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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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On with the show...

Posted April 28, 2009

OK, yes, I am worried. But maybe not quite as much as you'd think. 

We're shooting in less than two weeks, and though the pressures of producing are starting to show (Last night, I dreamt about catering. or generators. which was it? probably both), I constantly try remind myself of the bigger picture. Of course, the small things matter (oh how I know that), but it's good to sit down at the end of the day and remember what this film is about and why you're making it. 

So let me update you: Casting is done. Construction is underway. Wardrobe is almost there. Crew is complete. Right now, I wish I had some photos of all these processes to post because I'm a bit too exhausted to really do the efforts of my crew justice. Catering is driving me up the wall. The cast are scattered all over town, and often don't have their own transport - Cape Town is such that certain areas are impossible to get to by public transport - and today to top off my transport woes i was driving my scooter to a rehearsal when my exhaust fell off in the middle of the road....oh yes. The joys of low-budget filmmaking. 

Was browsing through my outbox today, checking up on emails I hadn't answered and chanced upon found this that I had sent to my Zimbabwean friend way back last year:

Date: 23 June 2008 12:52:55 PM

Hi Munya!

i found this:

and i thought we could consider submitting one of the shorts i sent you... what do you think?

How strange to think back... and slightly pleasing too. 

Autumn is here. Drove down the road the other day, and could have sworn that all these dead leaves couldn't have got there on their own. Some celestial set-dresser has been at work. It can't be that time of year already. It does mean that, as the season progresses, the unpredictable Cape Town weather threatens our shoot... rain is an almost certainty... I had better call the insurance company. 

Had my first rehearsal with Sibulele today who is playing Elizabeth (oh yes! I didn't tell you) - this kid is amazing - she's far more together than I am. I think she should be producing the film. I had planned how to explain some of the more challenging parts of the script to her, but she's way ahead of me - wise beyond her years. Which is perfect. I don't know how many lucky stars I have, but I am in the process of counting them. 

Oh, and I am so pleased to see Focus's green filmmaking page - I may have mentioned, but it's something I think about often and try my best to implement, so the fact that the concept is getting exposure is awesome news. For this shoot, being green has proven a bit tricky, just because our budget is too tight to go the extra mile. But there are a lot of things I realized we are doing right, and a few more which we can still do. Here's a great checklist for those working on a small production.

OK, gotta go draw up actor's contracts... will try write soon soon...


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Business is Business...

Posted April 16, 2009

Damn you, global economy! You've greatly upset me. Because of you, the rand is stronger against the dollar. And my budget must go down by R10 000. Oh woe. Luckily, I'd been a bit conservative with my budget, so I had room to maneuver, but then today brought this: We've been casting round further for an actress to play Elizabeth - trying to find just the right girl. Today a casting agent got back to me to say our rate was far too low, they won't talk unless we quadruple it. I wrote back rather dismissively, saying if our budget situation changed, we'd get back to her. But then I had a look at some of the photos of kids she sent - and there she was - not only does this kid look perfect, she is actually Zimbabwean and speaks Ndebele. There was much rampaging and cursing my my living room (all done by me) when I discovered this at 6pm. And it got me to thinking, what the hell, maybe this kid is worth the fee, I could maybe scrape it together - steal from the art department (I hope they're not reading this) - and then I learnt about the exchange rate and now I don't know where I'll get that money from. More rampaging and cursing. Who knows, maybe this girl couldn't act anyway. That's what I'll have to tell myself. Until I can find the cash to audition her. But really, money preys on my mind. I'm starting to seriously worry about whether I'll be able to access the NFVF grant before the shoot, and if not, then when. The art department are getting skittish. I don't want to cause a stampede. It's at times like these that I finally understand why directors end up selling their rights to pay for their films. Right now, I'd do it. 

For those of you keeping close watch, you may ask why I am so calm one week away from my shoot. The answer is that I've pushed our dates back to the 8th of May - a carefully-made, agonised decision because it pained me to admit that really, I needed more time. When I mentioned the decision to the crew they all quickly admitted their individual need for more pre-production, but it was on a long drive out on Friday afternoon to visit the armorer that I realised that if I kept to the dates I wouldn't be able to do my job on set. I needed to step back a bit. Hold the horses. Give myself a bit more casting and rehearsal time. Only if I did that would I be able to get the performances we'll need. And we need them. I've found rehearsals are the thing which takes the most of my effort - if I wasn't 100% up to it, it would be a disaster. And this extra time has helped, oh yes it has. Already we've found some great new options for our characters - casting agents, on the whole, have been wonderfully helpful (note to self -thank them in the credits). and rehearsals can begin from next week at, if not a leisurely pace (certainly not) then a relatively healthily brisk pace. At a light jog. Maybe, more like a nervous canter.

But going to the armory was great - Lance, our armorer is super - showed me around his workshop full of replicas and real (!!!) arms - I got to watch him fire a gas powered pistol ('used for suicides and executions') at his head, and learnt about the very real dangers of bayonets and even rubber guns. He's being very generous, it makes me want to set my next film during a world war, just so I can give him a big job to say thank you.

For the last two days, the inevitable pre-shoot flu has caught up to me. I've tried to inconspicuously sniff my way through auditions, meetings and location scouts, but i think its time to take an early night and, when the phone rings, stick my head under the bath water and pretend I didn't hear it. Underwater, I still hear the sound of the phone, echoing in my head after weeks of incessant ringing. But soon that too subsides and all you're left with is your own heart beat. And that puts things in perspective nicely. 

What also puts things into perspective and which I recommend to anyone who feels overwhelmed by their short film, is watching a David Lean movie - watched Dr Zhivago again last week and last night, in a moment of (guilty) respite, watched Bridge on the River Kwai - I think I'm going to get my crew to whistle that tune, especially while they're bundling the two thousand two hundred bundles of thatch we need to build our huts. That'll go down well. C'mon guys. Whistle. I'll lead the way... 

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Posted April 05, 2009


Woke up today in a panic, thinking that we we had a week and a half till the shoot. Freaked out, started formulating stern emails to my crew, drawing up deadlines to be enforced - there was a village to build, cast to finalise, quotes to get. goodness gracious. It took me four hours of solid anxiety before I realized that we had two and a half weeks till the shoot. Relief. Then I remembered that if we're to still hit that deadline we've got to, as Jacques K says, "bust a groove" (what does that mean, really?). There still is an incredibly amount to do and as, at the moment, I'm supervising multiple departments, I'm worried about my patchy multi-tasking ability. Deep breaths etc. That's what my mom would suggest. Tried it. Doesn't work for long. This is hardcore anxiety we're talking about. 

But really, there is news to tell, oh yes: For starters, our budget has tripled -The National Film and Video Foundation notified us they'll be granting us a very helpful sum towards the film. It seems like a fortune after scraping the budget together for so long. I was at Jacques K's house when I got the email, doing the shotlist. Normally, we work solidly for a few hours, then break for lunch. Being avid fans of lunch, this can take a while. And from there we inevitably dissolve into free-flowing discussions on Tom Waits, religion, tea, death metal and other conversational ephemera. That day we'd promised to work right through the day, make a dent in the shotlist. But, at about 5pm, the NFVF's email put an end to that and there was much to-ing and fro-ing. Now we can actually afford things. Like a generator. To be honest, I'd been under a lot of stress about the budget - it's all very well to say you're going to shoot a film on the amount you have. But we were getting into a tight spot. And the NFVF grant solves a lot of our problems. So happy.

Casting continues. Orli and I have been traveling to far flung corners of the city visiting schools to try find Elizabeth - we've seen a lot of kids, but so far no real luck. It's quite painful - I remember what agony I went through auditioning for school plays back in the day, the massive disappointment when I failed to get a part. So to see these kids, who I can't cast, it's hard. Overall, the talent, even at schools in poverty-stricken areas, is overwhelming. It's more been that none of the girls we've seen looks right, and even then, doesn't look Zimbabwean. However, some other real gems have arisen, and we've found amazing kids for the other younger roles. I really hope that we can make the film a good experience for them. It's a cliche, but I'd like to be able to give some of them a chance to try out film. Maybe it'll open doors for them too. 

I've also been doing the rounds of actors agencies, and on Friday booked my first big audition - a tough call, because we don't have the money for an appropriate casting venue. And these were experienced actors, who I had to attempt to impress with the merits of doing the film for very little money. After deliberation, I decided the only place possible would be my studio, whose impressive Bishopscourt address is marred by the fact that it's just a seperate building at the back of my grandparent's property. Oy. So, firstly I had to give my grandmother a complete briefing, forbidding her to interrupt the proceedings with offers of cake, roast chicken, apple juice, sausages, or one of the many bananas with which her house overflows (every room has them. no jokes). Then my sister and I attacked the studio with a antiquated vacuum cleaner, relocating the ants which have colonised the space due to my neglect, removing the hundreds of tea-bags (evidence of shotlisting meetings with Jacques), hid the embarrassing toaster and made the Mighty Boosh inspired drawings and my many band photos less conspicous. At last, vaguely presentable. At least I thought. Sh. I shouldn't be telling this. I'm trying to cultivate a facade of professionalism. Too late. 

So, we had two actors coming in for Father Nils, one of my favourite roles, very close to my heart. Both blew me away - there really is a joy in seeing a script come to life, even on a basic, audition level and, when an actor takes your script somewhere else, somewhere you hadn't even thought about, well, that's just wonderful. I'd like to talk about it more, but things will be finalised next week and I think it's impolite to discuss it more till then. But when I know, you'll know. OK?

Visited a military paraphernalia store with Danielle - our wardrobe mistress - to see if the manager, Cameron, could give us advice on 5th brigade uniforms - the references we've found differ wildly between khaki fatigues to camouflage.

Cameron wasn't so sure about the 5th Brigade (they didn't even have similar red berets to what we were looking for), but provided us with new insight into the South African special ops dress for the scene where Elizabeth accidently encounters a covert South African regiment burying arms in the forest. we'd imagined they'd be in camo, but Cameron reminded me that these soldiers were conducting missions of the utmost secrecy - invisible infiltration. If they'd been caught, it would have been a massive political scandal. So they dressed like the civilian population, right down to learning the language and putting on black face. It ads a whole new dimension two the scene, and for me it's completely fascinating (a film within itself really, but I could get carried away) - just imagine - Elizabeth hears the sound of digging, creeps closer for a better look, peeking through the bushes. From a distance she sees two black men talking, but as she focuses, we hear they're speaking Afrikaans. And when we get even closer, their blue eyes shine through the darkness. Wow. Can't wait for that. 

Tomorrow, the week begins again, I'm starting to feel like I'm on a giant treadmill. Casting is possibly the greatest priority - it has to be finalised soon if there's going to be any time left for rehearsal. In order to do that I'm going to have delegate more work to more people - it's time to get down to the business of actually directing. 

Finally saw Slumdog Millionare last night - really, I'm amazed that such an unfinished script with so many holes made it to the screen. However, Danny Boyle's direction alone is great (though I think he should have insisted on a better script and it does get too emotionally monotonal for me), and Anthony Dod Mantle deserves more than an just Oscar, if he didn't already... that is what I think. Yes. 


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