A Turner of heads

Jann Turner has published two novels (Heartland and Southern Cross) and has written and directed for television. White Wedding is her first feature as director; she co-wrote it with actors Kenneth Nkosi and Rapulane Seiphemo, with whom she had already worked on such TV series as Isidingo and Mzansi. It also stars Jodie Whittaker, who played in Venus opposite Peter O’Toole.
Digitally projected, White Wedding opened on April 29 on 38 screens across South Africa.

You worked on the film for a long time. What was the process of getting it together?
For lots of reasons, some of which were simply to do with where our heads were at, we felt like something fun. At the time we first started thinking about it, when there wasn’t even a wedding in it, about seven years ago, what we were talking about as friends was relationships. That’s partly where it comes from.

Over the years, bits of the story would fall into place. Why are they going to Cape Town? They’re going to a wedding. I scribbled some notes and about a year and a half ago I finally put our notes together into a treatment, which is pretty close to what the film is.

It’s a road-movie/romantic-comedy formula. We realised a road trip offers you a nice format. Film is very form-driven. Good films often break from the form but they understand the form they’re breaking from. We comfortably used a tried-and-tested form. That was conscious. There’s a ticking clock—Elvis [Nkosi] leaves on Tuesday, he’s got to get there by Saturday. In a romantic comedy, there are all these obstacles along the way—things go wrong from the very first frames of the film.

You managed to make it on a low budget (about R7-million)?
Raps and Kenny just talking can be funny and interesting, so there at the start you’ve got something easy to cover and it’s not that expensive. We’re not talking helicopters and chase sequences. We also designed it so it could be shot small. We like working small—it’s a family thing. The next film we make, we’ll keep it small. We also want to keep making films, so we’d like to pay everyone back and make a profit. So we bore that in mind. Which is not to say we’re business-led, but we’re trying to bear in mind it’s a business.

My step-dad, Ken [Follett], read the treatment and the next day he came to me and said: “Do you think you can make this film for £100 000? If you can, I’d like to invest.” We didn’t make it for £100 000, but that was the starting point. We rather innocently thought, if you can make a good product the rest will follow. We did the Francis Ford Coppola thing of “set up a banner and start marching”.

We worked for several weeks on the script, went on a recce, started to cast and the first day of principal photography was nine days after the date we’d set the previous September. I’ve never experienced something where we had so much luck. Things fell into place too easily. We kept it small and we worked with people we knew and we knew the film very well. We shot it in 18 days. We had no margin for error, and we got it. We cut it, pretty much, as what’s in the script.

We were ready for the film. If we’d tried to do it earlier it wouldn’t have gone so easily. Kenny and Raps knew it so intensely. It was very organic. We rehearsed, because it’s a talky movie and the rehearsal process was quite loose and fun. Shooting it, there wasn’t time to think much. We had to go with gut and a certain amount of learned technique.

Was the romantic part, and the realism, difficult to balance with the comedy?
Kenneth is a comedian. Raps and I aren’t comics. We were never going to write it for gags. It always had to come from context. You draw all these elements together and once you’ve established who these people are, what they want and where they’re going, you accelerate it and accelerate it —

How did you get Jodie Whittaker on board?
Serendipity, luck, blessing — My first job out of university was as a receptionist at Working Title films. They’d just made A World Apart. Sarah Radclyffe, who worked there, later went on her own and she’s always been incredibly supportive. There were a few people we drew on for advice, and I had lunch with Sarah in London and I asked who were the top 10 young female leads. She gave me a list. I printed out their pictures from IMDB [the Internet Movie Database] and I laid them out on a table, and I asked Kenneth and Raps, “Who is Rose?” And they both chose Jodie. None of us had seen Venus at that stage.

I called all the agents and eight of the actresses showed up at the audition. Jodie just wanted it. She loved the script. I knew that she had the intelligence to get what we were doing, and I knew we had to say: “There isn’t a Winnebago, we don’t have any of those things—you’ll get an Easyshade and a chair.” She was so game about it, sharing rooms and all that. She had a two-week window between shooting a movie and a BBC series and it happened to coincide with the two weeks we needed her. She had a great attitude to being in South Africa, which I think played into the character of Rose—that curiousness about what’s going on around her. I think you feel that in the film.

You must’ve done a lot of travelling.
That was heavy. It made us very tired. Next film, we stay in the same place!

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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