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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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Good Morning

Posted May 28, 2009

So, unusually for me - a morning blog post - that is, instead of the late-night-panicked-out-of-my-mind-ones. Reason being, I'm waiting for Jacques DV to come fetch me so we can go to Digicape and buy ourselves a 750g lacie harddrive - it would have been a terrabyte, but then when we decided on lacie we couldn't really afford the terra. so the 750 it is. This little thing is going to hold all our footage, which the very good people at Waterfront Studios (Barry & Richard) will be transferring off HDcam and converting to pro-res, enabling us to edit relatively unhindered on a good format without any tedious up or down converting. It kind of seems too good to be true, but apparently pro-res is a good cheat and, when and if we get to distribution stage (it should be good for exhibition) then we re-do the transfers and use the EDL (note to self, do NOT let Jacques delete this) to get an uncompressed version. It would be great to have that, but budget is hella tight. 

Money wise, I'm vaguely getting a grip on things - things were sorted out with the big company and I now know how much we owe (OK, it's R10 000 over budget, but that's better than R15 000 over) and i had word that my CC bank account is live, meaning i can soon transfer one of my loans over and continue the horrible cycle of payments.

A night or two ago, I found myself at Jacques's house, attempting to hang out - against all better judgement, I let him convince me to re-watch the shining (don't get me wrong, that film is genius, but when one's anxiety levels are critical, I prefer not to push it) and ended up, at 2am, trying to drown my woes with nachtmusik (which even with my non-existent alcohol tolerance wasn't particularly effective) - still, driving uncertainly home on my scooter (wobbly more because of the late hour than the nachtmusik) I started thinking towards the future. A scary place. After this film, I need to find a job, and of course the ideal would be to plunge right into the next project. But for that one needs development funding and I'll probably need this film finished to help me get that - it might take a while. And I might not be so lucky this time. I've been coercing David into taking on Flat Land -he's in the process of staging a minor coup at the company he works and is about to strike off on his own. If he does this, he might be in a position to take the project on. Should I count on this? Can I? Or should I consider lowering the bar in terms of what I will and will not do. It's at this stage of the one sided mental conversation that I think, ah what the hell - I'll do this ETC Crew music video and see what happens after that. but I have a feeling this is going to come back to me, and I'll have to start making decisions. Don't we all?


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Posted May 25, 2009

And just when I thought things were calming down - more drama:

It seems that somewhere along the line there'd been a miscommunication with one of the really large companies we'd made a deal with - it had been one of the things I'd delegated out, so I'd just assumed everything was sorted (reminds me of that line in Silence of the Lambs, or is it Hannibal, where Clarice is told, never assume, you'll make an Ass our of U and Me). So wrong. I'd been trying to finalise the invoice when bang, it seems we may owe about R10-15000 more than I'd thought. And what makes it worse is that this is not one of the things you can really haggle on - we'd already been given a great deal and to push further now not only seems ungrateful but also jeopordises our relationship - especially as i do intend to continue making films in this country. So I'm holding out that we can smooth this over and get back to how things were. We're going for talks tomorrow. I'm scared as hell. 

While this is all going on, I'm trying to sort out post production - in the mad rush up to production, and our last minute choice of camera (and thus shooting format), i'd underbudgeted massively for transfers (off the HD tapes we shot on downconverted to a lesser format for the iMac to handle), which of course Jacques DV needs to begin the edit. So today involved some calling around, and then the eventual screwing up of courage to phone the boss of one of the biggest post houses in Cape Town and say, "Hi, I just shot a short film, but was a bit of an idiot and now have no money for post- can you help me?" Nonetheless, the approach seemed to work, at least superficially - we have a meeting for tomorrow afternoon. I just hate making those calls. But it's a skill I guess you've got to learn. Hold me in good stead. etc. 

Hoping my new bank account will be opened tomorrow - needed a new one for the NFVF grant (when and if it comes), but am worried that at this stage I won't even have enough money to keep it open. ah. 

so, for now it's all woe. But hopefully not for long. Tyrone called me the other day to say the TV show he just got cast in sent him to have his hair done and the hairdresser had worked on Mike Leigh's movies, had won an Oscar for Topsy Turvy. So if all else fails maybe I can go work for him, sweeping the hair of struggling actors off the floor, and being only one degree of separation away from Mike Leigh. Or at the very least being able to name-drop like hell. 

Saw Coraline on the weekend - my first ever 3D movie, I have to say. I really am in a few minds about the 3D phenomena. I guess I expected it to add far more to the cinema experience than it actually did. Maybe films just have to be more tailored to it to reap the benefits. Or maybe movies already have the magic in them without technological hocus pocus. Still, it was a ripping yarn. Enjoyed it - should really read some more Neil Gaiman...

So tomorrow: Go bind together little presentation booklet to give post-house as part of pitch, then go freak out and gather courage to go to scary meeting, go to scary meeting and try convince company I am not an arrogant little upstart who is trying to steal their money, go visit david and either cry or celebrate depending on outcome, go pitch for music video for favourite local band, go meet meet with post house and convince them that I am a worthy-of-support upstart, go visit wanuri and see how things are going with her film most likely she's managing far better than me... partially because, obviously, like sane people, she has a producer)... so. i'd better go sleep then... yikes. 

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Posted May 22, 2009

I owe so much money. Today, I realized I have almost maxed out my bank account. As I tell everyone, I always knew this was coming. But really, I was hoping that it wouldn't get to this point. But it has. And it could very well get worse. Crew members have been trickling in with slips and invoices, some paid, some yet to be. They ask how I am and I reply nervously that I am concerned about money. They tell me it will be OK, but their smiles are like those you give to the terminally ill. Or someone with a death sentence. 

And I still have to find money for post. 


But, today I bought (with a gift voucher left over from my 21st - would never have afforded it otherwise, obviously) Peter Biskind's Down & Dirty Pictures. Oh yay. From the first page I already feel better: Quentin Tarantino says, "Independent filmmakers don't make money. They'll spend all the money they have to make the movie. Money they don't have. Their parents' money. Steal money, go into debt for the rest of their lives. The movie can be as good as it's going to be, or as bad as it's going to be, but it's theirs."

Watch out, mom and dad. 

While I was in the book store, I thought about applying for a job. I need a job right now. And R14 an hour suddenly seems enticing. David was horrified when he heard this, didn't understand why i didn't just get a low-level production job. I'll make contacts, he said. I was adamant no. I'll get the most terrible, low paid job, but one where my thoughts can still be my own. Maybe I can work in a video store.... free movies....

OK, to cheer myself up a little, some more photos from set, this time taken by Orli, with some good things from set...

Building the tunnel:

Building the village:

Our 5th Brigade - when I saw these guys in wardrobe for the first time, i got shivers. Didn't think I would be so terrified, but I was:

The infamous Joyful - who was responsible for the unfortunate blank-firing incident:

Me being concerned:

One of the film's many digging scenes:

Is it only day 5?

Sibu with fake tears (promise):

Ilana pulling out all the un-Zimbabwean-like greenness:

Hilary & Leonard:

Day 7 madness sets in. Maike is the first casualty:

At the wrap party I'd spoken with David about features and our dreams for them. He tried to convey to me what a massive step it would be, how inconceivable the amount of work it would be. Our shoot was only 10 days and it was the hardest thing I've ever gone through. Imagine what it's like when you shoot for 3, 4 times that amount of time. 


Bring it on. 

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Posted May 19, 2009

So it's done. At 5am this morning we wrapped principal photography on The Tunnel - I say 'principal photography' because it optimistically implies the possibility of pickups. Alas, I'll never be able to afford this, so I may as well say it - shooting is wrapped. About this, I am in two minds - part of me is ecstatic for this to be over, to be able to stop living in constant fear and tension, to stop having to make persuasive, inconvenient and last minute phone calls, to be relieved for just a day of the pressing weight I've felt for the last weeks. But the other part of me thinks like this - here I am, shooting a film. Damn. What more do I want? So that's that. 

At about 8am this morning I found myself tramping up a muddy farm road. I'd left Jacques passed out in his car, waiting for the gear to be fetched, and the entire art department where asleep under the stars near to their tunnel construction, exhausted after days without sleep. It was going to be a beautiful day, and I felt like I was high above Altydgedacht Estate, looking down at our locations, with their mistakes, disasters and triumphs. I saw the work gloves of one of our camera assistants, where, next to all the film's he's worked on, he'd written, "The Tunnel". I saw the shot we'd taken the night before, a macro close-up of Tyrone as the South African corporal, which is probably the best thing I've done in my entire career. I saw all the people who had liked the story of our film and even those who hadn't read it, who had come every day and struggle through, to work because they liked the work.  I thought, you know, maybe this is what we're all going for. The air was yellow in the early morning. A cow stared at me. By it's expression, if it could talk it would be saying: "Stop being sentimental - the hard part is still to come". True, Mr Cow. True.

Finally managed to take some behind the scenes stills of our last night on set of cast and crew. Wish I'd done more, but you know how it goes. I'll let the credits roll out with them - everyone's insisted on a wrap party tomorrow night (I'm totally bemused, hate parties, but I guess it means they had a good time on set) and I haven't slept in well... I'm not sure. Why am I even still up? (Only Maike knows the answer to that). Oy vey. Where was I? Oh yes, roll credits....

The Tunnel

Commander Masuku (Vuyisile Pandle) & Guerillas

Oliver (Vuyolwethu Tshalisa)

Jonathan (Darlington Sibanda) & Monica (Chiedza Mhende)

Corporal (Tyrone Keogh)

Elwin Buchel (Gaffer)

Sergeant (Martin Monroe)

Maike Hitzeroth (Art Director)

Danielle Mercierca (Wardrobe)


Tyrone Keogh (AD)


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From the trenches...

Posted May 17, 2009

OK, so we've been shooting now for 8 days. Call time today is 15:00 as we intend to shoot through the night. We have two more nights left. I couldn't even begin to sum it all up so far. It's been the hardest work i've ever experienced. People have been brilliant. People have been totally mad. I think so far we have a pretty good film. Albeit one with a lot of continuity errors (Our continuity person didn't pitch). I had these grand plans of stealing an iphone and blogging direct from set everyday, or at least at wrap time, but the 3-4 hours of sleep I've been getting haven't really been conducive to after hours creativity. So herewith follows a thought or memory from each day so far, fished out of the sleep-deprived, hazy and borderline-manic depressive soup of my current state of mind. 


Chaos. Our first set-up takes 5 hours instead of 1. We're running behind. The caterer arrives. The food is terrible. The reasons why a real producer is necessary to the running of a film set quickly become apparent. Everyone knows this. I know that they know this. But no one says anything. I try not to think about how, over the next few days (and how short a time it now seems) I will be about R100 000 in debt. I try hide my terror, but think it's showing.


We move to our church location, which we'd miraculously managed to find only that week. Maike, Orli, Dan & Ilana, with help from my mom, did a great job of turning a farm outbuilding into a rural mission. Instead of a Peugot for our priest, Father Nils, we managed to get a 50s Morris from a work colleugue of my dad's, which Craig, one of our assistants had to drive the 25km to set along the main highway at apparently about 40km an hour. Start to freak out about the fact that from Monday, David goes back to work and we won't have anyone to manage on-set affairs while I'm shooting. Tyrone, AD, suggests moving our day off to Monday to recoup. I am doubtful. 


Everyone had been dreading this day. And we were right. Our largest number of extras, weapons and shots. Disaster zone. I forget to inform the location's owner we will be firing blanks. He is furious, understandably, as we traumatise his dog. Then, I make the mistake of assigning the role of the gun-firing soldier to one of the extras who is actually ex-Zimbabwean military. It seemed like a good idea at the time. He fires at the wrong time and in the wrong direction and a ricocheting blank casing hits an extra in the head. Horror of horrors. We have no traumatised everyone. She is fine, but I ask David to check our insurance policy. We finish the day alive, but at great cost to artistic integrity. I hate working like this. I hate myself for causing this mess. There is great pressure to call off Monday and take stock. But bad weather is approaching and Monday is our last sure day of sun. I decide to shoot. 


I have never woken up to such fear. But the day goes quite well. For the first time, I'm getting what I want. It's a good feeling. The relief is palpable.


Take Tuesday as turn around day to sort out the remainder of the shoot. Ends up being as exhausting as a shoot day. 


Back to shooting. Still things go surprisingly well. David organises Minet, an experienced production manager, to come help on set. She's great and even though she says there's not much for her to do, she takes a big weight off my mind.

DAY 7 

Pickups from Day 1 where we didn't finish half our shots. Then onto the second to last scene of the film, which we have to rush in order to make sure that Sibu gets home before her 10 hours are up. Or I will be arrested for contravening child labour laws. How I love responsibility. One of the moving scenes is compormised almost beyond recognition. I want to cry but think it may not make a good impression on my 11 year old star as a drive her home through the rain.

DAY 8 

We begin shooting in our farmhouse location - this is brilliant, art department created exactly what I had hoped for. our guerillas look awesome, but too late do I realise we have put a mickey mouse tshirt on one extra. Oy vey. It's too late. Will have to sort it out afterwards. Finally, start having some fun. 


More of the farm house. Looking good, except I have a headache which is threatening to make my eyes explode our of my ears. Finally get my friend, Emma, to come take some decent on-set photos. 

Sibu, enjoying rapidly increasing diva status, here wearing Danielle's (wardrobe mistress) infamous pink dressing gown, used by almost all the actors in the film at some point to keep them warm between takes. 

Sibu and Ntlantla (Thomas) trying to learn a game I'd taught them - all animosity thankfully now gone, as earlier he'd hit her too hard with an AK47 (a fake one!) during a take

Tyrone, tireless and crazily brilliant AD, without whom there would actually be no film.

Vuyisile (Commander Masuku) and his guerillas in the captured dining room. 

Fahema, our sanguine focus puller, who Jacques and I have put through great stress as a result of out insistence on micro depth of field. 

So I have to leave for set just now, but I thought I'd better take this chance to thank some people in case I never emerge from the catatonia I intend on experiencing after Monday night's shoot:

David (for giving up working with millions to work with thousands), Minette (for coming at such short notice and preserving my sanity), Tadadzwa (for schlepping beyond any feasible call of duty, and still providing wisdom, calm and integrity), Debbie (for generosity, soup, support and advice), Gavin (for running around, for being enthusiastic and for enjoying yourself), Julia (for being chai-wallah), Craig (for the Kanengoni and everything else), to Tyrone (for everything), to Zoe, Jonathan & Stuart (for keeping everything together and not allowing anything to implode), the weather (for being nice to us so far), to James (for keeping me awake on the drive home with Jack Nicholson impersonations and for believing everything will probably work out), Mom & Dad, Sibu & Doris, Maike & Orli, Dan & Ilana, Elwin (for being cool) & Fahema (for being cool), Nic & his radio mics, Danielle & her dressing gown, Chiedza & Paka, Darlington & Mveleli, Patricia & Jamal, Vuyolwethu & Ntlantla, Vuyisile & Finch, Anthony & chimpanzees, Shaun & his guns, the camera & lighting department and all other cast & crew of the Tunnel - thank you all. It's been crazy. We're almost there.    

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Posted May 07, 2009

In exactly 6 hours and 30 minutes the shoot begins. I have to get some sleep. I am so tired. I have spent way too much money. I am really... ok, I don't want to say it, but ok, I am REALLY freaked out. So so so much could go wrong. I am risking so so so so much. But if it goes right, well, so so so so much could go right. Nevertheless, teetering more than ever on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As David said to me yesterday, "My God, Jenna, you're anxious about being anxious!" Yes. I am. So what's the problem? Isn't everyone? Wow I am so scared right now. Too exhausted to write much about the absolute extreme trials of this week - you know when every nerve in your face is screaming from stress, but inside, you're calm as, um, a nun (nun's have not been good to me this week, so they're on my mind. I'll leave it at that), because really, what choice do you have? To all my crew - dudes, good luck. We are sure as hell going to need it! To everyone else - watch this space - at least it'll be entertaining.

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It starts...

Posted May 02, 2009

wowowowowow what a nasty rollercoaster the last two days have been. wow. 

At the beginning of the week, I spoke with my old producer, David. We hadn't spoken for a while. I got to tell him how well things were going with the film. At the time, I wasn't lying. But, it must have been enticing enough, because he offered to come on board for the last bit of pre-production. Awesome. 

And then, several bombs hit. I'm trying to be PC about this - so here it is in brief. Through a combination of my naivete, the exchange rate and miscommunication, the money needed upfront for the shoot had exploded beyond my previous calculations. OK. two thirds of my budget is still processing, so I wouldn't have that for the shoot. Voila, I was suddenly faced with needing to find a loan of ZAR100 000 by Monday. This was Friday. And it was a public holiday. So, the inevitable has to happen. And I have to ask my parents. Every producer's nightmare has finally happened to me. 

Then, there's the fact that two thirds of the budget was subject to certain conditions. One of those was changes to the script. It was a week to go to the shoot. And I hadn't received the script changes. So, here was a terrifying Catch-22: I couldn't shoot, because it might then be seen that I wouldn't have followed protocol of shooting from an approved script. The grant could be called off and I'd be R200 000 in debt. At the same time, I couldn't call off the shoot. I'd never get it off the ground again. And I'd already paid the caterer. Overall, I'd say this is one of my life's low points. 

Then, as I was considering different ways of getting out of this situation - including driving my dad's car off De Waal Drive  (I'd already crashed my mom's car that week on my way to a meeting) - and in any event was busy crying in the kitchen, watching my dad try cheer me up by making a puppet out of an eggplant, I get an email saying the script is approved. Their are no notes. 

So things are crazy, but they could be worse. I may not have to take out quite such a large loan. And at least now I have a reasonable idea that it will be repaid.

David is also saving my life - Between him and two assistants, they'll cover a lot of the admin that I've let pile up, and which I'd intended to tackle myself somehow this week, in between everything else that constitutes my real job - directing.

I've been a bit disappointed with rehearsals, but it's entirely my fault. I've just been too distracted to work things through as I should. I can tell he actors are a bit nervous, especially as many of them have to learn Ndebele or Shona. But at the back of my mind, I keep strong the belief that our casting is good - many of the actors have those characters in them - I sometimes think my job will, not be done for me, but... well, be that bit easier. After all, much of rehearsal, at least for a project like this, I think is about getting ideas that you save up for the shoot - it's not about getting anything perfect. Much isn't. And much is. OK OK. 

So, tomorrow, rehearsals, and emergency location scout - I've realized I made a far too hasty and desperate decision about our church location - I was really kidding myself that the one we had would work. It must have been a time thing. But so now I have to very very quickly find a new one - art department needs to dress it on Tuesday. 

So, things that are keeping me going: Trying to think beyond money. I think very quickly your attitude to money can dictate that you are owned by it. Money should never own you. So I tell myself. Went on a recce to the farm where the village is being built. Surveying the art departments work, I felt a strange mix of emotions: Pride, satisfaction, gratitude and pure horror that this set could end up costing me R20 000 of my own money. Of course, whenever you encounter the possibility of being massively in debt, just think of Francis Coppola. And look what he did. People should be in debt more often in that's the kind of films that come out of it. 

And then, today after rehearsal with Sibu (Elizabeth), I found this typed on my laptop:

My name is Sibulele Mlumbi.

I am eleven years old.

My teachers name is Mrs Cannon

I am going to be on television on a movie called the tunnel, and my director, Jenna Cato Bass is very nice and I like her very much.

The person who is going to be my father on the film is Vince and I don’t know his surname  

Eleven year olds are brilliant. 

Ah! And I just see that Focus has picked up Mike Leigh's next film. Oh what happiness!! I can now really kick ass at six degrees of separation, my only real goal in life, obviously. 

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