Happiness is … A South African flick that makes money

Success at the first attempt: "Happiness is a Four-Letter Word" director Thabang Moleya.  (Delwyn Verasamy)

Success at the first attempt: "Happiness is a Four-Letter Word" director Thabang Moleya. (Delwyn Verasamy)

First-time film director Thabang Moleya can pat himself on the back for helming a hit movie on debut: the romantic drama Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, which raked in more than R2.3?million at the South African box office during its opening weekend in February.

The film is based on the 2010 novel of the same name by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, which received the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book (African region) and the 2011 M-Net Literary Award in the film category – given to novels that have the potential to be adapted into movies.

Set in the affluent suburbs of Jo’burg, Happiness is a Four-Letter Word follows the lives of three friends – successful lawyer Nandi (Mmabatho Montsho), glamorous housewife Zaza (Khanyi Mbau) and arty gallery owner Princess (Renate Stuur­man) – who seek fulfilment in their imperfect love lives.

Their solid friendship helps each of them navigate disappointments and heartbreak, allowing them to be the hilarious, sometimes stoic, voices of reason for one another.

For a story that was well received in print, Moleya – who has an impressive track record in directing television drama series and commercials – had the huge task of translating it into a relatable movie for romcom lovers. 

What drew you, as a director, to this story?
I was approached by one of the producers of the film, Bongiwe Selane, four years ago, who said: “I want to make this movie. Read this book and tell me what you think.” She loved the book and was interested in turning it into a movie. That’s how I got attached to the team. I’ve also got two producers on the team who worked collectively with Bongiwe and myself to develop it into the script and then the main writer, Busisiwe Ntintili, came on board to create the draft that we ended up shooting.

How much creative licence did you have with the film?
The book has four lead characters but we thought having four leads in the film would make it very long, so we looked at it and said: “What is going to work cinematically?” But we kept the essence and the core of what the book was saying, or the message that the book had. We didn’t diverge from that, but we obviously had to alter a few things to make it a bit more cinematic.

Was it a struggle to get funding?
The producers went on their journey to raise money for the movie. This movie was done as a slate of films that my producers were running, and part of that slate was to give first-time directors a shot at making a movie. M-Net is a partner, and the department of trade and industry.

How did you decide on the actors?
Finding the right actors to play the roles was a very lengthy process. The most important thing for the producers and me was finding three ladies who had the best chemistry and who would make you feel like they grew up together. One thing that the film captured really well was the friendship and bond the ladies shared. It was important for us, even though we had strong candidates as individual leads, to put them together to see how that chemistry would work.

Describe the casting process.
We mixed our favourite actors together, and then mixed the second-favourites together. As a director, I’ve found that chemistry is a hard thing to direct. You kind of have to leave people in the room and keep the camera rolling and see what happens and what develops after that. With that said, there was a lot of elimination, but the main thing we were looking for was chemistry.

Fans affectionately know Khanyi Mbau as the Queen of Bling, and her character in the film, Zaza, lives a lavish life. Was Mbau the obvious choice for you?
I personally called Khanyi Mbau before we started casting. We didn’t know each other then. I told her who I am, that I’m making my first movie, and I’d like her to play one of the characters. I said to her: “I’ll mail you the script.” I mailed her the script and she sent me a message at 4am, saying that she couldn’t sleep and that she loved it and wanted the role. 

So you always wanted her?
I was quite conscious of the fact that she has a huge following, which makes the film very marketable. I had also seen her acting in the [Vuzu Amp] series Ayeye. I thought: “Hey, this lady could play Zaza.” I was quite drawn to how she played that role in the series.

And I thought: “Wow, it’s not all hype – you are not choosing her for the smoke and mirrors around everything else that people might perceive about her.” I chose her because she is a good actress.

Did the box-office numbers surprise you?
Yes, I was pleasantly surprised by the turnout. Between the producers and me, we anticipated a good response, but not as good as the one we received. We are currently sitting on R5?million and we reached that number in 10 days.

Were you worried you wouldn’t pull in the crowds?
I was. We were up against international films that have won Oscars. Fifty Shades of Black [an American comedy spoof starring Marlon Wayans] didn’t come close to what we made during opening weekend. So it’s great to see that South Africans can embrace their own stories and people.

You have intertitles appearing throughout the movie, between scenes. What’s the reason for that? 
We tried to make the movie feel like a book. Those titles appear as an introduction to the next chapter or the next scene.

What would you say is the biggest misconception people have about romantic movies?
That the quality is bad. We need to put more money, as filmmakers, into the production of our movies and how they look. We are fighting for an audience that has access to the internet and a million TV channels. So you can’t compromise on quality, because people know what looks good and what doesn’t. A lot of the feedback we are getting for Happiness is a Four-Letter Word is that the film looks good.

What was your experience of directing a film with Jo’burg as the backdrop?
It was important for us to show a side of Jo’burg that wasn’t concrete and wasn’t Hillbrow, to show the suburbia of Jo’burg, which is a side I don’t believe we’ve seen enough of in our films.

It’s a side that features the up-and-coming middle-class black society, and it’s important to reflect that. That’s what we wanted to capture in the film, and it was beautiful to capture it because it felt like we were stepping into uncharted territory.

As a South African filmmaker, do you feel you burdened by the need to tell a certain South African story?
This movie is a great case study of that. It’s something new and fresh and people are responding to it in a positive way. It says that this is the kind of movie people are willing to see, and maybe these are the kinds of movies we should be making more of. People want to be entertained instead of walking out of the cinema feeling sad.

When I visited some cinemas [showing Happiness is a Four-Letter Word], I noticed that people were having conversations throughout the movie, which initially irritated me until I realised that people are actually relating to what is happening on screen!

What about future projects?
There is a project, and some ideas, floating around in my head – but I don’t want to give away my ideas just yet.

Is there any other film genre you would like to explore? 
I just want to tell beautiful stories.

Katlego Mkhwanazi

Katlego Mkhwanazi

Katlego Mkhwanazi is the Mail & Guardian's arts, culture and entertainment content producer. She started her career in magazines, before joining the Mail & Guardian team in 2014. She is an entertainer at heart. Read more from Katlego Mkhwanazi

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