It’s an exceptionally beautiful, clear-skied day in Johannesburg when I sit down in a grand suite at the Houghton Hotel to talk with Kasigo Lediga and Tebogo Malope, co-directors of the Netflix series everyone is buzzing about. I’m particularly excited about this meeting because it’ll probably be my only opportunity to peek behind the curtain on the Queen Sono project and draw directly from the source.
You can tell instantly that Kasigo is the man with the vision. He walks in and immediately claims the room but with a calm, soft-spoken demeanour. After warming the conversation up with a few laughs, we get straight into everything there is to know about this soon-to-be-released Original series.
Where did the idea for Queen Sono come from?
I had made a film called Catching Feelings and that was picked up by Netflix; that’s where I got to work with Pearl Thusi [for the first time]. Myself and my producing partner, Tamsin Anderson, were already thinking about what to do next and we had had a good time working with Pearl on the film. One day, she came to visit and showed us a video of herself fighting in a movie called Scorpion King.
She wanted to do Tomb Raider kind of stuff but I’m very much into the spy genre and I thought a truly African female hero would be amazing, so we started working on that.
What we wanted to do with Queen Sono was to have a balance – to create something that is authentically South African and African, but for the worldKasigo Lediga
How did the collaboration with Netflix come about?
We got a call from a personal contact who had started working with Netflix. When Netflix came to town [South Africa], she told them: You need to meet these cool filmmakers and told them about the show – and the rest, I guess, is history. That was 18 months ago.
Queen Sono is going to show in about 190 different countries around the world, but do you think there’s going to be any difference between the South African audience’s reaction to it and other parts of the world?
I feel like they’re a lot of elements of the show that are embedded in South African culture, so audiences here are always going to understand those things better, but the great thing is whether you’re watching it in Kampala or New York city, you’re not going to be having such a different experience. For example, if it was a Nigerian story, there would be many things embedded in the language that the local viewer would immediately pick up on.
What we wanted to do with Queen Sono was to have a balance – to create something that is authentically South African and African, but for the world.
When I walk into the room where Tebogo is, I can tell within 5 seconds that we’re going to hit it off. He could easily be your hilarious neighbour, favourite co-worker or best friend. In a light, open and honest atmosphere, we dig into the Queen Sono project.
Do you feel the weight of responsibility on you as the co-director of the first Netflix African Original Series?
I think the first pressure you feel is when you get a call from Netflix! But, in all seriousness, it’s good pressure because you know you have to put in the work. Once we realised it was going to be the first Netflix African Original Series, the pressure then doubled because not only is it going to be aired in 190 countries, but how do we make Africans everywhere proud of it? I want them to watch it and go, Damn! We did that! You want people to see excellence on the screen and be proud. I think if Africans own it, that would be a win.
So, the pressure was definitely there but the challenge was not to allow it to freeze us up or make us buckle, but to use it to propel us forward and to create excellent work.
Are there any members of the cast and crew that surprised you during production?
You know who surprised me? Stand-up comedian, Loyiso Madinga. He came in and we challenged him, challenged his acting, and he showed up! I was pleasantly surprised that he had the range, depth and intelligence to execute such a complex character – and you’ll see it when you watch the show. He’s not necessarily a trained actor but what he brought to the screen was absolutely incredible.
In terms of other actors, I’d say Pearl and Vuyo Dabula’s characters because they appear to be the most complex. I think they’re the most layered and I think their stories have the highest highs and the lowest lows, so it was fun working with these actors because of the dynamism of their characters.
What have been the key highlights for you, working on this project?
I have a couple of highlights, one of them being all the special effects, fight sequences and stunts in Queen Sono because they’re things I haven’t done a lot of. To do it, at this level, was a highlight for me and I learnt a lot.
Everything around the show was also a big highlight. What I really love and respect about Netflix is that they took the Hollywood system and how things are done at that level and brought it here. For a lot of us filmmakers, for instance, it’s the first time we’ll attend press junkets. For someone like me, who’s worked a long time in this industry and had a fair amount of success, to never have experienced this level of cinema and professionalism… I have Netflix to thank. I’ve found renewed passion for what I do.
Working with Kasigo Lediga was also a highlight. I grew up as a little kid in Soweto watching him on primetime TV, thinking: That dude is amazing! So today, many years later, to be working alongside him as co-director on the first Netflix African Original is so humbling. He went from being someone I admired from afar to being an older brother.
I want hardworking African creatives to receive backing to make real impact, without losing our authenticity and our stories – which I think Netflix has done wonderfullyTebogo Malope
What kinds of opportunities do you want to see more African creatives like yourself have in your lifetime?
The thing about us, as African creatives, is we’ve got the stories, we’ve got the heart and we’ve got the natural flair. I’ve been exposed to a lot of creatives around the world and I believe Africans are born storytellers. So, it almost feels like for the next 100 – 200 years of storytelling, Africa needs to the Mecca because the storytellers are here – and I’m talking from Cape to Cairo, from Nairobi to Accra.
The only challenge is most of them don’t get the proper academic background, so what we need to see more of is the infrastructure to support those storytellers. It feels like a chicken-and-egg situation because the people that can help build infrastructure and raise capital to back creatives are waiting for the industry to be profitable first, while creatives need this support for that to happen in the first place.
I hope a show like Queen Sono being released will help show people that there’s a lot to invest and tap into on the continent. I want this project to be the catalyst for many more; I want hardworking creatives to receive backing to make a real impact, without losing our authenticity and our stories – which I think Netflix has done wonderfully.