Turner thrives in Shondaland
When the American television series Scandal — called The Fixer in South Africa — wrapped up its last episode, it also wrapped up South African director Jann Turner’s biggest role in her TV career to date.
Turner, who had guest-directed episodes of the hit series in past seasons, was brought on as producing director for the seventh and final season of the show — a show that, for the past six years, has had millions across the world engrossed in its dramatic storyline.
Turner moved to Los Angeles in 2011, soon after releasing her second feature film, Paradise Stop, made with Rapulana Seiphemo and Kenneth Nkosi. They also made White Wedding, under their Stepping Stone Pictures production company.
[Already famous: Jann Turner produced two feature films in South Africa, Paradise Stop and White Wedding]
“I was a really big fan of it [The Fixer],” says Turner, inside the place known as Shondaland, an ordinary building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood turned into a hub of TV magic by showrunner and TV powerhouse Shonda Rhimes.
“I loved the show, and Kerry Washington’s performance in it,” she says.
Turner counts herself as one of the millions of fans who became hooked on the antics of Washington’s character Olivia Pope — American network TV’s first black female lead in almost 40 years.
Although an established author and director in South Africa, Turner knew she would have to build her international reputation from the ground up, being in a city where everyone comes to chase their dreams. And she’d have to do it in her 40s with two kids in tow.
“Having come from making two independent films, which is a very physically, emotionally and financially draining thing to do, I was keen to get back into television for a while,” she says, looking out on to the LA traffic.
She explains how the shorter turnaround time of creating a television show versus a feature film appealed to her. “You don’t have this long development phase and then a long shoot and then you have to wait to release. If you get a slot on a TV show, it goes so much quicker. You can produce something that will be on television within months. And that’s very satisfying.”
For much of the past six years, Turner worked as a guest director on some of the most popular shows of this era, including Grey’s Anatomy, How to Get Away with Murder and Chicago Fire. Mementos from other shows she directed and wrote for including Teen Wolf, Castle and Emily Owens MD are pinned on her office wall. Turner, who was also a director on local series such as Isidingo and Hard Copy, had a specific goal in mind to work on as many American shows as she could.
Aside from the experience and connections that come from working in a new locale, Turner also wanted to work on productions that didn’t come from her own life.
As an author and filmmaker, Turner’s work has been intrinsically linked to her life. This work has included films and written work about her father Rick Turner, the anti-apartheid activist and academic who was murdered in front of her when she was 13 at their home in Durban. The murder remains unsolved and is suspected to be politically motivated. She also worked as a producer on SABC’s Truth Commission Special Report .
“It’s great to do something where I could put myself aside to work on someone else’s show,” she says. “In television, I am not the author.”
Turner says she’s relished working in the voice and style of whatever show she’s found herself on. “There was something really wonderful for me, just to be able to put myself aside and get into just being a director and working on technique and working with actors, without having to put so much of my skin in the game. There always is your own blood in the cookie, even when you’re not the author, but to a much lesser extent.”
At the same time, Turner has found herself in the centre of television’s great renaissance — with exciting movements afoot, particularly given the shift that the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements seem to be creating. “It’s such an interesting time right now,” she says. “The world is looking at us and I hear people talking about inclusivity much more. Still, 60% of the directors hired in Hollywood are white men. There are still a lot of battles, but the tide is slowing turning. I’m excited to be here for it.
“Shondaland is an incredible place run by an extraordinary woman,” says Turner. “Shonda is a great promoter of women. It just feels like a lot of battles that I’ve always fought — like asking about a character being a woman and not a man — or just in terms of all the norms that get perpetuated in the business, those are not battles that you have to fight here in Shondaland. Because Shonda is absolutely standing up already and we can all stand behind her.”
And although she may not be in South Africa for the change in presidents, she’s excited for that too, given that she wrote, about a decade ago, an outspoken article for the Mail & Guardian about the direction the ANC government was taking.
“Things have turned really beautifully,” she says. “They’ve not quite turned here [under President Donald Trump] but hopefully they will.”
Turner uses her social media to rally against Trump’s policies. And although she recently became an American citizen, she’s still South African. “That’s my heartland,” she says. She often brings her two children back to the country, and has plans to work on future productions with Seiphemo and Nkosi.
With The Fixer’s end, Turner says she’ll have more time to reflect on all that she’s learnt and gained from being at Shondaland. “It’s kind of a wonderful privilege to be growing still in your career in your 50s,” she says.
She’ll soon have to pack up the black-and-white portrait of her father that’s on the shelf next to a colour picture of Nelson Mandela. The pictures of her children, next to a note from Rhimes congratulating her on becoming a US citizen, will need to go too, along with a scatter cushion on the couch which has “hooray for the president” and Barack Obama’s face embroidered on it.
Turner has her sights set on a greater goal — creating her own television series. Perhaps there’s a Turnerland on the horizon.