Jaco Bouwer would like you to know that Gaia is not a response to the coronavirus. His dreamy horror movie, which hit VOD in Canada earlier this year, simply got lucky with its story of a ranger (Monique Rockman) who encounters father-and-son survivalists (Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk) living deep in the South African forest, and discovers a much more virulent threat lurking nearby.
“We were probably in development for about 10 months,” Bouwer says from his Cape Town home, explaining how the film’s eco-horror concept grew out of the budgetary need to make a small, manageable feature. “Maybe find something [for a] smaller cast, utilize nature in some way—let nature become a character.
“We started playing around with parables and myths and Biblical stories, and we got to Abraham and Isaac and the sacrifice,” he adds. “All those [things] came together, and the initial seed was planted. The more you do research and read—especially Tertius, he did a lot of research—you kind of pick up on the zeitgeist of the time.”
Production started in March of 2020—and stopped after just seven days, when South Africa went into national lockdown. Nearly half the film had been shot by that point.
“For about three months, we didn’t know if we would be able to pick it up or go forward with the actors’ availability, especially Monique,” he explains. “A movie that was supposed to be three weeks or less became like a six-month shoot.”
Production resumed in July, with the cast and crew facing the unique challenge of finishing scenes they’d started shooting months earlier. “It was quite tricky for me to just to keep the performance continuity,” Bouwer notes—to say nothing of the other complications.
“We lost some of our [more] epic locations due to COVID, because national parks were still under lockdown,” Bouwer says. “For the second leg, we had to find a lot of these extra locations in private forests. Some of them were so remote that we had to literally trek [in], with me carrying tripods and everybody jumping in and helping. It was just crazy, slipping and sliding in the mud and falling in the water.
“I’m just glad we were able to finish it, because there was a moment for about two to three months that it didn’t look good.”
And now, Gaia emerges into a world where its narrative of people trying to survive a virulent, lethal infection feels more relevant than its creators could ever have imagined.
“The themes and stuff that we touched on in the film, it’s almost becoming like reality. So it was, in that way, quite special—I mean, obviously not for the pandemic, but just that somehow we hit a nerve in some of the themes we were trying to tackle.”