South African writer-director Hanneke Schutte started her film career with the SAFTA-winning short film, Superhero. From there she went on to direct Willem Dafoe as part of her Jameson First Shot short film, Saving Norman. Her penchant for quirky comedy led her to write and direct comedy romance Jimmy in Pienk (Jimmy in Pink) before she took the helm of fantasy drama Meerkat Maantuig (Meerkat Moonship).
The film was invited to screen at over 25 film festivals and won the FIPRESCI prize in Germany. Named one of 25 screenwriters to watch by Movie Maker magazine and the Austin Film Festival, Spling decided to find out more about her writing journey.
Can you tell us how the idea behind Meerkat Maantuig came to you?
The film was loosely based on a youth novella called ‘Blinde Sambok’. A producer gave me the book to read and I immediately fell in love with it. I changed the book quite considerably, (there wasn’t a moonship in the book!) but kept the central storyline of a girl consumed by fear because she was convinced that her father’s death was the result of a family curse.
Would you say the essence of the original concept remained intact – how would you say it evolved over time?
Yes, the idea of a little girl consumed by fear was what attracted me to the story in the first place. I was incredibly fearful as a child so that really resonated with me. Even though the story changed quite a bit, the central theme of overcoming you fears always remained intact.
It’s easy to lose sight of what attracted you to the story in the first place, especially when you’re on the eighteenth draft of the script and you’re starting to feel like you’re never going to get through it.
That’s why I always go back to the theme, just to remind me where the heart of the story lies. Your theme is not only the magic that resonates with the audience, it’s also the thing that pulls you through the writing process.
Writers often think that screenwriting is all about high concept, and while that might get you a foot in the door, the thing that will keep you in the room is the emotional resonance of your writing.
The writing and rewriting process can be difficult as you sharpen your vision. Did you have to cut any story elements that were dear to you?
I did a whole bunch of drafts of the screenplay on my own, but fortunately I received NFVF development funding and I could get a script editor on board. I find it incredibly challenging to write a script without an editor. I’m not the kind of writer who likes hitting up friends or colleagues to read my screenplays, it gives me sleepless nights!
Initially I tried to stay very true to the source material, but my script editor liberated me from that sense of responsibility and challenged me to bring more of myself and my own point of view to the script.
Did you write the screenplay with actors in mind?
No not at all. I think in South Africa it’s quite hard to do that.
As a director, do you visualise the film playing out as you write?
Yes, definitely. I collect a huge amount of visual reference while I’m writing the film. It sets the mood and tone for the film. I do the same with music. I love listening to music that echoes the mood of the scene I’m writing.
The film has a magical quality, which has been described as similar to the world of Studio Ghibli… was this an influence and did you draw inspiration from any other works?
I love Studio Ghibli films and even though they didn’t serve as a direct source of inspiration, I’m sure there’s probably a subconscious influence. One of my all-time favourite films is the Spanish film Spirit of the Beehive and if any film served as direct inspiration it was that one. It has a strange, dark magical quality, incredible cinematography and probably the best child performances I’ve ever seen.
What would you say is your greatest strength as a screenwriter?
That’s a hard one! Perhaps it’s the fact that I have a vivid imagination and I absolutely love coming up with stories and ideas. I actually wish I could paint or draw because I don’t particularly enjoy writing, but I love getting lost in the imaginal realm and writing is the only way I can access it. The French philosopher Henry Corbin called it the Mundus Imaginalis, the world of images or archetypal ideas. It’s that magical place you enter when you’re in the flow.
Tell us about your writing process… what do you do to get into the zone and how do you usually find your best work as a screenwriter?
I wish I had a process! It’s mostly just a dirty, slippery mud wrestling match with self-doubt, fear and guilt. When I’m in the zone it’s pure bliss, but getting there is never easy.
To me the act of writing is taking the Hero’s Journey every single day. You’re in the Normal World (your couch), there’s a Call to Action (to write) and you repeatedly Refuse the Call. Once you muster the courage to go on the journey you’re met with many obstacles. There’s a Dark Night of the Soul and eventually you have to wrestle your biggest demon. At the end of the day you return to the normal world with a boon – your three pages.
Meerkat Maantuig is your second feature film… do you think films are better served when writers can interpret their own screenplays as directors?
I think it depends on the writer. Some writers have no interest in directing their screenplays, others, like myself, enjoy seeing the script come to life during the filmmaking process.
Are you strict about keeping lines as they are on the page or do you allow some flexibility when it comes to the day?
I’m not strict at all. Actors often have great intuition and if a line doesn’t ring true to them I’ll happily go with a word or phrase that feels more authentic to the character.
Do you feel your experience as a script editor has allowed you to hone your own self-editing skills when it comes to screenwriting?
It definitely helps, but it’s still much easier to look at someone else’s script and see the issues straight away. When it’s your own work you become too emotionally invested and it’s harder to be completely objective.
Do you have any practical advice for budding screenwriters?
Don’t write in a vacuum. You can’t get better if you don’t get feedback. There’s something called the Writer’s High – that feeling you get when you’ve just finished a draft and you think it’s the best thing you’ve ever written. Well the truth is, it’s probably not. I often send off a draft to my script editor waiting for her to tell me how wonderful it is and I’m always a bit crushed when I receive three pages of notes.
“Writing is rewriting” is a cliché because it’s true. If you can’t afford a script editor or consultant, sign up for the NFVF’s screenwriting course or join a writers’ circle. A good writer is like a good actor, you have to be able to take notes. You don’t have to take all the notes onboard, but you have to be able to address issues in your script.
Are there any upcoming projects you’re able to mention?
Last year I finished a screenplay called ‘The Poem’. It was a story that had haunted me for quite a while and I needed to write it, but it was an emotionally draining process and I actually had to step away from writing for while after I had finished it.
I’ve just received NFVF Development Funding for a new project called “Drummies”, which is thankfully much lighter and I’m excited to get going on it.
Check out her Top Ten Movies interview…