Zoo City

A recent press release issued by Metal Moon’s Dezi Rorich announced that a top South African producer had won the coveted film rights in an international bid fest to the multiple award winning and bestselling novel Zoo City by South African author Lauren Beukes.

It was revealed that Helena Spring, widely regarded as one of South Africa’s most accomplished motion picture producer, had just been awarded the highly sought after film rights to the sci-fi cyberpunk thriller penned by Beukes - who garnered the 2011 Arthur C Clarke award for best science fiction novel. In the wake of whopping sales figures, multiple awards and critical acclaim Beukes’ book generated fierce interest from numerous bidders in the entertainment industry, putting Spring alongside major US and UK producers eager to tell Beukes’ unique tale.

Zoo City was published first in South Africa by Jacana Media and, thereafter internationally by Angry Robot. The urban fantasy is set in a futuristic, gritty and hard-core Johannesburg where the eponymous ghetto has been colonised by society’s outcasts – like criminals, drug-dealers and psychopaths, and their animal companions.

Like the other residents of the Zoo City slum, "Zinzi", the anti-heroine, is "animalled", but she is also a shrewd, street-smart girl with the gift (or burden) of finding lost things. Zinzi wears her power animal, a sloth, on her back. When she is hired to find a missing teenybopper star, she hopes that it will be her ticket out of Hell’s waiting room.

The Gauteng Film Commission (GFC), in an exclusive interview with Spring, asked her about her reaction to this film rights award and her vision for the final product:

GFC: We believe there were numerous bidders for the film rights - was this in fact the case and are you able to name any?

Spring: There was certainly a lot of international interest and (I’m told) a competitive South African bid.

GFC: Did you know Beukes before the film rights became available and if so a bit of history perhaps?

Spring: I made a point of meeting Beukes as soon as I read the book which had an enormous impact on me. There was something so unique and stylish about it that I wanted to connect with the author directly. Beukes is a very innovative lateral thinker with a fabulous work ethic to boot.

GFC: Is it common for the author to also do the screenwriting, or is this a more specialised role?

Spring: Screenwriting is usually considered to be genre requiring a different skillset to that of a novelist (and vice versa). However, Beukes has become a full time novelist only recently. She spent years before that writing for animation and cartoons and has also ventured into comics, so she already has a very strong visual sensibility. That’s clearly evident even in the novel too. I was delighted that she was open to writing the screenplay. Given that she is already so solidly grounded in visual story telling it’s simply a question of her immersing in screenplay technique rather than a completely new departure.

GFC: Any thoughts yet on who could take the lead role of Zinzi?

Spring: None yet – my dream would be to find a local actor strong enough and engaging enough to carry the film.

GFC: Who would you consider would be the ideal director for Zoo City?

Spring: Well, there are many fabulous directors to consider and many different factors will contribute to the final choice but as a complete "if you could get anyone you wanted fantasy", Christopher Nolan, of course.

GFC: When could pre-production commence as well as start of principal photography?

Spring: Too early in development to make a call on that at this stage but we will work hard to make it happen sooner rather than later.

GFC: Assume you would use Johannesburg as the location?

Spring: Absolutely, Johannesburg and its combination of grit, glamour and pace, is part of the story’s DNA. It is also my home ground so I’m looking forward to making a really special film using the city.

GFC: Would you produce it through your company?

Spring: I will produce it under my own banner but am certainly looking for a strong international partner to collaborate with.

GFC: Please mention the last three movies you have worked on.

Spring: I’ve just finished Mad Buddies - the new Schuster, in partnership with Disney. Before that Jozi My Hunters Heart, The First Grader and Outrageous.