Jaco Bouwer Interview: Gaia | Screen Rant

Jaco Bouwer is the director of Gaia, a South African horror movie with heady themes of environmentalism and spirituality. Gaia follows Monique Rockman's Gabi, an employee of South Africa's forestry service who, along with her partner Winston, ends up getting lost in the woods. There, she encounters a man and his son living as survivalists alongside something much more terrifying.

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Screen Rant spoke with Jaco Bouwer about how his movie is actually a pre-apocalyptic tale, what it was like to film on location in the "primordial" forests, and the duality of nature as both good and evil.

Screen Rant: Gaia has many themes – environmentalism, spirituality. Why choose horror to tell this tale? 

Jaco Bouwer: Horror films are the best political commentary of our times. With horror, you can literalize feelings, spell out fears in allegory, and go down a more expressionist route telling a story. Perhaps theater background informs insisting on tone and ambiance, rather than traditional narrative. Being implicit in the space the story is unfolding in, and being unable to escape it.

It is sometimes difficult to keep thinking about and discussing the issues we are facing regarding the continuation of life on this planet as we pollute the oceans, cause mass deforestation and release ever-increasing amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, leading to an increase in temperature, turbulent weather and hurtling the planet towards crisis, without our minds entertaining the horror of our own apocalypse.

In a sense, a reverse horror story, questioning who the monster truly is - the creature outside? Barend? Gabi? The world out there is terrifying, but the real enemy is within. Essentially, it is a twisted love letter to nature - whom we are the toxic partner to. And imagining a world where humans are not the center of existence anymore.

There’s a clear biblical reference here with the Binding of Isaac and Abraham sacrificing his son. Starting from there, how do you warp that parable to fit within Gaia and how do you approach directing something like that? 

Jaco Bouwer: The binding (Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac) is a potent metaphor of the current state of the politics of ecology. Humanity, empowered to alter the world in ways thought impossible before, is led by a generation fully prepared to sacrifice its own offspring.

Gaia became a portrait of theological paranoia: what is to become of humanity once it discovers it has been expelled from Eden? Or, even more: that Eden itself has expelled it, turned against it, and is taking its revenge? Straddling the line between fantasy and reality, we are left to wonder how much of the characters’ monstrous vision of nature is real, and how much is a psychotic vision. Their descent into madness is a desire for chaotic salvation, a desire to become animal, a gospel that replicates like a disease. Here lies the core of the film: Gaia is an ecological horror and a survivalist drama that unfolds into a nightmarish religious parable.

We explored a more conceptual aspect of nature as the antagonist (protagonist). The writer (and my long-time collaborator) Tertius Kapp and myself, 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 3 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 - 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.

I attempted a stripped-down exercise in cinematic exposition compared to Rage being a bit more explicit. I also felt the need to avoid a 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 abject, taking visual inspiration from [Pieter] Brueghel, Goya, and images of the Old Testament.

From what I’ve read, you shot on location in South Africa’s Garden Route region. Can you talk a little bit about what that was like? Did it help you get into the mindset of the film?

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.

Filming took place in the Nature’s Valley and Tsitsikamma forest area over a three weeks period. We always knew that the shoot would be very physical for the crew and cast. Some locations were only reachable by foot with no vehicle access. sometimes trekking with gear on foot for more than 6 KM into a valley or shooting on an inclined slope of about 50 degrees (It was so slippery that I myself had 3 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.

But the greatest personal challenge, however, was to keep the performances consistent considering such a significant hiatus in between, eg. an actor would enter a door, but the interior was shot more than four months later and vice versa.

The monsters in the movie reminded me a bit of a videogame – the Clickers in The Last of Us. Were those a reference for Gaia or did you have any other references for these terrifying creatures?

Jaco Bouwer: We were inspired by seldom observed parts of nature. The carpenter ant, for example, becomes infected by the “zombie ant fungus” of the genus Ophiocordyceps. Inserting itself into the ant, the fungus takes over its autonomy, hijacking its central nervous system to force it to lock its jaws on a plant, while the fungus grows a spore-releasing stalk from the ant’s head, replicating itself into the ant colony, reproducing exponentially. We found this combination of animal and plant inspiring in our research and portrayal of Gaia.

I wasn’t a gamer until before lockdown when I also played Last of Us. So my introduction to the clickers in Last of Us only came in the hiatus of shooting and by then most of the creature scenes were already shot. There were 5 different permutations of the Apostles/monsters as we called them but only two made it to the final cut which does resonate a lot with Last of Us but if you start combining fungal growths and human anatomy I guess similarities start happening.

We never see this mysterious forest god that Barend references throughout the film and at certain points, it’s unclear if there is an actual monster-type thing living under the forest or if it’s just a reference to the world at large. Was there ever a point where Gaia was going to reveal some sort of monster or was it always meant to be an offscreen presence? 

Jaco Bouwer: I think to attempt to portray a feeling of the sublime or abject, it is almost impossible to show but rather to be provoked through the imagination. So for me, it was never my intention to “show” the god but rather to hint and provoke through showing the micro world, hence the spores and fungal gills inside the hollow.

The production process was interrupted due to the pandemic. Did anything about Gaia change in the time you had to stop shooting?

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 3 months later, and 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 newly 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 COVID lockdown was announced we had only half a movie in the can. Not knowing where the pandemic would go and then 3 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 private forest. But mainly for me was to keep the performances consistent which were now stretched out over more than 3 months break in-between.

What’s so amazing about Gaia, and the way you’ve shot it, is that even some of the more terrifying images are strikingly beautiful and some of the more beautiful images become quietly sinister. How do you strike that balance? 

Jaco Bouwer: I constantly wanted the audience in this push and pull state of the beauty and horror in an attempt to portray or conjure the sublime. I tend to favor tone and ambiance, rather than traditional narrative, which creates the currents for the genre to move towards. I wanted the audience to have a visceral experience, to almost feel how it grows under their skin.

Nature is the antagonist of the film, but there’s also an interesting dichotomy here because mother nature is essentially defending herself against the human race. Can you talk a little bit about that duality? 

Jaco Bouwer: Nature is the main character of the film, but here it can be seen as the antagonist from a sapient point of view. The villain and the hero in one. At the same time earth and nature have our sympathy.

The ending is intentionally jarring with Stefan being seen in this cityscape. How did you decide on that final shot and what does it mean for the fate of the world? 

Jaco Bouwer: Yes we’ve spent the entire film in nature without much technology or man-made structure except the cabin of the two survivalists so I wanted it to be jarring for the audience as if someone puts the lights on in a club after a night out. It is a pre-apocalyptic film in the sense that it pre-empts the end of humanity and the anthropocene era where humans are not the center of existence. A final glimpse of the inevitable.

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Gaia is now streaming on Hulu as part of their HULUWEEN event.

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