Gavin Hood guides Polish film out of wilderness

While making ”In Desert and Wilderness,” director Gavin Hood faced almost as many pitfalls as the movie’s put-upon protagonists. In the 2001 film, set in the 19th century, a teen-age Polish boy and a young English girl escape fanatic Arabic kidnappers and begin a dangerous trek across the Sudan, battling malaria, thirst and wild animals along the way.

First off, Hood was ignoring one of show business’ oldest adages — never work with kids or animals — by taking over filming of the novel by ”Quo Vadis” author Henryk Sienkiewicz from the original director, who had fallen ill a few days into the shoot.

Then, when the 39-year-old arrived from London, he had to surmount another barrier — language. ”In Desert and Wilderness” being a Polish production, the actors in the lead roles of Stas and Nel were Poles. Fortunately for the South African-born Hood, they spoke English as well as Polish. However the young South Africans playing Kali and Mea, who help Stas and Nel find their way home, did not speak a word of Polish and had to learn the language phonetically. Also, several other actors were Arabic and spoke neither English or Polish.

The Hollywood solution, says Hood over the phone from his Los Angeles home, would have been: ”Throw money at problem and it will go away.”

But working with only a $4.5 million budget — paltry by Hollywood standards but a princely sum for a Polish film — Hood learned to improvise. ”You hire a local crew,” he says. ”The common language is English.”

An even bigger problem, says Hood, was deciding how to present the sprawling story by Nobel Prize winner Sienkiewicz, which had been filmed once before in 1973. That version, says Hood, was ”more adult” and between three and four hours long. He had been hired to make a two-hour film with a PG rating in 10 weeks.

”The book is sharply divided into two halves,” Hood explains. ”The first is fairly brutal and realistic as it tells of the kidnapping and the children’s treatment at the hand of their captors. At one point Stas is kicked in the face by one of his captors. The second half is much more whimsical, almost a fantasy, with the children hooking up with an elephant and the little girl swinging from the trunk. I grew up in Africa and believe me, swinging from a trunk of an elephant does not happen.”

The solution to balancing fantasy and reality, Hood says, was seeing the story though the eyes of a child, specifically the young girl, Nel. ”Nel is wise beyond her years and that makes her believable rather than silly, even when she’s talking to an elephant,” says Hood.

Once that idea clicked, says Hood, other problems seemed less formidable. Still, while trying to preserve the book’s adventurous, coming-of-age spirit, Hood had to jettison some of parts of it. ”Many of the concepts frankly are dated,” Hood says. ”For example, in the book, the young Polish kid converts Kali to Catholicism, and he goes back and converts his village.”

Hood points out that while his producers insisted the religious aspect of the book be in the film, ”I tried to bring in a slightly different religious belief. … The children learn from each other. Stas prays to God to spare Nel when she falls ill. Kali prays to his ancestors.”

Working with elephants, lions, horses, donkeys, cheetahs, camels and fish didn’t faze Hood. ”I grew up around that,” he says. ”My dad was a nature photographer. I had some familiarity with the environment and was comfortable with the location. … I pretty much had lived this story.”

Nevertheless the animals posed some interesting challenges. In one scene a lion was supposed to circle a tree where the children have taken refuge during a thunderstorm. ”The rain machines only cover a limited area,” says Hood, ”and lions aren’t stupid. They can see where it’s raining and where it’s not. So we had to put dead chickens behind branches to try and encourage the lion to come under the tree.”

In another scene, an elephant had to be coaxed to extend its trunk to sniff Nel. ”We had to put fruit underneath her wardrobe,” says Hood.

And the first time Hood filmed the scene of Kali talking to a fish he pulls from the water, ”the fish was so stunned, it looked like all we got was a dead fish. We didn’t know water was rushing through his gills too fast.”

For his effort, ”In Desert and Wilderness” has become the third-highest grossing film in Polish history and last year won several awards at European film festivals. In America, after the Roxy date, ”In Desert and Wilderness” will be screened at the Chicago Children’s Film Festival.

Hood has worked as a stage and TV actor and scriptwriter in South Africa and Britain and landed small roles in 1994’s ”Kickboxer 5,” 1991’s ”American Kickboxer” and 1990’s ”Curse 3: Blood Sacrifice,” which were filmed overseas by American companies.

But he has made his biggest impact as screenwriter, producer and director of 1999’s ”A Reasonable Man,” in which he co-starred with fellow South Africa native Nigel Hawthorne (”The Madness of King George”).

”It was about a ‘hood boy charged with the murder of a baby whom he believed was an evil spirit,” says Hood, ”It posed some interesting ethical questions.”

After the film was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, Hood, an ardent admirer of Sidney Lumet, Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick, was named to a 10 Directors to Watch list and subsequently got his green card. ”I knew I had to live in America,” he says. ”After all, this is the home of film.”

By Len Righi, of The Morning Call