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While filming the opening prison riot sequence, Four Corners director of photography, Vicci Turpin, took her camera into the maelstrom, seated in a wheelchair.
She smoothly wheeled her way through the fighting inmates, capturing images of close-quarter fighting, “and I came out covered in spit”, she laughs, mockingly wiping her face as if still in on set.
Director Ian Gabriel’s recollection of that particular scene is from a totally different perspective. He remembers how disciplined the extras were, how quickly they set up exactly what everyone would do, and how smoothly it actually went, considering most of them were not professional actors or stunt men.
Turpin and Gabriel go back several years, and they often collaborate on advertising shoots. She has always been fascinated by cameras and he by stories.
For several years, every time they worked together he’d be fiddling on the Four Corners script and they were always talking about how to create the look of the Cape Flats.
Once they started location scouting they knew they had to keep the look as natural as possible.
“A real reflection of a largely unknown world,” is how Gabriel describes the film.
“At least, it was unknown to me,” Turpin reinforces the idea.
Hofmeyr Scholtz’s script was originally a police story, and the only thing that survived was his writing style, which Gabriel liked. They worked on something new, originally written in Afrikaans, which they translated into English and then the actors translated the dialogue into how they would do it.
“We had quite a few spontaneous actors on set and they changed it,” Gabriel says diplomatically.
The Sabela (prison gang slang) used in the film is not what the real 28s (gang) sound like, but he didn’t want to make a prison film.
“This is about the community,” said Gabriel.
(Still, the fascination lingers, as he is working on a possible TV series that will reflect the beginnings of the Numbers prison gang).
One of the challenges of working on Four Corners was when they’d find the perfect house or block of flats, then the space would be too small to bring in a camera crew: “They’re supposed to be four-bedroomed houses, but you can’t even get a camera in the room,” said Turpin.
Hence many of the shots are framed by doors or windows, through glass, as the camera person is actually outside the room.
“We kept everything so you could feel every texture,” said Turpin.
“Ian’s thing is he believes that if your visuals look bad, people won’t pay attention to all the other details, so we made some very careful choices,” said Turpin.
She is a great believer in using natural light, and he is a great believer in her process, so film work was curtailed to very specific times.
The actual film shoot lasted five weeks, but they’d only get between four and five minutes of usable footage a day, shooting at first and last light, pre-lighting interior shots, using hand-held cameras and the occasional mono-pod.
When it came to colours, the entire film could be described as a study in turquoise and sunsets, except the prison scenes with the unrelenting grey concrete and orange jumpsuits.
The prison scene itself was shot in a warehouse, dressed appropriately, with ex-prisoners sourced from a rehab centre.
“It was one of the easiest groups of extras to develop – they just did their thing,” Gabriel said.
A stunt co-ordinator coached everyone to make sure no one would get hurt in the riot scene, but for the scenes inside the cells, the guys did what came naturally.