Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Have You Heard the One About...?

Have you heard the joke about the blonde actress who went to Hollywood? She was so desperate to get a role in a movie that she slept with a scriptwriter. That’s the joke. In the film world the scriptwriter is usually the most powerless of all in the hierarchy of things. However, in my almost ten years of writing scripts for film and realizing the powerlessness of my role, I have had one glimmer of light. It has been the film called White Lion. This has been – as the African elders viewed the white lions themselves - a veritable gift from the gods. White Lion is currently being filmed in Gauteng by Nationwide Distributors and Chop Productions. From the time the producers chose me to write the script for them, this project has been remarkable for the respectful way I was treated by all concerned. Just one example of this was that my daughter and I were invited onto the set of the film for a night shoot a few weeks ago. Scriptwriters are not usually invited onto the set of a film.

I spoke to the producer, Kevin Richardson, after the night’s rain interrupted shoot to find out where and when the idea for this ambitious project was born. “The project originated back in the early eighties when Rodney Fuhr, a wildlife enthusiast and owner of the Lion Park, sponsored wildlife research in the bush,” Richardson replied. “Rodney always wanted to make a film which would follow the development of a lion cub from birth to maturity. He was trying to film this process in the wild but he soon realized as he went along that it was easier said than done. So for many reasons the making of the film was put on hold until recently when Rodney and I were in a better position - financially and with the right animals available - to make this film become a reality.”

With Fuhr’s backing, Nationwide set out to gather a team of professionals around them to make Fuhr’s dream become a reality. They brought Chop Productions, which comprises Sam Kelly and Ben Horowitz, on board to co-ordinate the production. Soon things began to move. Once a script was written that could develop what until then had been a straight documentary idea into something more of a narrative with a definite dramatic character arc for a lion in the wild, the project was greenlighted or given the go-ahead. Although there are only three human roles in this film and their contribution is minimal, the budget for the film started off at R6 million. The production wasn’t going to stint on the quality, and allowance has been made for a certain amount of blue screen filming as well as for a few animatronics animals too. For example, where it is too dangerous to have a lion and a hyena in the same shot, blue screen will be used to film them separately. And to get up close and personal with a savage hyena, the only way to do this was with the help of Richard Tickey and one teenage lion is being made by The Creature Shop. All other action will be filmed with real animals and live animals wherever possible.

Richardson discussed his role as the producer on the project. “It has been manifold,” he says. “As I had the most experience with the animals and a fair knowledge of the feature film industry (Richardson was the lion wrangler on the French film, Le Lion, amongst others) I was best able to shape the ideas which Rodney had in his head. Rodney and I had spent many years discussing what he wanted in this film. I suppose in a manner of speaking I've taken on the responsibility of realizing his dream as close as is humanly possible.”

Richardson has a rare gift with animals of all kinds. In one of our earlier script brainstorming sessions with the first phase director, Russell Underhill, and Chop Production’s Ben Horowitz at a coffee shop in Parkhurst, Richardson arrived with a small cardboard box which he placed on the table. He hoped that we wouldn’t mind if he fed his “baby” before we started talking. He’d rescued the tiniest bird from certain death, and was feeding it special bird food from a syringe. The bird didn’t mind sitting in on the meeting. For his remarkable way with animals, Richardson has been responsible for ensuring that the wranglers – Helga van der Merwe and Rodney Nombekana - and the animals are happy and able to do their work on the film. Richardson was also responsible for sourcing the best crew possible while overseeing that production costs would not exceed the budget. Even with a starting budget of R6 million, this was quite a task.

One of his biggest challenges was creating the story that Fuhr wanted, Richardson says, and ensuring that it had cinematic appeal. That, and the weather were the most difficult challenges. Director of Photography, Mike Swann, sat alongside me on set while we watched helplessly as it rained for a solid two hours. He said that the weather this past summer has been very unseasonable. “We’ve had the usual Highveld thunderstorms which go as quickly as they come,” Swann said. “But this drizzling rain which sets in for hours makes life impossible. We have lost thousands of rands on the production budget due to the rain. It’s very frustrating but we just wait and hope that it will stop and that we will be able to film at least something tonight.”

We were lucky. In spite of a two hour rain delay, we were able to see some pivotal scenes being shot with the two heroes of the piece. The look on my daughter’s face when the two teenage lions ran down the road to “raid” the chicken coop is something I will never forget.

“It costs us R100 000.00 per day if we can’t film on a day when all the crew are called in for shooting,” affirms Line Producer, Sam Kelly. Kelly has had to step in and take over the production completely since her partner in Chop Productions, Horowitz, had a bad bike accident 6 weeks ago. It was a daunting task but a great learning curve for her. “Ben and I have always worked as a complimentary team. He is great at certain things and I am great at others. This was the first time that I had to take over the production side completely on my own. It was difficult but it taught me how much I can cope with. And production has continued without too much of a hitch. Apart from the weather,” she laughs ruefully.

“It has been extremely difficult to co-ordinate all the variables on this movie,” adds Richardson. “We were dealing with changeable weather, temperamental animals and people. But the most difficult of all to deal with were the people!”

With the second phase of shooting just completed, the film is being cut into a five minute promo to take to Cannes by a top editor from the States. The producers hope to garner interest from production companies overseas so that distribution, the bugbear of the industry, can be broadened to include Europe and the States and hopefully White Lion will be enjoyed by as many countries around the world as possible.

First Published in the Weekend Witness, April 15th 2006.

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