When was the first time you read the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, and what was your response to them?
It was in 2000 when I picked up the first book, August of 2000, and fell madly in love with it. I was living in Johannesburg at the time, and it was a summer sort of sunny day, it was actually winter, I should say. But I sat down and I just read it in one seating. At the end of it, I just started crying. It was so life-affirming and so uplifting that I said I really want to make a movie out of this. It was actually love at first sight.
So what was the process like going from reading that book in 2000 to actually filming it here in Botswana?
Oh, it took a long time. I had met Anthony Minghella about a year previous. I was working as a CEO with a film company down in Johannesburg, the first black empowerment film company. The first thing he said to me was that he would shoot something for me in Africa. I was like, well how's Tuesday? You know what I mean? I just wanted him to do that. In retrospect, it was terribly na´ve of me to believe him because he was somebody who was famous and he'd obviously gotten the Oscar« for 'The English Patient' and had done amazing movies. I just believed that he would. And when I found this book I said, "This is what I'd like you to make."
It was so life-affirming and so uplifting that I said I really want to make a movie out of this. It was actually love at first sight.
So how did that happen? Did he have reservations?
No, he was pretty committed from the get-go. We had a big debate as to whether it should be television or whether it should be film. I was adamantly on the film side and he was adamantly on the television side. I think in the end it's just sheer genius that these characters will come into our homes every week and that we can fall in love with what they do. Friends of mine say it's like going to therapy. If you feel like you're just down and not having a good day, you pick up these books about people that are leading good lives and thoughtful lives. That's what Sandy, Alexander McCall Smith, is all about really.
What is it that draws people toward Precious Ramotswe?
Mma Ramotswe is someone who follows her own course, and she's dogged about being who she is. One of the things as women that we need to do is learn how to be comfortable in our own skins, and one of the things we all admire about Mma Ramotswe is that not only is she comfortable in her own skin, but it's pretty big skin too. So she's a role model to me. She doesn't worry about petty things and she's very kind. She's not perfect, but some of the humor comes out because she's not perfect.
How did Jill Scott end up cast in that role?
It's hard when you look at Jill Scott to realize that anybody else could have even been considered for this role. You know, I don't know. The answer is I don't know how we found this heavenly woman. She had been in one movie previously, she had a big following musically, and the very first thing that Anthony ever showed me of hers was her radical feminist poetry. He turns on this DVD of her just angry and pissed off and he said, 'That's our Mma Ramotswe.' He just saw it right away.
Friends of mine say it's like going to therapy. If you feel like you're just down and not having a good day, you pick up these books about people that are leading.
Why was it important for you to film in Botswana?
I felt that if we didn't shoot in Botswana, we would be taking the heart of the project out. We would just be ripping it from its body. Everything about this project is about Botswana, the culture, the music, the people, the spirit, the sky. It is thoroughly Botswana.
And why was the government so supportive?
First off, they have a real opportunity to start a new sector, a new industry that feeds not only employment but the youth, and provides jobs and skill transference and gives opportunities to the country. I think that any government, any good government, is first and foremost having to look for opportunities for their people.
And how did the locals respond to being involved with the production?
The local people have been so spirited and so with us at every move. They call me "Mapula" actually, which means the mother of rain, because I'm the rainmaker. They say in the desert if you look at what happens when it rains, all the flowers come out and everything comes out. I was expecting to have a slightly different kind of nickname but "Mapula" was a real compliment.