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Diane de Beer
It’s not often that a scriptwriter is so warmly and welcomingly brought on board with her first feature film as was Shirley Johnston who wrote Felix, which releases today.
They tagged the popular line that describes the movie as “Billy Elliott with African jazz”. The script won the 2004 Sithengi’s Writers Forum award.
It was also a finalist in the US Spec Scriptacular Competition; and a quarterfinalist in both Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest and the Moondance Screenwriting Competition.
Still, the process was such a long one that Johnston had given up hope. Her praise for the tenacity of producer/director Roberta Durrant kept mounting as the process seemed to drag on and on. “She wasn’t going to give up,” says Johnston who was new in the game and enjoyed watching a pro at work.
And when it finally all came together after fox terrier-like doggedness by Durrant, she first invited Johnston to direct the movie. But Johnston felt she wanted someone with more experience to take the job.
She had done directing and scriptwriting for television, but this was a different ball game. Yet she still received a bonus – what surprised Johnston most was how she was welcomed to participate in the process. And when it’s your first script and film experience, that’s a treat. We all know that’s not how the real world works.
But for Johnston, it’s exactly how it worked. She joined the crew as dialogue coach and was invited to literally sit right behind the director and to give input. “It was like shadowing her,” she says. And she knows that this learning school was inspirational and a privileged peek into this world. “It was fantastic but hard, hard,” she says.
Apart from Janet Suzman who was a treat, Johnston was also thrilled by the two leads, the mother and son in the story about a young boy finding his own way in the world. “Linda’s performance just made me cry,” Johnston says of Linda Sokhulu who she knew through her work on Isidingo and Generations. “But she was always cast in such glamorous roles, I didn’t think she could pull this one off,” she says speaking of the look rather than the performance.
And the youngster who played the title role, Hlayani Junior Mabasa, even taught himself how to play the saxophone. “I can’t be objective about the movie,” she says. After the long years of waiting for it all to come together, when watching the first screening, she sat down and cried. “It’s very surreal to see your story come to life.”
As an actress at Pact in her early days, she wrote her first play Plastics which was performed to acclaim and won the Sacpac Best Playwright prize.
With children growing up, she found it uncomfortable to spend too much time away from home. That’s when the writing really kicked in. She has written for local TV series of the likes of Isidingo, Backstage and Montana among others.
Today she is scriptwriting mostly for television and has done a short film Clean Hands that received an M-Net New Directions Award. With all her writing accolades, it makes sense that Felix was the one Durrant picked as the first feature film script she has chosen to direct. It seems everything Johnston has penned catches somebody’s attention.
She’s also acted in films like Cry, the Beloved Country and Heel Against the Head and has won two FNB/Vita Best Actress Awards. Her most recent foray on to the stage was in the searing Death of a Colonialist. “I’m holding thumbs they have a rerun,” she says. In the meantime she’s written a gritty TV series that will be screened on e.tv in the not too distant future.
“It’s wonderful to have all this,” says the actress/writer and perhaps future film director.