Documentary and short-film director Anthony Fabian found the subject for his feature film debut on breakfast radio. 'Skin', the story of Sandra Laing, the white girl born black due to a genetic abnormality, has had a nine-year journey to the screen from that morning. Andrew Worsdale spoke to the director about the film's development, the Gauteng shoot and the challenges of distributing an independent movie today.

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From Top to Bottom: Fabian and Sam Neill on set, Fabian Directing Sophie Okonedo, Sophie Okonedo on set, Skin poster
One morning in July of 2000, documentary and short-film director Anthony Fabian was listening to BBC Radio over breakfast when he first heard the story of Sandra Laing - a black child born to white parents, unaware of their black ancestry, living in apartheid South Africa. It left Fabian stunned, and he knew that he'd found the subject matter for his feature-film debut. "As a director seeking a strong subject for my first feature film, I recognised its socio-political and philosophical significance, its mythic qualities, and its emotional power."

The BBC's blind broadcaster Peter White had gone to Johannesburg to interview Laing as part of his series, No Triumph, No Tragedy, exploring the particular forms of prejudice experienced by the disabled. "No one in their right mind would consider being black a disability," White reported, "Not until, as in South Africa during apartheid, the whole apparatus of the state was employed to exclude and disempower, in the same way that disability is often said to do."

Fabian tells me on the phone from Cambridge that he knew very little about apartheid and South Africa at the time. "It was the human drama that got to me, not South Africa. I only realised how far-reaching the story was when I started the research, when it became a daunting, epic task. How to deal with such a complex story and history from an outsider's perspective? It was the through-line of the drama, the family story, the need to be accepted and loved. What compelled me was the dynamic between this child and her parents - the complex web of acceptance, rejection and reconciliation woven by each character."

With Invictus, District 9 and Disgrace upping South Africa's cinemantic ante, Fabian told Interview magazine that he wasn't jumping on a bandwagon. "I just happened to come across this story, which I found incredibly compelling," going on to say that despite plenty of movies made about anti-apartheid activists from Cry Freedom to Catch A Fire - "no one had tackled the impact of that struggle on ordinary people."

What's more this was not an instant film: it took seven years to develop and another two to raise the finance. In the beginning, Fabian realised he needed the 'life rights' to Sandra's story - from Sandra herself. He says he "got on a plane to South Africa with the sole purpose of meeting her and persuading her that I was the right person for the job; I think she responded to my sincerity."

Because the story of Sandra Laing is so fascinating, Fabian was lucky to have an actress who commits so much that at times it seems that she (Sandra) has the movie on her shoulders. He says, "the commitment, the passion, the emotion that she was able to give from very, very deep within her, was really an extraordinary thing."

He sees the film as an intimate family drama, set against a vast canvas: the last 30 years of apartheid and white minority rule in South Africa. "Swimming against the fashionable tide for biopics, my approach was to tell the story in an (almost) linear fashion and to be transparent as a filmmaker. The story itself is very complicated, full of information that is not known to most audiences - to do with genetics, apartheid, the race classification system, and Afrikaans culture. I thought it was important not to impose myself visibly as a director, but to make the story the star, and try to do it justice, adopting a classic, fluid style; I didn't want the audience to be aware of fancy camera moves, but rather, to concentrate on the characters."

"Despite our budgetary restrictions, my aspirations were admittedly more David Lean/Dr Zhivago than Oren Peli/Paranormal Activity... There were some big set-pieces and lots of sets and locations (over 60), a big art department (10 000 costumes) lots of speaking parts (77) and very few shooting days (45) but somehow, I think we managed to give the film a sense of scale and an authentic period feel."

With a limited budget, Fabian and producers Genevieve Hofmeyr of Moonlighting and Margaret Matheson of Bard Entertainments had to find a central location, a base camp from which to shoot this mini-epic. "The secret is that when you have a constrained budget," he tells me, "relocating kills time and costs money."

They scored big time when production designer Billy Keam took Fabian to Remhoogte, northeast of Johannesburg and 15 minutes from Hartebeespoort Dam, on the first day of location scouting. "The hairs went up on the back of my neck: it looked exactly like the original Laing farm, 300kms away in Mpumalanga, but this location was infinitely more practical." It would become known by the crew as the 'Laing compound'.

"We lucked out with that location completely as it did match the vegetation, topography and remoteness of the original trading post where the Laing's lived. Also there was no-one residing there, so it became pretty much our studio/backlot to do with as we needed," says Keam, adding: "Shooting on a tight budget has become pretty much a standard in the old SA film industry - below the line anyway."

The location also offered distinctively different exteriors. "I was very aware that the landscape was a complete character in the story and conscious of how the camera saw the topography. All you had to do was turn the camera and there was a different backdrop. So one set of mountains was Piet Retief and the other more mountainous range became Swaziland."

At the time of shooting, in winter 2007, the new rebate scheme wasn't in place yet and their budget was too low to qualify. "We basically fell between the stools on that one," says Fabian, but he has nothing but praise for local film talent. "Moonlighting are just the best, they never say no. And the South African crew just keep working and don't moan. We only went overtime twice, but the crew were fully behind the film, completely enthused, not like British crews who just seem instinctively to moan! What's more South Africa is a stunning place to shoot."

Fabian won't disclose the film's cost but I believe it was a six-figure Pound Sterling budget. "The film was entirely developed out of the UK, although Spier Films put a small amount of money into development which we used when making the pilot. The finance came from a number of different sources - presales to seven countries, private equity, gap, IDC equity (10%) and NFVF equity (2%). Perhaps the reason we did not get more support out of South Africa is that despite the fact that it's a South African story, shot there with an overwhelmingly SA cast and crew, there was a foreign director at the helm. But I believe the film is being (and should be) embraced as a South African film."

His belief is borne out by Simon Barber in Business Day who wrote, "there are no transcendent heroes, just people - confused, afraid, wanting to love and be loved, caught in the web of a great evil and trying to make a go of things by their own best lights. I cannot recall a film that captures so well the textures of SA, South Africans and life under apartheid."

But there's been a battle to find distribution on the picture. After its Toronto Premiere in 2008, Screen International's Mike Goodridge praised the film saying: "Stories set in South Africa have proved an audience turn-off in recent years from Catch A Fire to Red Dust, Country Of My Skull and Goodbye Bafana. Perhaps these sputtered out under the weight of their own moral indignation, but, in telling a small story of a family torn apart, Skin might prove more successful with specialised distributors and capture a contemporary audience which can relate more readily to the mother-daughter separation it portrays."

"US distribution was completely unforthcoming," says Fabian. "We had the misfortune to premiere in Toronto in the year when all the specialty divisions of the studios were closing down, so despite being a finalist for the audience prize - beating out 295 other movies - no one picked us up."

He would find other problems when trying to show the film in the UK. "I was told by a respectable distributor in Britain that it would not distribute a film with a black cast," he said. "That appears to be the attitude in the industry. These films are perceived not to make money."

Eventually the film was picked up for release by the ICA (the Institute of Contemporary Art) for the UK but they didn't have a marketing budget to speak of. "So, because we didn't have any trailers in cinemas, or posters on the underground, or posters on the sides of buses," the director took the matter into his own hands and sent out his very own team of 'guerilla marketers' across London to advertise the movie while Helene Muddiman, composer of the film's haunting score, visited Waterloo Station wearing a sandwich board.

This November Skin opened in the US on limited release through a deal with New York-based Jour De Fete, an offspring of art-house mover-and-shaker Strand Releasing. It had the 6th highest per-screen average in the country and was among the top 25 box office earners on its first weekend.

And it's still playing, when I spoke to Fabian last week he told me that Muddiman was at the Beverly Center in LA with a drum circle promoting their film.

After being a darling of the festival circuit, picking up more than a dozen audience and jury prizes, Fabian was asked about his proudest achievement with the film and he said: "Screening Skin for the South African Parliament - who immediately requested a second screening, so that all their members could revisit their recent history."

After a three-way bidding war that involved Ster-Kinekor and Videovision, The National Film and Video Foundation are releasing Skin on 22 January 2010 through UIP, the first film to be distributed by the NFVF in what promises to be an exciting new initiative. More on that in the New Year

For a fascinating account of how Fabian developed the script with various collaborators, how he sold the book rights first, which resulted in the biography When She Was White by Judith Stone and of his relationship with Laing, go to his article 'Truth in Fiction' at London's free literary mag Litro at www.litro.co.uk/?p=1176.

Suffice to say that by 2006, after several drafts, Fabian was concerned about authenticity and wanted to work on the material in a fresh way. He persuaded the UK Film Council to fund a three-week series of script development workshops in Johannesburg, using actors to improvise scenes based on a draft of the script so he could test every scene and create new material. They auditioned over 90 actors and chose 15, most of who got parts in the final movie.

As for the lead, casting was going to be a challenge. He told moviebuff website Sound on Sight: "We tried for a long time to cast two big name actors to play the parents, with a view to making a South African discovery in the lead role of Sandra. But we soon found no A-lister was willing to play second lead to an unknown actor, in a low-budget independent film set in South Africa, by a first time director." (www.soundonsight.org)

The filmmakers scored an ace when Sophie Okonedo accepted the role as she'd just been nominated for an Academy Award for Hotel Rwanda, "which gave her some currency and really helped us get some financing. There are only three or four black actresses that can bring investor money to a film. It is so unfortunate, but that is the way it is."

Okonedo delivers an astonishing performance, and is nominated for a British Independent Film Award on 6 December 2009. "She understood this role from the inside out because she was born to a Nigerian father and British mother. So, she could relate to Sandra's story from a deep personal level," Fabian says.