Corne Van Rooyen on ‘Vaselinetjie’

His latest film, Vaselinetjie, an adaptation of a novel by Anoeschka von Meck, shows Van Rooyen’s versatility… graduating from the lighter realm of formulaic romance comedy drama to a much more poignant, poetic and dramatic work. Spling caught up with Corne to discuss his passion project…

Why Vaselinetjie? Can you tell us the story behind how you came to be involved in adapting this book to screen?

I read Vaselinetjie in 2005. Back then I knew that if in some strange way I have a purpose as a filmmaker, it was to make this film. It sounds dramatic, but the journey was a deeply personal and spiritual one. It took me 12 years to make this film: the magnitude of this story, the vastness of its locations and the diversity of its inexperienced young cast scared the hell out of me.

So after making Hollywood in my Huis and Sy Klink soos Lente I finally had the courage to attempt Vaselinetjie. I walked into the Kyknet offices ready to pitch my idea only to discover they had already secured the book rights and were thinking of me as the director/writer!

Vaselinetjie has a poetic yet gritty feel… were there any major changes from how you originally envisioned the film?

Finding the look and feel of the film was not necessarily dictated by the screenplay but through discovering the cast and locations. The cinematographer, Adam Bentel and I, created a tone and style that we described as social realism through a poetic lens.

Using a raw, non-judgmental and observational style contrasted with lyrical, dreamlike aesthetic moments mostly conveyed though the use of subtextual close-ups. I did not want the technical aspects of film-making: editing, camera movement, music etc. to force the audience to feel a specific emotion.

Can you tell us a bit about the casting process in terms of matching a young and teenage Helena?

I knew that if I didn’t find the right cast this film would not succeed. The biggest challenge was finding a group of non-actors between ages 6 and 19 – also older and younger versions for each role. Over a period of 6 months I traveled all over South Africa and cast over 4000 kids. When casting child actors my aim was to cast kids that are as close as possible to the character themselves.

All I had to do was to win their trust and allow them to be themselves in front of camera. Non-actors respond to minimal and simplistic directing. They are eager to please and will do whatever you tell them, so the trick is not to micromanage their actions and reactions. We did three weeks of acting workshops with the full cast where we focused on matching the younger and older version’s energies.

The colour palette has a washed out look – was this to give it a nostalgic edge? What sort of mood were you trying to cultivate?

For me, it brought a haunting yet innocent quality to the film. 

The film is subtle and touches on several social issues relating to abuse, bullying, discrimination, gangsterism, rape, suicide and sexual awakening… was this just part of Helena’s journey? 

That was part of Helena’s journey – the focus for her was to discover her sense of belonging and purpose in the hard knock world of a children’s home.

What would you want audiences to take away from your film?

I wanted the last moment to reveal the main character has a purpose hence the dramatic question stated in Act One “Has God maybe made a mistake with me?” Growing up is not about fulfilling your purpose but discovering that you have one. In my opinion, the best coming of age stories end with an epiphany… like in the film Boyhood and the novel Catcher in the Rye.

How did you make the film your own, when you contrast it with the book?

The biggest challenge for me was to give the film it’s own unique voice apart from the book. You would think it’s easy to go from the book to the film but I quickly realized a book and film are two completely different mediums and platforms to tell a story. What worked brilliantly in the book just didn’t translate on screen.

What helped when adapting the book into a screenplay is that I worked with a co-writer, my wife Rene. I knew the book inside out and Rene decided not to read the book. She used her gut feel for the story as a screenplay. While I had an emotional connection to the book, it can also blind you from what will work on screen. Writing with Rene was a great experience in finding that balance.

Hollywood in my Huis, Sy Klink soos Lente… was it a bit of a jump moving from the terrain of light romantic comedy to serious drama?

Coming of age stories – about growing up and discovering your identity have always fascinated me. So in that way the films I have done have this theme in common. Vaselinetjie has a slice-of-life feeling and I found the freedom to break from a formula structure quite liberating.

You’ve worked together on most of your projects with Rene – how has this helped shape your screenplays? Do you have a set way of collaborating?

Because both my wife Rene and I are director/writers it’s wise for us to collaborate and not become each other’s competition. Creatively we are very different, so in the beginning it was impossible to collaborate, but after 6 years we managed to find a way to work together without sacrificing our own voices.

Is this more in line with the kind of films you want to be making?

I’m currently going through a transition phase in my film-making career – almost like coming back home to the Australian films that inspired me in the beginning: The Castle, Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding and Romeo + Juliet (1996). So I’m considering something bold and colorful for my next film.

What is next for Corne van Rooyen?

I’ve just finished an adventure comedy film called Susters releasing on 30 March, 2018. It’s like Priscilla Queen of the Desert meets Sex in the City. After making a heavy drama it was fun to dive into something lighter and brighter. Rene and I are also currently in development with a 13 part drama series for Kyknet called Alles Malan.