'Catching Feelings': Kagiso Lediga on his darkly humorous slice of Jozi life
Kagiso Lediga has shepherded his comic, cosmopolitan hero Max through triumph and tragedy abroad. Now he's home
The John Kani Theatre at the Market Theatre was packed to the rafters last Saturday for the opening screening of the RapidLion film festival.
If you stood at the back, you'd have seen the collective shoulder shakes of a thoroughly amused audience as they watched Kagiso Lediga's nebbish hero Max Matsane, a middle-class, cosmopolitan Joburger caught in a web of self-induced jealousy and insecurity.
His marriage to Sam (Pearl Thusi) comes under threat after the arrival of hedonist superstar writer Heiner (Andrew Buckland) in their lives.
No one was laughing harder than the writer, director and star of the film, Lediga himself. Standing at the back next to the exit, he was enjoying himself immensely at the screening of this love letter to his adopted home.
The film, Catching Feelings, is a dark romantic comedy about the lives of post-apartheid South Africans in the suburbs of Parkview and Melville - something local audiences seldom see on screen.
It's the culmination of a dream for the soon-to-be 40-year-old known to South African audiences from TV shows such as The Pure Monate Show and The Bantu Hour, films Bunny Chow and Wonderboy For President, and of course his hugely successful stand-up shows over the past two decades.
Catching Feelings has screened in Los Angeles and New York, but this audience was the one whose reception of the film Lediga was most nervous about. To make things even tenser, his mother was in the crowd.
Two days after the screening, Lediga is still on a high. "It played like it was a comedy club - big laughs ... I imagined Joburg would be more critical, but it was great."
The cherry on the cake was provided by his mother. "She said it was classy. She's never said that about anything before."
Lediga began work on the script in 2015. Initially he planned to pay R200,000 to produce it, and get four or five other people to pay the same. ''Then we were going to get a Department of Trade and Industry rebate and make this movie and it was going to be low-risk - maybe R3-million," he says.
Then the Industrial Development Corporation got wind of the project. Lediga says: "I don't know if they were under quota or something, but they were like 'hey, let's talk, let's do this movie'. So then it was cool because we were going to be able to make it with at least a little bit more money - still not a lot, but a little more."
In the end the film was made for around R5-million and shot over 24 days in Johannesburg in 2016.
WATCH | The trailer for Catching Feelings
It wasn't all plain sailing, though, in particular when it came to the problem of who to cast as the silver fox who throws Max and Sam's relationship into chaos. Lediga recalls phoning friends and being told that there was no one who could play such a role.
At some stage, he remembered that he had "studied Andrew Buckland's work at university and I wondered whether I'd be able to get him. When I showed people pictures of him they weren't sure. They were like, 'He's a bit of a clown with no sex appeal ... I would definitely not bone this guy'. I showed them another picture and some of the women said they would. In the end there were enough 'I woulds' to convince me to try and get him."
At the time, Buckland (recently retired) was still running the drama department at Rhodes University. He was enthusiastic after reading the script, and it's difficult to imagine a more perfect choice for the character of Heiner.
Similarly, the role of Max's wife Sam was initially a bit of a headache. When Thusi was suggested, Lediga didn't think it would be possible to get her to agree to take it. His first reaction was, "Which Pearl are you talking about?" But he sent her the script anyway. "We didn't hear from her and I thought, 'See? I told you' and I continued with my life."
Thusi eventually auditioned. "She was unbelievable. She had this electricity and it was a great 'get'," he says.
The role of Max's best friend, Joel, was eventually taken by Lediga's friend, filmmaker and actor Akin Omotoso. Lediga initially thought he "wasn't funny enough", but Omotoso persisted. "Now he's the most charming part of the film. He's goofy. I never thought he was capable of that," says Lediga.
After a difficult edit, the film was reduced to a running time of just under two hours. It premiered at the LA Film Festival last year. It was a nerve-racking experience for the director. He thought, "F**k it, it'll be an interesting anthropological exercise - people in Joburg live in houses and so on... and then my business partner [executive producer John Volmink] died."
In the midst of the tragedy, Lediga found himself in Los Angeles, "sitting in this theatre full of mostly white people... All the gags were hitting their targets and people were really into the film. That was a relief."
After that, the film went on to screen in New York and finally, in Cape Town, at the end of last year. Lediga says: ''When [fellow filmmaker] Khalo Matabane gave us a standing ovation I said, 'Great, it passed the Khalo test'."
In between the film's festival screening and its national release this week, Lediga has already directed his second feature, Matwetwe, a long-held idea from his days as a student at the University of Cape Town. It's set in the township of Atteridgeville in Tshwane, where Lediga grew up, and centres on the story of a kid who couldn't afford to go to university but grew weed with some friends.
"They had this killer crop that they were going to sell and make lots of money. Then obviously the local gangster and the cops get involved. Things get too hot and they have to burn the weed, but Atteridgeville is in this valley so they burn it and everybody gets high."
Matwetwe has already screened at the Fantastic Fest in Texas and at the Rotterdam Film Festival in the Netherlands. It was just before travelling to Rotterdam that Lediga learnt of the death of music legend and Bantu Hour collaborator Hugh Masekela.
A few weeks before, Masekela had phoned him. "When you look at your phone and see 'Hugh Masekela', it doesn't matter what you're doing, you have to answer. He sounded a little tired but he still had that Hugh spark. He said, 'I've got this crazy idea I want to tell you, man. I'm coming up with all these crazy ideas. We need to meet, man!'."
Lediga is grateful he "got to experience Hugh... I had front row seats to the Hugh Masekela experience."
If the reaction of the audience at last weekend's screening is anything to go by, Lediga can expect a strong response to his darkly humorous slice of Joburg life. Catching Feelings, he says, "is a very small reflection of a very small part of the country. The rest of the country is quite divided and they're never having these candid discussions about race and society."
And although it's not, in his words, the Do the Right Thing of South African cinema, he feels that it's a step in the right direction. "It's a start, and there'll be another film by another filmmaker which will show more of that," he says. "It'll be great to see more of a realness about how we live and not this fancy, glossy reality all the time."
• 'Catching Feelings' opened is open in cinemas.