Last week, Hulu welcomed its latest film into its annual Huluween catalog—the eco-thriller Gaia, which was directed by Jaco Bouwer and stars Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk, and Anthony Oseyemi. The film is streaming exclusively as part of the Huluween slate—a month-long experience that features original and acquired programming in one curated Halloween-themed hub. Daily Dead recently caught up with Bouwer to talk about Gaia, and he discussed everything from collaborating with the film’s screenwriter Tertius Kapp on the concepts behind the story, the challenges of shooting in the South African forests, and more.

So, how did Gaia first come about? 

Jaco Bouwer: The writer, and my longtime collaborator, Tertius Kapp, and myself set some parameters that defined the foundation of the project: we wanted to explore the horror genre, nature being the main location and character; essentially a chamber piece of three characters. When we started working on Gaia, we spoke about the fine distinction between terror and horror: terror existing as the dread of anticipation—before the horrifying experience—the horror of confronting an unspeakable fear, whether it’s a monster, extreme suffering, or our own demise. Initially, we spoke about taking a simple parable or myth and building on that. We were both attracted to the Abrahamic tale of the binding, the sacrifice of his son Isaac, and from there, many drafts later, Gaia was born.

What sets this project apart from our previous work, is that I, Tertius Kapp, and our cinematographer Jorrie van der Walt undertook the risk to create the initiative and to produce ourselves. Most of our work is only available on local channels, but with Gaia, it's the first time we have an opportunity to share our work on an international platform—and so far the response has been phenomenal.

How did you want to approach this story from a visual perspective to make it your own?

Jaco Bouwer: I attempted a stripped-down exercise in cinematic exposition. To avoid the horror genre’s shaky cam clichés, but to approach the tale in a more classical visual style. Lengthy still frames call on the sublime and the slowly encroaching object, taking visual inspiration from Brueghel, Goya, and images of the Old Testament.

Yes, there is a strong visual storytelling element to the film. But my actors really stepped up to the challenge and were so professional and prepared that it translates these emotional undercurrents in the film, and of course, our main character “nature” also contributed to this visual world. Even in the editing process, I found myself removing even more dialogue because the communication and tension were already there and communicated nonverbally.

Can you discuss the casting process of Gaia and what made the actors perfect for the roles in your eyes?

Jaco Bouwer: I’ve worked with Monique Rockman a few times before, so I knew her and her work, so I was happy to collaborate with her again. I think both me and Tertius Kapp developed the film with Carel Nel in mind from the beginning, and I knew Carel from my theatre work in the past.

I saw that you filmed this in South Africa—what kinds of challenges did you and your crew face throughout production?

Jaco Bouwer: We shot this film in a primordial forest in South Africa, where you could really get the sense of something there that’s… older, greater than humanity. The location where we shot all the Gaia tree scenes was about a four-kilometer trek by foot only through the forest and on a slope of about 50 degrees. It was so slippery that I myself had three wipeouts on the first day. All gear and camera had to be carried down that valley, and every time we did a new camera setup or angle, all had to be moved again. We were really fighting with nature on those days, especially shooting one of the main action fight sequences on this steep incline.

We also kept the crew as small as possible because we knew it would be very physical for all, and keeping the crew small enabled us to really be mobile. We also didn’t use any big camera equipment because of the terrain, which I think also contributed to the visual style of the film.

There’s such a naturalism to how Gaia looks, especially because you had to often rely mostly on natural light sources. Can you talk about collaborating with your DP and the approach that you took in terms of capturing this natural beauty and terror at the heart of Gaia?

Jaco Bouwer: This is the fifth project the DP and myself had made together, and as with any longtime collaboration, we have learned a very reliable shorthand to bring something like Gaia off the page—when working under pressure and with limited budget, it helps when the core team already knows each other’s film language. We also allowed the limitations of our shooting conditions to dictate certain parameters of the project—being limited to a very small crew because we were shooting in sensitive areas of forest, choosing to use the environment to our advantage, and using natural light were the best possible solutions to the scenario.

I really loved the FX in Gaia, as they were horrifying and beautiful. Can you discuss working with them in terms of designing your creatures as well as the body horror effects?

Jaco Bouwer: We were inspired by seldom observed parts of nature. The carpenter ant, for example, becomes infected by the “zombie ant fungus” of the genus Ophiocordyceps. Inserting itself into the ant, the fungus takes over its autonomy, hijacking its central nervous system to force it to lock its jaws on a plant, while the fungus grows a spore-releasing stalk from the ant’s head, replicating itself into the ant colony, reproducing exponentially. We found this combination of animal and plant inspiring in our research and portrayal of Gaia.

There were five different permutations of the apostles/monsters as we called them, but only two made it to the final cut. The initial impetus was to explore how to combine fungal growths and human anatomy. It is very exciting to see how technology is allowing us to start making more bold decisions in filmmaking, but we still have a long way to go—the editing process was quite extensive, and we decided to invest as much of our time and budget as we could in making the VFX work for us, but choosing to keep it simple and rather rely on our incredible makeup and art department team, we initially set out to do as much in-camera as possible.

I think to attempt to portray a feeling of the sublime or abject, it is almost impossible to show, but rather to be provoked through the imagination. So for me, it was never my intention to “show” the god, but rather to hint/provoke through showing the microworld, hence the spores and fungal gills inside the hollow, for instance.

What was your biggest takeaway from your experience working on Gaia, whether it was something that affected you personally, professionally, or maybe in both ways?

Jaco Bouwer: The filming of Gaia was interrupted by the first COVID lockdown in March 2020—the latter half of the film could only be completed after a four-month break. So it is hard for me to separate the film from this overwhelming feeling I think we all experienced during that first wave of the pandemic. This sense of looming doom and a slow-moving feeling of dread—which I think, unintentionally, became synonymous with the themes addressed in the film.

I don’t think the performances in Gaia would’ve had the same emotional undercurrent if it wasn’t for the pandemic and the interruption of production by the pandemic. My vision to construct a paranoid chamber piece about trust, betrayal, and survival was subconsciously fed by this newly added sense of fear and uncertainty during that first outbreak of the COVID virus at the beginning of 2020 that manifested in cast and crew alike. But to keep the performances consistent with this four-month hiatus in between was one of my biggest challenges as director.

It is sometimes difficult to keep thinking about and discussing the issues we are facing regarding the continuation of life on this planet as we pollute the oceans, cause mass deforestation, and release ever-increasing amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, leading to an increase in temperature, turbulent weather, and hurtling the planet towards crisis, without our minds entertaining the horror of our own apocalypse. And to try imagining a world where humans are not the center of existence anymore.

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.