Set largely in modern day Johannesburg – the New York of Africa – Jongo (Season 1) tells the story of a young man, Eli King, who acquires an array of supernatural abilities after an alien crystal is found in a cave at the Cradle of Humankind.
Click through for my interview w/ South African Writer and Director Gareth Crocker about his life and career.
"To be honest, we didn't look to the superhero world for inspiration. And to be fair, Jongo is like no 'superhero' show you've ever seen. We don't have the resources to compete with Hollywood so we try and tell a more human story. We also wanted to create an aspirational character that people – particularly in Africa – could be inspired by." – Gareth Crocker
Interview w/ Author and Director Gareth Crocker.
I split the interview into two sections. First up was a look into Gareth's life and career.
1. With a journalistic and even radio copywriting background, how did you first dive into the fiction world of writing?
While visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, several years ago, I saw a Vietnam veteran dressed in full military gear place an old dog harness against the foot of the wall. When I asked the man about the harness, the veteran explained that he had been a dog handler in the war and that his dog had saved his life—and the lives of all the men in his platoon—on no less than three occasions. He said that not a week goes by that he doesn’t think of his loyal and brave friend and wonder what happened to him. He explained that after the war, the government left these heroic dogs behind in Vietnam, declaring them “surplus military equipment” and simply too expensive to transport back to the States. So, despite estimates that some 4,000 highly-trained combat, tracker and scout dogs saved the lives of some 10,000 American soldiers, few ever made it home. Although a token number were handed over to the South Vietnamese, most were left to fates unknown. It was at that moment that I decided I would write my first novel as a tribute to these dogs. Fortunately, the novel did really well. Entitled Finding Jack, it has sold more than a million copies around the world. It continues to sell strongly today.
2. What authors did you read growing up in JoBurg?
Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Richard Laymon – anything with a bit of horror in it…
3. Outside of writing what are your favorite hobbies and past times? I saw you are a pretty talented athlete?
Before I ran out of talent, I played pro football for a while. I was also a decent runner in my youth. A few years ago, I attempted to make the Olympics, but fell short after breaking my leg. I wanted to throw javelin at the London Olympics and actually came pretty close to reaching the automatic qualifying mark. I would've been 38 at the opening ceremony. What a laugh.
4. What was the process of getting an UK agent and eventually making it to the US with your books?
One day I loaded up as many manuscripts as I could fit into my backpack and headed off to London. I spent eight days walking through a pair of new trainers, going door-to-door, dropping off copies of my work with agents. And literary agents, let me tell you, are weird folk. Some of the people I visited flatly refused to open their doors and instructed that I should leave the manuscript on the floor. Anyway, after dropping off one of my manuscripts in a 'manuscript bin', I received a call from an agent. It turns out that after I had made my delivery, she had returned from a meeting only to discover that she was locked out of her office. So, with nothing to do but wait for the locksmith, she dipped her hand into the bin and … lo and behold … withdrew my book. When I walked into her office the following day, I was amazed to find piles and piles of unread manuscripts that reached right up to the ceiling. And that, she quietly explained, was only a month’s worth. So, the Gods were certainly smiling down on me. After she took me on, I quickly landed a British publishing deal followed by a US deal. Since then, I've published six novels in more than 30 countries.
5. A few of your novels have been optioned, what was that process like? Can you give us an update on what is happening with those stories?
Finding Jack has been optioned four times. It's extremely frustrating. Very few optioned novels actually get made into films. Effectively, you get paid so that a studio can – in my case – NOT make your film for a period of 18 months… Never Let Go is my most recent book to get optioned. A screenplay has been written and the project is being handled by the producer who put together Blood Diamond with Leo Di Caprio.
6. How has living and growing up in JoBurg influenced you as a writer?
Living in Johannesburg, I was brought up on a staple of British and American popular culture. As a consequence, I found myself looking outside of South Africa from an early age. I was also born at a time when Apartheid was at its worst. Thankfully, however, I was part of the student consciousness that helped to bring down that despicable regime. Being South African is a weird thing. You feel simultaneously proud and ashamed of your country. There's more pride these days, but we're still beset by crime and poverty. We have a long way to go as a nation. It's a beautiful place though and I'm not sure I'd want to live anywhere else. As a writer, I think being South African has made me a lot less judgemental and arrogant in my work.
Whether I like it or not, I was part of something truly horrendous … and that's humbling.
7. Being a father and a lover of animals how do they influence you as a writer?
I'm at my best when I'm writing emotional material. So being a father and an animal lover obviously helps to enhance my ability to spot beauty and tenderness in these relationships.
8. What is your favorite story about knowing the great Madiba?
I was once part of a group who hosted Mandela at a large South African company. When we walked the great man into a section of the building where all the secretaries were sitting, one particular lady was so busy that she had no idea that Mandela was standing patiently in front of her. When she eventually realized someone was watching her, she looked up, nearly fainted and then burst into tears. What struck me most about Mandela was how he could drown out the world and fully engage with the person standing in front of him. Also, as one of the most famous people on the planet, he never took it for granted that people would know who he is. He would always introduce himself. Pure class.
9. My favorite film is Shawshank Redmeption as well! What is your favorite scene from the movie?
There are so many. But the last 15 minute sequence when Morgan Freeman decides not to take his life and opts to catch the bus to visit Andy, well … it blows me away every time. From a narration and dialogue perspective, I think it's almost perfect.
THE JONGO SECTION OF QUESTIONS.
1. Where did the story come from? What characters, comics, books, or stories helped influence the Eli King character?
To be honest, we didn't look to the superhero world for inspiration. And to be fair, Jongo is like no 'superhero' show you've ever seen. We don't have the resources to compete with Hollywood so we try and tell a more human story. We also wanted to create an aspirational character that people – particularly in Africa – could be inspired by. There are so many negative role models on the continent that we wanted a character who people could look up to. Also, we needed someone that people on the street could relate to. In some respects, Eli King is a little like a young Nelson Mandela, quite humble and down to earth, but with the suggestion of real depth and substance to come … who also happens to dance like Michael Jackson and own an alien crystal.
2. What made you adapt this into a script for TV? How has this process differed from your regular writing?
They're worlds apart, obviously. But I've wanted to have a crack at TV for some time now. I've written screenplays for film, but TV has a different beat to it. It’s been tremendous fun. And ridiculously hard work.
3. Since this takes place in the Cradle of Humanity, how is this story universal to us all? Can you enlightening us on this "prophecy"?
I really don't want to give away too much, but the story arc travels far beyond Africa and, most certainly, has a bearing on the rest of the world. We want folk to be able to watch the show in almost any country and be able to relate to the story. For once, we thought it would be nice if an American superhero wasn't charged with having to save the world…
4. How did you find Pacou Mutombo? With even the movie arm of Marvel looking into being more diverse with Black Panther now being greenlit, why is right now the perfect climate for this project?
I found Pacou while watching a dance competition, if you can believe it. I've never met anyone with more stage presence. I was trying to pull him off stage before he had even finished his dance routine… I think he was a gift from The Universe. He is Congolese and one of the most naturally cool people I've ever met. While he doesn't have extensive acting experience, I think we've unearthed a new star. In terms of 'black superheroes' finally coming to the fore, I think we're long overdue. Frankly, I don't know why it has taken this long in the first place.
5. How did you breakdown the eight episodes? How much is this season a calling card to future seasons or is there a full closure to these 8 episodes?
I loathe shows that don't offer viewers a start, a middle and an end. Season 1 is an origin story that will complete itself. Of course, a new door will be opened for Season 2, but we want viewers to have a real sense of satisfaction with Season 1. In terms of how the series was constructed, we simply took the basic plotline and premise and broke it down into 8 chunks. And then we changed our minds a thousand times on all the detail in-between.
6. Why the title Jongo?
In certain African languages it basically means 'Destiny'. Also, we just kind of like the sound of it. It comes across as strong yet unassuming. We think it has the potential to grow into a big brand. We certainly hope so.
For more on Gareth please go, here.
And for more information about South Africa's Motion Story please go, here.