Glasshouse – A Dystopian Fairytale Challenging Female-Driven Stories

The Pearson Conservatory captured South African writer-producer Emma Lungiswa de Wet’s imagination as a child – a Victorian glasshouse marooned in the vibrant newly democratic country where she grew up. A colonial relic at once fragile and persistent, it is the perfect setting for a story about memory. Conjured from childhood recollections, the space shaped and inspired the discourse on ancestral memory at the heart of the dystopian fairytale Glasshouse.

The seed of that story found its home in a collaboration with renowned South African producer Greig Buckle of Local Motion Pictures and writer-director Kelsey Egan of Crave Pictures. Glasshouse is the first film in a slate of three grounded sci-fi features developed with Showmax in 2020.

Sensual and savage, this post-pandemic love triangle is the feature film directorial debut of Kelsey Egan, who co-wrote the script with associate producer Emma Lungiswa de Wet, written specifically for the haunting location that had inspired it years before.

Read an interview with screenwriter Emma Lungiswa de Wet

Jessica Alexander’ in Glasshouse.

Glasshouse is set after airborne dementia known as The Shred has left humanity roaming like lost and dangerous animals, unable to remember who they are. Confined to their airtight glasshouse, a family does what they must to survive – until the sisters are seduced by a stranger who upsets the family’s rituals, unearthing a past they have tried to bury.

Brent Vermeulen in Glasshouse.

A memory-shredding neurochemical permeates the atmosphere like airborne dementia. Safe within an airtight glasshouse, a family preserves their past through rituals of collective memory. Mother teaches her children to protect their sanctuary at all costs. They hand-pollinate plants and shoot intruders on sight. The litany of their recited history centers around the long-awaited return of Luca, the prodigal son. Free-spirited Bee misses her twin passionately. To escape the memory of his loss, she deliberately exposes herself to the toxin. Gabe looms as a tragic warning against this path: he played too long outside, and now he is forever a child. Haunted by guilt, Evie obsessively archives keepsakes in her memory box to protect herself from her deepest fear: oblivion. The youngest, Daisy, lives solely in the present – a savage innocent. When Bee breaks the family’s first rule and lets a Stranger into their sanctuary, it upsets the family’s rituals, unearthing truths they have tried to keep buried. Is he really their lost brother? Or are they players in a story he is rewriting to his own ends?

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Director’s Treatment – writer-director Kelsey Egan

So much of who we are – our perception of the world and how we engage within it – is informed by our experiences. The past shapes us, and our memories colour the present. Relationships gain meaning and significance from a shared history. We are who we are because of what we’ve done and who we’ve been with. Sometimes, things happen that change us… Glasshouse explores two opposing coping mechanisms to trauma: holding tightly to the past as a form of preservation, and willful forgetting.

Glasshouse is a dystopian fairytale, and in creating an alternative reality, it was important that the look and sound of the film were distinct and unplaceable. We didn’t want audiences to be able to tell where the film was shot, or even know with certainty the nationalities of our cast. Our production designer Kerry von Lillienfeld did an exceptional job of realizing the vision for this world. He transformed the Pearson Conservatory (a Victorian greenhouse imported from England and erected in Gqeberha in 1882!) on a shoestring budget. He also worked closely with our talented costume designer, Catherine McIntosh, to gracefully fuse elements from multiple time periods to evoke a sense of the past meeting the future.

Hilton Pelser in Glasshouse.

From lensing choices to shooting style, I wanted to try and mirror the inner world of our characters as tangibly as we could. Cinematographer Justus de Jager and I were thrilled to be able to shoot on Cooke Anamorphics (thank you Panavision!) as the shallow depth of field, wider field-of-view captures a softer world, suggesting a reality that is less concrete. We also used black nets over the lenses to give the footage an almost dreamlike quality: a visual metaphor for a world in which nothing is precisely as it seems. The horizontal distortion on the edge of the frame implies the distortion in our characters’ minds. We chose shift-and-tilt lenses for our flashback scenes to represent the unreliability of memory in the film. I wanted these memories to feel like a fish struggling to break free, slipping and jerking in our characters’ minds – hold tight, or lose them.

Handheld work was reserved for the more emotionally fraught moments. As relationships – and memories – are unleashed over the course of the film, our camera work becomes more frenetic.  Justus had no small task lighting the glasshouse: it was essentially like shooting outside but with the added highlight of having reflections everywhere the moment we lost light. He accomplished an amazing amount with very little. A shout out to AFDA’s campus in Gqeberha — a few of their senior students joined our crew and the extra hands were invaluable.

We set out to make a grounded sci-fi film with a global reach on a South African budget, and it’s been a surreal and wild ride. I’ve been working towards the goal of directing features since I made my first short back in 2008, so to end up directing my first feature in 2020 of all years feels like some form of dramatic irony.

Many people gave all of themselves to make this film happen, and I’m very grateful to them. Producer Greig Buckle, my writing partner and associate producer Emma Lungiswa de Wet, the commissioners at Showmax who gave us the opportunity to develop this slate, and our wonderful cast and crew who all hunkered down in a steamy Victorian greenhouse to make this movie with me – this is the team who made Glasshouse, and I’m so very proud to be able to share it with you.

Glasshouse exists in a dystopia unrooted by time and place; its themes of family and forgetting are provocative and universally relatable. But its world is infused with a unique sci-fi lens tinted by its place of origin. I am because we are: the South African philosophy of Ubuntu holds that identity is collective and that ancestral memory shapes the present.  As thought-provoking as it is entertaining, we believe that Glasshouse is a timely film, meeting a societal and market need for challenging female-driven stories.

Writer-director Kelsey Egan during the filming of Glasshouse. Courtesy of David Dettman Photography

Writer-director Kelsey Egan

Kelsey Egan graduated from Vassar College in 2005 with General Honours and Bachelor of Arts degrees in both Neuroscience & Behaviour and Drama. Her directing thesis received the Molly Thacher Kazan Memorial Prize for distinction in the theatre arts. She subsequently gained experience on various indie productions and commercial features filming in New York.

After ADing a few shoots, she was hired as Assistant to the Producer for Declan Baldwin, whose producing credits include Manchester by the Sea, Captain Fantastic, Adventureland and Still Alice. In late-2006, she travelled to Beijing where she spent four months prepping a Chinese-US co-production.

In May 2007, Kelsey moved to South Africa. After four years working on numerous film sets in Johannesburg, she set up her production company in Cape Town. When not developing original content via Crave Pictures, she can be found on set directing commercials, music videos, PSAs and narrative work of her own. Kelsey has also had the opportunity to broaden her scope as a director by working across multiple departments.

In addition to writing and directing, she has worked professionally as a stunt performer, AD, producer, VFX producer and actress. Her credits include Warrior, Raised by Wolves, Bloodshot, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, The Dark Tower, The Crown, Eye in the Sky, The Giver, Zulu, Mad Max: Fury Road, Strike Back and District 9.

Kelsey’s directorial debut – a 26 minute S16mm narrative entitled Gargoyle – was nominated for a 2010 South African Film & Television Award for Best Short Film, and selected for screening at 16 international film festivals, including the Rhode Island International Film Festival and Palm Springs International ShortFest. The film received worldwide distribution from IndieFlix and Shorts International. She has just completed her first feature, Glasshouse, a dystopian fairytale commissioned by Showmax as part of a three-picture genre slate for her to co-write and direct.

Kelsey founded the Cape Town chapter of Film Fatales and is a member of the Writers’ Guild of South Africa and SWIFT. She has written on numerous South African TV series for both local and international broadcasters and one of her feature screenplays was awarded ‘Best Spec Script’ at the 2013 Muse Awards. Other writing credits include the six-part TV adaptation of Deon Meyer’s bestselling thriller, Trackers, for Africa’s MultiChoice, German pubcaster ZDF and HBO’s Cinemax. Kelsey is represented by Circle of Confusion and CAA.

Screenwriter Emma Lungiswa de Wet

Emma Lungiswa de Wet received her MA in Scriptwriting with distinction from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. After graduation, she gained experience developing original dramedy content with leading UK production company Lime Pictures.

On returning to South Africa, Emma became a founding member of The Pack, a writers cooperative that develops and pitches material, working on projects such as  SABC 2’s Keeping Score and Sony and Ebony Life’s Dahomey Warriors.


Emma co-created and is currently associate producing a slate of three grounded sci-fi films commissioned by Showmax. Glasshouse, co-written with Kelsey Egan, is a gothic drama set in a future where memory cannot be trusted. It has recently completed production, with the next two features on the slate now in pre-production. 

While working as a screenwriting lecturer at AFDA and a mentor at Sediba Spark, Emma also won awards for her work in theatre and radio (a Standard Bank Ovation Award and the MTN Radio Award for Best Radio Drama).

In addition to live action work, Emma has also worked extensively in animation. While on staff at  Sunrise Productions, Emma worked on the Aardman-distributed Munki and Trunk as well as The Explorers and Team Jay, which have accrued over 100 million views on Youtube. She is currently producing an original edutainment show Om Nom Nom with a National Film and Video Foundation grant.

Producer Greig Buckle

Greig Buckle is a director of Local Motion Pictures and the owner and C.E.O. of Enigma Pictures. Since the start of his career in the entertainment industry more than thirty-three years ago, Greig has earned recognition as one of South Africa’s most results-driven producers in the delivery of both international and domestic productions.

Through working on South Africa’s first-ever daily soap, Egoli, Greig acquired a solid foundation that set him up for his future as one of the country’s most skilled film executives in project management.

Greig recently completed feature films Glasshouse, Dust, An Elephant’s Journey and Serpent in the capacity as a producer.

His other producing credits include the Afrikaans feature film, Die Ontwaking. 

In a freelance capacity, Greig line produced Lord of War, starring Nicholas Cage and directed by Andrew Niccol; Lifetime Network’s Natalee Holloway, directed by Mikael Solomon; Mr. Bob for Canal+, directed by Thomas Vincent; Starship Troopers: Marauders directed by Edward Neumeier; the remake of Wes Craven’s classic, Last House on the Left, directed by Denis Iliadis and starring Aaron Paul; Flight of the Storks, directed by Jan Kounen and starring Harry Treadaway and Rutger Hauer; Restless for Endor Productions; Chronicle, directed by Josh Trank and starring Michael B Jordan and Dane de Haan for Twentieth Century Fox; and the Dominion pilot for NBC Universal.

Through his production companies, Greig has facilitated and line produced Shepherds and Butchers, starring Andrea Riseborough and Steve Coogan; Back to School Mom, starring Kimberley Elise; Kite, starring Samuel L. Jackson; Charlie, starring Luke Goss; King Solomon’s Mines for Larry Levinson Productions, starring Patrick Swayze; for the Hallmark Channel, Save Angel Hope, starring Billy Boyd; and The Seven Of Daran with AAA Pictures, distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

As co-producer, Greig’s credits include Against the Wild II; Survive the Serengeti, starring Jeri Ryan; Global Effect with Cinetel Films; and the critically acclaimed Life Above All, which went on to garner the Prix Francois Chalais award in Cannes, and Best South African Feature Film at the 2010 Durban International Film Festival. The film also garnered a record-breaking seven SAFTA awards, including Best Feature Film, and was presented as South Africa’s Official film in the Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards®.

Greig’s work in television includes Heart & Soul, the successful launch of IMBEWU for local TV station E-TV, and Blood Psalms for Canal+ and African streaming service Showmax.