A mysterious death. A series of supernatural events. An author-cum-paranormal detective determined to uncover the truth. All the ingredients that combine to create the fabulous show Dead Places. When Will Stone (played by Anthony Oseyemi) returns to his hometown, he embarks on a transcendental journey that culminates in a personal discovery that will leave him forever changed. Along the way he teams up with unlikely partners, Joe (Rea Rangaka) and Kelly (Shamilla Miller).
South African film and television is not widely known for its paranormal fare, but Motion Story, the production company behind the series, was keen to play around with the genre. “We’re looking to find our niche and try new things,” says scriptwriter and Motion Stories co-owner Gareth Crocker. Crocker co-directed Dead Places alongside his filming partner Fred Wolmarans.
Crocker is also an author best known for his 2008 international bestseller, Finding Jack. While international film rights to the book have been sold six times, each deal has fallen through. “Filmmakers would have to recreate a war which costs around $200 million,” he says, “the money men always get nervous. It’s been a rollercoaster ride.” Not one to rest on his laurels, Crocker is focusing on making his own film and TV productions alongside his team.
“I’ve always been quite fascinated with horrors and the paranormal and I thought it would be fun to make in a fresh way,” he says, speaking of the inspiration behind Dead Places. “It’s something that you can have a crack at as a low-budget filmmaker. We have to make shows that are realistic and achievable in terms of our budget.”
While there are definitely some spine -chilling scares, Dead Places doesn’t aim to keep viewers awake at night. In fact, you might be surprised by the many laughs along the way. Crocker describes the show as The X-Files in Africa. “It’s almost like a sci-fi adventure romp, where our character travels and meets fantastical creatures and you get that kind of payoff.”
Shot in 50 locations around South Africa including the Cradle of Humankind, Cape Town and Thabazimbi, Dead Places not only showcases the country’s majestic scenery, it also highlights our formidable homegrown talent. Having already held the number one spot in Netflix’s second biggest territory, Brazil, the series is creating buzz beyond our borders.
In addition to being distributed by Netflix in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, the show has been picked up by AMC in the USA, and by France’s Canal+. Through all these deals, Dead Places will be available to most viewers around the world by the end of the year.
“For us, it’s critical that the shows we make can travel,” says Crocker. “At this point in history, the world is quite happy to watch shows from places other than America, the UK and Canada. What’s great is that, for the first time, international markets want to watch stuff from Africa – it’s become our unique selling point.”
That’s why the team leverages the magic of Africa, its ancient civilizations, tribal history and fauna and flora. “For example, we can shoot by a 2000-year-old tree that predates Christianity, something that has huge mystique in a Dead Places kind of world,” says Crocker, adding, a lot of TV series buyers will say this phrase to you: “show the viewers a world they’ve never seen”. “That’s something that resonates with us. Making shows with universal themes and relatable characters underpinned by a distinctly African flavour has proved to be a winning formula”.
It also helps that Motion Story developed and produced Shadow, Netflix’s first original South African series. The show developed somewhat of a cult following, particularly in the USA. “We have a very good relationship with Netflix – they’ve been terrific for us,” says Crocker. “What’s great though, is that because of our business model, we’re not reliant on any particular network. We go out and make a film or a TV series and then we literally just take it to market.”
While Crocker acknowledges that such a strategy is risky, it’s one that works for his team. “It’s a crazy business model in some respects because we can make a show that nobody wants and then we’re sitting with a multi-million Rand debt on our hands. Having said that, it’s liberating and allows us to play in our little space and make the shows we like and are able to make. We just have to trust that we’ll be able to sell them once they’re done.”
While the Motion Story team is grateful to have had more successes than failures so far, they remain refreshingly humble. “We’re all extremely down to earth. We wear shorts and t-shirts on set and we drive beat-up cars,” laughs Crocker. “We live in constant fear of abject failure and losing our houses! I’m very pleased we’ve had a modicum of success but I’m under no illusions, we’re far from having made it. Success and failure seem to go together but we’re still in business and most people seem to enjoy the shows that we make so we’re carrying on.”
We’re thrilled to be along for the ride.
Watch Dead Places on Netflix now, or watch the official trailer below.