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It took four years and several storyline treatments before the SABC3 took the bait for High Rollers, a drama series set in the high stakes world of gambling. Debashine Thangevelo caught up with producer Luke Rous to find out how tenacity won the day
REMEMBER the hit US TV series Las Vegas and its allure? Well, that is pretty much what High Rollers offers. But, make no mistake about it, this home-grown series was not born of the Las Vegas blueprint.
Producer Luke Rous explains: “It has taken quite a while to get to this point. The trajectory was about four-and-a-half years. We first pitched it as a telenovela. But the SABC ran out of money and the production went into hibernation for a while.
“The idea for a casino backdrop came from my wife, Carine. And Josh and myself started developing it. It has been through a few treatments.”.
Thanks to Rous and his brother Josh’s relationship with the SABC and some of its high-level executives – more so with their award-winning series Ga Re Dumele, Gauteng Maboneng and City Ses’la under Rous House Productions – bringing the series back to life was not difficult.
To date, there hasn’t been a home-grown series that has exploited the gambling theme on such a grandiose level.
Rous comments: “Look, the reason why we haven’t had something like this is that it is so ambitious and large-scale. So the pressure was on for us to deliver a high-quality product that’s in keeping with the SABC3 brand. We wanted to feel like we were doing them justice. Getting into the casino (Emperors Palace) was a major struggle. It was a nine-month negotiation process – like delivering a baby. Our partnership with Emperors Palace is something we are very proud of. We were able to film scenes on the casino floor and various other areas and it lends this weight to the production value.
“Obviously, we didn’t shoot the entire series there; 75 percent was done in studio and 25 percent on location. The challenge, for the studio shoot, was to try and replicate the opulence of Emperors Palace. We left that to Marlene Ming, Esme Viviers and Sean Pretorius – our art department. We knew we had to create something that would be a large-scale set. At the same time, we wanted to have the same colour palette, but have our unique branding of King’s Casino to tie in the King family.”
Aside from bagging Brümilda van Rensburg, Justin Strydom and Anthony Coleman as the King clan, there are several other big-name additions.
Rolanda Marais has been cast as Analine King (David’s wife and mother of his three children); Vilje Maritz as Ben, David and Analine’s eldest son; Fezile Mpela as Thato “TT” Mogale, David’s right-hand man; Xolile Tshabala as Thato’s wife, Gugu; Carine Rous as pit boss Esme Cilliers; and Carmel Fisher as showgirl Michelle Jephta.
Shedding light on the casting process, Rous says: “We needed a combination of new and established actors. I think we have a great combination of that. Especially Brümilda, who brings a wonderful weight and is a consummate performer. The show is in English and Afrikaans and she brings quite a bit of the latter. It comes off so naturally as well.
“I’m excited to see what South Africa has to say about her. She manipulates and loves her sons. But, as the matriarch, she sees what is best for the family, which may not be so good for the individual.
“The youngest talent, Vilje, has just come off Binneland. This shows a different side of his acting ability.
“We have Anthony and viewers haven’t seen him as malevolent. And Rolanda, I’ve seen her bitchy, but to see her so fragile and gentle, it is something completely different.”
Chatting about the writing talent behind the series, he says: “Henriëtta (Gryffenberg) came in from the very beginning. She had a wonderful sense of story and a larger-than-life sense of family. I’m very proud of her involvement. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to stay on and we got Rohan Dickson, the previous head writer from The Wild.”
As for his wife’s romantic scenes in the series, he laughs: “I’m lucky I don’t have to direct that. I’m pro- duction. But I’m grateful we have her. She plays a 30-year-old pit boss and through the course of the series gets involved with a younger charac- ter. It has been tricky for us, as husband and wife. However, I am proud of the work she does.”
Ultimately, Rous says, in exploring the lives of the upper echelon, the average Joe and the staff, they will find an intrigued audience.
He concludes: “It is difficult to compare with international shows that have a far higher budget. But we had the passion and drive and the twists and turns are what I’m most looking forward to.”
The stakes are clearly as high for them as they are for the characters in High Rollers, but the payoff is worth the risk. And they are banking on that.