Johannesburg born Johnny Breedt always wanted to make movies, but an error at film school, a good deal of awesome talent, and a major luck on the Gauteng film set of an Oscar-

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From the set of No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana
Photo: Andrew Worsdale
nominated film now sees him at the top of his game – he’s one of South Africa’s leading, internationally respected Production Designers. Andrew Worsdale caught up with him on the bustling set of Anthony Minghella’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana.

Alexander McCall Smith’s first novel in his best-selling series begins with the words, “Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency at the foot of Kgale Hill.” There is indeed a Kgale Hill that overlooks Botswana’s capital of Gaborone, but there’s no detective agency, not even a collection of shops. Production designer Johnny Breedt and his team constructed an old-fashioned commercial centre complete from general dealer to detective agency from scratch. 

He created the Meat & ‘Great’ Butchery, Patel’s Comfort Store, Humble Pharmacy, The Last Chance Hair Salon and, of course, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. For the production of the film Breedt and crew built more than ten full stores for the small shopping precinct – the central location for the movie.

He tells me, “Every one of these places or shops or murals exist in one or other or many forms, some might have been sourced from a more rural area and others from right bang there in a mall so we have both the new and the old in one world.”

The location was, he says, either a gift from God or a complete mistake, “I was on a location recce with Anthony and we turned up this dirt road that ended in a cul-de-sac. Then we realised it wasn’t a mistake, that in fact we’d found the perfect place to set our film.” I walk with him through the small parking lot past the fully dressed windows of Moonlight Fashions, “Two months ago you wouldn’t be able to walk here.  It was just veld, you’d find yourself getting snagged by all these ‘haak en steek’ bushes.”

The vacant stretch of bush was leased from its owners, the Roman Catholic Church by Producer Amy Moore and then it took seven weeks for a seventy-member team, half of whom were locals, to construct the mini-village which they plan to keep standing as both a permanent set for other films about Mma Ramotswe and her escapades, and as a fully-fledged tourist attraction.

At first he was asked to build facades for the shop fronts but he decided against it because he wanted the camera to be able to see what’s inside, so the interiors are so dressed they are virtually functional down to the Savlon bottles in the pharmacy.

Minghella’s film is the first in what is hoped will be a series based on Alexander McCall Smith’s novels about Mma Ramotswe the ‘traditionally built’, eminently sensible heroine who uses her inheritance of cattle from her beloved father to set up Botswana’s only female detective agency. Mma Ramotswe is a winning literary creation and a welcome change from the fast-talking, cynical, maverick gumshoe or the kickboxing female secret agent in detective fiction. The character was dubbed the ‘Miss Marple of Botswana’ by The New York Times and critics called the book ‘entrancing’, ‘heart-warming’, ‘inspired’ and ‘pure joy’.

Despite the humour in the material Breedt is not going for a ‘cartoony’ style; the whole feel of the film is realism. “The humour in the film is very, very innocent. Mma Ramotswe solves the cases almost by default,” says Breedt who sourced most of the style throughout the country by taking over 8000 pictures of everyday city and country life.

“When I met Anthony he wasn’t going to direct the film, he somehow couldn’t find a connection with the place. So he asked me to come out here and find it for him.” Breedt spent weeks travelling the country talking to people, taking pictures, and collecting references, tones and textures.  The result was a large box of photographs and sketches and inspirational items he prepared for the director, “It was like an amalgamation of settings culled from as far afield as Serowe in the North to Lobatse south of the capital. It was supposed to describe or hand over, if you like, a feeling, the essence, and the beauty of the ‘real’ Botswana. It was a box which contained the ingredients that made McCall Smith fall in love with this place and write the books in the first place.”

He says the production invested about 5.8 million Rand to set up the 25 locations around the country most of which are in Gaborone and the northern parts of the country. Apart from the main set, some of these locations are bars, villages with huts and other buildings including a hospital, a garage which becomes ‘Speedy Motors’ and the Eros Nightclub which stands in for the ‘Go Go Handsome Men’s Bar’. Breedt says, “All these settings shall be maintained for a number of the film series, that’s why we’ve made the sets able to last between 4 to 5 years.”

Breedt hails from Oberholzer, a suburb of Carletonville, in Gauteng, and he always wanted to make movies. When he arrived to enroll at the Pretoria Technikon on a Rugby Scholarship, the film school turned him away. They said he didn’t have the right qualifications, but they needed his sporting skills so he was told to join up with the theatre design department. He earned a National Diploma in Theatre Crafts and one in Theatre Technology and Design; then during his National Service he managed to persuade the Commandant of his movie production ‘experience’, he was immediately promoted and eventually got a Certificate in Film and Video courtesy of the SADF.

He started his career as a set designer, props maker, make-up artist and set builder at the Breytenbach and State Theatres in Pretoria where he worked for over four years on more than thirty productions from King Afrika to The Boyfriend. In 1994 the ebullient and charismatic Breedt moved into film and television working on the series Hidden City and the Michael Douglas-Val Kilmer feature The Ghost and The Darkness in the props department. It was Katinka Heyns who gave him his big break when he production designed her winsome drama Paljas in 1996. Over the years he worked consistently as Art Director on moves ranging from I Dreamed of Africa starring Kim Basinger to the shoot-em up cowboy series Glory! Glory! where Nash’s farm was turned into a dinkum frontier town.

But it was in late 2003 when Breedt was working on Hotel Rwanda that his big break came. The Oscar-winning Production Designer on the movie, Tony Burrough, had to pull out of the production and Breedt took over the helm of the entire department earning a hefty co-credit on the acclaimed film by Terry George with Don Cheadle. His name was seen far and wide in top movie-making circles.

Next to come was the Wes Craven produced horror flick The Breed about rabid dogs terrorising kids on a deserted holiday island. And then, his biggest credit Production Designer on Philip Noyce’s big-budget South African-set thriller Catch A Fire. Anthony Minghella was an executive producer on that film, and so Johnny was the automatic choice to be in charge of the look in front of the camera for No.1 Ladies Detective Agency.

He’s in his element; Minghella is like an appreciative cinematic guru who is eagerly giving Breedt as much as he needs to be creative with, “Anthony is the best director I’ve ever worked with, he’s incredibly intelligent and professional but at the same time it’s like we’re mates,” Johnny says. Then his cellphone rings, it’s one of his guys busy constructing the Go Go Handsome Men’s Bar. “Sorry, I gotta take this,” Breedt says getting up from his chair. And he’s back to work, with the same expansive energy and positive outlook that he seems to have been born with. No wonder then, that when Botswana’s President Festus Mogae visited the shopping centre at the foot of Kgale Hill, Johnny Breedt was chosen as the man to show him around.