All SPACED Out
by Joanna Sterkowicz
A new tripartite co-production shot in South Africa is set to take on the international market.
During my stroll through one of the 'spaceship' sets at Nu World Studios just outside Johannesburg, I'm acutely aware of the fact that just alongside is the sanctum of the Snake Goddess, in which lurk two very large pythons. Luckily, no-one asks me to look at that set. Spaceships, Snake Goddess... you guessed it, I'm in the realm of science fiction. But there I stand to correction, as everyone on set tells me that the new international feature film Sumuru is not science fiction, but science fantasy.
"It's a space opera in the same way Star Wars is," says South African director Darrell Roodt (Cry, The Beloved Country/Sarafina). Fair enough. Consider the plotline: two hunky astronauts from a futuristic earth are forced to land on an unknown planet, inhabited by beautiful (if Amazonian) women and ruled by their Queen, Sumuru. The men on the planet have been banished to labour in the depths below ...
This is the third Sumuru film to be made by British producer Harry Alan Towers, but the first to be adapted to the science fantasy genre. The other two Sumuru films (based on Sax Rohmer's novels about a secret society of powerful women) were made in the 1960s. Johannesburg-based DO Productions is co-producing this version. Sumuru qualifies as an official South Africa/Canada/UK co-production, with additional financial involvement from Germany.
"Fifty percent of the budget was raised in South Africa. German company Daswerk (Playground Effects) is a producing partner in post production and CGI. The director's cut and the final mix are being done in South Africa at The Video Lab and Chris Fellows Sound, while the finish and all CGI will take place in Germany," explains producer Brigid Olen.
International sales agent Tandem has sold the film to German national broadcaster, RTL and Nu Image will pick up worldwide distribution. The producers are hoping the film will spawn a television series.
Brave new universe
When Roodt was originally sent the Sumuru script, he knew by page three that he really wanted to do the film. "This is a genre I love, especially films like the original Star Wars trilogy, Alien and The Matrix."
"In Sumuru we have the chance to create our own universe from the ground up, which is very exciting. I've just come off a gritty urban drama (Pavement) so it's fun to mix genres. If you don't, you end up becoming an old hack."
I ask whether Roodt did much work on the script. "No, on these types of screenplays you can't be too literary. Sometimes the actors overanalyse the script, but I believe that you have to accept that there is an element of cheesiness in it."
As per the Sumuru co-production/funding deal, Canadian and German leads were mandatory. Says Roodt: "I didn't have any say in casting the three leads but I was very pleased to get Canadian Michael Shanks as I knew his work on Stargate. German actress Alexandra Kamp and Simona Levin from Denmark were unknown to me, but I'm delighted with how they have worked out."
Roodt literally rehearsed his actors on set. "It's much more fun rehearsing that way, especially on this type of script because you sort of need the hardware behind you. The script is not particularly deep, so it presents a serious challenge to make it work on screen." Is there a feminist angle to the script? "On a very basic level there is sexual politicking if you consider there is this planet of powerful babes and two macho guys arrive and challenge the status quo."
Heroes and heroines
I ask lead actor Michael Shanks, the handsome Canadian star of the cult television series, Stargate SG-1, whether there is much room in the script for characterisation.
"My character, Adam Wade, one of the two astronauts from Earth, is the voice of the audience. People watching the film should realise that the film is not serious. They must appreciate that the world the astronauts land up in is topsy-turvy.
"As I've been given free rein by the director in the interpretation of my character I'm not playing the role too earnestly. Adam Wade is bemused by the strange situations and beings that he encounters along the way. There is a harsh dynamic between the men and women on the planet, as men are treated as subservient sub-beings."
How has Shanks found working in South Africa? "There is a joie de vivre about this South African crew. They're very talented and I sense a genuine happiness in the fact that they're working in film. We've become a little spoilt in North America so our expectations are less. It really opens up your eyes working in South Africa and reminds me of my own enthusiasm when I started in the business."
The Sumuru set has a relaxed feel, which everyone attributes to the director.
"Darrell is a hoot to work with - he keeps the set light and everyone's opinions in context. He's an extremely positive influence on set. This whole project has turned out to be much more fun than I anticipated," comments Shanks.
Simona Levin, who plays one of the two female leads, adds: "Darrell is fantastic, energetic and professional. He provides great positive energy from morning to midnight."
Levin plays the role of Taxan, the Snake Goddess. She describes Taxan as "very evil. She is extremely jealous, mean and power-engulfing. It's a well-rounded part and I love Taxan's dialogue. I've changed my voice for the role."
As Taxan is involved in some action and fight scenes, Levin prepared for her role by training with a kick-boxing champion.
The part of Sumuru is played by top German actress and model, Alexandra Kamp. Several South Africans appear in the cast including Isidingo star, Terence Bridgett, who plays Shanks' astronaut sidekick. Child actor David Lazarus also has a pivotal role.
Sets and locations
Production designer Johnny Breedt says that he has consciously tried not to use other films as a visual reference as he and Roodt wanted to create their own world for Sumuru.
"Initially we looked at Pitch Black, a low budget science fiction film that worked quite well. However, it's quite hardcore while Sumuru is pure fantasy. There are two worlds within Sumuru - that of the astronauts who are in a more futuristic high tech world, while the planet is more on the fantasy side," explains Breedt.
On the planet itself, the Snake Goddess' world has a cold and sinister feel with greys, silvers and blacks, while Sumuru's domain is warmer and softer, suffused with earthy colours.
Several sets had to be built, such as the interior and exterior of the crashed spaceship, as well as the space cruiser. Three swing sets were created within Sumuru's planet dome.
"The manufacture of props and set dressing items has been quite a big challenge, especially considering only five weeks pre-production time. We had to create 100 mining masks and canisters and 100 spears of different types," says Breedt.
Major locations included the Voortrekker Monument, a disused explosives factory in Modderfontein, and mine dumps.
Breedt, who has worked on huge productions such as Anna and the King, says that low budget films like Sumuru are more challenging and fun to do.
"Many of my team have been students and first timers and they've have worked out great. Sumuru has been the best film I've worked on. There is such a good vibe and great synergy between the director, producers and HODs," concludes Breedt.
Continuing on the low budget theme, Roodt says that the trick is to find a lighting style to make the film look great. "DOP Giulio Biccari has the wonderful ability to make a mine dump look like a planet. What's really interesting about this film is that normally you try not to shoot in the harshest sunlight and we're doing the exact opposite on Sumuru. This tactic is giving the film a great look."
Interestingly enough, Sumuru is the first film in which Roodt has had to work with a green screen and digital effects. The film will be released in Germany in March 2003.
Producers: Harry Alan Towers, Brigid Olen, Marlow de Mardt
This Sumuru article appears with compliments from SCREEN AFRICA.
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