A River Runs Through It

Work is play for a creative couple based in an enchanted space

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photography: Nick Gordon

En route the River House, home and office to Fly On The Wall, is a story that begins  “Once upon a time…”

The Endemic Project is an installation along Rhodes Drive, viewable when driving from Kirstenbosch towards Constantia Nek, which highlights the species that are endemic to the area; the basic idea being that if you remove the trees that the creatures are bolted to they will return.

Bryan Little is the artist behind the guerilla art. Yet another product of legendary Rondebosch Boys teacher Andrew Putter, it’s hard not to be impressed by Bryan’s CV. He’s spent a long weekend with Werner Herzog in a New Jersey motel, watched an orb spider with Sir David Attenborough, made a Fokumentary, a documentary about street dance in South Africa, a music video for U2 and together with partner (as in girlfriend) Filipa Domingues and other partner (as in friend) Grant Appleton owns Fly on the Wall.

Fly on the Wall has buzzed around from Roeland Street to the Woodstock Exchange and is now based at a stonewalled and thatch-roofed cottage in the Orange Kloof Reserve that’s like something out of a fairytale.

We sit down with Bryan and Fil in the dappled shade of a tree. Looking around there’s an avo tree, guava tree, a plum and a fig tree.  The swimming pool, which is cracked because one half of the house is sinking, will soon become a vegetable garden. Right now it’s a compost heap. Who needs a swimming pool when there’s a natural rock pool and waterfall bubbling behind your back door, right?

“Rumour is,” laughs Fil, “that the couple who lived here before us designed the place while they were on mushrooms.”

This is easy to believe. The structure is definitely not legal, far too close to the water, and there are no straight lines, everything custom-made from the glass facade to the doorframes, which are too narrow to fit regular furniture.

Bryan’s keeps notes on his less dominant hand and arm, things like “succulent garden”, “coral reef”, “connect”, “web porn” and “agoraphobia”.  He shyly hides his arm under the table when he catches me looking. Bryan’s a slightly awkward hyper-creative genius who is well balanced by Fil, who is the most gregarious person you could ever hope to meet. Both agree that living here is the dream. 

“We hardly ever go to town anymore,” says Fil. “If you live and work in Hout Bay, why would you?”

“We had no internet yesterday,' adds Bryan. “They were fixing the electricity boxes and we were cut off from everything. Our old space was a much more social thing, and now people don’t pop in like they used to. I prefer it. I like being isolated. This is a happy in between where I still sometimes see people but not all the time like before.”

For the past four months Bryan has used his time alone here to write The Hopeless Romantic Puffer Fish, a love story that he describes as a mix between Lost In Translation and Beasts of the Southern Wild.

“It’s magic-realism, a very character driven kind of story that I’ve written with specific people in mind.”

Fil’s role is to produce the company’s feature documentaries and big budget commercials for both local and international brands. Needing to fulfill her creative side she also works as a photographer and as Suicide Monkey has shot National Geographic spreads and covers.

Right now we could be in a spread from Nat Geo. There’s a Kingfisher making a racket, a crab running across the grass and Bryan’s telling us a story how he had to stop a conference call with London the other day.  “Sorry guys, a boomslang just climbed through the window.”

Bryan comes from a strong conservation background. His father was the chief architect of the Table Mountain National Park, head of WWF Africa and his brother works for the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

“Endemic Project was from living in Hout Bay,” says Bryan. “It’s magical how you can have a road like that in the middle of the city. I remember giving a girl a lift and she was terrified just being in the car, saying how scary it was, and I’d never thought about it like that. For me it was always a magical place, full of daydreams.  So I started thinking about this future film trip that I’m on.”

Bored of the internet and it’s insatiable need for new content, Bryan was looking into new ways of filmmaking and deconstructing what cinema is. His Endemic Project used reflector tape, geo-tagging and his favourite road as the narrative.

“I realized that all road signs were made out of reflector tape and that it’s quite appropriate that it’s used to give people information and is often associated with danger. Chevrons and all that.  Because it works with light it’s super cool as a filmmaker.”

When the BBC came down to cover the piece and wanted to speak to somebody official, they called the City of Cape Town offices and someone from council, who said:

“’We celebrate art and blah blah blah…’ They totally claimed it!” laughs Fil. “After Bryan was interviewed by John Matham on Cape Talk, literally five minutes later, the cops started taking everything down, and we drilled those things in proper, raw bolts and everything. I phoned them and kucked them out. I was so pissed off. Then we made more and put them up again.”

Despite having brands asking to pay to use the concept, Bryan is adamant that he wants to keep it as a purely artistic endeavor, insisting that it’s an experiment and a small first step to what he ultimately want to do.

The company that Fil and Bryan started with Apples will turn ten years old this year and the fact that they’ve always done what they want to do is testament to their success. Right now they’re just trying to keep things loose and don’t want to be a company that just does commercials and documentaries, but instead want to keep doing whatever excites them, whether that’s a photo exhibition or a feature film.

“We say no to a lot of stuff,” says Bryan. “We’ve finally got there. We’re very selective with what we choose to do. I’d rather make less cash. We make enough money to live a good life, not a lavish life and in ten years time who knows, you could be feeding maggots.”

They’re not Keith Rose rich but Bryan’s happy to have been able to surf Indo seven times in the last ten years. He says that he might have a midlife crisis and change his attitude and try make some real cash one day, but right now he lives the way that he wants to and does what he wants to and is very happy to keep doing that.

“It’s taken ten years to do that. Even four years ago I was doing jobs where I look back, like, “What the fu*k?” And that’s why this ten-year thing is really interesting. It’s this weird turning point.”

Fly on the Wall started when the founders were only 21, as a way to formalize themselves so that clients would take them more seriously. They formed a company and spent a long time trying to get credibility as another Egg Films or Velocity, then they actually joined Velocity and that was a disaster, so they moved back to Hout Bay, which is a lot more true to them as individuals.

“We’re not business people,” says Bryan, who is barefoot and has spent portion of his work day floating on a lilo in the rock pool in front of his house. “So we’re trying to go back to being a collective that gathers to make stuff that we’re all equally excited about and not because we need to get paid.”

“What I don’t like about commercials,” says Fil.  “Is that there are so many people involved. Client and agency and you and by the time you finish making the film it’s nothing like what you’d originally discussed. Too many chefs in the kitchen where everyone has to have their say. You start off with a whole bag of sweets and if you’re lucky you’re left with a sweet wrapper by the end of it.”

Bryan always said that he only wanted to make a feature film after he’d perfected the craft. He has a lot of respect for film and didn’t want to make one until he was ready for it. After ten years of music videos, commercials and documentaries Bryan is set to make his first feature early next year.

Sticking to his guns and doing things his own way, with the support of a good woman who is highly creative in her own right, while running a business with best friends out of a house that’s like something from the shire… Their story is nowhere near the end, but we’ll still end this piece with a …and they lived happily ever after.