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It’s a Nice Day for Jann Turner’s “White Wedding”

It's a Nice Day for Jann Turner's "White Wedding"

An accomplished TV and documentary writer, director and editor in her native South Africa, Jann Turner is making her feature directorial debut with “White Wedding,” which opens today, September 3 in New York and Los Angeles. A road comedy about a groom-to-be’s attempt to reach his nuptials in time, “White Wedding” humorously engages with the heritage of apartheid, acknowledging that deep-seated racism remains while suggesting that it can be overcome. Turner and her stars (and good friends), Kenneth Nkosi (“District 9,” “Tsotsi”) and Rapulana Seiphemo (“Jerusalema,” “Tsotsi), co-wrote the script, based on their own experiences living in the crazy cultural quilt that is modern South Africa. In indieWIRE‘s interview, Turner discusses the real roadtrip that inspired the film, the challenges of shooting on a 19-day schedule and the film’s rapturous reception in South Africa. “White Wedding” is being distributed in the U.S. by Dada Films.

Set against South Africa’s beautifully varied landscapes, this high-spirited comedy is a feel-good movie about love, commitment, intimacy, friendship and all the maddening obstacles that can get in the way of a happy ending. The film is a forward looking farce set in the new South African cultural mixing pot, as the nation strives to be defined as more than their shared political history.

Ayanda (Zandile Msutwana) is just days away from her lifelong dream of a modern ‘white wedding,’ complete with a dazzling dress, dozens of bridesmaids, a flamboyant wedding planner and large reception at a fancy hotel. The only problem is that her husband-to-be, the sweet, committed Elvis (Nkosi), is 1,800 kilometers away with his childhood friend and best man Tumi (Seiphemo).

What should be a simple, straightforward trip gets seriously derailed, forcing Elvis, Tumi and Rose (Jodie Whittaker), a footloose English doctor they meet along the way, to tackle directional mishaps, car accidents, a tag-along goat, and a potentially dangerous encounter with a bar full of redneck Afrikaners.

Meanwhile, poor Ayanda is watching her dream unravel as she wrestles with problems of her own–from questioning whether there’s any truth to Elvis’ preposterous excuses of why he might not arrive on time, being caught between European and African wedding traditions and dealing with the unexpected arrival of Tony (Mbulelo Grootboom), her slick old boyfriend with a questionable agenda. In the end, the two lovers learn that celebrating their union is more about the journey than getting to the church on time. [Synopsis courtesy the Little Film Company]

Turner on her background…

It’s hard to introduce myself without saying that I am a South African, born of activist parents who encouraged me to read and write and watch movies. I think I fell in love with the cinema when I was 4 and went on my first outing to the Bioscope to see The Gnome-Mobile. I spent my teens in the United Kingdom and my early twenties in the U.S.A. As an undergraduate I studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University. I got my first job answering the phone at Working Title Films in London and that experience sent me to film school. I graduated with an MFA from NYU in 1992 and started working in cutting rooms. I’ve been an apprentice editor, assistant editor and sound editor. I have written and directed hundreds of hours of documentaries, soap operas and TV drama. 

On the inspiration for the film… 

”White Wedding” is collaboration between myself and Kenny Nkosi and Rapulana Seiphemo. We three met in a tunnel of the Durban Deep Gold mine in 1998. We were working on “Isidingo”–South African TV’s first post-apartheid soap. Raps and Kenny were acting and I was directing. We became friends and we started writing together, though it was several years before we came up with “White Wedding.” That seed of our first movie was sewn on a road trip we took one Christmas–from Johannesburg to Cape Town. We weren’t going to a wedding, but along the way we were talking about relationships and men and women and the movies we wanted to make and the beautiful landscape we were traveling through 

On how she and her co-writers wrote the film…

The writing of the film happened in a fairly short period of workshopping with the three of us in the room. I sit at the keyboard and Kenny and Raps talk, very fast as it happens. So I have learned to type very fast! The film flowed out of us mostly very easily. There were a few bloody moments when we had to stay in the room until we had a winner, but for the most part the story just flowed and all I had to do was make sure I got it all onto the computer.

On shooting on an impossibly tight schedule…

When it came to directing “White Wedding,” I had to think about telling the story and telling it simply enough to meet the schedule–19 days–and also beautifully enough to capture the performances and the country that they would be journeying through. Form, for me, is always determined by content. In this case the content is character–so we needed to get the close ups and the comedy. Anything else–coverage-wise–was a bonus, given the time allowed!

We had very little money and absolutely no contingency, therefore no margin for error. Somehow we were very, very lucky. The actors were top, the crew was fantastic and the weather never turned on us.   
On South Africans’ response to the film, and her hopes for American audiences…

South African audiences love “White Wedding”–to our great delight! Our opening weekend rocked the box office–we took double Oscar-winner “Tsotsi”’s gross in local cinemas and we topped “Slumdog Millionaire,” which also opened that weekend. South Africans of all shapes and sizes and colors and ages continue to hit us with fan mail almost every day. Most of them talk about how refreshing it is to see a film about contemporary, ordinary South Africans in a contemporary, ordinary story. And everyone talks about how good it feels to laugh at ourselves and our crazy, beautiful country.

From the very start we’ve had fantastic support from Robbie Little at The Little Film Company in Los Angeles and from MJ Peckos at Dada Films. They understood that what we were out to make with “White Wedding” was not a heavy “foreign film” but clever entertainment that’s South African, but can travel. Robbie and MJ believe that U.S. audiences will pick up on and enjoy that and so far their judgement seems to be spot on. We won the audience award at Mill Valley Film Festival and test-screening results are through the roof exciting. So far Americans are relating to the comedy and also seem to be as delighted as South Africans are at seeing the country and its characters up there in a movie that isn’t about apartheid or crime. So everyone who has seen it loves it, the trick is going to be getting people to the cinema. So if you’ve seen the film and you think others will enjoy it–please tweet about it as loud and as often as you can!

On influences on “White Wedding”…

I can’t say there are any films that specifically inspired “White Wedding.” We used the tried and tested romantic comedy formula to structure our story, but we subverted and expanded it with characters and locations never seen on film before. The film I watched several times for light relief in the writing stage was “Flirting with Disaster” by David O. Russell. I think it’s a very clever, genre-bending comedy. 

On what comes next for the potential break-out filmmaker…

 Stepping Stone’s latest picture–“Paradise Stop”–releases in South Africa in March 2011. It’s an action comedy, a darker and quirkier film than “White Wedding.” Once again written and produced by Kenny, Raps and myself. We shot it in Limpopo, north of Johannesburg, in October of 2009 and finished post in May 2010. Right now we’re developing our third feature together, “Fifty Coffins,” which we plan to shoot in Johannesburg next winter.

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