A new Afrikaans musical from Hartiwood Studios, the creators of Liefling, Die Movie, wrapped at the end of March in the fictional 1950s town of Pretville. Linda Loubser visited the set, built from scratch in Hartbeespoort.
On the main street of the town of Pretville, a postman called Hennie Hakkel (Willem Botha) is driving around on a bright red bicycle, delivering parcels and letters to a town of characters with names like Serah Somers and Pierre Lukuveer, and singing about his stuttering problem. The street features, among other buildings, an elaborate town hall, a jail, a hairdresser and a diner.
Director and co-producer Linda Korsten notes Pretville is a unique, fictional town that doesn’t depict the “real days’ of the 1950s in South Africa. “We’re trying to show people that it could have been different,’ she explains. “The set is bright and happy, while the real 1950s was a bit more subdued. A musical is never real. It’s light and full of fun and “lekker’ music. You’ll feel good when you watch it.’
Pretville publicist David Alex Wilson agrees. “If you look at musicals like Grease and Hairspray, they lend themselves to that kind of heightened, super-reality. It’s dreamier and everything is accentuated. I think all great musicals thrive on an inherent innocence and naivete. Pretville fits very comfortably into that genre.’
The cameras started rolling in March, but the initial planning and set building started about 18 months ago. The soundtrack was recorded in August 2011 and the cast gathered to learn the choreography two weeks before principal photography began.
Pretville stars Marlee van der Merwe (Liefling, Die Movie), Eugene Jensen and Marno van der Merwe (Longshot), as well as Terence Bridgett, Annette Engelbrecht, Lizz Meiring, Steve Hofmeyr, Rina Nienaber, Emo Adams, Margit Meyer-Rodenbeck, Sanet Ackerman, Kevin Leo and Jakkie Louw.
Composer and songwriter Machiel Roets, who also stars as Kallie Klawers in the film, came up with the idea for Pretville. “I was always a fan of the 1950s and 1960s music. I grew up with Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, and I was in love with the sound. Rhythmically, there was just so much joy, and I was extremely impressed by the piano style,’ explains Roets.
“I thought it was a cool concept, which had never been done before, to write Afrikaans songs in this style. So, I had a go at it, and it worked. I sent it to Liefling producer Paul Kruger, and they (Hartiwood Studios) liked the idea of creating a musical around it.’
Roets, who spent 12 years in England working as a musical theatre director and writer, contributed to the script along with the Hartiwood Studios team, which includes Korsten and producers Paul Kruger and Emma Kruger. “As the script was being written, I worked on songs to take the story forward, to maintain the story within the songs and to make sure they fit in with the other songs as well.’
The result is an original soundtrack of 28 original Afrikaans songs in a 1950s style.
The period piece is funded by The Department of Trade and Industry (the dti) rebate, private funding and the product placement evident on the set. The shops that line the streets of Pretville carry the names of, among others, estate agents Aida, Martin’s funeral parlours, AlphaPharm pharmacy, Pep and Echo 4×4.
Inside the shops you’ll find more product placement, including Frankie’s old-fashioned soda and GHD hair straighteners, along with a mixture of period and contemporary details created by the art department, or found at auctions, antique shops and hospice stores.
“Because it’s a town in the 1950s, and they had lots and lots of billboards in the 1950s, it was much easier to do product placement. I think it’s one of the biggest product placements so far in local film,’ says Korsten.
On set a mint green Plymouth Belvedere and an old Chevrolet are also parked on the street – part of a fleet of vintage cars borrowed from a collector in the area.
“He has been, and continues to be, very kind to us,’ notes Korsten. “Somebody told me if I had to hire these cars it would have cost R5 000 per car per day. It’s a great asset to the movie, and we are very thankful for it.’
Art director Bathoni Robinson started work in November 2011 when the structures for the town were already standing. “It was like a raw canvas. My starting point for the set was visualising the energy of the music and the message and simplicity of the songs. Pretville is a little bit of your childhood. We tried to recreate that “feel good’, “home’, “life-is-bliss’ feel,’ explains Robinson.
“This is a unique experience because we built a town from the foundations up, and we had to think of the details to make it authentic. The telephone lines were the last thing to go up. We looked at the town just before we started shooting and realised something was still missing.’
Adds Robinson: “We didn’t want it to look like Pleasantville, but something everyone could relate to. Like a walk down memory lane for the older generations, although we’re keeping it very naive, with a bit of the contemporary and realism mixed in. We weren’t strictly trying to recreate the era, just taking a bit from history and adding our own creative ideas.’
She notes that she worked with a compact, but very energetic team. “We also had a limited budget, which was a challenge, so we had to be creative. All the signage is hand painted, which gives it a very human element.’
According to Korsten they are aware of the challenges to following a film as successful as Liefling, which made more than R13m at the South African box office in 2010.
“We sometimes wonder what’s going to happen, but because this is a period piece I think you can’t really compare it to Liefling.’
She notes that, while Liefling consisted of old, nostalgic songs, Pretville contains original songs written specifically for the film and while Liefling was shot on location, Pretville is shot on a set.
Their biggest challenge was to get the town finished on time, and to stay more or less in period, adds Korsten. “The art department worked very, very hard to get it done. To get the right cast was also quite a challenge, but we’ve now got a lovely cast. Everyone is so eager to work, and they’re very talented. Singing, dancing, acting – they do it all.’
They are shooting on Hartiwood Studios’ two RED Scarlet cameras, called Scar and Let, and a new RED Epic called Rooies was waiting at the airport at the time of the set visit. “The third camera will make it easier, we’ll be able to shoot different shots at the same time and won’t have to worry that there’s too much of a difference between the shots,’ explains Korsten.
She is impressed by the performance of the cameras. “The RED’s images are so crisp and clear. And the pictures are really so beautiful, it’s just HD, HD, HD.’
According to Korsten, the cinematography will be a mix of a 1950s style – with wide shots that take in a lot of information and stays on shot for a longer time – and quick cuts where the music calls for it.
“We’re shooting until the end of March, and we’ve already started editing. It will take about two or three months, because we’ll have to do quite a lot of post-production on sound,’ notes Korsten.
Pretville is aimed at all ages, but not only an Afrikaans audience. “The music is of the kind that anyone can sing along to. We’ll also have subtitles to accommodate English viewers,’ notes Korsten.
Wilson adds that the box office numbers indicate that they had some crossover to English viewers with Liefling, and they hope to achieve the same with Pretville.
To accompany the cinema run, they will release a CD, as well as a Pretville cook book. The film will be distributed by Indigenous Film Distribution. “If you don’t have a good strategy for marketing, you can forget about reaching people,’ says Korsten.
The film will be released on 3 November 2012 on digital and print.
By Linda Loubser
Screen Africa magazine- May 2012