?
I definitely gravitate towards heart-driven narratives and of course narratives that pose a question. That is what I’d like to continue doing. I spent a lot of time doing service work for films and doing a lot of stuff where I wasn’t really interested in the content whereas this is different because I am completely invested in the content of the film. That’s what I want to continue doing. I really would only like to work on projects that I am able to feel resonate with me and that have some sort of heart or message or question that a society needs to hear or learn or ask itself.
What piece of advice would you give to a young female aspiring producer?
I spent a lot of time working for free, I did whatever I could. If you are passionate and you are inspired, you will find a way to make it happen. Meeting people is obviously a great thing. You have to put yourself out there but also know that when you put yourself out there, you are going to have people firing at you in all directions and it is more difficult as a woman to be taken seriously in these roles. Every day one has to be cognizant of how you act and how you behave on social media and what you wear and those sorts of things, as any woman does in society, but in this industry, it’s no different. I think all women, we need to raise our voices and say what we feel. It’s putting yourself out there.
Is there anything that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career that you know now?
That it’s a lot hard than it looks. In my 20’s it was fantastic. Now, as a mother with two kids, it’s a lot more challenging and I think that is what women face in this industry, especially as producers. How one has to marry your work with family, it is challenging. You do feel a lot of guilt a lot of the time because you are not sure if you are measuring up in either. You are weighing up how good a job you are doing vs how good as a mother you are doing. I think those things are typically the things that I wish I had known more about when I first went into it but at the same time, I’m also a believer in passion and that your passion just leads you.
What do you think is the biggest challenge that the South African film industry is currently facing?
There are so many challenges. Obviously, finance is always a biggie. Not everyone is able to have a film financed straight off the bat. We’ve got great stories to tell [and] we’ve got the people to do it. As I said before as well, it’s about coming up with the stories, getting the stories into play that can travel internationally. At the moment we haven’t quite pushed past that barrier. There are not a lot of films that have pushed past that barrier. I would say financing and being able to create content that can travel further than South Africa. The other thing obviously, of course, is the fact that South Africans still haven’t really learned to support South African cinema as well as they do international blockbusters. There is a balance in terms of trying to create something that brings South Africans into the cinema that can also travel. Those are all challenges that everyone is trying to work out as filmmakers in South Africa.
Moffie has done the rounds internationally and debuted abroad before being screened in South Africa. Why is that an avenue that the team has chosen to explore? How do you go about finding those international opportunities?
Oliver has always premiered his films internationally. That is obviously the most prestigious way to go. To have a platform like the Venice Film Festival or Sundance or the Berlinale, to be able to premiere there is prestigious. I think any filmmaker, no matter what country you come from, would like to premiere at one of those platforms. We submitted to the Venice Film Festival and we were accepted. We chose to go with that platform because it is so prestigious. It’s the oldest film festival in the world. All of those options are out there in terms of getting into those festivals but once again it does come down to the people that you know. It is about the contacts that you have, how you learn to move in those circles, attending the festivals, getting as much exposure as you can. That’s the reason we chose to go that route. There was no kind of question about it really. It was just that that was an opportunity for us but we are actually really excited about bringing it home now. We’ve had an amazing run internationally and we still have some festivals coming up. It’s one thing for the film to be lauded as a beautiful piece of art internationally but bringing it home to South Africans, where the message is so much closer to home, is huge for us. In the UK, we had some South Africans who saw it in the British Film Festival and they were very moved by it. We can’t wait to get more response from a South African audience. It does touch on so many issues that we are all aware of and a collective trauma that we all still suffer from.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Special thanks to Alishia van Deventer.
All photos were taken at the Fugard Theatre on February 27th 2020.