Q and A with the lead actress Deja Bernhardt, who plays Selene in the film.
Q: How did you become involved with the film SMS Sugar Man?
I heard hype about a film that was to be shot completely on cell phones at the Cape Town cinema fest in November 05. Once back in Joburg I was having lunch with a friend and he admitted to me that he had sent my photo to the director, while they had already closed castings…he said they wanted me to audition. I flew around the world to Bali and half way back for the shoot but I thought it was an important film and was thrilled to have the opportunity to be a part of it.
Q: The film deals with sexuality in today’s fractured world. What is your take on the story?
Yes, this is an interesting question because the stories in SMS Sugar Man I think are not soooo abnormal. We live in a very sexual society and this just happens to be a story about a pimp and his crew…the emotion and play of the evening could be any family anywhere in the world. Although there are some super sexy scenes, the real scandal comes through in quite surprising elements. The characters find themselves questioning their morals on the eve of Christmas – go figure – yet they work those wallets and drive those empty South African streets well into the night.
Q: How does the film deal with female perceptions of gender, and specifically, sexual relationships; and power?
SMS Sugar Man was very sexually empowering for these female characters, all unique women. They not only define themselves but each other. Selene for example, defines herself on the hold she has on the world that outwardly could seem very sexual, but really is so articulated in her mind that it is a balance between actual love she has for herself and a deep fear of the world.
Of course there is the internal battle of the sugars for Sugar Man’s attention and then the fight for each other’s affection within the group. Although these are all very interesting and very real in any triangular group of tight people, the really juicy gender, sexual and power struggles are seen in less obvious fashion.
Selene and Grace find something truly unique and beautiful that is just heart-wrenching at times, they are always kind of fooling everyone else too, comical at the expense of the others’ emotions.
There are also instances when you don’t know as much as you think you might, and this happens in real life too doesn’t it…you think you are jealous of this woman but you really wanna…
SMS Sugar Man looks at some real honest situations that we don’t always want to address, “who am I?” for one. We all find ourselves one day waking up in some life that we don’t quite know, having started with people that you may have stumbled across and dragged along the way, some that you despise, then grow to cherish and some just plain stalkers.
Q: The casting of the film was almost part of the improvised approach to the script. How was the casting of this film different to other films? How did you feel about the process?
There was virtually no script to read and no lines to memorize. I was told to sing a lullaby and asked how comfortable I was with my own sexuality in not so many words! I was pre-warned of Kaganof.
For me, I think the casting really carried out through the first week of workshopping, there were no promises and although you may have thought you had the part, if you couldn’t take the process and keep up with the group while each discovered their niche, themselves in the story… you were out before the blink of an eye.
Q: The film worked off an outline, a basic treatment of Kaganof’s and it was work-shopped. Can you explain the process? Did it carry on through the shooting?
It was like morphing. We spent 3 weeks, the first week started with some exercises to see how each girl interacted with each other, what characteristics each brought from her own personality and real life experience. We had only an outline of an idea at this point.
I can’t explain to you how vulnerable we all were, naked completely, or basically asked to kind of strip ourselves from our perceptions of sexuality and whatever our true behavior was. It was also a very beautiful process.
I was able to bring into my character what I thought was important in every female and that was a strong maternal sense in the midst of this hard reality. There were no set rules or set characters still at this point.
Then like nothing I have ever seen there was a moment of truth and it seemed the whole story was created in one tender moment of improvisation. Once we had the basic love relationships, the power struggle, the sexiness of the film down, we started.
The film takes place on Christmas eve so we shot every night, all night. When we got to work the sun was going down and we got our script pages, we had no idea what we were about to read and this is how each day began right up until the end. Although we did have a lot of input in the stories, we even wrote a lot of our own pieces, or improvised, we still had no idea what Kaganof would do with it and where he would take it.
Q: How comfortable did you feel to contribute towards the creative process? Both as a storyteller and actress?
For me this was the most gratifying. I remember sitting many evenings with actress Leigh Graves who plays Grace and writing frantically because we just realized where we wanted to take Selene and Grace. I think we were given a great amount of room to really be part of the film and not just act in it if we chose to do so. This was also terrifying at times because for me I really integrated a lot of Deja into Selene, and it was very honest.
Q: How did you approach the rehearsal process? What was different in this process to your previous roles?
Before Sugar Man, being interested in a completely different side of cinema, I had little experience acting in films so I won’t compare it to that. How do you prepare for life? The opportunity came and it was right, so I went for it.
Q: Your performance as Selene is a tour de force. Selene is a hooker in the film. What is her attitude toward sex?
Thank you. Selene is a hooker and she sells herself. While she is extremely open about her sexuality, she realizes what it is that each wallet is really looking for, who it is that they need and she becomes that woman, that mommy, that siren, that confidante, and that sister.
Sex is merely a formality for her. Yet, it’s a yummy one making it impossible to ever get enough of her. Selene enjoys the wallets as much as they do her, she thrives on that connectedness that is the reason men need women like her.
Q: Selene is in a certain way the love interest, Sugar Man’s ideal woman. How did you reconcile this in your role?
This was in a way how we found the basis for the angle of the story and really just flowed once we realized this during workshopping. The thing is, it was not just Selene and Sugar Man who had control of their characters love relationship, but also the other sugars, so this got to be a lot of fun, and quite catty at times.
Selene and Sugar Man had not only an intimate relationship but also a straight up business relationship, she had to be very strong and brutally icey at times because of this, and at the same speed keep him totally infatuated and in love with her. What a tiresome life she has!
Q: How did you prepare for the role of Selene?
I worked as a dancer to put myself through film school so I didn’t need much research or preparation in acting, yet a hooker is a lot different than what I did. Really I had to just get over myself and my hang-ups about how I think woman are supposed to behave. And not just with men but more so with each other. There were many scenes that hit home with me.
Q: What was it like to work with Kaganof?
He is a mad man. I was like, “shit what have I gotten myself into!”, at times.
And then he takes you just as far as he knows you can go and a little further because he has spent that much time getting to know you and the material. He surprised me everyday. Kaganof really deeply cared for the film and although I just met him on this film, I think he was probably nervous at times wondering if we could actually pull it all off. I know for a fact this man did not sleep a wink in December 2005.
Q: The role is very challenging. How did you feel about the nudity required of you for the role? What is the extent of the nudity in the film?
Oh it was actually quite fun! Ha, I can’t tell you that. You have to watch! I will say the wallet scenes are as articulate as they are sexy and some have little to do with sex actually. You know, something I remember is how Kaganof expresses through the scenes how people just really sometimes need to perform, I mean real-life people. So for example in a few of my wallet scenes Selene would go to great lengths to beautify every inch of herself just to be outdone by some lunatic customer who didn’t want a blow job, but someone to literally preach to, or someone to actually make them up! I love Kaganof’s humour.
Q: This the first feature film to be shot using mobile phone cameras. How did this technology work for you as an actress?
We were being filmed? Oh my!
No really, it was amazing because the cameras were so inconspicuous that there was not the same level of invasiveness you would have in a more traditional film. I felt most of the time that even if the phone was right in my face I was merely looking past it and much more in the moment of the story especially for those very intimate scenes.
There were some shots that we were able to get only because the cameras were very flexible. We are constantly being shot and filmed by cell phone cameras whether we like it or not. And we used that element not only in the script but also when we filmed each other, there were plenty of moments where we could have simply been real people walking through Johannesburg and there just happened to be someone behind us with a cell phone (or one of us filming each other or using the cell). Passers-by would have had little clue that we were shooting an actual feature film.
Other shots were much bigger productions, yet always, always using only the cell phone camera. I remember wishing that the camera was bigger once too, purely out of embarrassment because of the scandalous outfits we did prance around in and the dramatic acting of high class hookers in a busy public place with the onlookers thinking we were real working girls, we didn’t care who knew it!
Q: How did you interact with the cinematographer, Eran Tahor?
Eran was always telling us how excited he was about a new angle he found, or this new gadget he built for a tripod. Since we as actresses were also using the cameras and filming each other we were able to work closely with him as the viewer and the viewed.
This was very valuable because you get to see how movements are reflected through the lens of this particular device, and wonderful little details like skin tone and light come through.
Sometimes I could feel Eran literally 2 inches away from my lips while I was speaking lines and yet he was not even in my view because of the small camera and the angle of the shot. Amazing really!
Q: Why did your character Selene use the camera in her role?
Selene filmed her wallet scenes for Sugar Man, like the sugars do, but she had ulterior motives as well. Selene is a bit of a vanity goddess too so she would have liked filming herself for just about any reason.
Using the cameras, being shot by them, and then acting without realizing that you are using them…like the self reflecting upon itself and then again. Just the idea of each shot is multi-faceted.
Q: You did your own makeup and wardrobe. How do you feel about this and was it successful for you?
I thought it worked well for time scheduling and it gave me more freedom once again to create Selene. Selene had this flower in her hair that she wore some of the evening, which became a bit of a problem to get since all the florists were closed over the holiday shooting schedule.
It was interesting to realize all the details that you take for granted when someone else is deciding makeup, hair and wardrobe for you. I can tell you this me and the other sugars had quite a time whoring ourselves up each night…those damn nails were tricky!
You know as I remember now though, some of the most amazing sweet moments were when the Sugars helped one another apply her lipstick or fix her stocking.
Q: The cast and crew were a small group. About 12 people in all. How did you all work together?
Very carefully. Since it took awhile to get used to the night shoots, some of us turned into very different characters around 5am! (I think I would physically melt physically and emotionally) there were plenty of laughs when we would all look over and see Scorpion (julius moeletsi) sleeping right in the middle of a live shot while sitting up, or our stills photographer snoring in a corner.
I felt really comfortable during the shoot doing scenes that would have been very intimidating for me if we hadn’t had the first week of improvisation with the crew there as well.
By the time of actual live shooting it wasn’t only the quirks in the story that we had pretty much worked out but also the technical problems and how the cast and crew meshed together to get the best possible angles and shots and work in the quickest fashion.
I really learned a lot on Sugar Man not just about acting but by having such a close relationship with the crew and being encouraged to contribute so much creative input. The important thing to remember here too was that we shot this film over the holidays, right thru Christmas morning and literally had our wrap party and New Year’s Eve party on the last day, so we really did find a family in the most unusual circumstances – just as the story goes.
Q: Do you think this will revolutionize the future of film making, and if so, in what way?
Well it has for everyone involved so far. I think that anyone who was on this shoot and anyone who attempts to do something like this again will agree that it opens up possibilities that could never happen with traditional cameras and traditional scripts. We were doing something none of us had ever done before, totally experimental yet carefully orchestrated; it was by no means a simple film. SMS Sugar Man shows us that we have options, new ones everyday, and with little time and a small budget a story can be told.
Q: What would you do differently if you had to re-shoot the film?
Not a thing. How can I complain, I got a great love scene with…. well, you will see. We couldn’t recreate this film just as we did even if we tried.
Q: What hopes do you have for the distribution of the film?
I want everyone to see it and be inspired to take a chance in whatever they are doing especially if it is film making. Film and video have revolutionized how we view each other as much as cell phones have the way we interact with one another, whether good or bad, and so this film is really a beautiful marriage of those ideas.
What would we do without cell phones today is a huge question, and lets face it we are sick of them but we love them, are totally dependent on them.