Adze Ugah and Denny Miller, 2014 recipients of the South African Film and
Television Award (SAFTA) for Best Director of a Television Soap for Mzansi
Magic’s Isibaya, have directed varied series such as the likes of Swartwater,
Jacob’s Cross, Zone 14, Room 9, Skiwas, Tshisa III and Mfolozi Street, their
paths often crossing behind the lens through the years.
Ugah also directed the successful documentary The Burning Man and the feature
film Gog’ Helen, which he refers to “as a squatter camp noir comedy’.
Now a formidable team behind one of the most popular soaps in South Africa’s
television history, Ugah and Miller share some of their views on directing, life,
keeping egos in check and Joan Collins…
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO BECOME A DIRECTOR?
Ugah: I prefer to think of myself as a filmmaker. As far back as I can remember, I
have always been fascinated by movies, to the extent that I always got into
trouble with teachers in school because of the noise I made while recounting
the films I saw the day before to my classmates.
Miller: Default. Shit happens…
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR DIRECTING STYLE?
Ugah: I like to always keep things simple and as such I always search for the
shortest and quickest path towards having the audience engage and empathise
with what’s happening on screen. So in a sense I prefer to let the story
influence the style instead of the other way round.
Miller: Intimate, unrelenting, naturalistic, simplistic.
WHAT DOES THE SAFTA WIN MEAN TO YOU AS PROFESSIONALS?
Ugah: It’s always nice to be acknowledged for the work one does but for us it
merely means people know we are out there and are aware of the quality of our
Miller: Opportunity. “Next gig please.’
WHICH UNIQUE PRODUCTION VALUES DO YOU THINK ISIBAYA OFFER
Ugah: First of all Isibaya is uniquely and proudly South African. It’s a hybrid of so
many genres, such as romance, suspense, thriller, melodrama and even the
supernatural. And all of these are communicated in the photography and do
come across visually not just thematically. This is usually rare for this format,
where volume is normally favoured over quality. I think with Isibaya we have
succeeded in ensuring that the quantity is as consistent as the quality.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT DIRECTING ISIBAYA?
Miller: The privilege and opportunity granted to be surrounded by passionate
and very talented individuals. It is been humbling as a white South African
director to be given the task of interpreting and realising one of our great
cultures (Zulu) through film.
WHAT ARE THE MOST CHALLENGING ASPECTS OF DIRECTING ISIBAYA?
Ugah: The most challenging thing about Isibaya is shooting the same amounts
of page counts that other soapies would normally shoot in studio on live and
semi-live locations. The upside is that we are able to come up with far better,
prettier pictures to the credit of our DOPs.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU, BOTH IN TERMS OF DIRECTING AND PERSONALLY?
Ugah: I am usually inspired by the sea of humanity around me; I am fascinated
with how things can be separate yet connected and vice versa, I love how the
small things of the past can be the big things of our future (and vice versa). I am
inspired by the degree of layers a seemingly ordinary issue or person can
possess and how, in unraveling those same layers, they can be quite an
adventure and learning experience.
Miller: Capturing, nurturing, giving life…
WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE DIRECTORS LOCALLY?
Ugah: Angus Gibson, Teboho Matlatsi, Donovan Marsh, Thabang Moleya , Ralph
Ziman, Tebogo Malope, Akin Omotoso, etc. These guys know how to filter
through the chaff and go straight to the visceral issues that make us, as a
society, stand up and take notice.
WHICH LOCAL TELEVISION SHOWS INSPIRE YOU?
Ugah: Jacob’s Cross was on another level as far as local South African television
shows are concerned and I say that with all objectivity. It was a brave
endeavor, very bold and packed with so much cinematic and social value.
WHAT CHANGES HAVE YOU SEEN IN THE INDUSTRY SINCE YOU
Miller: We’ve become penny wise and pound foolish.
WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU OFFER ASPIRING DIRECTORS?
Ugah: Be a sponge for knowledge and never stop learning. Read till your eyes
get sore for it is that understanding of the sea of humanity that empowers you
to be able to connect with audiences through your stories.
Miller: Drop the ego, dude. It doesn’t work.
HOW DO YOU CHILL OUT?
Ugah: I watch movies.
Miller: I “keep walking’ (laughs).
WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE ABOUT YOU?
Ugah: I can’t say “executive decision’ without stuttering, don’t know why.
IF YOU HAD A WISH, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Miller: To get a great performance out of Joan Collins…