Following a limited release last year, Tess, the award-winning film based on the novel Whiplash by Tracey Farren, releases across South Africa tomorrow. Director Meg Rickards has assembled an entirely South African crew and cast, lead by Christia Visser to tell the haunting story of Tess, a 20-year-old sex worker whose life is turned upside down when she discovers that she’s pregnant. We sat down with Meg and Christia to discuss their work on this groundbreaking film.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
Meg Rickards: I come from a Fine Arts background originally and I also studied English Literature. I think I was just very excited by telling stories using both words and images and that is what eventually drew me to filmmaking, but I had quite a circuitous route of getting there. I grew up and there weren’t really film schools, I sound ancient now, but for me filmmaking was something geniuses did overseas, it certainly wasn’t anything anyone I knew did. It didn’t seem like a possibility. I was really lucky to get a scholarship to go to [the] London Film School and I just fell in love. I guess I just loved stories and imagery and filmmaking was an ideal way to bring those together.
Christia Visser: From a very young age I always wanted to perform. I wanted to be a singer and I started writing music from a very young age. When I got to High School, I decided to take up Drama as a subject because it would better my skills in music videos. I fell in love. I had a teacher when I was in Matric [and] she was the first person who saw potential in my acting ability. I was always just doing it because I could and I loved performing. She saw something and she started pushing me in all sorts of directions. At one point I think I just realised, “Maybe I’m not too bad at this acting thing.” I decided to pursue it then.
Meg, I’ve read in quite a few interviews about how you got involved with this project, but I think what is interesting is that you literally had to sing for your supper to get this film made and walk 26km. I was wondering if you could touch on that experience?
Meg Rickards: We were completely stuck on half the budget that we needed to even make it vaguely ok. I was chatting to my husband, who later became a producer on the project, and he was saying, “What would Richard Branson do?” I said that he’d probably jump out of a plane but I have terrible vertigo and we can’t afford a plane. But we needed to do something to break the logjam. We had a Thundafund campaign going at the time and our own friends and family had been really generous but we needed to break beyond that to raise anything substantial. So we came up with this idea to walk which would bring attention to this project and also speak to issues that were at the heart of this project that was the reason of wanting to make it in the first place. That’s why I did that crazy thing of walking with painted on bruises and a torn petticoat. And it did work. It did bring more attention to the campaign and it got us moving again because then Kyknet noticed the project and they came in with a third of the budget. It was really worthwhile even though it seemed completely crazy at the time.
Christia, what were your thoughts when you first received the script?
Christia Visser: I was just going for the audition so I thought, “Nice challenging character, let’s go see what happens.” I try not to think too deeply about any audition because you don’t know if you are going to get it or not. The moment there was more interest in me playing the character, I freaked out because it suddenly dawned on me what would be expected and what I would have to go through emotionally. It was a lot to take on. Something in me wanted to say yes but everything else just went, “No you can’t do that. Not to yourself or your family.” It was a rough script. There is always that one thing that goes, “But I want to tell the story. Can I do this?” Eventually after much talk with every single person in my life, my mother actually said to me, “You can’t put your own moral standards onto a character. You want to stand up for what you believe in. What better way to do that than to tell the story?” That made up my mind but it was definitely not an easy decision to make.
Meg Rickards: I was so sad because Christia’s agent came back to us and said, “No, she can’t do it. It’s too different from the character she’s done before.”
Christia: I was back and forth a few times.
Meg Rickards: So then I wrote to you and said, “Please let’s go have coffee.” I wrote you a long letter.
Christia: It worked.
Meg Rickards: And in the end you said you’d do it.
Christia: It just took time for me to realise what it could mean in the broader picture, outside of myself as an actress, outside of all of that. It’s a difficult thing. I am still building my career and doing a film like this where the film is you, the film is your performance, it’s a very scary thing because you go, “Can it break my career?” This isn’t a type of film that South Africa has made before or is ready to take on. It takes brave people to do it. It was a very scary thing for me but in the end I am very happy.
Meg Rickards: I can’t imagine Tess made with anyone else. I really can’t.
What are the stories that are important for you to tell during the context of your careers?
Christia Visser: I don’t think it’s anything specific. For me, if I read a script and it touches me in some way I know that it can touch my audience. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a lesson learned film. It has to be a character that teaches me something. The moment that character teaches me something, I in turn can give that to an audience. I always know when I read a script [that] if I don’t read it straight through when I first sit down with it, I know it’s not the film for me.
Meg Rickards: I think as a director and sometimes writer, it takes such a long time to make a film for me. I can’t churn them out very often so it has got to mean something to me. It’s not like I always want to make films about violence towards women but it’s got to be about something that is important to me. It doesn’t have to be a lesson. I don’t want to make didactic films but I don’t want to make fluff. It should be entertaining. I do think films should be entertaining and I wouldn’t mind doing a lighter film next time around but it has got to have a controlling idea that means something to me and is something that I want to say, otherwise it is just not worth the time and the heartache.
Christia Visser: Because you have to have passion for what you are doing. If the passion isn’t there then the product is always going to be passionless.
Meg Rickards: It’s so hard to make a film. There is so much sacrifice, especially making a low-budget film in South Africa. It’s a hell ride so if you don’t believe in an idea 100%, you have to walk away. It is just not worth it.
I think the relationship between director and actor is incredibly important but especially for a film like this. What did you feel like you needed during this process and how did you feel like you received that from one another?
Christia Visser: The thing that I needed most was understanding. I needed her to understand what I was putting myself through and she had that straight from the get-go. Meg was the perfect director for this because she was supporting, loving, trusting and giving. It was just love and support. I needed to feel safe and she made me feel safe.
Meg Rickards: I felt terribly guilty at times for what I was putting you through. I was very aware of what a roller coaster it was and what a huge commitment it was to take on that role. It’s a tough role. By the end of the rape scene we were all in tears.
Christia Visser: Every single person.
Meg Rickards: That scene for instance we said we would only do it once. There was a small problem with the focus and they came and said that we had to do it again. But we couldn’t. It was making agreements like that and sticking to them.
Christia Visser:…because we couldn’t do that scene again.
Meg Rickards: It was having strict guidelines for ourselves. I think the fact that we prepared really throughly, we went through every scene beforehand.
Christia Visser: It was a month rehearsal time before a month of shooting so we could talk about it.
Meg Rickards: I see Christia as a deeply intuitive actor and I also wanted to have her input. I remember there was a scene and I had asked Christia to do something and she was like “Tess wouldn’t do that now. She wouldn’t join in now.” And I thought about it and was like, “Hell, you are right.” It is also accepting your limitations as a director and listening in that case. There were other cases where I disagreed but it’s also being open to that input. It’s about it being a discussion. I wanted actors to be able to say “No, I don’t agree with your style.” Of course in the end, I have to pull rank because I have an overall vision for it…
Christia Visser: You are never always going to be right because that character is being seen through so many different people’s eyes and it gets formed through so many different people’s opinions about her. I loved that we could talk about it.
From the interviews that I have seen you do on behalf of the film, I feel as though there are a lot of the same questions being asked and so I just thought maybe it would be best to ask you if there’s anything that you haven’t been asked that you would like to discuss?
Christia Visser: What doesn’t get asked a lot is the kids.
I did hear that discussed on CapeTalk but I did actually want to touch on that because Meg, your daughter plays young Tess in the film.
Meg Rickards: The decision to use my daughter was purely a practical one. I was like “I can’t ask another mom to let me use their daughter in scenes about abuse.” I knew I could keep her safe and that I could make it a good experience for her and that it would be fine. She loved the experience. She was like a little diva.
Christia Visser: “Lead actress coming through!”
Meg Rickards: She loved it and wanted to come back to set the next day. We made it very safe for her and contextualised it in a way that was fine for her. How I directed her was [by] making her feel. If I needed her to her look sad or look pensive I reminded her of a fight she had with a little friend of hers. We just talked about stuff and it wasn’t a bad experience for her in any way. The same way with Tashanay Daniels who plays Josie. It’s just about taking them into an imaginative world. People always ask, “Did she watch the rape scene?” Of course not. We had her off set. It’s a cut away. We filmed things to protect them as much as we can. It’s about creating safe bounds and creating an imaginative way in which they can operate.
Christia Visser: Kids can tap into those areas so quickly. I always feel like as actors we need to become children again.
Meg Rickards: I’d also just like to mention Brendon Daniels‘ role because I really admire Brendon as an actor as well. Whenever Christia and Brendon were on screen together, sparks really flew in a good way. He is also so prepared to experiment. It was really lovely to have him as part of the mix as well. And all of the supporting actors brought a lot to it.
Christia Visser: Everyone was really great.
Meg Rickards: What I loved about Christia is that when we did the rape scene and it was so traumatic and everyone was crowding around you asking, “Are you ok?” And you were apathetic because you immediately said, “Ja I’m ok. How’s Brendon?”
Christia Visser: That was a hectic moment. I went to go find him and he was in exactly the same space I was, a really bad space. And you kind of forget being the “victim,” that this isn’t in his nature at all. Just hearing me scream and cry is a lot for him to deal with. It’s a scary thing because he would never want to hurt anyone. I could see that he was very much in the same space I was but there was no shaking it off. It was just there. But it was nice, I think, because when I got to him we just hugged. It just felt like “great, there is someone who understands.” It was there. It was just kind of nodding and going “We are fine” and moving on.
I’m certain that this film is unlocking incredible dialogues with people who wouldn’t necessarily be having these conversations otherwise. Have you had any interesting conversations with people who have seen the film?
Christia Visser: I have a lot of people who come to me who have no idea what to say or what to think or how to deal with the reality of what they have just seen. For me the most beautiful and heartbreaking thing that happened was after Silwerskerm, two of the SWEAT workers that we had spoken to before hand, they went to see the film and came up to me and the one was crying and said “Thank you for telling my story.” That is the most heartbreaking thing in the world because how can that be somebody’s story? You play the character and you do it and you are there but then you kind of want to forget that that happens, that that really happens until someone says something like that. It’s such a difficult thing to answer because generally when people want to talk to me after the film, I don’t want to. Just seeing it takes me back there and I want to save myself a little bit. I’ll just nod and smile.
Meg Rickards: People have kind of challenged me on whether we went too far or showed too much and it’s something I have thought about a lot. I just felt that if you are going to make this film, it can’t be half-hearted. Maybe it’s a film that people either love or hate but it can’t be insipid or tread safely. It’s been around the morality about showing sexual violence on screen. I’ve been thinking a lot about it and it’s about the situation being so serious that it falls to almost desperate measures. I didn’t feel like it was something you could sanitise.
Christia Visser: There are films made about abuse but it always kind of has a red bow around it. It’s nicely packaged so that nobody gets hurt by it but that is not what abuse is. It’s not a nicely packaged little box. It has to hurt. If it doesn’t then it is not doing its job. You are not getting the message through then.
Meg Rickards: I am really curious to see what the conversations will be when it gets out on general release. So far audiences have been festival audiences which by nature are very cinema literate, quite generous, sometimes hyper-critical but in general they are seeing films in a very cinema etiquette kind of way. I’m curious to see what happens when it comes out on general release.
Christia Visser: It gives me butterflies in my stomach because I don’t know what to expect. Some people are going to love it. Others are going to hate it but what I love about Tess, all the media attention, everything that’s been assumed, the poster, if it’s not your type of film then you are probably not going to watch it in the first place. You are not under an impression that it is going to be sweet.
Meg Rickards: And I don’t want to trick anyone into seeing it. We deliberately didn’t sanitize the trailer. We wanted people to know what they are in for.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Christia Visser: Lee-Ann van Rooi definitely.
Meg Rickards: She is amazing. And Quanita Adams. Who are both in Tess.
Christia Visser: Nicola Hanekom. She taught me. I don’t know where her brain goes, especially when she writes. She writes incredibly well and she always tells these stories with these raw emotions that I feel is absolutely beautiful.
Meg Rickards: Moshidi Motshegwa. She is a producer and actress and produced Noem my Skollie. She’s a lovely person and gave us advice on our crew. She’s also a lovely actress. Janni Younge is doing amazing stuff in puppetry. Shameela Seedat is making an amazing documentary that I can’t wait to see about Thuli Madonsela. Zolani Mahola, she’s amazing. I was listening to her sing on the radio the other day and I was rocking out all on my own.
Meg Rickards’ award-winning film Tess, based on the novel Whiplash by Tracey Farren will be released in South Africa on February 24th. Make sure to check your local cinemas for show times. You can view the trailer by clicking here.
Sarafina Magazine would also like to extend our congratulations to Christia Visser who was recently nominated for SAFTA award for her performance.