"Sure-Footed Ponies" Production Blog, 2011. Published online by the Tribeca Film Institute. © Andrew Mudge
BLOG 1: THE BEGINNING
December 22, 2010 - Clarens, South Africa
I arrived in South Africa just over a week ago, greeted at the Johannesburg airport by Cecil Matlou, a thirty year-old African man wearing a worn out African National Congress t-shirt with a faded photo of Steven Biko on it. Right away I liked him. Cecil, along with his partner Pieter, is to be co-producer on this film. As we darted from one freeway to the next, wending our way into Joburg, I learned that Cecil aspires to be the president of South Africa someday. On first impression, I could see this happening. Cecil appears wide awake, fiercely intuitive, sharp as a tack, and a diligent worker. He's got a great attitude. The photo on his driver's license shows him beaming a ten megawatt smile, a joyful contortion of muscle I myself would be loath to reproduce in the company of my own registry of motor vehicles. Cecil tells me that it's a reminder to cheer up when he's pulled over by the police. Which I imagine happens quite frequently. He drives like a mad man.
That evening I also met Pieter Lombaard, the other half of Binary Film Works. Pieter is an Afrikaaner, quite different from Cecil in this regard, but shares the same enthusiasm as his partner. Pieter is the quiet one, contemplative and humble. He's a Kubrick and Malick fan, and clearly has an eye for the artistic nuances of storytelling, and cinematography. I'm happy that these guys are on board, and am delighted that they show such enthusiasm for the project.
On my first evening in South Africa, I slept at the same backpacker's hostel that I stayed at in 2006, when I came to first Africa to shoot the pilot for TFK. Back then, I befriended a Sotho woman named Mansadi, who worked as a housekeeper. I would bring her chocolate scones in exchange for language lessons. After a couple days of this, she invited me to stay with her family in the township of Orange Farm, located on the southern edge of Soweto. For three days I stayed with her and her two young sons in their "mokuko", a squatter camp shack, which was set in an ocean of ubiquitous township shacks. It was a weekend of traveling on foot, eating "pap" with Mansadi's neighbors, and visiting a center for children with disabilities. The sense of community here was astounding. In what was a mighty reversal of my perceptions of what a township was, or should be, I felt completely safe. I've kept in touch with Mansadi over the years with an occasional Christmas note or postcard of the Manhattan skyline. Now, five years later, I was happy that she remembered me. I've promised to come back to Orange Farm when the filming is on hiatus.
The next few days consisted of Cecil and I driving around Johannesburg on a mission of errands that included meeting with bank managers, and interviewing prospective casting directors and cinematographers. Cecil insisted that I take the wheel in order to get the feel of driving in this country. The combination of Joburg traffic and driving on the left side of the road has surely grayed some of the hairs on my head. We enlisted Modibe Modiba, a theater director and friend of Cecil, to translate the beginning of the TFK script (scenes taking place in Joburg and Soweto) into the language of Tsotsi Taal, the slang of the townships. It's a blend of Sotho, Pedi, Tswana, Zulu, Afrikaans, and English. It was exciting to see the dialogue I'd written transformed into a melodious mix of clicks and exotic pronunciations. When I get to Lesotho, I'll have the rest of the script translated.
The next step was for me to buy a vehicle, so we searched the South African equivalent of Craigslist for a four wheel drive pickup truck, something to haul people and film equipment over rough dirt roads in Lesotho. The search brought me to a used car dealership in the suburb of Bramfontein, where I purchased a diesel Mazda from a gentle Afrikaaner who went by the name of Gideon. He looked a bit like the German actor Klaus Kinski, but without the look of boiling insanity. Gideon lit up like a kid on Christmas morning when I told him about the film we were producing, and how this truck was going to be the workhorse production vehicle. An hour away from the dealership, I noticed that both the gas gauge and the RPM gauge had suddenly stopped functioning, and I had to keep hitting a switch in the dashboard to stop the alarm from going off. I thought about calling the car dealership to give them a piece of my mind, but I didn't really feel like getting into a fight with a quiet little man who might dream of his truck taking on the great switchbacks of Lesotho. Anyway, how can I get angry at a man who uses the name Gideon? Instead, I've decided to name the truck Kinski, for the physical likeness of its seller, and for the unpredictability of the vehicle itself. Herzog had his troublesome little monster, and now I have mine.
On my last night in Joburg, Cecil assured me that the production of TFK will go smoothly, as the spirits of ancestors (of the Pedi tribe) have been appeased, so they will not let him down. So his people are on it. Really good to know. Cecil invited me to travel north with him on Christmas day to slaughter a goat in his village in Limpopo. With some reservations, I have declined this invitation. I must be going south to Lesotho so I can begin to lay down the groundwork for our upcoming four weeks of casting.
Today I left Joburg and drove Kinski south through the Free State, taking mostly back roads which added two hours to my trip, but brought me through rolling farmlands washed orange, then pink, in the final hours of daylight. At dark I pulled into the village of Clarens, where the sky is clear and I can make out the silhoutted horizon of mountains to the south. Lesotho is just 100 kilometers away now. Being back here feels like making good on a promise to an old friend.
BLOG 2: RETURN TO LESOTHO
January 6, 2011 - Maseru, Lesotho
"Big trouble for you. Two nights in jail", said the young constable while crossing his wrists in an easily recognizable gesture of handcuffs. "But give me some Christmas money and perhaps I let you through".
This was my first ever experience with bribery, and it happened at a police roadblock just a few kilometers after I'd crossed the border into Lesotho. My crime, alleged the officer who could not have been older than seventeen, and wore an oversized government issue uniform that made him appear to be playing dress up in his father's clothes, was that I had failed to bring my vehicle to a complete halt at the stop sign. It's true, I may have rolled ever so slightly.
Lesotho is generally not known as den of police corruption. My brother lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where such a thing is more commonplace. For that part of Africa, he used to employ a rather clever way of thwarting low level bribery. He stored the name of the prime minister's son into his mobile phone, along with a (fake) number. In the presence of a corrupt official, he'd cordially suggest that a call to his "close friend" should sort the matter out, then nonchalantly allow the offending officer to see the surname of the individual he was speed dialing. This usually turned things around for him. I wasn't so crafty in my first seven minutes in Lesotho, so I unceremoniously handed over the twenty Rand (about three bucks).
With the exception of a new shopping mall, downtown Maseru hasn't changed much since I was last here in 2007. It was a pleasant surprise to run into a few familiar faces; Dineo from the internet cafe, Thabo from the coffee shop, and Mpho from the Shoprite grocery store. I also recognized a few street kids, now a bit taller, still hawking their spit and squeegee window cleaning services on familiar street corners. One of these boys, who I used to make the occasional a peanut butter sandwich for, flashed me a wide smile of recognition (then promptly asked for my money).
Finally in Maseru, my first step was to find a room to rent. I contemplated throwing a mattress into the back of Kinski and sleeping by a 24 hour security booth in the mall parking lot, but that sort of living would make chaos of my need to work from a computer and spread out my books, camera, etc. The next cheapest thing was a room at the Anglican Training Centre, a mission on the hillside, just beyond an shadowy intersection where a nocturnal band of prostitutes pass around cigarettes and make catcalls at passing motorists. The most peculiar thing about the Anglican mission is that apart from a sole security guard perched just inside the gated compound, it appears completely devoid of other guests, or even staff. There is no receptionist, and no housekeepers or groundskeepers that I'm aware of. It now strikes me as complete luck that on my arrival, a young theology student was present to take my money and give me a key. Since then, as many as four days will pass before I see signs of any occupants other than the security guard. Every so often the young minister will knock on my door, and I'll pay him for however many nights it's been since our last interaction. The patchwork of lawns is wildly overgrown, and birds are roosting everywhere; it's impossible to sleep past six because of the noise they make. It seems that nature is slowly reclaiming this small plot of land.
I drove to the town of Mohale's Hoek on Christmas Eve to see my friend Mojaki, a young actor who I cast as the lead role in my original trailer for "The Forgotten Kingdom". Mojaki has since moved to Johannesburg (he's now in Lesotho for the holidays) where he has pursued an acting career with great fervor. Last year he secured steady employment as an extra on the South African soap opera "Generations". Despite that he's usually only seen sipping drinks in the backgrounds of party scenes, he's become something of a celebrity here in Lesotho. Everywhere we go people pull him aside, recognizing him from one episode or another. Per his request, I brought him a stack of Stanislavski books on method acting, still crisp in their bag from Strand bookstore on 12th street New York. The urgency and attention to which he gives to these texts is how you might imagine reading the airline safety guide when your plane is in freefall toward the Atlantic. Mojaki is all heart, and I think his future in theater will be a very bright one.
On Christmas day, I strolled up the mountainside to the village of Mapotsane, where my brother Weej spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. Together we visited the place in 2006, three years after his service, and now returning to this community somehow made me very nostalgic. Weej hasn't been back since then, but still, as I entered the village I heard people excitedly call his name out from the village pathways, gardens, insides of mud huts. In my elementary Sesotho I delivered the disappointing news that I was not Weej, merely his less photogenic doppelganger. Grandmothers and pig farmers were eager to deliver messages to him, which I recorded on video. Mostly, they wanted him to come back so he could be put to work (The hardest job you'll ever love?)
When I returned to Maseru and my curious place of habitation, I was greeted warmly by my old friend, local film/video producer Silas Monyatsi. Silas, busy on his own projects and thus unable to work full time on TFK, connected me with my assistant-to-be, Khantse Monyake, nicknamed Papali. It was time to get to work, and the three of us (along with producers in NYC and Joburg) have now laid out a plan for the next few weeks. The most important task is to find as much of the cast as possible among non-actors here in Lesotho (with professional actors from Joburg to fill in the rest). To find these people, we've scheduled three days of open auditions - January 10, 11, and 12th. To spread the word about the auditions, Papali and I have done interviews with three radio stations, three newspapers, and the sole television news program. We also have announcements about the auditions running three times per days on nearly all the radio stations, and on giant TV screen in downtown Maseru that also plays a loop of the film teaser 24 hours a day. There are 250 flyers posted on shop windows and utility poles around Maseru, and 1,500 leaflets handed out among the bustling taxi rank and street markets. Short of renting an airplane to spell it all out in smoke, I think like we've done all we can do. Now we wait.
We're casting a wider net in our search for one particular role, the eleven year old boy to play the precocious orphan Tau. It's a demanding part to play, with no small amount of dialogue. We need someone spirited and bold (picture that kid from Slumdog Millionaire who jumps into the latrine). "Tau" is the Sotho word for lion. Our lion also needs to be able to ride a horse. Finding the right actor for this role has become a bit of an obsession for me, and my hunch is that that rather than finding him in the city of Maseru, we may discover him living in the mountains, stomping around in a pair of gum boots, whistling to his flock of sheep. To find him, we've organized castings to take place in ten communities around Lesotho. These places are the camptowns of Mokhotlong, Semonkong, Butha-Buthe, Mohale's Hoek, Qacha's Nek, and Quthing, as well as the towns of Roma, Mafiteng, Christ the King, and Leribe. In each of these communities we've hired a "district casting assistant" to spread the word with flyers that describe the sort of kid we are looking for. As an incentive, this casting assistant gets his fee doubled if he's the one who delivers our Tau. In addition to this, three local kids in each community are paid a small fee to distribute the flyers deep into the mountain villages. A challenge we face in some of these rural areas is having to explain what a film is, let alone acting. For many people, this whole thing will be a completely foreign concept. It will be interesting to see how many curious onlookers show up to each of the auditions. As far as the number of aspiring eleven years old actors who might throw their hat into the ring, I haven't the slightest idea.
Back in New York, my producers are patiently waiting for Panasonic to finally release their newest camera, the AF100 - the 4/3 sensor HD camcorder that shoots 1080P and with interchangeable lens'. Please indulge me this moment of geek out - it's a pretty revolutionary little camera. I know that my producer T.R. Boyce is not literally camping in front of Abel Cine in the two feet of snow that has fallen in that city, but I do believe his commitment is something akin to this. It's both exciting and a bit nerve-wracking to bring this new (i.e., untested) technology to Africa. The cinematographer we've hired for this project is Carlos Carvalho, a very talented guy we found in Johannesburg. With him, we're putting our feelers out to rental houses in Johannesburg to see what kind of 35mm motion picture camera glass, if any, we can afford for this project.
Tonight Cecil and Bonnie arrive from Joburg, and TFK will finally move from its current limbo phase into official pre-production. TR arrives next week, and the rest of the crew soon thereafter. The immediate road ahead remains a mission of casting - first the Maseru open auditions, then the cross-country road trip to find our shepherd Tau.
BLOG 3: CASTING IN MASERU, AND A TORTOISE'S PACE TO SEMONKONG
January 20, 2011 - Maseru, Lesotho
This afternoon I was approached quite hastily on the street by a heavy set man wearing a black beret and a placard around his neck that identified him as a vendor of "Mocha Chele", the pay as you go airtime that virtually the entire country uses for their mobile phones. Naturally, I figured his business to be that of selling me airtime, so I gently stonewalled his impending sales pitch with a Sesotho expression something akin to "I'm all set pal". He looked at me like I'd just sat on his mother "No! Your movie. Did I get a part in your movie?" Recovering my composure, I searched my mind to remember this portly man who had stood in line for three hours to audition for our film. Apologizing, I explained that we were still looking at the tapes but that I'd come back and find him on this street corner if we wanted to cast him. Still feeling pretty guilty, I bought some airtime.
In the three days in Maseru, we saw close to 1,600 people. The turn out was pure Basotho, and they came in all sizes, shapes, and ages - from policemen to street kids to retired school teachers. We began running the auditions in two separate rooms, then quickly threw together a third room when we realized we needed to move people through faster. Our casting director Bonnie Bouman and I directed the main room, where we led the aspiring actors through simple improvisation scenes ("You want to ask her out. But she's married to your brother. And she's pregnant. But you've got more money than him"). The other rooms took in what seemed like an endless rotation of people who at first glance didn't seem right for the script, but nevertheless some gems were to be found, such as a rastafarian rapper and a four man gospel a cappella group. (I asked if I might be their fifth member. I'd have to audition, of course).
The weekend before the Maseru auditions, Bonnie, Cecil, Papali and I decided to work out the kinks of our casting operation by doing a couple of smaller auditions in the rural towns of Roma and Semonkong, the latter of which is a three hour drive deep into the mountains on a road wrecked with potholes and erosion; at certain bends it is essentially a glorified sheep path. While moving at a tortoise pace, we came upon, quite literally, a very large tortoise. The amateur field biologist in our group identified it as a leopard tortoise, extremely rare in Lesotho. I've decided to take this as a very good omen.
When we arrived in Semonkong, our local casting coordinator had about fifty kids for us to audition, and of that group we did find some budding talent. Late that afternoon we drove up to scout one of our upcoming shoot locations, the Maletsunyane valley, where the waterfalls had more water than I'd ever seen before.
The next day, in the community of Roma, we saw another fifty or so kids. The casting there ending prematurely when wall of dark clouds came in and dumped rain, then hail on the soccer field where we were gathered. Burning sun one minute, and the next minute you're dodging ice balls. This is normal sort of weather for Lesotho.
After good results in Semonkong and Roma, and the huge showing in Maseru, Cecil and I drove to southern Lesotho to meet the casting coordinator we'd hired to rally those districts, where we calculated the turnout to be of epic proportions. This part of Lesotho is where we'd spent the most money, spreading the word with radio announcements and local kids hired to disperse enough three inch by eight inch flyers to fill a bath tub. Our casting coordinator assured us that his phone had been ringing all week, that the whole Maluti mountains was abuzz with excitement for "The Forgotten Kingdom". At last, the great search for Tau was on! We'd roll into to each community like the pied piper, a buffalo herd of barefoot tots trailing behind Kinski's dusty wake.
The results were abysmal. In Mafiteng, four kids showed up, two of whom were way too old to play Tau. Only about 15 kids came to Mohale's Hoek. In Quthing, where we'd rented a hall large enough to fit the first ten minutes of the Macy's day parade, exactly nineteen kids sat waiting for us. As charming as they were, Cecil and I could not help but grumble quietly at the outcome this botched operation. Our casting coordinator was baffled, and profusely apologetic. His only explanation was that no matter how much advertisement there was, parents (and their children) in these extremely rural areas could just not get their heads around what an audition for a movie might be. Craigslist would have a hell of a time in these parts.
Cecil and I decided to cancel the final audition in distant Qacha's Nek, and came back to Maseru to think up a plan B. Later this week we'll meet with orphanages and schools around Maseru. We've also tweaked our business plan, paying the rural casting coordinators by the number of kids they bring to the auditions. So the search continues.
Since returning from the mountains, we've moved into a house, which at first glance seemed like an incredible deal, but slowly revealed itself as a problematic child. Our list of grievances includes, but are not limited to, bed bugs (which our bite-covered, anti-biotic popping casting director can attest to), a broken kitchen sink, doors that won't close because they are too big for their frames, and water that will just decide to shut off for days at a time (After two days without showering, the water miraculously came back about an hour before our meeting scheduled with the American ambassador). There's also a pack of neighborbood dogs that wage turf wars on each other in the early morning hours - my bedside table is cluttered with earplugs.
This coming week we prepare for the final call back auditions here in Lesotho while looking at online clips of the first round auditions in South Africa. And fix that leakly sink, that's big on our list.
BLOG 4: RAIN, RAIN, RISING RIVERS
January 24, 2011 Semonkong, Lesotho
Papali and I spent the better part of last week coordinating auditions at schools, orphanages, and churches. When TR finally arrived from Johannesburg, we turned our attention to location scouting. Cecil, TR and I piled into Kinski and took the helter-skelter dirt road back Semonkong. As we came into town, the hills were cloaked in dark, ominous clouds. As expected, it poured rain all the next day. We donned rain gear and drove farther into the mountains, to the remote villages where we plan to film, but before long decided to make our way back to the lodge to wait out the rain storm. However, when we got to the bridge leading back to town, we found that it was completely flooded over by the river. Dismayed, and soaking wet, we decided to cut our trip short and return to our warm and dry home in Maseru. We'd settle our bill and collect the rest of our belongs when we came back this way in a couple of weeks. Sloshing along the muddy road, the first few bridges were barely exposed by the river, but still passable. Finally, however, we came to where the road was completely flooded over. An attempt to cross would have likely dumped us in the drink, so we returned to the original bridge, only to find that the water level had climbed even higher. We resigned ourselves to a cold, wet night huddled in the back of Kinski, under a single bed sheet. Then, Cecil counted the number of river crossings that we'd have to make in order to reach our lodge. To our delight, we realized that we must actually be on the same side of the river!
We made our way on foot through wet cornfields and groves of willow trees that stood solemn guard on the elevated river bank. By chance, we stumbled upon a fellow traveler who enthusiastically offered to guide us to our place of refuge. She was a large woman in the possession of a pancho that I very much envied, and she reeked of Joala, beer made from fermented sorghum. Drunk as she was (insisting that Cecil was a lost relative from the South African city of East London., and begging TR to photograph her in various poses) she somehow proved to be a competent expedition leader. After an hour and a half of trekking in deep mud, we arrived at the lodge and ate a hearty meal, drying our clothes by a roaring fire - what joy!
That night the rain did not stop, but slowed to a misty drizzle, by which the river neither rose nor fell. Our fear was that if the river did not recede, we'd be trapped in the mountains for several more days. This would make a mess of our tight schedule, and even tighter budget. We simply had to get out of Semonkong.
In the morning we learned from a lodge employee that a bus was soon to depart town, one that could plow its way over the flooded bridges. While not technically amphibious, this abused motorcoach seemed our best bet back to the lowlands, so we made a plan that TR and I would secure seats on it and Cecil would hike back along the river's edge and try to catch up to us in the truck. If the rain picked up again, Cecil would be stranded in Semonkong, but at least TR and I would be back in Maseru to attend to our upcoming casting sessions and meetings. The bus was jam packed with people, with all its windows closed, essentially a three hour standing sauna (secure seats we did not) with an entire African hamlet. But the rivers we did cross!
Three hours into the trip, quite predictably, the bus got stuck in mud. Passengers were squeezed from the bus doors like toothpaste, and summoned to throw rocks and vegetation under the spinning wheels of our paralyzed transport. Just after snapping a photo of this unravelling new episode of "Africa Wins Again", Cecil appeared around the mountain bend, triumphantly waving his long arms out the truck window. Saved!
Reunited at last, we bounced furiously down the last stretches of the unpaved road. The reason for our urgent pace was that the rain had begun again, and we had one more river crossing to worry about. Predictably, it was flooded over. However, we were able to observe another vehicle, about the same size as ours, cross without incident. Holding our breaths, we pushed Kinski through the swift current, then cheered when tires touched dry land.
We finally arrived to our house in Maseru to discover that, because of a flooding that occurred in the municipal water pumps, the entire city is without water for the next three days. Tomorrow, still smelling like the bus from Semonkong, we have our final call backs for all local actors. But as long as we can stay on schedule and budget, we're still winning over here!
BLOG 5: WHERE THERE IS NO SUNSCREEN
January 31, 2011 Johannesburg, South Africa
This week in Africa: A third round of auditions in Maseru, five more days of location scouting in the mountains, a return to Johannesburg, and TR in a hospital with an infection in his elbow. Since his mother is reading this, I feel obliged to immediately type in all caps, HE'S DOING JUST FINE. Just a gentle reminder that one must wash one's hands between using the bathroom and eating the parietal lobe of a sheep's brain.
The biblical rains we waited out in Semonkong were followed by a week of scorching sun and dry heat. Carefully rationing our last bottle of sunscreen (they do not seem to sell any here in Lesotho), we bounced around the country on a tour of upcoming shoot locations, seeking shady places at high noon to scratch out production notes, make lunch, and practice our Sesotho with benevolent and inquisitive strangers. We took one such break in a derelict schoolhouse, which we soon discovered was in close proximity to a very active schoolhouse, when the principal strolled over and requested us to come listen to her middle-school singing group. Spontaneous VIP seats to our own African children's choir - not too shabby! After they sang, we explained to the principal about our film project, and our ongoing search for Tau. In minutes the ebullient school mistress wrangled her mob of young'uns into a lopsided circle, where she hastily auditioned them for us with an improvisational skit (something to do with an injured goat). After watching kids squeal as they watched video of themselves for the first time in their lives, we got back on the road and continued on our potholed journey of location scouting.
The downpours of January have eroded much of the dirt roads here in Lesotho. A drive that I remember as taking three hours back in 2007 now takes close to five. My truck Klaus Kinski has been taking so much abuse, if it endures this project through to the end it will undoubtably deserve an executive producer credit. Despite our snail's pace, there are some benefits to traveling like this. We've been able to spot some interesting location possibilities, and also secure props and wardrobe that we find along the way. Two roadside shepherds were all too happy to sell me a tattered old blanket and a homemade hat that looks right out of a Dr. Suess book.
We're vigilant about staying under budget. On the road, we make it a sort of game to find the cheapest beds in town. This invariably leads us to simple yet surprisingly cozy accommodations in places such as catholic missions and agricultural training centers. Cecil, the proud Pedi, usually chooses to sleep in the back of the truck. Our staple diet has been "papa, nama, le moroho" (maize meal, meat, and spinach) - the Basotho standard that you can find on the street stalls for about two bucks a plate. Africans are quite proud of their meat, which they'll shovel doubles of onto the plate of a guest (especially one trying to speak Sesotho). The uncommitted vegetarian in me longs to fall face first into a swimming pool of kale, sliced beets, and shitake mushrooms, but you won't catch me complaining just yet.
Returning to the city of Maseru from our location reconnaissance, we conducted the final (well, almost final) call-back auditions, which included seeing approximately fifty local actors, as well as twenty-five pint sized thespians auditioning for the role of Tau. We've now narrowed it down to three finalists, and have given each kid a sizeable chunk of dialogue to memorize between now and the final showdown, which be on Sunday. Between now and then, we are operating out of Johannesburg, seeing the actors that Bonnie has brought in for the lead roles, as well as meeting with production designers, camera assistants, and sound engineers. We're also busy scheduling, working on the budget, and attending to the list of other glamourous things that come along with film production.
On Sunday Cecil took us into a township outside of Pretoria, where we drank Castle lager on the street and took part in the communal feast of the aforementioned sheep's head. This brings me back to TR's arm infection, which began as an open would, infected probably by contaminated water in Lesotho. He spent a few hours today attached to an IV drip at a hospital here in Joburg, but managed to work on the budget and make phone calls from his hospital bed. Now that is what I call dedication!
BLOG 6: JOHANNESBURG TALENT, AND FINDING OUR TAU
February 9, 2011 Maseru, Lesotho
We've seen incredible talent out of Johannesburg. All of last week, cramped but cozy in a sunlit audition room at Bonnie Lee Bouman's casting agency, we the TFK team auditioned upwards of forty young men and women for the lead roles of Atang and Dineo. It's inspiring to see these two characters come to life in the hands of such passionate and capable actors. I've also had a couple of almost sleepless nights trying to make the decisions about whom to cast for the leads. In the early morning hours, when even our neighborhood's pack of canines have sacked out somewhere, I open my laptop and pull up Quicktimes of improvised scenes of the three female finalists auditioning for the role of Dineo. I play one video for a few seconds, pause it, quickly jump to the second video, then the final one, back to the first one, and so on. A running commentary is going off in my mind, "she nailed that bit of dialogue.... her sadness seems more genuine... she gets the nuances here.... she's got incredible hair!" They say go with your gut, but what do you do when your gut has left a note on the front door, written neatly in calligraphy, that reads "every choice is the right choice"? I need an actor right now, not my inner Mr. Miagi.
I can't complain. And besides, I think I've found my Tau. He's twelve years old, has bags under his eyes, and this perpetual look of contemplation on his face that suggests at any moment he might just launch into the next great American political speech. He's made repeated claims to me that he is an above average swimmer, despite that I've never mentioned any kind of Tom Hanks trying to save a sinking volleyball scene in our movie. The name of this boy is Ntsane, and I didn't find him spinning his own wool high in some remote cave where no white man has ever travelled. The discovery was quite uneventful, just another kid jumping into the improv circle at one of Maseru's public schools. But I remember thinking to myself when I walked out the classroom, "damn, I just met a real actor". And that was it. It's going to take a lot of effort to bring him along, but little Ntsane has more raw talent than any other kid I've seen in Lesotho or South Africa. Now, I say I "think" I've found him because we still haven't met with his parents to get their full permission and cooperation on this endeavor. That happens at 7 pm tomorrow, when TR, Cecil and I take Ntsane's entire family out to Mimmos, Lesotho's only Pizzeria. Over a bacon and banana pizza (a favorite in these parts), Cecil will summon his finest Sesotho to delicately explain that we'll be pulling their son out of school for more than a month so he can gallivant around southern Africa with what is ostensibly a travelling circus. Ntsane will need to grow his hair out, hang out with film grips, and sleep in crowded quarters. Not to mention 12 hour work days and horseback riding lessons twice a week for the next month. Oh yes, I'm thinking this will be a pizza party to be remembered.
BLOG 7: THE GREAT AFRICAN LOCATION SCOUT
February 25, 2011 Ramabanta, Lesotho
I'm shaking hands with a villager. He wants to know where I come from, where I'm staying now, if I'd like to try his homemade sorgum beer, and why there are so many white people sitting in the shade of his peach tree. I show off with one of my few grammatically correct Sesotho phrases, then cordially state the reason for our visit, which is to see if we might use his home as a filming location.
This last week has been about storyboards, shotlists, and seven of us bouncing around Lesotho on a two week location scout, asking the Basotho people to participate in the film by allowing us to film the rondevals they live in, the cattle they tend to, the wrinkles on their faces - all the images from the pages of the script. It's also been a technical scout, as we're figuring out how much gear (lights, power cables, dolly track, etc) we'll need in each location. The spirit of the crew is high, and the overall support remains steadfast wherever we go. I'm deeply grateful for the hospitality that this country continues to offer, and I hope this film will make them proud.
The "on the ground" pre-production TFK family that once consisted of only Cecil, TR, Papali, and myself has now been joined by Director of Photography, Carlos Carvalho and Production Designer, Ockert Van Rooyen. We also have Meri Hyoki from Finland, by way of North Carolina. She's embraced the job of still photographer, horse wrangler, and occasional vegetarian chef. Her Jamaican rice and peas is a welcome break from the carnivorous fare of a regular Lesotho menu.
So, we're making good progress, with filming scheduled to finally begin on March 7th. We have our cast, including our child actor Ntsane (the pizza party was a grand success), the many talented local Basotho actors, and the four professional actors coming from Johannesburg. These performers are Zenzo Ngqobe, Jerry Mofokeng, Nozipho Nkelemba, and Lillian Dube. Our cast is outstanding, I simply never imagined that we'd have such talent for this little film. With the casting behind us, our days are packed with a multitude of missions, from Cecil meeting with the Lesotho ministry of tourism (to please provide us with four-wheel drive vehicles), to Pieter locking down lenses and other production equipment from Johannesburg rental houses, to TR finalizing contracts with our actors, and to Papali and Meri securing approval from village chiefs in the areas where we'll film. This often involves them hiking a mile or two into the mountains to where the big man is felling straw for his home, or building a stone corral for his livestock. Deals here are made with a handshake and our promise to thank people in the credits, in addition to a small payment.
Myself, I've been spending my waking hours tweaking the script, preparing the shot list, and working with Ockert to source props and wardrobe. Just today we found the shepherd outfit for Tau off the back of a herd boy we met on a bridge in Semonkong. He gave us his tattered old hat, sweater, and blanket in exchange for a new outfit we bought for him at that one horse town's closest thing to JC Penny. I get the authentic Basotho getup, he gets Christmas come early. You might call this a win-win situation.
Another of the highlights of this week is that we found our hero horses, to be ridden by the leading actors in the section of the film that we shoot next month. One is a regal chestnut mare named Tina, and the other is scrappy little nag who carries the somewhat auspicious moniker, "Autumn Wind". Tina reminds me a bit of Kevin Costner's horse from Dances With Wolves, while the pony resembles a beat up old Huffy dirt bike I had when I was ten. These are just the animals we were looking for, however the job of bringing them to each shooting location is proving to be quite the logistical challenge. The problem comes back to the roads in Lesotho, which under normal circumstances are bad, but this season are purely abysmal due to El Nino's on time delivery of record-breaking rains in Lesotho. To transport the horses, we'll haul them in a trailer from Maseru until the pavement dissolves into the gaping and eroded goat track that we're now all too familiar with. Since it would be torture to have them stand in the trailer during this stretch, the horses will be unloaded and ridden the remaining 20 or so miles to Semonkong, with the truck and trailer full of grain, hay, and water bouncing along behind them. The hitch is that we have locations to use them at along the way, so each day our film team is leapfrogging the horse team, or rather they're leapfrogging us. My Producer/Assistant Director TR shakes his head while handing me a fresh printout of the latest shoot schedule, commenting, "I can't believe that we are scheduling this entire movie around the transport of a couple of frigin ponies". What can I say, we're making a Western. The horses rule the day.
The roads here have also wreaked havoc on my Kinski; the old truck is just limping along these days. It seems that every day we're finding some new malfunction. The CV joints sound like they are close to seizing, the gear box is cracked, and the tires are about as about aligned as the spine of Igor the hunchback. One mechanic gave me a repair quote that was about twice the cost of the vehicle's purchase price. Sigh. With a little grease and duct tape we hope that he'll carry the day.
Vehicle troubles and the horse transport headaches aside, everything else is on track, and we're more or less staying right on budget. The next week consists of daily rehearsals and horseback riding lessons for the actors, more shotlists and storyboards for myself and Carlos, and a producer to-do list that goes from here to Argentina for TR, Cecil, Pieter, and Terry (at least they sell Red Bull in this part of the world). Naturally, we wish we had one more week of pre-production, but no matter when we schedule it we'll always feel like we need more time. So in a week from today we'll travel that long road back to Semonkong and begin making the film. It's taken six years to get to this point, so it's rather surreal to me that the moment is finally here. Africa, please be kind.
BLOG 8: CAMERAS ROLLING… AND CUE THE LIGHTNING
March 17, 2011 Semonkong, Lesotho
We're now ten days into production. For the most part everything has been okay. Well, I should say better than okay - we have some amazing footage in the can. But the weather hasn't exactly been on our side. I had expected Lesotho to be drying out in March, this is why I chose this month to film - the wet season over, a lush landscape, the harvesting of crops. But instead the rainy season is kicking and screaming its way out the door. Foul weather has compromised our filming to the degree that I now find myself waking up several times during the early morning hours to go look at the sky, anxiously calculating the percentage of cloud cover, making humble prayers for a dry dawn. This morning I'm feeling uneasy as I look over the storyboards of what was supposed to be today's shoot. Just a few hours ago we sloshed our modest motorcade of production vehicles thirty minutes down one dirt road after another to arrive at our set, but then cancelled the day when drizzle turned to downpour. Predicting weather here is a total crapshoot. The municipal airport, which we had hoped would offer some sort of meteorological service, is in decay; a herd of bovines graze on the neglected runway.
The rainstorms have been a major inconvenience to the production of TFK. The lightning, however, is a real threat. Last week we were filming a scene where Atang and Tau make the ill-advised decision to pass through an initiation school, a secretive rite of passage ceremony for teenage boys. On a razors edge between two mountain peaks, we had fifteen young extras, each of them in loin cloths and painted in red ochre, while holding spears, slingshots, etc (think National Geographic meets Lord of the Flies). Just as we were about to roll camera, a deafening lightning storm came through. It was a mad scramble to cover up the gear and get all our extras under cover. I jumped into a tent with Ntsane, our child actor, while holding up the flimsy tent poles as the downpour of rain turned to hail, with lightning striking the nearby mountain peaks. Incredibly, the kid kept his cool. Nearby, TR was on his hands and knees, holding down another tent that held actors. The catering tents had blown over, and our horse wranglers, Meri and Kefue, were taking cover behind them, trying to prevent them from blowing off the cliff. When the storm finally passed, the cast and crew gathered back at the vehicles. Fortunately, nobody was hurt and no gear was destroyed. The next day we set up for the same scene. However, just as the initiation boys got to their marks and camera was set, the familiar ominous clouds rolled in, accompanied by an unseasonably cold wind. My assistant Papali and I observed the children dressed in loin cloths shivering around a couple of tiny fires that we'd built for them. Ntsane was, reasonably so, terrified of riding his pony so close to the cliff, so we quickly procured a ten year old stunt double (and expert horseback rider) from the nearby village. As a wall of rain approached from the mountain horizon, we managed to pull off a couple of shots before deciding to release the kids and get all that lighting-conductive film gear off the mountain for the second time in two days. We may have enough to edit the scene together, or we'll do pickup shots later this month. It seems that the Gods are not too happy about us filming a scene that involves the Basotho initiation school.
With other scenes we've had much more success, and the horses are behaving like champions. Kefue, the wrangler/horse whisperer is an aspiring actor himself. He may not be Redford, but he's got a good screen presence, so we cast him as a Sangoma. Other non-actors from Maseru have come to Semonkong to deliver stellar performances. The Joburg actors are settling in well to life in the mountains. Zenzo and I spend evenings discussing the script. He has incredible intuition for this story, and his character. We rehearse with Ntsane when he's not with his tutor or running around taking photos with an old digital camera that I gave him.
The maintenance and efficiency of our vehicles continues to be one of our greatest challenges. Not a day goes by when at least one vehicle has not been stuck in the mud (presently two of them are stuck on the wrong side of a flooded river). The ministry of tourism had once agreed to provide us with four wheel drive vehicles, but the offer came under the condition that we would not take them to Semonkong. Our small fleet of banged up trucks is now under the care of Rajah, the Indian mechanic who we brought in from Maseru.
In the making of this film, there are so many moving parts, and every day feels like a gamble. If I stopped to think about how many things could go wrong (the present foul weather scenario is number twenty-three on a list that goes to about seventy), I'd be so paralyzed with fear that I wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning. Vehicles breaking down, bridges flooding over, power outages, actors suddenly becoming unavailable, actors falling off horses, crew members not getting enough sleep, camera gear malfunctioning, and of course, foul weather (yes, every one of these things have happened, and we're only in week two). There's also an African stomach bug going around; my producer TR has seen the worst of it. In the midst of this chaos, I sometimes find it difficult to find the vision, and I certainly have my moments that I wish I hadn't taken such a big bite on my first feature film. My shoes haven't been completely dry in two weeks. There are times I wish I was back home, doing something very ordinary, not hanging so much out on the limb as I am now, not feeling the strain of so many things that seem on verge of breaking. However, these feelings dissipate when I look at the scenes we've shot. The footage is beautiful - we're filming landscapes that have never been seen before. And the actors performances are incredibly real. We are telling a great story. Or at least I have to believe that.
Last night one of our production assistants arrived from Maseru with a sealed envelope from the "Palace Maseru". The letter inside was from the private secretary of His Majesty King Letsie III. The king would like to meet us this Tuesday, 12 noon sharp. A meeting with the King! Unfortunately, because of the weather pushing our schedule back, Tuesday has now shifted to one of our heaviest shooting days. When I asked Cecil if we can reschedule the meeting, his jaw dropped to the floor. "If Obama asked you to come visit, would you really respond with a request for a rain date?"
So it's been decided that I will continue directing that day, and producers TR and Pieter will go to represent TFK at the meeting with the King. It's a shame I can't go - it would certainly have been good material for this blog! My humble requests to His Majesty will be that he please make it stop raining in Lesotho, and also loan us his private helicopter so we don't have to drive our tired trucks 45 minutes up goat paths each morning to our filming locations. I doubt he'll be able to help with either request, but maybe he can let the TFK team crash in the royal palace when the landlord kicks us out for sleeping too many people in the house.
BLOG 9: SESSION ONE PICTURE WRAP
Johannesburg, South Africa
We're on set, a grassy bluff looking across a creek to where we've constructed a small cemetery. Actors are rehearsed, camera and sound standing by - all set for take one. Suddenly the sun goes behind the clouds. We wait for fifty seconds until it comes back, then we roll camera. A nearby donkey brays over the dialogue. We set up for take two, but there's a camera glitch. Solved. We shoot take two, but one of the actors' blocking is off, so we prepare for take three. But now, one of the hero horses has move too close into frame, blocking the cemetery and background extras. Kefue the wrangler scrambles down the hill to pull it out of the way, and we finally get our first good take. I'd like one more "for safety", but the sun has gone back behind the clouds. Then, it starts to rain. Actors take cover, the grips pull out the lights. Take four is now thirty minutes away.
We have a favorite saying here on the set of TFK: "It's not the time that the takes take that takes the time, it's the time between the takes that takes the time." (Now say that fast three times).
Incredibly, we have finished shooting the first part of the film, the summer season, which is actually the second part in the story. The footage looks beautiful, and somehow we all made it out alive, despite a mild case of Salmonella that afflicted myself and three other crew members, and our production designer's harrowing nose dive into a ditch, with only the trailer keeping him and the rented Toyota Hilux from rolling down the mountain (see photo, with said crew member assessing the damage). I regret that I don't have photos of the giant backhoe that came to the rescue. Unable to pull the vehicle out, the excited road crew elected to built a new road to pull the truck from the front. It was an operation that took about four hours, with an entire village lined up on the hillside to take in the entertainment. If you are ever bumping along between Ramabanta and Semonkong, be on the lookout for "Ockie's pass". As for the food poisoning, it knocked me out like never before, but fortunately it was on our day off, so we didn't lose any shooting time. A friend took me to the hospital where I put on my best Braveheart face as they injected antibiotics into my buttocks with a needle that must have been the width of a pencil. They could have least offered me a shot of whisky and a length of wood for me to bite on through my tears, but at least the next morning I was back to my old self.
For our last two weeks of shooting the rains finally subsided (Hallelujah!) It happened pretty much all at once, as the locals had predicted, on the day after the full moon. That particular evening found the TFK crew deep in the mountains picking up a shot of actors Zenzo and Ntsane moving their horses through a flock of sheep. Meri was home sick (food poisoning, of course), so as the crew packed up the gear, I rode along with Kefue on the three mile moonlit search for our lodging. It was an exquisite journey, without hurry or any sort of trail to show us the route, just wending our way through fecund wheat fields swaying in the evening wind, with grasses reaching the height of my saddle, and an ethereal celestial light touching the ends of the straw, reminding me of bioluminesence you sometimes see in the breaks of ocean waves. It was the closest I've been to the sea in many months, and for about an hour I forgot all about the film I was making - which was actually a very good thing.
After leaving Semonkong we spent a week in Leribe, where we filmed more horseback scenes, and also a handful of interiors in homes we had chosen from the location scout. I'm endlessly amazed how much the Basotho people, particularly in the rural areas, are willing to cooperate. They do so without ego or ulterior motivations, simply from the joy of being a part of the film. As trite as this may sound, I've never met people who had so little possessions or money, yet had such capacity for happiness. Just the other day three workers at the filling station spontaneously broke into ebullient singing as they were checking oil and pumping gas. The man who took my petrol card bounced to the register then returned with a smile on his face like I'd just agreed to be best man at his wedding. I tipped him, then pulled away, only to watch him resume his jubilation with the next customer. I'm a bit surprised that the makers of Prozac aren't over here testing the public water supply. But of course Lesotho's happiness gene is not in the water. You'll have to come to see for yourself.
But I digress... Our accommodation in the area of Leribe was at an old Catholic mission. The sisters are as kind as can be, the meals are decent, and it's cheap! I adore this place, but several cast and crew members have independently approached the producers and myself testifying to the presence of ghosts (or not-so-nice spirits). This place was supposed to be my great find of 2011 but it's turning out more like the Bates Motel. I'm quite skeptical about all this super-natural business, and I'm going to fight the crew on this, since we have to shoot in Leribe this coming July and the mission is really our only affordable option in the area. If it means throwing down a couple of c-notes for a half-baked exorcism, then so be it.
From Leribe we spent two days at a remote herd boy shelter in Bokong Nature reserve, a spectacular location (and ironically the only place in all of Lesotho where we had to shoot around power lines). Our final "full crew" location was on the other side of the country, in a traditional hamlet just east of Mokhotlong. We chose that village as the set for our "village feast" scene, which would include singing, dancing, and the slaughtering of a lamb. We had approached the chief months before, and when we pulled up in our seven truck convoy, more or less the entire village came running down the mountain-side, the children and men clapping and the woman making the ubiquitous ululation cries of joy. A mob of kids helped us haul our film gear to the top of the hill and we shot out the feast, with young girls performing the traditional Litolobonya dancing and people getting plenty drunk on sorghum beer that made it onto our "set".
Our final destination was the great Sani pass, in the Drakensburg mountains, on the border of South Africa. It was another long haul on another dirt road worthy of a Land Rover advertisement, but fortunately we had cut our crew numbers way down, travelling only with a skeleton crew. The scene there we shot at dawn, in a chilly wind, what felt like the overture to this coming winter. After lunch most of our crew was heading over the pass, back to Joburg by way of KwaZulu-Natal. TR, Cecil, Zenzo and myself drove the nine hours straight back to Maseru. I slept for most of that night and the next day.
With the first session behind us, we now begin the long road of pre-production for session two. We are finished with the horses, the burning rondevals, and distant locations at the terminuses of long, rutted roads. In the next session we'll be filming in the crowded taxi ranks of Maseru, as well as in the South Africa locations of Soweto and Hillbrow, the latter of which makes Times Square of 1986 seem.... quiant. This next session will be an entirely different beast to contend with.
BLOG 10: THE QUIET BEFORE THE STORM
May 2011 Maseru, Lesotho
It's been nearly two months since my last blog entry, so I want to assure my faithful readers (well, my mom) that I have not fallen off the face of the earth. Since early April I've enjoyed the relative quiet of our film's shooting hiatus. Apart from two trips to Johannesburg, I've mostly stayed low in Maseru, editing the scenes we've shot so far, and fundraising to complete the rest of the film. The house has been quiet, inhabited only by Meri and myself, a far cry from the international circus that went on for the majority of the summer. We let the lawn grow into an acre of lush green pasture, despite our landlord's admonishment that we were creating an Eden for mosquitos. The yard finally caught the eye of a neighborhood shepherd, who charmed us into providing lunch for him and his young apprentices while his livestock mowed the grass. We had done this two months earlier with a boy and his cattle. This time around, the sheep were somewhat less obtrusive, and didn't leave frisbee size dropping all over the property. I imagine that our green pastures and complimentary bowls of spaghetti have become the talk of our vicinity's livestock guardians.
On the occasional Sunday, my friend Matseliso and I go to the Anglican church, within the same compound as the sleepy mission where I stayed when I first arrived in Lesotho. The church offers an English and Sesotho service, and I always choose the latter. We sit quietly towards the back, mesmerized by the faces of people in prayer, transported by the songs. There is nothing that moves me more than when the Basotho people sing.
I've spent afternoons following up with old acquaintances, and it's during quiet times in the company of friends that I'm reminded about how much AIDS continues to have a grip on Lesotho. Two people I knew from my last extended visit to this country have now passed away. Nearly all my friends here have lost at least one relative from AIDS related diseases. Saturdays are for the burials, and on this day the roads around Maseru are backed up with the traffic of funeral processions. I was speaking with a government officials last week, who remarked that if the rate of HIV/AIDS continues, this country may not exist in thirty years. I find it hard to wrap my head around grim and abstract statistics like these, but it's plainly obvious that many lives around me are affected by the disease.
The season of harvest is rapidly surrendering to winter, and now the work of the rural people is the collection of firewood. In the urban areas, the inky darkness between streetlights is lit up by fires watched over by off-duty security guards, peripatetic shepherds, street kids in wrapped in blankets. A few nights ago I brought some leftover Chinese food to a cluster of boys who have set up camp under a bridge. From under their balaclavas and blankets they muttered words of thanks in Sesotho, and allowed me to warm my hands by the fire for a moment. I'm impressed by resilience of these people. To sound like Wikipedia for a moment here, this country is the only one on the continent that gets regular, seasonal snow in areas of permanent settlement.
TR arrived two weeks ago, and we're quickly moving through our pre-production check list, having already finished a five day location scout with Carlos, our director of photography. Cecil and Pieter are locking down crew and equipment deals up in Joburg while TR, Papali, Meri and I are attending to the production needs here in Lesotho. One of our upcoming locations is a large Chinese owned textile factory that makes garments exclusively for Gap. This brings me to a interesting anecdote from the year 2007: The day before I was to leave for a trip to Lesotho, I walked into the retail giant Old Navy (owned by Gap) in Natick, Massachusetts. My intention was to find an article of clothing made in Lesotho, and trace it back to the factory where it came from. I purchased a plain T-shirt, hunter green. When I got to Lesotho, my mission turned out to be much easier than I had expected. I simply asked which was the Gap factory and was pointed in the right direction. Much to my surprise, the owner of the factory didn't turn me away, and in fact invited me right onto the work floor. Incredibly, on that particular day they were making the very T-shirt that was on my back. I walked down an aisle dividing an ocean of women seated behind cramped work stations, emphatically pointing between my shirt and the rolls of hunter green fabric the women were loading into their sewing machines. It was one of the more surreal experiences I've had in this country. But I digress...
By far the greatest challenge ahead of us with this second session is staying within budget, while at the same time maintaining a high production value. The costs of making this film is higher than we anticipated. The dollar has weakened to the South African rand, and petrol is prohibitively expensive - I saw one taxi driver taking a page out of the Flintstones, pushing his car along (by foot) in a traffic jam. The pleasure I take in having finally learned how to say "fill 'er up" in Sesotho is routinely dampened when the gas attendant returns my credit card and says, in the Queen's English, "eight hundred fifty rand," (which comes to about a hundred twenty five bucks!) The goods news for our little film is that the United States Embassy and PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) has recently given us a grant, which will help us get the film in the can. The embassy also organized a screening at the local movie theater (and the only one in the country), where we showed clips of the film, and hosted a Q and A afterwards. The response was fantastic. It's going to be quite an event when we have the premiere next February.
BLOG 11 - ONLY SLIGHTLY HOMESICK FOR VERMONT MAPLE SYRUP
July 5, 2011 LERIBE, LESOTHO
We are now one week into the second session of filming TFK. Seven shoot days down, seventeen to go. One of the primary differences this time around is that we’re now shooting in the peak of winter. The hours of daylight are much shorter, which means we have to move faster to get our shots, and make our day. It also gets bitter cold in the early mornings when we arrive on set. Today, our first day off, it snowed in the mountains. A group of us drove as high as we could up the mountain pass in our little two-wheel drive mini-van (which we call “soccer mom”) until the road turned to a sheet of ice. We slid to a stop, took some photos, and promptly had a snowball fight. Harry, our South African sound mixer, remarked that this was the first time he’d seen snow in four years. He pulled apart snowballs and ate them like they were slices of tangerine.
A friend of mine, Julie Hand, arrived from the States to join the TFK family. She showed up with a duffel bag full of warm gloves, headlamps, hand warmers, and hats - all of which came from a generous sponsorship from The Mountaingoat outfitters (www.mountaingoat.com) in Manchester, Vermont. Another significant contribution to the film came from the Lesotho Sun Hotel, which has provided free rooms to all our South African actors, as well as a rehearsal space. On a particularly lucky day I was invited by the hotel management to their breakfast buffet, where I witnessed the miracle of piping hot pancakes for the first time in seven months. The chef there, who goes by the name of Rambo, dashed to the kitchen to procure a bottle of maple syrup that he assured me was the real mcCoy, despite that lip-smacking high fructose flavor.
The scenes we’ve been shooting this session bring new challenges in that they require filming in busy public places, with the need for large amounts of extras. To find our extras, we called on the people who came to auditions back in January, and also ran advertisements on the radio and newspaper. We then held an open meeting at the movie theater, where we explained the logistics of the upcoming shoots. Last week, while shooting a scene at the old St. Michael's church in the town of Roma, we had arranged for a hundred extras to show up for a funeral scene. When the day came, only about thirty of these people arrived. While the crew and I went ahead filming other scenes, the producers made a mad scramble into the village to round up additional people. Between camera takes I'd see van load after van load of amused somewhat bewildered villagers brought onto the church grounds. By the time we were ready to shoot the funeral scene it had all come together. Not exactly the way we had planned, but clearly the way Lesotho meant for it to happen.
I’m particularly daunted about three days of shooting that will take place at the end of this week in Maseru, in the area that’s known as “bus stop”. It’s as bustling of an African market place as they come. Even when we go on a simple tech scout with a small handful of crew members, we’re constantly trying to push back the crowds who want to know what we’re up to. In one of these upcoming scenes, the film's protagonist is beat up by a bunch of tsotsis, or thugs (see pic below). We've been doing makeup tests today to create the most realistic fake blood and bruises, and I'm impressed with what our makeup artist has come up with. The upcoming marketplace shoot is sure to be complete chaos, but we’re lucky to have the support of the police, who will offer us security and a bodyguard for our lead actor Zenzo. Because of his soap opera celebrity status, he often gets followed by a mob of star struck teenagers. Quite curiously, nobody seems to recognize me from a 2001 television commercial I acted in for WMUR news in Nashua, New Hampshire.
In the last session, it seemed like we were always off in distant mountains, making a western, having our actors jumping off and on horses. This session has more raw drama - subtle flirtations, words unspoken, fists pounded onto tables. Directing these accomplished actors has been a fulfilling, humbling, and sometimes daunting experience. The greatest obstacle is the fact that I neither fully speak nor understand the language in which they are talking (I wrote the script in English, and had it translated). I get by with the help of my scrupulous language consultant Sejake, the erudite painter and professor from Morija, and likely the only fan of Jim Jarmusch in the entire country. Sejake speaks very slowly, with crisp pronunciation, which somehow reminds me of an Amish man peeling an apple. This session I've had more time with TR and Carlos to plan out the shots, and we seem to do far less takes. The on set machinery runs smoother and, so far, the crew morale seems high. The catering is stellar, thanks to a genial Ethiopian woman named Sunny who cooks delicious chicken curry and I suspect is going to send the entire TFK team home with slightly larger waist sizes. We are also fortunate to have a group of interns from the film department of the local university in Maseru. They are honest, good-natured kids who organize their own bible studies late at night, and don't mind getting their hands dirty filling the generators with diesel early the next morning.
I've now been in Africa for seven months, which is the longest I've been away from the United States in one stretch. There are things that shocked me before that hardly phase me now, such as the fact that a nation's capital city only has water about fifty percent of the time. With regards to the ever-present roadblock bribery, I'm pleased with myself to have finally developed a detailed and much practiced story (involving an urgent meeting with government officials) that has waved me through countless roadblocks and bribery schemes. For corrupt officials, TFK's convoy of trucks - all driven by foreigners - continues to be an easy target. Our production designer, for the crime of not having his license on him, spent an entire night in a paddy wagon under the watch of a couple of drunk cops, who only let him go when they grew tired of his non-stop rendition of Broadway musical numbers.
We're now getting ready for our final ten days of shooting here in Lesotho, then we'll go to Johannesburg for our handful of days filming in Hillbrow and the township of Diepsloot. It's hard to believe that we're so close to wrapping the film.
BLOG 12: BY THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH
August 22, 2011 Maseru, Lesotho
Eight months later, after almost fifty days of shooting and just as many hours of footage, we finally wrapped production on this little film. The cast and crew have dispersed to all parts north: America, Johannesburg, the sleepy villages around Lesotho. I remain in Maseru, closing out the accounts we have in Lesotho and preparing for a dozen or so more pickup shots and voice-overs to be recorded. We packed up our spacious house/production office and I'm now staying in a cozy room at a US Embassy house. It's a strange feeling to still be here after the troops have gone their ways. Mostly, it's an incredible relief to finally be finished, and these last pickup shots should be a bite of little debbies cupcake compared to what we've been through in the last eight months. If I were a cartoonist, I would draw myself as a tired and disheveled lighthouse attendant, wet match in hand, about to enjoy a long-awaited cigar while waiting for just a few more smurf-size dories to reach port after many months of nonstop oil tankers. I'm ready for this film to be wrapped. Barring any eleventh hour mishaps, I'll be flying back home at the end of August.
I regret that I didn't blog more during this session. The days were shorter this time around, and free hours became a commodity so precious that I selfishly elected to use them for sleeping, eating, and the occasional hot shower. The last two months of filming brought us from the frigid mountains of Lesotho, to the bustling streets of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, to the South African township of Diepsloot, and finally to three days of bombing around the Free State in pursuit of trains (picture your faithful correspondent stuffed into the back of sputtering pickup truck, shooting video on his Canon 7D, with his intrepid assistant Julie crouched over the steering wheel, quite literally racing a train through sixty kilometers of South African farmland). At each location, every day of filming, we narrowly made our days, just barely got out of there with the shots we need to tell the story. As if the universe enjoyed lighting a fire under our asses, there was no exception to this rule. As the sun dropped over the horizon on take two or three of our final set up, we'd pack up the gear while sharing wide-eyed looks and a collective sigh of relief. We somehow, just barely pulled it off. By the skin of our teeth.
Lesotho was a champion through to the very end. The last feature film that was (partially) shot here was in 1985, an action film called (and I'm not making this up) American Ninja IV. Cheap labor, dramatic locations, a Hollywood B movie star, you get the picture. For years I heard war stories from the Basotho people who worked this piece of cinematic dog poop (Ah, the shoes I'd have to fill...) In 2006, over a six pack of Maluti beer at a bar called Sparrows, Lesotho essentially threw its arm around my shoulder and said to me, "You can do anything you want, film anywhere you please in this country, just don't dress our people as ninjas anymore". Well, this country was true to its word. Not a single location said no. Not a single person refused us. We were challenged by lightning storms, vehicle breakdowns, equipment failure, uncooperative farm animals, food poisoning, water shortages, power outages, and a slew of other minor disasters. But the people... they are an army of Yes. It's the kindest, most welcoming place I've ever known.
South Africa doesn't fall far behind. Hillbrow, Johannesburg's notorious slum, is a relatively stressful in that it's a place where you never want to be at night, when all the "really bad stuff" goes down. During the shoot we were continuously surrounded by more than a dozen police and security guards, which took the nervous edge away (but didn't stop a handful of knife fights that took place within spitting distance of where we were shooting). However, during the numerous location scouts we did not enjoy the company of security guards. Feeling a bit like little red riding hood on the way to grandmother's house, I'd repeat to myself over and over, "safe in daylight, get out by night" while keeping one eye on the shadows creeping up the buildings as an indication of how soon dark was to come. A city of vampires, or so it felt to me. On one such Hillbrow scouting excursion I inadvertently took a photograph of a police officer (that this was illegal activity, the Lonely Planet guide book did not enlighten me). I was hastily escorted to the paddy wagon while emphatically trying to convince the two red-faced Afrikaner law enforcers that my mistake was an innocent one. My hands on the top of the police vehicle, they checked my pockets for drugs, guns, knives (coupons for a brothel, Black Panthers membership card, insert any illegal activity here). One of the mustachioed cops gnarled at me, "What are you doing here? This is Hillbrow!" At that moment, I heard a loud pop, and turned to see that the other police officer was firing rubber bullets into a crowd that had assembled around a drunken street brawl. My co-producer Cecil arrives at the scene and smiles at me, "So you really want to film in Hillbrow, huh"? But film in Hillbrow we did, and despite two days of raw nerves and a beefy bodyguard named "Checkers" standing guard outside the porta pottie, the locals there proved to be gracious and welcoming. The amusing bit is that on our first day we made the mistake of leaving our craft service table out in the open for all of ten seconds. One moment existed a pleasant and polychromatic display of fruit, baked goods, granola bars, bottled water... in the blink of an eye it suddenly looked as if a swarm of flying piranhas had come through (Incidentally, I was lucky enough to witness the infamous TFK Hillbrow Craft Attack with my own eyes, but I could not get to my camera quick enough to snap a photo). Ah, but this is a tiny price to pay for getting out of the city of vampires in one piece, and an accidental, impromptu soup kitchen might be good karma for us in the end. Hillbrow, I can't complain. We even got away with a few unrehearsed hours of following our five actors around the city, filming on a steadicam rig. The real prostitutes and thugs didn't even complain that we'd brought in our own, pretend ones. Hillbrow, I owe you one. I admit it.
Diepsloot is a township located between Joburg and Pretoria, a place that has gained notoriety in recent years for extreme violence and mob justice. The South African crew members, more familiar with the current newspaper headlines, refused to go in there unless we did so with a mob of security guards, in the daylight hours, and only on Monday or Tuesday (when, in theory, there is the least amount of public intoxication). Adhering to this smart counsel, the shoot went off without a hitch. For one scene that we filmed in a shebeen (rough and tumble bar - a place not even Patrick Swayze, circa 1989, could keep the rule) we had nearly a hundred extras. They were all cooperative and respectful, and only mildly complained that their prop beer bottles had been filled with water. Diepsloot indeed proved to be a stellar place to shoot, and we've promised to go back there when the movie is done and offer a free public screening. Maybe this time we'll top off some of those beer bottles with the real thing.
As circumstances would have it, our Diepsloot shoot went over by one day, which meant that we had to shut down production for the rest of the week and wait for the following Monday when we could resume. During the interim, our leading actor Zenzo went back to work on his soap opera, Rhythm City. I sent him a text, gently reminding him that as we still had one more day of shooting, he absolutely must not allow the soapie producers to shave his head (they favored him in the Lou Cossitt Jr, Iron Eagle look). Moments later, Zenzo called me in panic. The producers had already done the deed, threatening to fire him if he did not submit to the razor. I was rather, how shall I say... ticked off. TR, Cecil, and I panicked. This was going to make an absolute mockery of the scene continuity we'd fought so hard to preserve. We had calls out to all the hair and makeup people we knew in Johannesburg. Could Zenzo wear a very short wig? I played, and re-played the scene over in my mind. Would it be ridiculous to put him in a Mexican sombrero for just for that part of the movie? (Surely that would distract the viewer from the glaring fact that our handsome leading man suddenly has no hair!). The next day Zenzo called me from a live radio show. It was all a grand prank, and I heard a cacophony of laughter in the studio as I gave a detailed account of the rather stressful past twenty-four hours of my life in which I was trying to map out the feasibility of making a computer generated scalp. I was officially punk'ed. Kudos Zenzo. Africa wins again. But it ain't over til the fat lady sings...
Just a handful of shots here in Lesotho and one more elusive iron horse to track down in the South African free state. In no time I'll be back in Joburg selling my beloved Kinski to the highest bidder (or perhaps just the first person who comes to have a look at it). I intend to scratch my last blog on a South African Airways cocktail napkin somewhere over the moonlit Atlantic ocean. And then I intend to drink that cocktail.