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The 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.

Thus 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.

Together, 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.

Shooting 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.

The 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.

During 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.

After 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.

Art 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.

When 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 Marc Schwinges.

"We 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".

"We 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.

Through 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.

"I 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".

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Making the Doccie\

© Underdog Entertainment 2000