Interview: Skemerdans directors’ fresh take on Cape TownWatch Skemerdans from 28 April 2021
“We don’t want to show the mountain or the sea. We want to show the inner city, the grittiness,” says Amy Jephta, who co-directed Skemerdans with Ephraim Gordon.
We caught up with Skemerdans co-directors Amy Jephta and Ephraim Gordon to find out more about their upcoming Showmax Original, a murder mystery set in a part of Cape Town that tourists, and even some Capetonians, never see or experience.
(Skemerdans lands on 28 April 2021, with all 13 episodes ready to binge-watch on Showmax.)
Where did the idea for Skemerdans come from?
Amy: We love the noir genre, so we had an aesthetic in mind. We wanted to create something that felt different to any South African show we had seen. A lot of the shows here are so bright, whereas we found there was something so beautiful about playing with darkness and shadows.
One night we just took a drive down Voortrekker Road for a location recce and we thought, ‘This place has so much life; so many stories in the cracks.’ We don’t think it’s been seen on screen before, so part of Skemerdans came from wanting to tell the story of this world.
And then the other part was we just wanted to tell a really sexy story that was different from anything anyone expected from us. Barakat, my first feature, is a gentle family story about love, so this is the complete opposite.
Ephraim: We also wanted to show a side of Cape Town we don’t normally see, to share our vision of what Cape Town is. When people think of Cape Town, they think of it as a compartmentalised world: certain people living here, certain people there. But Voortrekker Road is a place where different people are constantly moving through.
Amy: We wanted to show that Cape Town is not just the mountain and the sea. We don’t want to show the mountain or the sea. We want to show the inner city, the grittiness, and the bleak stuff, and the harsh light – not just the beautiful scenery.
Club Galaxy has arguably been Cape Town’s most famous club ever since it opened in 1978. Did you write Skemerdans with Galaxy in mind?
Ephraim: Yes, but without knowing if it would be possible to shoot there. When Covid hit, the club obviously had to close, which made it the perfect space for the world of Skemerdans to exist.
Galaxy is a rite of passage in Cape Town. I grew up in Paarl, so never went but I always heard of Galaxy. And then when I became a student, and started going with friends on the Cape Flats, it was like finally being able to touch this place you’d always heard about.
Amy: I grew up in Mitchell’s Plain. I wasn’t allowed to go clubbing in high school but Galaxy and Dockside are the two venues I know from my childhood as part of the lexicon of Cape Town. Galaxy is an iconic part of Cape Town nightlife – everyone I know has either spent their youth at Galaxy, or their parents did. My grandmother partied there. It’s an institution.
And your family’s played on stage here, Amy?
Amy: Yes. In the late 70s and 80s, my father used to be part of a band called Hot Property. They used to play at the jazz and pop clubs, a Friday, Saturday and Sunday night gig, like the guys on our show.
Later in life, I have memories of coming to watch the jazz there, at West End. My brother, Benjamin Jephta, is a jazz musician – he’s actually doing the music for the show – and he had his training ground with these iconic musicians on the West End stage.
So I’ve heard a lot of stories about what it is like to be a gigging musician and what it’s like to work the late night hours at clubs and the stuff you see…
Unlike most South African TV, Skemerdans seems to have largely been shot between dusk and dawn?
Amy: It’s such a beautiful time. Our DOP, Chris Lotz, is fanatical about the hours that you get just after the sunset. The golden hour is great and you can always film in that. But that period between seven and eight, when the last light is draining out of the sky, that’s our golden hour. And then the night, because that’s when the world of the story comes alive, that’s when the club comes alive, that’s when the lights go on, that’s when the dangerous things happen, but also the exciting things. This is a world that opens at 9pm: it doesn’t shut down when the sun goes down.
This was originally going to be a show for TV. How did it change in moving to Showmax?
Amy: When the opportunity to do it for Showmax came along, it was like, ‘Thank God: now we can do anything we want.’ We’ve been given the creative freedom to make the story what it needs to be, without worrying about things like language, sex, violence or pushing the envelope too far. You can just tell the story, without worrying about there’s not enough English, there’s not enough Afrikaans, there’s too many swear words, there’s too much sex. We could just let the world grow, without being censored.
Ephraim: Once there are language quotas put on something, you limit your casting. So you find yourself in a space where people come from the same place and sound the same way and act in the same way. But that’s not the world we live in. We live in a world where people constantly move through spaces. So with that restriction taken off, it allowed us to cast wider, and to reflect what this world is.
Tell us about your cast.
Amy: We knew what our casting would be even as we were writing. We wrote with particular actors in mind, and we were lucky that we managed to secure almost all of the people we had in mind. We needed an ensemble cast where every single character was able to carry the show on their own.
You’ve described Ilse Klink as “the beating heart of the show.” Why did you want her in particular?
Amy: For Shireen, we needed someone really strong, matriarchal, and vulnerable. Ilse was always the first choice. We didn’t have a plan B. If she was going to say no, we were going to either write that part out, or we didn’t know what we were going to do with it. She has such a strength and she’s unflappable, but there’s a real softness to her. And she’s just a brilliant actress to work with: she’s flexible and emotionally open.
Ephraim: Her being from Joburg also worked in our favour, because she’s never in this space, whereas everyone else has worked together regularly.
How would you describe the theme of the show?
Amy: One of the themes is about: can you ever escape family? Skemerdans is about a legacy built by one man and how everyone still lives in his shadow, and how this family is bound by a secret in their past.
It’s also about power. Everyone in this world defines power a little differently. Some define it by family, some define it by material wealth, some define it by success, some define it by the legend that you leave behind, or the mythology behind the man. So everyone is holding on to power in some way or is striving to achieve power. So the ambitions in the show are greater than just the basic survival things.
Ephraim: That was important in how we wanted to show Cape Town and its people. No one in this show operates in extreme poverty. They’re not necessarily all middle class but the decisions they make aren’t bread and butter issues. It’s important to see people on the Cape Flats on that level, as well, where it’s not always about a fight for survival and a fight for your next meal. There’s dignity in that.
How would you describe Skemerdans’ soundtrack?
Amy: I come from a house where Cape jazz was the soundtrack for my childhood. So I wanted to make something that sounded like what local music in Cape Town sounds like.
Our soundtrack is a combination. There are songs from the 80s and 90s that were and continue to be popular to Cape Town audiences: Pacific Express, Jonathan Butler, Paul Petersen, the Schilder Brothers. And then we have an original score that’s composed by my brother Benjamin Jephta, which is a whole world away from the “club music”. It’s synth heavy, mood driven and more contemporary.
How did the two of you meet?
Ephraim: First day of varsity. First day of first year at UCT.
Amy: Since then, we became friends and then collaborators on the theatre side. And then, after we made a theatre show, we decided to form a company because we wanted to make a film of the play we made. Soldaat was our first film together. [And set the tone for their collaborations, winning Best Short Film and Best Screenplay at Silwerskerm in 2017 – ed].
Ephraim: Amy directed that and I produced. Skemerdans is our first time co-directing and our first series as part of the Nagvlug team.
Amy: We have been friends for 15 years and counting now. We’ve built a company together, completely trust each other and work very well together in pretty much any kind of high pressure environment. We balance out each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The stories we are drawn to are ones that upend the stories of people who look like us and present our lived experience in a different way to the usual trauma narratives we see about ourselves.
How does co-directing work practically?
Ephraim: Technically, I’m down for one week, and Amy for the next, but organically in the middle of that we’ll find that Amy might have a better rapport with an actor for a particular scene and may take over, and on a different scene I might take over, so it’s fluid.
Amy: The story was collaborative from the beginning. We like working in a collaborative way: we try to make everyone part of the story we are trying to tell. A few ideas is better than one idea: so this was never a story that was going to be driven by a single auteur vision.
Ephraim: There’s no single way to portray an entire community, especially this particular community. It would do it a disservice if we created a singular voice, because this world has many voices, which are only now beginning to be heard.