“It’s like there’s a war going on that nobody is talking about” – Outlaws creators

6 September 2023

“It’s like there’s a war going on that nobody is talking about” – Outlaws creators

Now streaming on Showmax, Outlaws is the story of two families at war with each other: the Zulu, cattle-farming Biyela clan and the Basotho, cattle-raiding Ts’eoles. 

South Africa’s first modern day Western series, Outlaws is created by Tshedza Pictures’ Phathu Makwarela and Gwydion Beynon, who’ve won five Best Scriptwriting SAFTAs in the past four years for smash-hit shows like The Republic and The River, which was also nominated for an International Emmy. Outlaws is Tshedza’s second Showmax Original, building on the success of Adulting, which set a record for the most first-day views of any drama on the streaming service.  

Watch the trailer for Outlaws

Fresh faces Lehlohonolo Mayeza and Nirvana Nokwe-Mseleku co-star as Leruo Ts’eole and Sihle Biyela. Also look out for two-time SAFTA nominee Siyabonga Shibe (Shaka iLembe, The Wife, Gaz’lam) as the Biyela patriarch and Mmabatho Mogomotsi (Snowey in Yizo Yizo) as the Ts’eole matriarch, not to mention the likes of SAFTA winner Nolwazi Shange (The River, Mzali Wami), Men’s Health Cover Guy Challenge winner Mnqobi Kunene (How To Manifest a Man) and man of the moment, Thembinkosi Mthembu (Adulting, Shaka iLembe, The River).  

Phathu Makwarela and Gwydion Beynon, the creators of Outlaws at the private screening
Phathu Makwarela and Gwydion Beynon at the Outlaws launch

We caught up with Phathu and Gwydion to find out more: 

What makes Outlaws a story that needs to be told? 

Phathu: Cattle theft is a massive issue in South Africa. Farming communities are being terrorised daily by cattle thieves, but while it’s something that crops up in news reports from time to time, it’s not something that’s ever been reflected in popular culture. It’s like there’s a war going on that nobody is talking about. It’s such a rich and dramatic backdrop for a story. 

Gwydion: On top of that, so many of our stories on South African television take place in urban areas; we felt like rural life is seldom portrayed on screen. Outlaws really take us to the farms, to the fields, and to the mountains of South Africa and Lesotho. So many South Africans have a connection to these landscapes; we wanted to create a show that celebrates them.

What were the exciting and challenging aspects about the locations? 

Gwydion: When we were down on our first research trip to Bergville, we just realised how incredible the landscape was. We decided we had no choice; we had to shoot as much of the show in these locations as we possibly could. Any direction you point the camera is beautiful. 

Phathu: Little did we know the challenge we would face! We started shooting the show in KZN and it rained non-stop, which meant that even getting to some of the locations was difficult. Our brilliant creative producer Mmamitse Thibedi would wake up before dawn to go to the river to make offerings to the water spirits, to ask for clear weather – which sometimes worked. But trying to get our cast and crew into these remote locations after a heavy rain was sometimes hectic. Watching the final product, we feel like it was worth all the struggles we faced. 

What type of research did production do for the show?

Phathu: Before we started writing the show, we travelled to Bergville and Lesotho and met with cattle farmers, cattle rustlers, historians, and others affected by cattle theft in the area. 

Of course, cattle theft is not a new phenomenon – it’s been going on for centuries, and it’s connected to the history of the area. We also sent down our directors and director of photography and production designer to the area, to continue the research. We had cattle rustlers show us the actual route that cattle thieves take, when they drive stolen cattle up from KZN into the Lesotho mountains. But the research didn’t end with the writing, or even with the production. Brendan Jury – who composed the score for the show – did his own research, and worked with both Sotho and Zulu musicians, using some traditional musical instruments he had built specifically for the show, to create a deeply authentic soundscape for the show. 

Gwydion: There is so much content being produced for South African television these days that we feel like authenticity becomes one of the ways that we can differentiate our stories. Showmax has done a great job in focusing on authenticity in all their productions – and for us, authenticity always begins with research. 

The cast is a mix of fairly new faces, current favourites and industry veterans. What did you look for when selecting the cast? 

Gwydion: We have to give huge credit to our casting director, Keneilwe Matidze, for assembling our incredible cast. The story is deep; it goes to very real and dark places, and we needed actors who could take us there. It doesn’t matter how great your story is on the page, if your actors can’t bring it to life, it’s never going to work. So we’re incredibly proud of the craft and care that our actors bring to the story.  

Phathu: It was important for us that we identified new faces and also paired them with experienced hands; Keneilwe certainly delivered on the brief. The majority of our Sotho actors are from Lesotho, which was hugely important to us, so that they would get the nuances of culture and language right, so that the show would feel truly authentic. 

Tshedza’s on a roll, from The River to The Republic to Adulting. What sets Outlaws apart from your previous series?

Phathu: The majority of our dramas and telenovelas have focused on strong female characters as the leads. It’s something we’re very proud of, and strong female characters will always play a major role in our work. But with Outlaws, we’ve also created some powerful male characters, alongside our strong female leads. The show has a strong male energy, which I think sets it apart from our other work. It’s a very physical show, with gun battles, and car chases, and chases on horseback.  

As the executive producer, what kept you awake during this production?  

Gwydion: The horses! We’d never worked with horses before, and it’s a real challenge. The horses have minds of their own. They don’t know they’re on a TV show, and they don’t understand ‘Action!’ or ‘Cut!’. So sometimes a simple scene can take forever to shoot, because the horse doesn’t feel like walking in that direction today. 

Phathu: Luckily, we worked with some incredible horse trainers and animal wranglers, who helped take us through the whole process. 

If you had the opportunity to convince a director you admire to watch the entire Season 1 of Outlaws, what would you tell them? 

Phathu: We’d just show them the first two episodes, and they wouldn’t have a choice: they’d want to watch the rest of the season! Tebogo Malope [2023 Tribeca Audience Award winner Rise: The Siya Kolisi Story], our co-executive producer and the director of the first two episodes, has crafted something so magical, it speaks for itself. 

Gwydion: Outlaws is like nothing that’s been seen on South African television before. It’s a whirlwind. It’s hopelessly romantic, but also heartbreakingly tragic, and it happens on a scale and in an environment that we’ve never seen before. We can’t wait to see how viewers respond. 

Watch Outlaws now on Showmax.

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