In conversation with SundanceTV Shorts Competition winner, Kate D’hotman

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Kate D’hotman won the second SundanceTV Shorts Competition this year with her zombie comedy Life’s a Drag. She spoke to Fiona Walsh about seeing her film premiere in London and shared some advice for other young filmmakers.

As part of your competition prize you travelled to London with actor Damon Berry for the Life’s a Drag premiere – what did that mean for you and the film?

Being at the Sundance Film Festival: London, was a surreal experience, but it was a great validation for both the film and me as a filmmaker. Seeing the film on the big screen for the first time was totally surreal and completely exhilarating at the same time! SundanceTV Shorts was the first competition we entered, so it was a huge surprise to win, and it inspired me to really take the marketing of the film to the next level and enter more festivals.

I met some really wonderful people at the festival and got inspired by what other filmmakers are doing on an international scale. This industry is all about relationships, investing in authentic connections and nurturing those – when you see these festivals as an opportunity to connect with people on a real level, rather than looking for a big cheque or a quick deal, you’re really investing in your long-term career as a filmmaker.

Presumably you had a limited budget when shooting; what did you prioritise?

Yes, absolutely, budget is always a problem when making passion projects – you’re essentially drawing from your own bank account and maxing out your credit cards to get it made, and then calling in favours everywhere you can and asking people to come on board for free. You’re asking them to believe in your idea as much as you do.

As someone who’s worked in production on TV commercials for several years, I prioritised two things: the safety and security of the cast and crew by insuring the shoot through GIB (public liability, personal accident and equipment insurance), and then feeding everyone properly, with real caterers and meal options. I learned that lesson long ago: if you don’t feed your crew well, they might turn into blood-thirsty zombies and come for you

I think it’s just a matter of treating your team well, and letting them know that you value their well-being. On that note, I’d like to thank everybody who worked on Life’s a Drag – cast, crew, post production and all the generous donors and sponsors. None of this would have been possible without you!

What did you have to compromise on?

Time was a definite challenge – I wish we’d had another half-day to shoot the office scenes. We had to move on pretty quickly without doing as many takes as I might have liked, not getting the time to really light the way the DOP, William Collinson, would’ve liked to. We also had to leave out shots I’d planned on getting, so sometimes I wish we’d got more coverage. 

We had to borrow all of our props and set dressing and Propstars very generously donated all of that free of charge – but we couldn’t get working computers, so of course we had to do a lot of compositing in post-production to fill in the screens.

Tell us a bit about the zombie prosthetics and make-up on Life’s a Drag.

I got really lucky with Dreamsmith letting us use their human arm for free, and they added all sorts of string and bits and pieces to the end of it so that once we soaked it in fake blood, Hlubi [Mboya] could take a big bite out of it and it really looked like she was tearing at muscles and tendons! Even I have to look away for some of that scene! Plus, Matthew Howard Tripp actually made a prosthetic finger for Damon [Berry], which was great because I really wanted it to be falling off in a few scenes, and we got it to do that, which is really funny on screen. Matthew also came on set and was a life-saver with makeup and special effects.

Our other two makeup artists were Courtney Jane Larkin and Jurine Erwee, and they worked really hard at creating wounds and makeup for Damon and Joe [Vaz]. Altogether, I think it turned out pretty great, but it was definitely a challenge.

Describe the film’s journey since the London premiere.

It’s still pretty early in the game – a good festival run usually takes about a year to hit all the major ones – but it’s already doing well. We were at Shnit International Film Festival in Cape Town in October. We also made Official Selection at Atlanta Shortsfest, the Jozi Film Festival, Seoul International Film Festival in South Korea and the Women’s Comedy Film Festival, Atlanta, where I was lucky enough to be nominated for Best International Director.

We made Official Selection at HollyShorts Film Festival in Hollywood, Los Angeles. I decided to bite the bullet and make the 27-hour trip, and I’m so glad I did! Attending HollyShorts has definitely been a worthwhile experience. I’ve met a bunch of great filmmakers, writers from major US TV shows and feature films, managers, agents, producers and studio executives, so it’s been an invaluable experience. I’ve been talking to a few studios and producers about Life’s a Drag being developed into a TV series, which is really exciting.

You’re a member of SWIFT; how does the organisation help female filmmakers?

Sisters Working in Film and Television was launched by some female powerhouses in the industry, including filmmaker Sara Blecher, in 2017 at DIFF, which is where I came into contact with them for the first time. They’re a really great organisation, focused on fighting sexual harassment against women in the film industry, as well as advocating for the success of female filmmakers. We believe in women supporting one another and building each other up. Our trip to Berlinale last year, supported by the DTI, was the first test of this, and I was lucky enough to be one of the filmmakers to attend. It was a totally eye-opening experience, and really brought us together as women and as creatives.

After the success of that trip, SWIFT really took off and membership has grown exponentially. Members are part of a SWIFT WhatsApp group, where we post questions and provide information and job opportunities for one another. Producers in the group are encouraged to give women in SWIFT the opportunity to work on their projects first, so we can address the imbalance in the industry and try to reach equal representation. 

What’s your advice for others breaking into film?

Whew! I’m hardly the authority on this, but I’d say the biggest lesson I’m learning from my exposure to international filmmaking and film festivals and markets is this: stop doubting yourself. Women, especially, are incredibly hard on themselves and are too self-deprecating. As young South African filmmakers, we need to be pushing harder, dreaming bigger and claiming our place in the world. We have great ideas, original stories and tons of talent in our country. All we need to do is start believing in ourselves and stop waiting for someone else to make our dreams come true. As Oprah said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

Write, write, write. Get your talented friends together and make something. Film it on your phone, or if you’ve worked in the industry for a while, don’t be afraid to ask for favours from gear houses or friends with proper cameras. Ask for advice, tell people what you’re trying to do. Start a crowdfunding campaign; if you have savings, use them! You are worth the investment. Be prepared for sacrifices – this isn’t a get-rich-quick game. But above all, don’t be afraid.