Commentary: Producers' No. 1 goal fulfilled: Bringing Botswana to life for 'Ladies'

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The novel begins with these words: "Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill."

Although the book is a work of fiction, if one visited Gabarone, Botswana's largest city, between September and Christmas last year, one would have seen a building housed at the bottom of the actual Kgale Hill with the words "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" on it.

Part of a mini-studio nicknamed Kgalewood, its existence was a testament to how fully the producers behind HBO's adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith's Africa-set book series wanted to be faithful in the translation to the screen.

Of course, getting to shoot in Botswana was no easy task: The production, TV or otherwise, was the first to shoot in the southern African country.

Amy J. Moore, who originally optioned the books and brought them to the late Anthony Minghella -- he directed the pilot as his last work -- was adamant that any adaptation be set in Botswana.

"Anthony said to me, 'But there aren't any restaurants in Botswana,' " Moore recalls. "And he was (kind of) right -- there are two."

Still, Minghella and his producing partners -- including Tim Bricknell, who acted as showrunner after Minghella and fellow executive producer Sydney Pollack passed away -- were on board to shoot in Botswana, realizing the country was a unique character in the book that provided flavor and a feeling that likely couldn't be re-created anywhere else.

"Anthony and I began the project as two pasty guys from London, England, not knowing very much about Africa at all, let alone Botswana," Bricknell says. "It became very important to us both that we try to film in the place where the story is set to lend it a level of authenticity that we didn't feel qualified to provide."

But wanting to shoot in Botswana is far different from actually shooting there. Although much safer than neighboring South Africa, the country had nothing in terms of film infrastructure, so equipment would have to be imported.

And there was the question of cost. Other locations offered rebates; Botswana had nothing on that front. Moore addressed the country's parliament to push for some sort of financial assistance.

Her efforts paid off: The government ended up funding more than 30% of the pilot, which cost $5 million-$7 million and was shot in late 2007. In return, the production promised to hire and train locals.

So "Ladies" did. Moore says the series employed more than 2,300 people -- including 1,900 extras. Bricknell says a training scheme was organized and an internship program, consisting of more than 100 students from local colleges and media schools, was drafted.

When it came time to shoot the series, which did not receive financial assistance from the government, producers rehired many of the same people, who became not only proper members of the team but also ran three departments.

The hiring continued on the acting side as well: 52 speaking parts in the series were local actors.

"We felt like we were kick-starting what could be a very viable industry," Bricknell says. "The government recognized that we were going out of our way to film there, (and) they recognized that we were going out of our way to train people. It was an opportunity for the country."

The production built its own set, raising a town square of 13 buildings in bush occupied by baboons in acacia trees. Serendipitously, it was at the bottom of Kgale Hill, and the area soon earned the nickname Kgalewood.

"There was a huge production value to be gained in shooting in the real place," Bricknell says. "It meant that we could be outside a lot and that our stories could take place in and around Gabarone and in the streets."

Still, there were hitches. A carjacking occurred during the pilot shoot; the series shot in the summer and temperatures soared into the 100s, making for some trying days on set. Then there were the cultural differences between the West and Africa and between the film world and the relaxed timelessness of a people moving at their own pace.

Schedules are anathema: A bus might be set to depart at 8 a.m. but will leave only when full.

"The language of film and the language of Africa are alien to each other," Moore says. "The sense of time in an African context and the sense of time in a Western context is completely different."
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