idea of producing a documentary on the life of Granny Lee came about
when Director Luiz DeBarros was working on the development of an
unrelated project and came across the story of Granny Lee. The more
research he undertook on Lee the more he realised that her incredible
story would make for a fascinating documentary.
towards the middle of 1999, together with Producer Marc Schwinges,
Underdog Entertainment officially took on development of the project
and began to present it to a number of potential partners and broadcasters,
including the SABC. After some initial interest internationally
the SABC undertook to commission Metamorphosis: The Remarkable Journey
of Granny Lee in March 2000. The only condition would be that it
must be on air by July of the same year. The race was on.
Almost immediately Luiz embarked on further in-depth research and
was soon joined by researcher David Stein. The first step was to
track down an audio interview of Granny Lee recorded by photographer
Herb Klein shortly before her death. After securing the assistance
of Klein, who also offered the filmmakers his vast catalogue of
photographs of Granny Lee, Luiz and David finally heard the voice
of Lee. "I felt shivers down my spine when I finally heard Lee's
voice on that tape. It very much made Lee a real person for me"
says Luiz. The interview, in which Lee recounted her life story,
was a valuable source of information for the project.
Luiz and David travelled to Kimberley and Durban and scoured the
Johannesburg gay club scene for leads and contacts. It soon became
apparent that Lee had fabricated much of her own myth and identity.
"I was very interested in the idea of the character undergoing a
change of identity, gender and even race. The project became very
much about this notion of created identity. How Lee created her
own legend", explains Luiz.
began in May in Johannesburg and moved on to Kimberley and then
Durban, finally continuing in Johannesburg. "We found two very disparate
attitudes between the people in Kimberley and Johannesburg: In Johannesburg,
especially in the Gay community that was a great sense of wanting
to celebrate Lee. In Kimberley however, a conservative small town,
we found it very difficult to find friends who were willing to talk
about Lee on camera. There was sense of suspicion towards us and
a feeling that it was inappropriate to talk about issues such as
homosexuality and drag," says producer Marc Schwinges.
project was shot on two completely digital formats helmed by talented
young Director of photography Robert Malpage. One camera was a high-end
broadcast format while the other mini-DV camera allowed for grittier
and more atmospheric hand-held shots.
the shoots there was sense of Lee overseeing the whole affair. "We
started getting paranoid that the ghost of Granny Lee was making
her presence felt," laughs Robert. Equipment would mysteriously
fail and then without explanation begin working again, records and
documents often disappeared and one of Granny Lee's bracelets inexplicably
turned up on the floor of a friend's house during an interview.
the interviews had been shot with friends and family of Lee around
the country, the crew hunkered down for the gruelling recreations.
Ruth Barter was chosen to play the role of Lee, because of her resemblance
to Lee as well as her dedication and enthusiasm. "We would pitch
up at a club like Therapy or Stardust with Ruth in costume as Lee
and just see what would happen" laughs Luiz, "Ruth was really into
it. She threw herself into the crowds and they loved her. Many commented
that she made for a very believable Granny Lee", he adds.
Director Anton Noortman, who knew Lee himself, offered to take on
the task of overseeing both wardrobe and makeup. "With a very limited
budget, we had to depend on the kindness of strangers" he laughs.
Nevertheless Anton was able to cobble together an impressive range
of authentic looking costumes, hats and feather boas in which to
clothe Ruth Barter.
the production period came to an exhausting end, editing took place
under the manic hand of hot, young, off-line editor Karen Bosch
at Visual Assault together with director Luiz DeBarros. "It was
a very extreme three weeks of late nights and take-aways to get
it finished on time and produce a truly creative edit" explains
made use of the interview's and recreations we had shot, together
with archive material including hundreds of photographs, video footage,
newspaper clippings and the audio tape of Lee's interview. We also
were able to use Lee's final farewell message which was played at
her wake causing much confusion at the time," says Luiz. A voiceover
script was written by Luiz based on Lee's own words from the audio
interview, which would allow Lee to, in a sense, narrate her own
story. "I stayed very close to the words she used, just adding small
bits here and there to make it flow better," explains Luiz, "I think
she would approve".
then had to find someone who could sound like Granny Lee. That was
no mean feat," says producer Marc Schwinges. Lee had a very distinctive
voice, which with assistance from Herb Klein a close friend of Lee's
was recreated by radio engineer John Novik (who helped record Lee's
original audio interview). "John did an amazing job - his performance
is indistinguishable from the real thing," gushes Marc.
the passion of the filmmakers and much sacrifice by cast and crew
the project was finally completed in time for its initial airing
date of July 30th 2000. Underdog Entertainment anticipates submitting
Metamorphosis to the global festival circuit to promote the project
internationally. "We believe it's a uniquely South African story,
but from a fresh and outrageous perspective which we hope will surprise
audiences around the word. Initial international interest has already
been high - before the film was even seen," explains Marc.
think we've been true to the spirit of what Granny Lee was about,"
says Director Luiz DeBarros. "It's not just a story of an outrageous
or sordid character - it's about someone having the guts to be who
they want to be and breaking all the rules in the process. It's
about a truly unique and brave life. That's something to be celebrated".