JAMIE UYS: HE’S BEEN CRAZY ABOUT ‘GODS’
“The Gods Must Be Crazy,” the affectionate comedy about a Bushman encountering the modern world at its least ept and civilized, is now well into its eighth month at the Music Hall Theater in Beverly Hills, an amazing although not yet unprecedented run. The movie turns out to be another of those overnight film successes in which, however, the night was 30 years long.
Jamie Uys (pronounced “oyce”), the gray-bearded 64-year-old former mathematics teacher from South Africa who wrote, produced, directed and edited “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” was in Los Angeles for a few days trying to recruit a little help for his next film.
“ ‘The Gods’ took me four years to make,” Uys said at breakfast one morning, “because I was doing it all myself. It’s too long and too hard. I thought I’d try to find a little creative collaboration, though I’ve not had great luck in the past.” He also has suffered two heart attacks during the editing of his films, so he has additional reasons for needing to share the load.
His next film will again feature the Bushman with the unpronounceable name who starred in “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” The name is N!xau, in which both the exclamation point and the “x” represent clicks.
“The bush people have 21 different clicks,” Uys says. “My grandchildren have learned to make five or six of them. I haven’t been able to get any of them right.” He makes a tentative sound that suggests what the cartoonists used to render as “Tsk tsk.” It is a moist click.
Uys and his wife were both teaching mathematics in Johannesburg, but in 1949, after three years of it, he decided he wasn’t a teacher and he and his father-in-law bought a ranch in the bush country near the Botswana border.
“My brother, who was a photographer, said he had a chance to borrow a movie camera, and why didn’t I write something and we’d make a movie. I did, but then it turned out that he couldn’t borrow the camera after all. So I bought a windup Bolex 16 millimeter and my wife and I started making the film ourselves.”
It was, in fact, much the same story that Uys filmed again later as “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” A shy and bumbling scientist in the bush, played in the original version by Uys himself, is asked to go meet and fetch the new schoolmarm, played by Mrs. Uys.
“We photographed each other. When we were both on the screen, we taught a young black boy to run the camera.”
Uys also bought what he thinks may have been one of the first tape recorders in South Africa (the camera was silent) and was able to dub the dialogue and have it transferred to an optical sound track.
“It took us two years, and I ended up broke and in debt. Sold the ranch. But a guy started taking the film around to the villages in a truck, with a projector. It caught on and made a hell of a lot of money.” It was called, translated from Afrikaans, “Deep in the Heart of the Bush Country.”
Encouraged by its success, mathematician-rancher became movie maker, specializing in comedy and working first in Afrikaans only, then in both Afrikaans and English versions. He caught the attention of international distributors and although “The Gods Must Be Crazy” is his first American success, it is not his first American release. Joe Levine distributed “Dingaka,” a comedy-drama Uys made in 1964 with Juliet Prowse and the late Stanley Baker (the only time, Uys says, he used stars). And Warners released his “Animals Are Beautiful People,” which did well everywhere except in the United States, possibly, Uys thinks, because it was handled as a four-wall saturation booking at a time when the four-wall nature pictures had acquired a bad name.
“Joe Levine used to tell me not to make comedies because comedy varies from country to country. But I couldn’t believe it. If you do it right, comedy’s universal. Topical comedy, that’s another thing.
“You wrote that I must have seen every American comedy ever made, and you blew my cover completely. Of course I did--I grew up on American comedies. The whole world grew up on American comedies.
“People sometimes ask me what directors influenced me. It wasn’t the directors; we didn’t think about them. It was Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy and, of course, Charlie Chaplin. They were characters you cared about, and if you laughed at them, it was because you felt sorry for them, you sympathized with them. Oh, didn’t Chaplin try to tug your heartstrings with the little guy.”
Although “The Gods Must Be Crazy” seems the gentlest and most understanding of films, it has drawn anti-apartheid pickets in some cities where it has played, including, briefly, Los Angeles.
“There was a story that they invited the pickets in to see the film in New York, and they stopped picketing,” Uys says. “I wish I thought it were true, but it’s a little too pat, I’m afraid.”
He regards himself as being, like so many of his colleagues, caught powerlessly in the middle of a situation of unbearable complexity. “I feel such sorrow,” he says, “for those on both sides. There’s still some good will on both sides, in fact, if only someone knew how to use it.”
Meantime, he’s done another story for N!xau. “I realized I hadn’t got anything like his full potential in ‘Gods.’ He’s an actor of magical gifts and great intelligence, with a born aristocratic dignity.”
In Los Angeles, Uys was casting about for a couple of players, but no comedians.
“I never use comedians when I do comedy,” Jamie Uys says. “They spoil the fun.”