Catharine’s Sense of Direction

Kopano Lekhoathi

Catharine Cooke, a multi South African Film and Television Award (SAFTA) winning and International Emmy Award nominated film and television director, has over the last few years learned many lessons about South Africa’s film and television industry. She shared some of her experiences in an interview on Kreative Konnect (@kreativekonnect_blog), where she mentioned that she is “blessed” and very grateful to be a constantly working director.

Cooke was born and bred in Johannesburg and her biggest dream was to pursue a career in the performing arts, specifically in acting. She followed her dreams and studied towards a Drama degree at Wits University. Having worked as an actress for a few years, Cooke then realised that she might have a passion for directing. She said, “I thought I was going to be an actress most of my life, but I started chatting to friends of mine about directing”.  Cooke believes that taking on a big responsibility such as directing is no child’s play and “one can never call oneself a director if you’ve only worked on one project.” She worked as an Assistant Director for about six to seven years and says that; “Being an Assistant Director really put me into a position to learn about what everyone else did on set.”

Pertaining to creatives who wish to be break out into the industry and the training often required for the job, Cooke believes that “many people have misconceptions about the film and tv industry and that you don’t need any training”. She added, “training in necessary in any field, but it doesn’t have to be formal training from AFDA or Wits,” Cooke says, “The key to training is that you have to be on a set. Get yourself onto a set and work your way up. Don’t think that you’re going to become a director, producer, or an actor overnight.” She mentioned that she herself never stops learning  and that she is always reading books on new and exciting methods to approach her work as a director.

Cooke says, “If I can offer some advice to aspiring actors, I’d say that they should watch good television and great movies”. She added; “The best way to start your career as an actor is the theatre. Get yourself into a local theatre and start there.” Pertaining to casting, Cooke says that the most important basics for any actor walking into the audition room is to; “know your words, be professional and have something to offer the executives in the room”. The final decision in who gets cast for a particular role Cooke describes it s a series of consultation with the Casting Director, the Producers and the Director involved. After much deliberation, a common decision is made based off who can best bring the story to life and after that, the destined actor gets cast in the said role. One thing however Catharine is adamant in not doing is to work with social media influencers with a huge following on Instagram or Twitter. She says, “Please don’t bring me a popular Instagram actor, I will not work with you. Just because you’ve got a million followers on Instagram, I promise you, it doesn’t make you a good actor or actress.”

Before Cooke takes on a job to direct either a film or series, there are a few determining factors to that. She says, “I want to work for good writers, if the story is treated well then I’m all for it. I want to work with fantastic actors and people I can respect, and I want to work with people who are collaborative and helpful. Lastly, I want to work with a great production house.”.

Directing a film and a series or telenovela are two completely different worlds. On a film, there is often one Director who works alongside their Assistant Directors, but on a series or telenovela, there is a team of directors. Cooke explains this by making examples of her work on previous and current productions like The Girl from St. Agnes, The River and Legacy. She says, “On The Girl from St. Agnes, I was made Lead Director and traditionally when you’re the Lead Director, you start, and you end the show. You bookmark the show to give it the same feeling.” In that same process, all the Directors and the Director of Photography (D.O.P) must meet and discuss the feel of the show and the vision they have for it. It is then the responsibility of the D.O.P to keep that vision consistent throughout the entire series. On a telenovela, it works similarly, however, a Creative Director is appointed, and they suggest the other Directors who can come aboard the show as part of the Directing Team. Then all the Executive Producers, Creative Producers and the Directors of the show meet together, and they do “blocking” as to who will direct which episodes. How Cooke prepares herself to direct a production is by reading the scripts over and over again. Then what she does is she “breaks the script down per scene and then identifies what is required of that scene”. She adds on saying, “I then talk to the writers, the art director and the D.O.P on the treatment of the production”.

Directors often have the power to change some of the lines that the actors have to express in a particular scene and Cooke says that the best way for a Director to do that without undermining or disrespecting the position of the script writer is to consult with the writer’s way ahead of time to see if it is possible. Cooke says, “Usually the writer says it’s okay but sometimes scripts are written in a particular manner because it ties to something else later on as the show develops.” 

Related to representation both on screen and behind the camera, Cooke says that she dreams of seeing more black female Directors been given the chance to show their talents and for the screen, she says that it is time that South Africa gets to a point where we can tell stories that can have an impact, stories that are not overdone, new and fresh stories.

Cooke is currently working on an eight-part series, Reyka that will be release on the 1st of July 2021 on M-net, DSTV channel 101. It stars Kim Engelbrecht in the lead and Iain Glen who played Sir Jorah Mormont on Game of Thrones as part of the cast. Reyka follows the life of a flawed but brilliant criminal profiler, Reyka Gama (Kim Engelbrecht). Haunted by her past, she investigates a string of brutal murders committed by a serial killer in the sugar cane fields of Kwa-Zulu-Natal. Having been abducted as a child by a farmer named Speelman (Iain Glen), Reyka is traumatised by the experience but this also helps her enter the minds of Africa’s most notorious criminals and turn them inside out.

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