A Conversation with Bonnie Rodini

Bonnie Rodini is a casting director, writer, director and producer working in the film and television industry. Best known for her feature film, The Story of an African Farm, Bonnie began her career as a ballet dancer before moving into the world of acting and eventually the world of filmmaking. 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

I think me. When I was five years old, I came home from grade one and I said, “Mom, there’s ballet at school.” And she said, “Ok Bonnie.” And I said, “But I want to do ballet and I want to do it tomorrow,” and I burst into tears. I think it just came from me. I was desperate to do ballet. 

I know that you trained as a ballet dancer and worked professionally for a few years. What was that experience like?

It was amazing. It was a dream of mine. You have goals and in the beginning it’s to pass the next grade or go as far as you can. Then, when I had finished all the Royal Academy ballet exams, the next thing was to dance professionally for a company. I think it was a major milestone in my life actually getting into the company and it was incredibly fulfilling but I also realised that a ballerina’s shelf-life is very very short and I just didn’t want to wake up one day at 28 and realise that my career was over. I got out quite quickly. 

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Bonnie. Photo Credit: Sophie Kirsch
That is a very hard conversation to have with yourself. It’s a very pivotal moment that a lot of people in the arts tend to push that conversation away. 

It’s very hard. I remember one of my colleagues in the ballet company saying, “What am I qualified to do when I leave? I can go make jam.” I’ll never forget that. It was difficult because this was my dream and then after 2 years to give up your dream is very quick. I went to see Professor Triegaardt, who is now head of the ballet company and I said, “I am thinking about going to study in New York,” and she said “Go and resign now.” So I did. And I bought my air ticket to New York.

Why New York?

That is another interesting story. I had actually booked a ticket to go to Europe. An older dancer, his name is David Krugel and he is still a dancer to this day, he said to me, “Why Europe? You belong in America.” In that moment, I knew he was right. I called a travel agent and changed my air ticket. It was David Krugel’s fault. When I moved to New York I looked up an old director I had done a commercial with. He was Ashley Lazarus, he did all the big screen cigarette ads in the olden days and even made the film e’Lollipop. When I was 9 years old, I did the Nik Naks commercial with him and in one of the breaks he said to me, “One day I am going to make a movie with you.” So of course he should never have said that. I looked him up when I was in New York and went to see him and Ashley said to me “There are amazing acting schools here.” He gave me a list of acting schools and one was HB Studios.

What was your time as an actor like?

It was a very difficult time. I was very homesick when I was in New York. I knew no one. It was also a major transformation from using your body to express yourself to now having to use my voice. Finding my voice was very difficult. I didn’t have much motivation behind my words. Being away from home was difficult but those three years have made me who I am today. Everything I learned during that time was a foundation for who I am and what I do today. My acting teacher said it would take 2o years to study or to become an actress, which was a bit of a bummer because I thought it would take two weeks. I realised how difficult it was to be an actress in New York so I decided to create a role for myself and that’s how The Story of an African Farm came about. I wanted to play the grownup Lyndall role. I wrote the film and then in the process of raising funds decided that I wouldn’t act in it. 

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Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch
Before we touch on that project, I wanted to ask you about how you feel your ballet and acting training has lent itself to your career now?

I think what the ballet training has left with me now is the discipline. As a ballerina you have a huge amount of discipline and almost multitask. I remember when I got thrown in the deep-end of working on a movie called A Kiss Before Dying, and I was only supposed to be the director’s assistant. My job was to get him hot tea but the script supervisor was ill one night and the next day they said to me, “You are the script supervisor.” I didn’t even know what a script supervisor was and it turns out to be one of the most pressurised jobs on the set. I know, to this day, the reason that I coped that day, is because of the training that I got in the ballet company. When you first get into the ballet company, you need to know how to cover everybody’s roles. The ability to adjust, the ability to work under pressure, that is what the ballet has helped me with, interestingly enough. Acting training has given a deep understanding of actors and how to help an actor move from one point to another. It’s given me that confidence to work with actors. I also write scripts so it helps me write dialogue. 

You write, you direct, you teach workshops, you are a casting director, just to name a few things. Do you have a favourite aspect or order of preference?

I am not sure I do because when I am doing that one particular thing, I absolutely love what I am doing in that particular time. I think the reason for that is let’s just say all I did was casting, and I just did casting in and out, day to day, every week, month on, year on, I would probably hate it. I think it’s the variety. It’s creative. When I am doing a casting job, I love it. When I am doing a teaching job, I love it. If I taught the whole time I would probably end up getting stale and not enjoying it. Writing, I must say when I sit down and write, I love it. I absolutely love it, but writing doesn’t pay the bills. I love directing actors. I think there is no order of preference. I think the key to it is that I don’t do one thing all the time. 

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Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch
I wanted to ask you about what you find to be the biggest misconception about casting directors?

If I were to put myself in an actor’s shoes, I would say that the misconception would be that casting directors have power because they don’t. They don’t. The power is in some crazy executive producer sitting in an office in LA who knows nothing about the project or the actors or the roles. What do actors think about casting directors? I would imagine they think they have power but they don’t.

I am very interested in all the courses that you run, not just acting courses but also writing, directing and producing workshops. Why the decision to start teaching?

I think the decision to start teaching came out of a necessity to earn an income and earn a living. I think it’s so important to be able to teach something you have done first hand and you really understand. If I am teaching acting, I have studied it for three years, I have done these exercises hundreds of times. I know what it is like to be in the shoes of an actor. I know the pitfalls I had and the difficulties I had. When it comes to script writing, I have never studied script writing but I have done it and I’ve done it the hard way. I taught myself how to write. I’ve written one film that has been produced and I’ve written a second now that is actually going to a very famous producer. I know the mechanics and the bolts and the how to’s and the step-by-step-by-step. It came out of necessity to earn a living and I think in the arts you will be a much happier person the quicker you learn how to diversify and not just do one thing. The one thing that steered me away from acting was I couldn’t stand the fact that I had no control over my career. I was always waiting for someone else to hire me. That is one of the reasons I stopped acting. 

What can people expect to get out of one of your courses?

They can expect to learn how not to act and possibly how to listen…because we don’t know. 

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Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch
I’ll jump back to The Story of an African Farm. What was your biggest challenge?

Raising the money. It took 15 years. It is just relentless and horrible. It is a moving puzzle. The puzzle is moving and you have to get the things to fit just at the right time and if you miss it by a second, you can slip and you’ve missed to opportunity. I closed the finance a few times and then we had major disasters. The one was Trevor Manuel in his finance speech mentioned ring-fencing and overnight I lost R3 Million of my investment and the film was off until we had clarification from Minister Manuel. I said to the group of investors, “What do we do? Do we speak to Minister Manuel?” I put messages out, “Does anyone know him?” And no one did. I was like, “Somehow I’ve got to speak to this man.” The industry had been lobbying to get an answer about ring-fencing and no one could get an answer and I swear to goodness, the next night I was at an opening of a film and there was Minister Manuel. I walked up to him and said, “My name is Bonnie Rodini, I’ve been trying to raise money for a film for 13 years. You mentioned Ring Fencing in your budget speech and I lost R3 Million overnight. Please can you give me clarification?” He called over his assistant and said, “This is my assistant Patti.” And asked me to contact him on Monday and I did. A few days later Patti called back and said, “We just wanted to let you know that Minister Manuel contacted the head of SARS legal department. They are looking into it and you will have your answer in two weeks’ time.” Two weeks later the phone rang, “The film industry is exempt from ring-fencing. You may go ahead with your film.” And then we were back on track again. Then another shock down the line was two investors were clashing heads with the recoupment structure and all funding dried up overnight. I had Richard E. Grant sitting at a script reading meeting and I was thinking, “How am I going to pay him at the end of this week? Smile and wave.” But then we got that back on track. The finance is just awful, unrelenting, revolting. 

Funding problems tend to come up in almost every interview. 

That being said, the DTI incentive wasn’t in place yet and it was only the beginning of government involvement but I missed out on the DTI rebate. Raising funds for movies now is much much easier than it was, let’s say 10 years ago. It is entirely possible now, especially local, small budget films. You can actually pull it off. You can actually raise the finance. 

I am sure with that film, because there were so many moving parts, it must have been quite hectic and chaotic, but did you have a moment of enjoyment where you stopped and saw what was happening and thought, “Wow, I did this.”

Do you want the truth?

Sure.

No. I think the project was so stressful for me that I never had that moment and I still get a sinking feeling when I think about it. It was too much. I did too much on it. I produced it pretty much on my own and I had to make sure the film was sold. It was too much for one person. No. 

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Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch
Now you have another film in development, are there things that you are going to do differently now that you have had that experience?

Yes, I am not going to produce it. It’s been a very difficult decision but I wrote it so that I could direct it. That was my passion, to direct it. No one is going to fund a first time film director, although Ster Kinekor did say that they would only distribute the film if I directed it. They saw something in me but the thing is that I then still needed to raise the money, so I am back to square one, I am back to producing. And I just can’t do that again. It has taken a long time to come to terms with the fact that I am going to sell the script and be ok with selling it.

Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about the film?

I would say that it’s not a traditional romantic comedy. It’s a drama, comedy, feel-good, quirky, it’s got quite a lot of touches of European filmmaking. International distributors have described it as a modern day Shirley Valentine. It is a lovely project. I’ve been working on it for 10 years. When I was going down a more slapstick-comedy route I did about 12 drafts and then I did a major switch and changed the genre and then on that genre alone, I’ve done about 14 drafts. I’ve just finished a new one now and it’s amazing how you can get down into the layers. I think it’s really gotten to a really lovely place now. 

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

The first person that jumped into my mind was the actress Erica Wessels. Erica is just such a delightful person inside and out and her depth as an actress… Whenever I see her, I just feel warmth in my heart and I smile because I just love her work and who she is as a person. Also Caroline Calburn. I just love what she is doing for the arts. She is just so committed and passionate. What she is doing is just amazing. 


For more information on Bonnie and the courses she runs, click here.

Special thanks to Bonnie Rodini, Hannah Baker and Sophie Kirsch.

All photos were taken by Sophie Kirsch on 8th February 2017.

Sarafina Magazine and Sophie Kirsch maintain copyrights over all images. For usage and inquires please contact us.

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