Michael Ashton used his time in prison to create this historical fiction about a brutal war criminal seeking amnesty from Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Michael Ashton's script for The Forgiven began as a stage play, which in many ways is no surprise. Set in South Africa in 1993, the crucial element of Roland Joffe's latest film, which opened this past Friday, is the intense, taut back-and-forth between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and (fictional) military hit squad member Piet Blomfeld, who is seeking amnesty from Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission for his numerous war crimes after the end of apartheid. Forest Whitaker's Tutu and Eric Bana's Blomfeld could not be more opposite, and yet by the end of the film, we come to see the common ground between the two of them as Blomfeld's backstory slowly finds its way into light.
Written while Ashton himself was completing a prison sentence and filmed in a real prison with prisoners as extras, the script is steeped in realistic and fairly unflinching looks at its characters and the story's circumstance—South Africa in the wake of a race war. Ashton has written dozens of stage plays, and this is his first screenplay. NFS caught up with him to discuss the writing process and how this project came to be.
NFS: How did you get inside the head of a character like Blomfeld?
MIchael Ashton: My research for the character was drawn from both real life experience within the prison in which I was a prisoner and reading about people who appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There were a number of truly unsavory characters in the prison with me. I observed their interactions and how, especially in the case of one man, despite lengthy sentences to be served, they considered themselves a cut above.
I also studied and read everything on one particular individual who was refused amnesty by the TRC and was later sentenced to a prison term of 222 years. Reading about his take on his crimes and his justification for apartheid was utterly fascinating, and I encompassed much of that within the fictitious character of Blomfeld.
"Characters should be multi-faceted, and that should be a guiding principle when writing them."
NFS: The relationship between Blomfeld and the 28 is an interesting one. Can you tell a little but about how it works, and how you developed it in the script?
Ashton: My starting point was my own experience within prison, where I was able to observe the gang structure that surrounded me. The gangs tend to dominate a certain part of the prison, and in England the gangs are not definitively racial. For example, the Muslim prisoners will welcome anyone into their gang regardless of ethnic background, so long as they embrace Islam. Inside a prison, gangs tend to be isolated from the outside world, so that when people are released in the main they drift away from the gang. This is not the case with the 28’s in South Africa.
The 28’s are a gang that maintains its power base outside in the community as well as within the prison. They are rigidly structured and their influence within the prison reflects a racial division which harks back to the days of apartheid. It is therefore natural that someone like Blomfeld would be an antagonistic opposite of the 28’s. It was easy to write the scenes between Blomfeld and the 28’s, as I had both Blomfeld and Mogomat [the leader of the gang] firmly in my head, and I knew that there would be mutual respect running alongside the hatred. Characters should be multi-faceted, and that should be a guiding principle when writing them.
NFS: What drew you to dramatic writing, in particular?
Ashton: I am not particularly devoted to dramatic writing and would write in other genres, but it just so happens that as I was in prison when I wrote The Archbishop and the Antichrist [the play upon which Ashton's screenplay is based], it was natural the play would reflect issues of forgiveness and redemption. Being high on the Asperger's scale means that I do suffer from long periods of depression, and this is naturally reflected in my work. As a matter of fact, if it were not for my wonderful Kim Ashton, I wouldn’t be here now. She has been my rock and the stabilizing influence in my life over a period of almost ten years.
Perhaps my background and life experiences are what draw me to write stories with strong human rights foundations. I have had a classical education and have a love for Shakespeare’s tragedies, so perhaps that is why I write drama.
"Making a feature film is a collaborative process and one in which the writer must surrender himself and his work into the hands of others."
NFS: What did you learn about the moviemaking process from working on this project?
Ashton: The first lesson I had in moviemaking came from the brilliant Roland Joffe, a gentle, highly intelligent man blessed with the virtue of infinite patience. He needed it with me. Lesson one, and the most important one, is that making a feature film is a collaborative process and one in which the writer must surrender himself and his work into the hands of others. What happens when you let go of what you have written, which of course is the base of the film, in the case of The Forgiven, is something magical. The input of so many creative experienced people, the director, the producers, the actors, the cameraman, coalesces into the final product.
NFS: What kind of advice would you give young screenwriters?
Ashton: My first piece of advice for first timers is to bear in mind that most producers and industry specialists get bombarded with scripts on a daily basis from people who firmly believe that their script is the next great thing the world needs and is waiting for. Most of the people you will be contacting simply don’t have the time, or inclination, to read your script, so my advice is that you master the art of the synopsis and the logline. A great logline creates interest and, followed up with a great synopsis or treatment, gets you into a high position with the people who can make it happen for you.
My next piece of advice, which applies particularly to playwriting, is make your work cost effective. A first feature or a stage production will have producers and artistic directors considering how much it will cost to make. Write with this firmly in mind. It is of course desirable to secure an agent or manager to get your work before the people holding the purse strings, but it is not absolutely necessary, especially if you can master the art of the synopsis and logline. I am fortunate in having my ex-wife Kim as my manager, which removes from me the burden of pushing my work or in fact doing anything during the practical mechanics of making the film. It leaves me free to sit down and write without distraction.
And finally, enter every competition out there regardless of the prize offered. Competition will widen your scope as many demand particular rules such as a ten-minute script or writing in a specific genre. Winning a competition adds meat to your writing CV and will give you experience of the process of bringing a story to life on the stage or the screen. So enter every competition you can source, in industry publications, on the internet, or wherever you can find them.