Following a pair of critically acclaimed shorts, writer-director Hanneke Schutte debuted on the scene with the eccentric and refreshing Jimmy in Pienk. We were left to wait five years for her next directorial effort; the fantastical Meerkat Maantuig, garnering her a new level of critical attention and admiration. Since then, it’s been another five years, and, growing impatient, we spoke with Schutte about her past and future projects.
Jimmy in Pienk plants a seventh generation mielie boer into the bustle of Cape Town. The subtropical forest of Magoebaskloof, as a fairy-tale-esque place of wonder and darkness, is made so tactile in Meerkat Maantuig, and the Maantuig itself is such a memorable piece of set design at the heart of your adaptation of the story. What’s your process when it comes to the relationship between your characters and their environments?
It’s interesting that you mention that, because the world of the story in all my screenplays plays a huge role. Sometimes I come up with the world before I even know what the story is. The environment becomes part of the story, either an external obstacle or a metaphor for the character’s internal struggle. In Meerkat the forest was a symbol for her fear, like our Jungian ‘shadow’, it’s a place we avoid going because we’re afraid of facing our own darkness. And yet, that’s where personal growth takes place.
You’ve spoken about writing as a “mud wrestling match with self-doubt, fear and guilt”. Do you find directing more fulfilling, with your vision in place, or is it more of a struggle to bring that vision to life than to conceive of it?
Directing is physically and emotionally grueling, but it’s awe-inspiring to see how your collaborators bring their talents, wisdom and life experience to the project and create something better than what you had envisioned. Once the writing is done and other people get involved the project takes on a life of its own and you have to shepherd it, but also create space for magic to happen.
When writing, do you find yourself having to reign in any of your more fantastical ideas due to the budgetary or commercial restrictions you are bound to encounter on a South African film, or do you write with impunity?
I think I tend to be a bit too responsible, but I’ve come to realise that it’s often the big creative swings that get people excited about a project. So I try to force myself to write with impunity, but it’s hard because there’s always a little voice that says – “this won’t get made”. You have to make peace with that, and you have to keep picking up the invisible string of that thing that excites you and follow where it leads.
You’ve got a gift for delivering exposition and planting for later pay-offs gracefully. When writing, do you work backwards from a resolution you’d like to reach, or find a satisfying pay-off to an element you’ve already included?
I go backwards and forwards and often only discover things I want to plant and payoff in the final draft of the script. I try to use those devices to help with character development, but the characters often only reveal these secrets to you in later drafts. That’s the beauty of rewrites and polishes, you get to layer in more depth and meaning. But writing is a craft and I’m still learning with every script!
In terms of on-set problems, does anything beat having to send a crewmember to the hospital for three days to have a sack-spider bite seen to?
Ha ha. We had to deal with so many challenges on that set – mudslides, snakes, ticks, mosquitos you name it, but I think a crew member going to hospital and getting antivenom for a spider bite was definitely the most frightening.
Thembalethu Ntuli said that he employed earbuds to immerse himself into his character’s world on Meerkat Maantuig, citing Stanislavski as inspiration. Anchen du Plessis was of course a gifted actress, but so new to the world of screen acting in 2017. What was it like directing two actors with such differing levels of experience, who often appeared in the same scene together?
Anchen was a champ. She’s one of the most naturally gifted actors I’ve ever worked with. It wasn’t her first feature film so she had some experience, but she’s just incredibly intuitive and smart. Themba was also a dream to work with, he’s dedicated and brought such a wonderful, positive energy to the set. They both have great instincts and we had so much fun, exploring and creating scenes together.
Jimmy in Pienk is so zanily stuffed with ideas, every moment is mined to give the audience a laugh. Meerkat Maantuig, for its part, works mostly on tone to draw your involvement rather than keep your attention. Do these stylistic deviations come down to the differing goals of the projects, to one being wholly original and the other an adaptation, or because you wanted to explore different genres? Will you make another unexpected turn for your next film?
Yes, every project I work on is quite diverse and I love creating and immersing myself in the world of each story. Every project calls for something different and that’s what I find exciting about filmmaking. I also make mistakes and each film teaches me many lessons. The projects I’m working on at the moment vary wildly: there’s everything from drama to sci-fi so I clearly can’t pick a lane!
In your work, you’ll sometimes cut out all diegetic sound and let the film’s score or soundtrack speak for itself, during a joyfully freeing montage of forest exploration for instance, or an off-kilter cross-country road trip set to Betsie Beers. Why do you suppose you gravitate to moments like these, especially to end your features and shorts, and is there any piece of music, clearance be damned, that you wish you could use in a film?
I love how music can take us on an emotional journey and it’s definitely one of my favourite parts of the filmmaking process. While I’m writing I listen to music that matches the tone or mood of the scene. There are so many tracks I would kill to use in a film! In Drummies we’re looking to get the rights to some well-known Miriam Makeba songs, but I would love to use some of Agnes Obel’s music in a film one day, I often listen to it while I’m writing.
In 2018 you proposed that South Africa was in a new age for the industry that excited you, citing Five Fingers for Marseilles, Inxeba, and Wonderlus. 2018 was a long, long time ago, do you still feel the same?
It’s tough because film budgets have actually shrunk since 2018. M-NET/DStv now mostly fund micro budget films and we’ve had to change our financing strategies. We’ve now teamed up with Dutch co-producers on Drummies, my next project, and unfortunately, this means that getting a film financed takes much longer and it’s much more complicated, but it’s the only way to make a film with a decent budget. So, no, I’m not sure I’m as excited about the new age of South African cinema as I was in 2018, but I’m hoping that streamers like Netflix will open new doors to local filmmakers.
How is progress going on The Poem and Drummies?
Like I mentioned, we’ve had to get Dutch co-producers onboard to get Drummies financed. It’s taken us a while and we still need quite a few things to fall into place, but if all goes well we’re hoping to shoot next year. But I’m also working on a few other exciting projects, so I’m keeping fingers crossed that the film gods smile on us.