We interview the head writer and director of The Africa Channel’s new show ‘Room 9’, set in a post apocalyptic world in which an oddball paranormal and occult unit in the New Azanian Police Department wages a war against supernatural forces and a host of other scary African legends
The second episode of groundbreaking South African TV sci-fi series Room 9 is currently being screened on The Africa Channel on Monday nights. It’s set in the post apocalyptic future known as the New Azania after a cataclysmic event reduced this world into a wasteland.
An oddball paranormal and occult unit in the New Azanian Police Department (NAPD) wages a war against supernatural forces such as the tokoloshe, Zulu vampires, mermaids and a host of other scary African legends.
Young, sexy and driven Alice Kunene played by upcoming actress Zethu Dhlomo is recruited to join seasoned demon slayer Gabriel Harkness embodied by veteran actor David Butler. Alice is unaware what her job entails. Her brutal awakening catapults her into hair raising battles with poltergeists, zombies, aliens, demons and other myths. Her indoctrination into the NAPD is completed by blind researcher Ruby Prins (Angela Ludek), who’s endowed with foresight powers; and Nigerian expert on paranormal matters, voodoo guru Solomon Onyegu, portrayed by Anthony Oseyemi of Holby City and The Bill fame.
Room 9 was created by Darrell Roodt, famous for big screen offerings such as Sarafina and Cry the Beloved Country; he’s currently working on the biopic of Winnie Mandela. His talent is complemented by head writer and director Athos Kyriakides who haswritten for TV series such as Scandal currently on The Africa Channel; he also worked on a range of acclaimed international films, including Being John Malkovich, Topsy Turvy, The Idiots and The Apostle. We spoke to Kyriakides to get the lowdown on Room 9.
Where did the inspiration for Room 9 come from?
Darrell Roodt (director and writer) and two of his colleagues Michael Swan and Ivan Milburrow were inspired by this detective from apartheid days: there used to be this department in the police service that dealt with the occult and supernatural cases like the X-Files division in the US. We started developing characters around the notion that it’s the new South Africa which we called New Azania. It was eight years into the future; it was 2020. That world was almost post apocalyptic: a big cataclysmic event happened in 2013 which changed the country for ever. You get to find out what happened eight years ago during the course of the season because it goes backwards. That is the world we set it in.
How did you get involved in this project?
I previously worked with the production company Dv8 Films on another TV show before we did Room 9 as head writer and director. It was called Mshika-shika which was on M-NETs’ Mzansi Magic. It’s a crime drama in the vein of HBO’s The Wire, but obviously in a South African context. And so I had worked with them on that show and on a number of other productions. They asked me if I wanted to get involved. I immediately jumped at it because I love science fiction as a genre. And it was a challenge to try and make it work in South Africa.
How did your previous writing experience prepare you?
I’ve been working as a writer for the last 13 years. I started out as a script editor and then moved onto writing weekly drama like Tsha Tsha on SABC1. I ended up writing the soapie drama Scandal on E-TV. I wrote more than 150 episodes of Scandal over three and a half years. It grooms you to become a better writer because you’re delivering an episode a week. You’re story-lining and its 24/7. You have to keep audiences entertained and its daily drama. That was the best training I could have had to be a better writer. A lot of the best writing experience you can get is working on soaps because of that relentlessness. Watching big television shows over the last ten years inspired me as a writer as well. Television is becoming a platform that’s regarded the same as film nowadays. A lot of TV shows are now better than films. And you get to spend more time with these characters. All of that contributed to help me get a bird’s eye view of the series from episode one to thirteen, and how the characters grow and change over those episodes.
What challenges did you face in making the show?
We didn’t have a huge budget for what we were trying to do. We didn’t have a visual effects budget. If you look at it, it’s probably a thousandth of the budget that a normal HBO American TV show would get. What was exciting was finding creative ways around our budgetary limitations which ended up making the episodes better. Each director was finding innovative ways to get around those budget problems. Credit to all the writers and directors because it doesn’t end up feeling like a low budget television production. The production values are very high.
What kind of research did you conduct to understand the occult or paranormal?
We did quite a lot of field research. We met the head of this old apartheid occult unit who still practises. The police often call him in when there are cases without a physical explanation, or anything that is occult related. He was talking about some muti cases he’s dealing with now all over the country, and just taking us through some of those old case files. We drew a lot from that. We also did a lot of research on African and South African legends like the tokoloshe or Zulu vampire. We try to take on thirteen African legends over the course of the first season. Once we did our research, we really tried to have fun with how we could scare audiences and get them to love the characters.
Did you visit any sangomas?
Some of our researchers went out and spoke to sangomas to try and create a character that was very real. There’s a recurring sangoma character, Dr Dhladhla, in the show. We ended up bringing in a very controversial pastor who has his own church following and his own show on Soweto TV. His name is Pastor Mboro. He expressed an interest to be on the show as himself. We used his following to get more people to watch the show and for him to showcase his acting abilities. He makes his debut in the series in episode eight. He elicited a strong reaction from a lot of people in South Africa. He is that kind of person that either you love or hate or think he is a complete charlatan. It was an interesting challenge to bring in a real character to play a heightened version of himself when he is so heightened as a real person already.
Weren’t you afraid of been accused of reinforcing stereotypes about African traditional healers, witchcraft and these types of legends?
We were wary of reinforcing stereotypes. We wanted to take a basic archetype of who these people are, but fully develop them so they are rounded, three dimensional characters. We tried not to profile these characters in negative ways but develop them as real human beings.
Why did you feel it was important to deal with African legends such as the tokoloshe?
These legends are spoken about quite often in daily newspapers here but no one has ever tried to turn it into real drama. But we also wanted to embrace the genre which it comes from which is horror and science fiction. Who knows if you will get a chance again to explore the notion of a tokoloshe or werewolf.
The first episode opened with a tokoloshe narrative but it wasn’t resolved at the end. Is this a recurring thing in the series?
The first four or five episodes leave you with that open ending. Was it a real tokoloshe or wasn’t it? Was it a real mermaid or not? Is it a real vampire or isn’t it? We wanted to leave it open ended in the beginning because it mirrors our lead character Alice Kunene’s journey. She comes in as a non believer in all these things. And a lot of people in the audience don’t believe in these kinds of things too. She is their eyes and ears in the beginning. The more she is confronted with this supernatural world that doesn’t have a scientific explanation, she starts to believe that these things exist. By the end, she’s a 50/50 believer. The way the show evolves over thirteen episodes is that there are a lot of those open ended mysteries where you’re not really sure; and we don’t end up dealing with them down the line. But when there are other bigger supernatural forces that they are up against, that kind of world starts to crystallise for them. They are living in a world where these things actually exist and are not just some myths that people have passed on from generation to generation.
Why was the series set in this fictional place called New Azania?
Darrell and Jeremy the producer made that decision. They didn’t want to set it in the real world and political landscape and step on people’s toes. If you end up setting it in the future, it could be anywhere; and it’s a different generation. It gave us the freedom to approach this world without fear. You can just do whatever you want because even though it feels like the real world, it’s eight years from now and anything can happen between now and then.
How did you set out developing characters like Gabriel Harkness, Alice Kunene, Ruby Prins and Solomon Onyegu?
We were very particular about their arcs before we worked out the actual mysteries that you get every episode. Harkness doesn’t really change. He’s always been a believer. His wife is in ICU and hasn’t snapped out of her coma, we are not sure what really happened; but we unpack it over the course of the season.
Alice comes in as a non believer. There is a back story that explains why she thinks the way she does, why she is so scientific and practical. Harkness is the opposite; he has all these crazy stories about unexplainable things he has seen in his life. They are on opposite sides of the spectrum like Mulder and Scully in the X Files. There is the believer and the non believer. Their arcs criss cross over the course of the season. We also developed the supporting characters like Harkness’ daughter. In episode two, she escapes from rehab and now Harkness, who has never been a father to her, has to figure out how to be that father now. Alice’s husband Monde starts the series as a banker. He doesn’t really believe the things his wife is doing but goes along with it. But their relationship starts to unravel over the course of the season.
Do we know more about Solomon because he’s an articulate and interesting character?
I’m glad you mentioned him. He is a very strong character. A key episode for his character is episode five which is directly related to his back story. That whole episode is about him. By the end of it, you have a sense of who this guy is and some of the secrets he is hiding from everyone else. He really comes alive over the course of thirteen episodes. We really go into detail about his Yoruba upbringing. It’s interesting to find out how he got to the New Azania from Nigeria.
How was Room 9 received in South Africa?
It had a pretty huge impact. Every episode that was screened was trending days after. People were talking about it. Radio DJs were talking about it just because it was so different to everything else South Africa had put out there before. We ended up averaging three million viewers a week.
Why do you think South Africa needs to imitate shows like The Walking Dead, Dr Who, X Files, etc. instead of creating original content?
The Americans know those genres so well because they produce so many shows in those genres. I don’t think we really try to imitate any American show. We try to emulate what they are doing. I’m a great admirer of some great sci-fi shows. I love Lost. I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer and British shows like Misfits which inspired me. But in the end, when you look at Room 9, when you watch all the episodes and the way they unravel, it’s different to anything. You can’t even compare them to American shows. It is its own thing. I think it’s important that we’re not just trying to imitate but to create our own original content as South Africans.
How do you think the UK audience will receive Room 9?
I can only hope people will get into it. The UK is renowned for loving those genres. There is really an appetite for a South African science fiction show. I’m optimistic that The Africa Channel’s audience will love it and hopefully want a second season.
Can we expect a second series?
We’re hoping for a bigger budget to have more fun with in the second season. The way we designed it is that there is a double cliff hanger at the end of episode thirteen. There are so many questions at the end of it; you want to see what happens next. Nothing is confirmed yet but we are optimistic that we will end up doing a second season.
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