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About Jenna Cato Bass

I'm a director, writer, photographer, aspiring explorer and retired magician living in Cape Town, South Africa

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Dark Days

Posted March 28, 2009

My sister was the first person I told: she walked in, still bleary from sleeping and I said, "I didn't get into Sundance". 

Yes.

I feel like I was climbing up a ladder. It was tough going, I was getting a bit out of breath. Pain in my legs, you know. But it could have been worse. Hadn't broken a sweat. And then, I got to the top, and I saw the world stretch before me. The same, but different. But better. And then someone kicked me off and well, the rest you can imagine. For better or worse though, I don't really have time to be upset. I can't freak out, scream, and throw myself off a cliff. As Gavin said today. that wouldn't be very good for the film. He's right. But damn. This sucks. A huge amount. But this is not a platform for complaint. I'll spare you. That is, after all, what family is for. 

So I feel fortunate that tonight is earth hour. Time to switch off the lights, hide in the darkness, and contemplate. And maybe watch a River Phoenix movie on laptop if the video store has one in. 

The week has been a tough one. A rather unrewarding blur. But new things lie ahead. The possibility of NFVF money, driving out to township schools cast teenage girls, elusive Swedish actors and possible zebras. Whatever it brings, I guess I'll be facing it with a lot more humility. Which I hope will be OK. I like being arrogant sometimes. In small doses? Who knows. Either way, let's hope its fun. 

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Angst Angst Angst...

Posted March 22, 2009

Yes, so: angst. In large amounts over the last few days. 

I get another email from my friend in Zimbabwe, strongly discouraging me from making my film. He talks mainly of the impossibility of shooting in Zimbabwe, which of course is not an option. But he tells me making the film at all, with the political situation as it is, is unwise. He advises me that Zimbabweans are not ready to face their past. Usually, I would try not let a single person's opinion sway me, but his words touch nerves which were raw to begin with. As a South African and, dare I say it, a white one at that, what, really, do I know about this? Who am I to tell this story? These kind of anxieties come and go, but as I've pushed them aside over the past few months, they've been building. Compounding them was something I read Cary Fukunaga said (which I wouldn't want to quote because the idea of someone quoting me freaks me out and I only mention it because I respect him hugely) about social-issue films made by outsider filmmakers often being exploitative. What are they risking? And I think, what am I risking? But then I think, maybe that's half the point: If I was in Zimbabwe right now, making this film would be impossible. The fact that it could cause controversy, possibly, is all the more reason to make it. So here, safe in South Africa, is maybe the only place to tell this story. And I think to myself, it is not often that a story comes along which is so important. My reasoning sounds patchy, but the issues are too large to really do justice here. Or it feels that way. Maybe I'm wrong and in fact they're really simple. But I can't back down. I didn't start this film with an agenda. It was a flash. And it has become too big for me, but maybe that is a good thing. This doesn't mean I can ease-up, I think I'll be hyper-aware of the potential pitfalls, the political hot water, right up to the film's completion. and beyond. But I'm on the road now. The road means so much to me. I'm on it.

But there are things which keep me going, make me think that I must be doing something right. Most often, it is the kindness of people, or their interest, enthusiasm and hard work. Keegan, our art director, sent me some designs for the village huts that a draughtsman friend had drawn up. When I see things like this, it makes me love these craftspeople more, more even than the heads of department, the actors. The people who work behind the scenes, seldom recognized, doing their job with skill, purely because they enjoy it. Just creation without the ego. Unlike those silly directors, you know them.

Time is starting to compress alarmingly. It quickly became apparent to Jacques and I that location scouting was taking  more time than we could afford. The kamikaze schedule I'd drawn up keeps me busy the entire day, no time for driving out of the city. We've been saved by Gavin, who has become our official location scout. Emphasis on the "saved". For real.

But the last location scout that Jacques and I did brought us across an interesting, sad story which strangely paralleled the film: In Stellenbosch we visited a farm which had another derelict farm house location. Lynda, the farm's owner, showed us around. A really nice lady. The farm has been in her family for generations, and the derelict house had been her childhood home. But she and her family had moved away for a time, and when she returned, the house had been scavenged, ravaged. So today they rent it out as a film location, hoping to one day restore it to its former glory. It was really sad, made me want to shoot there even more, contribute to the restoration of a dream, you know? 

A meeting with Dan, the producer from Joburg, was interesting. He's offered to liaise with some of our potential funders in Joburg and help move things along. Wow. That would be fantastic. I wish the last few months hadn't made me so skeptical of everyone. But he seemed to genuinely care about the film and he made me feel a lot better about a few things which were bothering me a lot. So even that helps, just to be told that I'm doing OK. 

Gee whiz, I suppose there is more to say, but it's late and I have to be up early for castings (!) tomorrow. So by the end of tomorrow I'm sure there'll be things to report...but in the meantime, I'll leave you with with the following films that I have had the chance to watch (for the sake of my health and sanity, I swear) over the last week or two and which I recommend beyond a doubt: Wages of FearLawrence of Arabia Coming Home. 

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5 weeks to go...

Posted March 18, 2009

 

today, a miracle: rain! oh yes, what a glorious respite from the hellish week which has been killing me for weeks. driving back on my scooter from meeting tafadzwa (more about him later), got caught in the rain and didn't mind, even when i almost crashed and ruined my laptop. but this weather makes me feel like writing. so here i am. 

a call from a producer in joburg the other day. He's Zimbabwean, so that fact that he likes the script is a big relief. He's coming down to Cape Town and wants to meet up on the weekend. Should be interesting. But after all this time, being desperate for a producer, i wonder if this is coming too late. Having taken the route we've chosen, i.e. that of little money, everything suddenly seems OK. Maybe I'll get my producer credit after all... though of course that is far from being my motivation. promise. 

elwin, our gaffer, called me the other day to ask if i'd consider changing our shoot dates - he had another job offer, one which would actually pay him, at exactly the same time. when i explained this was most improbable, he said his first priority is The Tunnel and he'll turn down the other job. After feeling massively guilty, I realized how fortunate I am to have crew this dedicated. It makes you feel invincible. Thanks Elwin. 

Jacques and I went to Media (the big gear house in Cape Town) to see what we could negotiate in terms of camera, lighting and grips. we decided to be brazen and ask for a lot for very little, believing strongly that, as we're taking this film very seriously, and want it to look amazing, it'll be a far better investment for them - basically, this is a film we want to take places, not something we want to sit on our shelf. So right out we asked for a Red. This, we cannot have (at discount at any rate) because they are outsourced. but we were provisionally offered a D21, which as Jacques says is "a monster": even better than the Red. with a nice set of primes, we'll get that high detail i want...ok, well, lets not get our hopes up, let's wait and see.  

Met with Tafadzwa a Zimbabwean director I studied with: I thought I'd run the script by him, to check it for accuracy. But I was a bit worried, in case he reacted badly, in case, despite my research, I really have somehow got the wrong end of the stick. Anxiety proved unnecessary - he really liked the script and not only has he agreed to help translate it (into Shona and Ndebele) but will be all round consultant, help with casting and has even asked to act in it. I was interested to see which role would appeal to him, but was deeply shocked when he asked to audition for the 5th Brigade Commander - he is such, such a nice guy, I would never expected him to be attracted by the most evil man I have ever written into a script. I thought if I'd offered it, he'd be insulted. But people are surprising. On that, we'll hopefully have castings next week - waiting anxiously for a report back from Layla - but just from my side I have enough people ready to try out by next week. So that'll be very exciting. 

A group meeting was held on Friday. I did make cookies, (many of which were consumed by me before anyone else could get at them). It was good to have everyone together, even though for the rest of the weekend I was plagued by anxiety about whether I'd managed to compensate for the lack of producer. 

From there, location scouting. Jacques K, Orli, Elwin, Nick and I all squeezed into Orli's car and drove out up the Garden Route. Our first stop, a farm in Grabouw, had the perfect derelict farm house, but the forest was wrong. Second stop, the Habonim campsite in Onrus, had great forest (a relief as I'd begun to worry we wouldn't find any Zim-like forest near CT) but no appropriate buildings. If we were to shoot that far away from town, we would have to stay out there, so that is an added complication. This would have been slightly disheartening if the trip itself hadn't been so much fun, as scouts often are. But this week we'll try closer to home and see what we can see. Scouts usually exhaust me, I'm not sure why, but what I love is when a place has such character that it gives you new ideas. The Grabouw farmhouse did that - near the beginning of the film, we're in a colonial farmhouse, captured by guerillas and which they have promptly set about destroying. We start on the guerilla commander, Masuku, as he comes out of one of the rooms, walks down the passage and enters the dining room where anarchy and chaos is ensuing, the drunken guerillas living it up. In the Grabouw farmhouse there was a bathroom with beautiful tiles crumbling off the walls, really cinematic. Suddenly the scene presented itself to me like this: Masuku opens the door and steps out of the bathroom, followed by a cloud of steam - he's just had the luxury of a hot shower after hiding out in the bush, and is wearing the farmer's (who has fled) bathrobe, in addition to his old army hat and boots. An old soldier, once powerful, now clinging to power, he walks down the corridor to meet his mutinying young troupes.....  

Today I found myself, for the first time in a while, with some time on my hands, before realising I finally had a chance to accumulate some more visual references, something I've unusually neglected. Found some real gems in the colours of German Expressionist paintings (to use as lighting and design references for the hellish scene in the farmhouse) and others by photographer Dominic Nahr

 

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I ♥ Friends

Posted March 10, 2009

I've said it once and I'll say it again - making films with people you like is the way to go. After being shut up in a room alone for the past 3 months, it's so great to be in the company of people who care about they do and, even better, care about making The Tunnel. Really, they do. It's wonderful.

Meetings with Jacques (Koudstaal -DOP - his surname means "Cold steel" in Dutch. Beat that), Elwin (Gaffer), Fahema (Focus/Camera assist), Layla (Casting co-ordinator), Stacey (animal wrangler and all round involved person) and Ilana (Construction) this week have really restored my faith in humanity. Not only are they content to do their jobs, they've also taken pity on me as a producering director and have all offered to pitch in. What have I done to deserve such kindness.... hopefully the answer to that is wrote a good script. Basically it's good to be around people again. We're still missing a few crew members... my kingdom for a line producer... but I think we can sort the remainders out by early next week. We're having a team meeting on Friday. I always love those. I'll make cookies. 

Emil, a location scout, has been helping me out very very kindly with location options - one of them being in Hout Bay which is much much closer than I'd imagined - Cape Town is very diverse location wise, it's a filmmakers dream. It's just a bit scant on Zimbabwe-alike areas. So up until recently I had imagined we would have to drive at least 2 hours out, knocking up costs like nothing else. But if we can stick close to home, well, suffice it to say I'd be very happy. 

One thing we have been discussing much in the past few days is camera - Jacques and I still had our hearts set on a Red, despite the expense, though would have been relatively happy with the Ex3 and a good set of prime lenses. Then yesterday Elwin suggested we look into the Canon 5D which immediately caused a rumpus. I was completely hooked on the idea until I read this review at DPreview.com - the best site for digital photographers. Now I'm not so sure- yes the footage looks great - locked off. I understand the potentials for a combined SLR/video camera of quality, it excites me beyond belief, but really - automatic exposure only? No, I'm not so sure I can get behind that. So maybe we're back to the Ex3... and I was so looking forward to breaking the rules...

What everyone does seem to agree on is the decision to stick to our rapidly approaching shoot dates of the 24th April - 3 May and work out a production budget solely around what we have - that doesn't include post as well as the HD transfer I hope to do (trying to put the expense of that out my mind) - but it'll mean that if the extra money comes in late, which I'm sure it will, we're prepared. I suppose we're lucky in that you can get away with these kinds of things when you're making a short. I'll still insure everything though. That's not something I want to worry about. 

So what I'm seeing happen is this: things are starting to take shape, after months of uncertainty. With friends (who work hard) behind you, maybe you can do anything. Most things. Big up to everyone who has been so helpful so far, especially the boys of Bephat Motel and Jo of Serendipitous Enterprises.

Finally, I hate to end on a negative note, but mention this purely to amuse, I say "amuse" only because the consequences are too terrible to contemplate, that we must laugh at them-  has anyone seen this cinematic beyond-words abomination?

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Night Rantings

Posted March 04, 2009

It's 1am and I can't sleep. Lately, all my attempts at relaxing and recreation have been interrupted by borderline-OCD calculations of generator rentals, location costs and strategies for catering. 

Today another respected producer told me I was mad. OK, I'm slightly exaggerating, but he was one of the most successful feature producers in the country and I think he may have easily doubted my sanity when I called him for advice this afternoon (after leaving about fifty messages for him over the last three days). What it's starting to come down to is this: A Decision. Capital D. I've been dedicating my time almost 100% to fundraising for the film. I've sent out proposals, many of them. And now I think it may be time to step away from that and take a new approach, namely assume that I have only the money I have so far and concentrate on making sure I can make the film for that. That means cutting drastic deals with gear houses, transport companies, caterers etc. Not to mention everyone working for free, which I'd hoped very much to avoid. Its very possible, given a certain approach, that the film can be made on a shoestring. At the same time, this kind of determination makes me start to forget the standards I've set for the film. Once one starts cutting corners, compromises become easier to accept. I can't let that happen either. So now it's about striking a balance between a shoestring budget, and a reasonable budget, and making sure that that works. So what I've decided to do is send out the last batch of proposals to the remaining foreign embassies and get Orli to take over endorsements and get going on CSI. That'll leave me free to get down to the practicalities, which is in a sense is at least getting closer to directing. What I need now is a good line producer, because there is no way I want to be worrying about anything other than directing when it comes to the shoot. 

 

I managed to get an appointment to meet with Father Michael Lapsley, a very respected SA human rights activist and campaigner for reconciliation. He runs an organization called The Institute for Healing of Memories which operates internationally and whose work very much aligns to the impact I hope to have with The Tunnel. So I'm meeting him on Friday to see if the institute will endorse the film and possibly be able to use it in their work. If I have them behind me, it would be incredibly helpful, not to mention an meaningful outlet for the film.

 

Found a website called Grantmakers in Film & Electronic Media which has a select database of socially conscious film/video projects seeking funding. It's a great idea in theory, and The Tunnel was accepted, so we'll see if anything arises. You can have a look at it here:

gfem-project-share.jpg

Sjoe, OK maybe some sleep is in order. If I can. I think I'll be audacious if I have a free moment and submit Flat Land to the Cannes Residency program, mainly to assuage my anxiety about it's reception at the Sundance offices.  Anyway, a new day awaits. New emails, new phone calls. I've probably blown my parents' phone bill over the past three weeks, especially with all the calls to Zimbabwe. Hm, will have to think of some sort of compensation. I wonder if an executive producer credit will cut it....  

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Politics & Paranoia

Posted March 03, 2009

A scary thing happened the other day: I'd sent The Tunnel script to a Zimbabwean actor friend of mine last year. He was very positive about it, said it was an important film to make and he'd do anything to help. I was incredibly touched, considering it would be dangerous for him to be involved and to stay in the country. So I sent the script to him again the other day. And the response I received really shocked me. He'd done a complete turn around, asked me what my political motivations were, whether I was trying to take a swipe at the current president. He'd done a complete about turn, and I was very worried. It really gives an indication of what the situation must be like if it changes people like that. But it did raise a worrying question for me - though I can possibly cast some of the characters from Ndebele South Africans, the Shona characters will have to be Zimbabwean. The languages are very different. Of course, there are many Zimbabweans in the country, but many of them will have families back home. And I'm not sure if their involvement in the film may have dangerous ramifications. Its worrying. But I'll have to get to that hurdle when I come to it. 

All this at a time when South Africa's most likely candidate for president is defaming the concept of democracy. Scary times. Politics. 

So, so far its been a week of many many phone calls. I'm worried it may be slowly driving me insane - I find myself holding a competition for best hold-tone. The results: 

Best Hold tone: The South African Israeli Embassy: Cheery Israeli tune

Worst Hold Tone: The South African Australian Embassy: Unbelievably piercing series of high pitched beeps.

Special Mention for Originality: The National Arts Council: An indiscernible cacophony turns out to be electronic version of Hall of the Troll King. brilliant.

So yes, I hope this pays off. I've been struggling to get through to embassies in Zimbabwe, most of the lines don't seem to be working. I even phoned Archbishop Desmond Tutu's office to see if he would endorse the film. I should probably follow that one up tomorrow... that would be invaluable.

As I think I have mentioned though, I've realised that foundation funding is not going to lead to quick money. Corporatations and Individuals are where its at. So today I went out an purchased with what little money I have left to me, a large tome called the CSI (coporate social investment) Handbook. It contains listings and profiles of all the big south african corporations and what areas they sponsor. I think it is going to save me a lot of time. In fact, I'm almost too scared to open it - it's too good to be true. It's too powerful for me, it's potential too great. I can't believe they publish anything like this. I mean, what if it got into the wrong hands....

Orli came over and helped make a big dent in my massive endorsement emailing list. Aside from it being great to have someone around to vent to, she must have a magic touch - I usually get one reply for every fifty i sent out. Within an hour she'd already got some great replies. How does she do it? 

On the crew front - news! We now have a sound designer, Nick. And he loves the story, which is of course is a big plus. I usually have atrocious luck with sound designers, so its very exciting to work with him, someone who is passionate and knows what they're doing. Excellent. I like those people.

And for anyone who has seen Watchmen - please, just answer me this: "WHAT????"

Oh, and I have to give any David Lynch fan this: its a video of Richard Beymer talking about working with Lynch... well, with a difference. And a hippo.

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