Directing An A-List Actor When You’re Not Even On A List



It was just a normal Saturday evening at home with my husband and dogs watching Girls when I received a Skype call from Dana Brunetti and Kevin Spacey.

“Hi Hanneke,” Kevin said, pronouncing my name correctly. Not that it mattered, he could have called me a brand of nasal spray I would still have been smiling earlobe to earlobe. “You’re our South African winner of the Jameson First Shot competition and next week you’ll be flying to Los Angeles to come and make your short film with Willem Dafoe”.

Those aren’t words that many people get to hear. My name and Willem Dafoe’s name in the same sentence. A sentence that doesn’t end with “… and that’s why he had to get a restraining order”.  And all this coming from Kevin Spacey, whilst I was wearing a decent top and flannel pajama pants sitting in a suburban house in Johannesburg, South Africa.

 That was the start of one of the most frightening and intimidating adventures of my life.

You know how you always see starlets on TV sashaying through the LAX doors wearing dark glasses looking fresh and crease free. Well that wasn’t me. After 26 hours of traveling I smelt of four different courses of airline food and my ankles were so swollen it looked like I was wearing police ankle monitors under my skinny jeans. A great look to sport when meeting the smiling chaps from Triggerstreet Productions who were waiting to whisk me away in a blacked out SUV. But instead of being whisked off to a shower and change of clothes I was informed that because of scheduling issues I’ll be whisked off to meet Willem Dafoe at the Chateau Marmont for a wardrobe fitting. Oh dear.

I realized that Willem’s first impression of me would be one of a short, peculiar smelling woman (mmm, what is that, beef or chicken?) with a strange Dutch accent and a terribly shiny forehead.

I walked into the room and met Willem’s assistant Karen first. She was the sweetest, friendliest woman and she immediately put me at ease. Then I met Willem. Soft-spoken, with a much kinder, gentler face that the one we often see in the villainous characters he portrays. I also met our costume designer and her assistant who were ready with a whole rail of pajama pants and dressing gowns (the outfit Willem’s character spends most of the film in).

Within 10 minutes of meeting him he unceremoniously stripped down to try on the outfits. I know this is what most actors do, but this is Willem Dafoe. And more importantly, where should I look? My mind started racing. Whatever you do, don’t stare at him in his underpants.

Ok, what are my options. I could whip out my iphone and pretend to check it, but that just looks like I’m disinterested. I scanned the room for paintings to look at. Nothing. Books. Nada. So by the time they were done and calling me over I had my ear agaist the wood paneled wall, knocking softly whilst listening for any signs of termites or Woodboring beetle.

Ok not really, but the thought did cross my mind. The first meeting went well and Willem was kind, generous and warm and I knew that this was going to be an amazing experience.

The preproduction week flew by and before I knew it it was the eve of our first shoot day. I felt sick to my stomach. How am I going to direct an A-list Hollywood actor. An actor who has worked with Oliver Stone, Lars von Trier, Wes Anderson, Sam Raimi, Anthony Minghella, Martin Scorsese to name a few.

I woke up at 3am and yes, I’m not ashamed to say, I contemplated taking my passport, tiptoeing through the lobby and catching the first flight back to South Africa. It was either that or fake a dramatic case of Sudden Blindness or Alien Hand Syndrome (yes there is such a thing). But in the end I did it. I got up, I brushed my teeth (I had a nightmare the previous night where I’d forgotten to brush my teeth and I had to direct Willem holding my hand over my mouth) and I went to set.

And, as it always is, as soon as I get to set a huge sense of calm come over me. I can do this. I just have to trust myself and hope nothing gets stuck in my teeth after lunch.

And that’s the lesson I learned. No matter who you are or where you’re from you just have to trust that you can do it and, in my case, stop googling ‘sudden onset diseases’ when you’re afraid you can’t.


Hanneke Schutte is an award winning writer/director living and working in Johannesburg, South Africa. She recently directed her first feature film called Jimmy in Pink, which will be released in South Africa in August.