‘Moffie’ Screenwriter Jack Sidey on Going From a Production Coordinator to Full-Fledged Producer

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Photo Source: Courtesy of IFC Films

“Moffie,” an IFC Films release hitting theaters April 9, represents a lot of firsts for BAFTA nominee Jack Sidey as both his feature film screenwriting and producing debut. That it’s a queer-tinged war drama set in 1980s South Africa didn’t exactly make that feat any easier for the former production coordinator. Here, Sidey offers his best advice for moving up the production ladder and describes how he navigated the age-old film production adage: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

“The best way to learn writing is not to read books on writing, but to read great screenplays.”

Starting from the writing perspective, since this is your feature length screenplay debut, why was this the story you wanted to tell? 
I had worked at Working Title for years. I joined a producer called Eric Abraham at Portobello, and when I got there, he had already optioned the rights to this book called “Moffie.” I gave it a read and immediately connected to the idea in there, which was the army and this society as a sort of cult that breeds men to be a certain way. As the grandson of two incredible Holocaust survivors, I’ve always been fascinated by the question of how you got a generation willing to do such terrible things. It’s not like there were generations of Germans who just woke up one day and were born to be evil. So I sort of connected to it in that way; [but] the original intention was not for [co-writer and director] Oliver Hermanus and I to write it. We tried a couple of writers who brought amazing things to it; but ultimately, over the course of something like a two-year development process, I think we realized we really knew the story we were trying to tell. And so we took it on ourselves. 

This was also your first time as a feature film producer; what were some of the biggest challenges you ran into in the producorial sense? 
A lot of the practicals. Making a low-budget period war drama is definitely not an easy thing to do. Fortunately, we had an amazing South African co-producer who made the impossible possible. But, yeah, making movies in South Africa is definitely an experience for a Brit! We had snakes, spiders, wildfires, flash floods, gale-force winds—anything and everything that could have disrupted our shoot happened along the way.

In what ways did your extensive experience as a production coordinator prepare you for making this movie? 
I would say: Whatever scale of movie you’re working on, you’re always used to the reality that everything is going to go wrong and you’re going to have to rethink every plan that you thought you’d made. So I guess in that sense, yes, [my experience as a production coordinator did prepare me]. But when the pressure is on you as a producer, rather than being part of a collective as a coordinator, it’s different in that way.

Did you feel that having spent so much time previously on sets and having seen scripts come to life was helpful in your screenwriting process?
I really agree with that. I think two things: I think the best way to learn writing is not to read books on writing, but to read great screenplays. Spending all that time at Working Title, I got a chance to read all of these fantastic writers for years and years. And then, being on the production side, you also get to see the difference between a screenplay and what you need to do practically, what you actually need to consider in order to make the thing possible. We were making a South African war drama on a very small budget. You’re constantly thinking, OK, how can we get enough bang for our buck here? What is the cleverest way of having an exciting set piece without having to spend tens of millions on explosions and visual effects and whatever else?

“You’re always used to the reality that everything is going to go wrong and you’re going to have to rethink every plan that you thought you’d made.”

What was your working relationship with the actors like as the producer on such an intensive shoot?
We got really lucky with our actors. We spent a hell of a long time casting them; I think the process [took] something like a year and a half in the end. When we were auditioning, a big part of that process for Oliver, the director, was that once we had these boys, we tried them in various different roles. Then, he felt very sure that he wanted a kind of boot camp experience for them, where they would be able to, to some extent, bond with each other, while at the same time learn what it would’ve been like to be in a totally different world and generation of South African men. It was lovely to see these guys form their own little community. In terms of my involvement, I was around; but really, that was Oliver cultivating those relationships more than anyone else.  

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to move up the ranks from the coordinator side to the producing and creative side of filmmaking?
I think the simplest thing I can say is to hustle. While I was doing those coordinator jobs and working my way up on the production side, I was also writing and I was also producing short films, and creating a network of people all the while. I’d also say: Go and learn independently. It’s a great thing, I think, learning how big movies run, but I think it’s something else entirely to do it yourself. You learn by doing.

This story originally appeared in the April 8 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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