“My biggest challenge from the outset has been how to make the audience not hate Freddy,” says Rohan Dickson, writer-creator of Desert Rose. “Many people in South Africa know what it is to have a father that abandoned them. It is hard to get the audience to empathise, or at least not hate this character throughout. The characters all fight for him (and ask), ‘When is he coming back? Is he going to help us?’ But if the audience hates him, if that is the general trajectory the whole way through? It's not going to work. That was the hardest part.”
Want to know how Rohan wrote himself out of that corner? Read on as he talks about casting Neil Sandilands as Greyling family dad Freddy, making him an all-out selfish piece of garbage… and then creating the desert songs that could be his redemption.
““I think men do this in real life. I think they just selfishly go, ‘This is what I want,’ and then they leave. But these people leave children behind, going. ‘Now what?’””
Freddy the absent father
Desert Rose is based on family stories that Rohan heard growing up. “The male figure that abandons the family is the essence of what I remember as a child. That is the impulse, leaving the females, whether it's the matriarch or the sisters, to fend for themselves. That was the very first idea of the whole thing – and the questions that come with it: How could you abandon us and why? How do you do that? Do you explain it (to the people you’re leaving)? Do you just leave 1 night? Is alcohol the reason that happens? Is it a disappointing career? A disappointing relationship? Every aspect of how the father figure abandons their family continues to be fascinating for me,” says Rohan.
In Rohan’s mind, Freddy walking out on the family comes down to cold-blooded selfishness. “I think men do this in real life. I think they just selfishly go, ‘This is what I want,’ and then they leave. But these people leave children behind, going. ‘Now what?’
“He falls in love with another woman, and instead of breaking that off, he chooses that. He also chooses this life of being a musician on the road, which he doesn't want his family to be part of,” Rohan explains. “I don't think he's thinking, ‘I must get out of the way so my family can fruitfully blossom in my absence.’ No, he's selfishly going, ‘I'm sick of being tied to debt, to this ground, this farm, this responsibility, and I want something else. I want the affirmation of another woman, or the affirmation of people listening to my music, so I'm going.’ That's why he goes.”
“There's a scene in 1 episode where he explains to them (the family) why he's leaving, and he says, ‘You're free of me. I've done my bit. You don't need me anymore. I'm gonna go do this.’ And they assume that their mom is going with him, and he says, ‘No, I've asked your mom to stay here.’ So, he selfishly decides to go and explore this new life.”
“He's a hard character to like, but I maintain that as soon as a character like that starts to sing, especially with truth, art is able to redeem,” Rohan muses. “Maybe. It's a question. Can art redeem a darkness inside someone?”
““Freddy’s a dark and unlikable character in many, many, many ways. In fact, aside from the music, I can't think of a single reason why he is likeable.””
Neil & Freddy
“Freddy’s a dark and unlikable character in many, many, many ways. In fact, aside from the music, I can't think of a single reason why he is likeable. But the music is the key because it's the redemptive power of music,” says Rohan. “When a musician is playing a beautiful, certain kind of song, which I always imagined to be a desert folk song, it's very hard to hate them, because there's so much soul and there's so much truth.”
It was therefore essential to cast someone who was as much a musician as they were an actor.
Enter Neil Sandilands.
“Freddy is based directly on my grandfather. But I had to let go of that, because Neil is so idiosyncratic. Neil is his own person, creatively. I would say he reads the scripts, loves the story or it resonates with something within him, and then he brings himself into it. He brings so much of himself and an intensity. He was so different, physically, in so many ways,” says Rohan. “So I had to get out of my own way, and just let him do his thing. And now I can only see the character as Neil and his version. A talented, empathetic, sensitive actor can make your writing into something quite incredible.”
“Neil's performance, I think, helps with the empathy one feels for Freddy. Physically, he's not a big guy, he's not an imposing, rough thug. In real life, he's quite small, and he's got this huge beard, it takes up almost a quarter of his whole body space! Neil's face and eyes are intense, but I don't think they garner immediate hatred when you look at him,” says Rohan.
“Making Freddy a musician was part of trying to really detach (the character from the real-life inspiration), and the music came from Neil. He used the setting, which he knew very well. He becomes part of the environment. You look at him, and you think he could have been living here before we even arrived here as a production. He is of this earth, and of this story,” says Rohan.
The desert song
“In the script, I outlined the kind of songs that I imagined he would be singing, but in terms of the tone of them, not the lyrics, not the music,” explains Rohan. “I would write the scenes as though the characters were playing in front of an audience, and I would make it very clear how the audience were reacting to the music. They’re uninvolved, or they're disconnected, they're throwing bottles at the stage, that kind of thing. The drama was clear in terms of the effect of the music. I've mapped out the trajectory of him as a musician, and the drama of him as a musician, and how music affects him and his family. I would give a sense of the tone of the song, like it's an upbeat, kind of rah-rah thing. Everything was there except for the most vital part, which was the music and the lyrics of the song. The beautiful thing is Neil's music, which goes throughout the series.
“We would have been lost if it hadn't been Neil. The music was exciting because Neil brought Theo Crous and Frazer Barry to it, some musicians who were really amazing. And many members of our cast are professional singers, so the music was the most exhilarating part. That was something I imagined in the story, but I didn't know how it would play out.”
Rohan tried writing lyrics for a Desert Rose song himself and found it’s a different skill set. “I did take a crack at writing some lyrics, which were beyond horrendous. They used what I'd written the lyrics I'd written in the auditions, and that's when I realised how horrendous they were,” he says, laughing. And due to the nature of auditions, Rohan got to enjoy that cringe feeling many, many times.
Watch Desert Rose Season 1 from Thursday, 2 June at 20:30 on M-Net, DStv Channel 101
“Every aspect of how the father figure abandons their family continues to be fascinating for me.” – Rohan Dickson.
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