Saving Norman by Hanneke Schutte

Hanneke Schutte's short film is a winner in the Jameson First Shot competition. We asked her about Norman, working with Kevin Spacey and passion projects.

South African filmmaker and blogger Hanneke Schutte’s screenplay, Saving Norman, was selected as one of the three winners in the Jameson First Shot competition recently.

Now in its second year, the Jameson First Shot competition, calls for short film submissions by filmmakers in South Africa, Russia and the United States.

Her win meant that Schutte had the opportunity to fly to Los Angeles to shoot her film and direct Willem Dafoe in the leading role. Renowned production company Trigger Street Productions and Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey produced the film.

Saving Norman is the story of a hypochondriac ping pong player who once missed a major tournament due to a cold, and has never fully recovered from this defeat.

We asked Schutte about herself and the experience:

Tell us about yourself – how did you come to be a filmmaker?

I started out in as an advertising copywriter and then segued into lecturing at Vega. While I was there I did a post-graduate qualification in screenwriting at Wits and I started entering competitions. That's how I got to make my first short film Superhero. 

You also keep yourself busy with other creative endeavours, like the blog And how do you manage it all?

I finish what I start. I don't have half-written screenplays in my bottom drawer and I don't talk about someday starting a blog, I do it. Even if it's not perfect. You'd be surprised how often that is all that is required to have some success. Gary Vaynerchuk put it so eloquently when he said, "Stop watching f*** Lost!!!" (I guess these days it's Game of Thrones or Homeland). Too many people spend all their free time devouring TV series instead of working on their passion projects. 

Being selected as one of three winners in the Jameson First Shot Competition must have been amazing – what has the experience meant for you?

It's been an absolute whirlwind. I got the Skype call from Kevin Spacey one Saturday evening in early March and two weeks later I was on plane to Los Angeles to go make my short film. Just before I left I read a quote by Tina Fey which perfectly sums the whole experience: "You can't be that kid at the top of the water slide over thinking it. You just have to go down the chute." 

What inspired Saving Norman?

My dad was selected for the Springbok rugby team in the 70s, but they didn't get to play any international games because of sanctions, so he never got his Springbok blazer. That was the start of the idea, this guy who lived his life with that regret - a missed opportunity. The rest of the character is fictional of course, my dad doesn't hang around in his gown all day. Most of the other elements come from personal experiences, including the part about the pet psychic!    

What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?

We only had two days to shoot it and the ping pong scenes were quite a challenge because neither Willem Dafoe nor Charles Kim were great ping pong players. Plus we worked with a rare bird who had his own “process” as an actor. 

And the highlights/rewards?

I ended up playing ping pong with Willem between takes, that was definitely one of my highlights. We also got to do our sound design on the Fox Lot, it was awesome strolling around watching films being made right there. I also worked with the composer Christopher Young who composed the soundtracks for Spiderman 3, Swordfish, Entrapment, Rum Diaries, The Shipping News and hundreds more. 

What was it like working with Kevin Spacey and Willem Dafoe? 

The day I landed, after a 26-hour flight, I was told I had to go meet Willem for a wardrobe fitting at the Chateau Marmont where he was staying. It was such a surreal day, because I arrived at the hotel and within 10 minutes of meeting him he was standing in front of me in his underwear trying on all the different wardrobe options. Your first day in LA doesn't get more bizarre than that. But he was such a kind, gentle and incredibly talented man and he was 100% onboard, ready to do whatever was required of him for the role. 

Apart from email communication (he approved the edit et.) and the first Skype call, I only spent the day of the premiere with Kevin Spacey. Just as you would imagine he was incredibly charming and really tried to redirect any attention that was on him to me and my project. He kept on asking to meet my family, which he did, and went out of his way to make me feel at ease. 

What has the public reaction of Saving Norman been like?

It's still early days, but I've had wonderful feedback so far, but as a director you have to prepare yourself for criticism. You know the old Aristotle saying: “To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

Can you tell us about Jimmy in Pienk?

Jimmy in Pienk is my first feature film. It's an Afrikaans comedy starring Louw Venter, Gys de Villiers, Sharleen Surtie-Richards, Tinarie van Wyk-Loots and many more wonderfully talented local actors. It will be released nationwide in August this year. The tagline: Jimmy (Louw Venter), a conservative mielie farmer, is elated when his rich gay uncle (Gys de Villiers) offers him a way to save his farm from bankruptcy - only to find out he’ll have to bare his midriff and master the up-do.

Do you have any other film projects on the horizon?

At the moment I'm adapting Riana Scheepers' novel Blinde Sambok. I'm venturing into magic-realism and I'm very excited about the project.