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Film-maker, auteur and actor Willie Esterhuizen is an astute businessman. Early in his acting career, he realised television was the future and that’s where he shifted his energy. Today he has included the big screen and proudly (but also adamantly) says he makes a living with his camera.
He has also established what he laughingly refers to as the “Esterhuizen mafia”.
“It’s very tough to get in,” he says, “but once in, we never let you leave.” Sitting around while they’re wrapping up the latest season of Vetkoekpaleis, the family feeling seeps through.
As the only stranger around, people keep coming up to me, introducing themselves and making sure that I am comfortable. That’s most unusual here where people are extremely focused on what they have to get done. Anything on the periphery passes them by. I am here to speak to Willie about Molly en Wors as well as Faan se Trein in which Willie is the lead.
But this is a small operation overflowing with family, as Willie suggested. His brother Pieter is a co-director (also of the movie), Pieter’s wife, Sally Campher, is actress and make-up artist, one of Willie’s daughters is in charge of the props, his son is on the technical side of the industry, and the list goes on.
For those (like me) who don’t know where the movie Molly en Wors comes from, Willie explains: “It’s a spin-off from one of the most successful television series. We made 78 episodes.
“It deals with a family, five fat people (and one normal one), and most of the action is centred on the small things in life. It’s about the mole on ouma’s backside and whether it’s malignant. They’re not interested in the slaughter in Syria.”
There’s also the patriarch’s mother (Marga van Rooy) who, even with grown-up grandchildren, has not accepted her son’s wife (Lizz Meiring). Willie notes that Lizzie is sent recipes by women with advice on how to kill someone by poisoning them without being detected.
The series, according to Willie, who writes, directs and stars as Wors in this particular package, has touched a nerve in the community it’s aimed at. The mother-in-law resents the woman who has taken her son away – still after all these years. Both of these women have slight drinking problems, with alcohol a huge problem in the South African landscape.
“My movie is about holding a mirror to my people,” Willie says. He wants to teach while fuelling the laughter because it’s a recipe that works.
“I deal with the stuff people don’t want to talk about,” he says.
Afrikaners especially, he believes, look at family through rose-coloured specs. “They’re not facing reality and hypocrisy is my biggest annoyance.”
He also practises what he preaches. “I haven’t touched a drop of drink in decades. There’s fun in sobriety. You actually know when you’re having fun.”
Movie-making in South Africa isn’t a moneymaking concern. You have to know your stuff and, for Willie, it’s about hard work, knowing the ropes and how to make the system work for him.
He complains bitterly about the cost of shooting in public areas, for example, “and when they hear it’s an Afrikaans movie, the price doubles” and that no public buildings can be used for shots, “no prisons, hospitals, airports, even run-down empty prisons”.
The opposite was true in Amsterdam where footage was shot for Molly en Wors. “As long as we were not setting up lights, they welcomed us to show off their city to the world,” Willie says, easily making his point.
Film-making is all about a good script and that’s why he fought hard to win the coveted role of Faan in the Koos Roets production Faan se Trein, to be released in January.
It was a daring choice that paid off because Willie’s performance is often what drives the emotional heart of the story.
And for this funnyman, it was a dream come true: “Acting opposite people like Cobus Rossouw and Marius Weyers! Sometimes I had to remind myself that I had to act, not just sit in awe,” he says.
He loved depending on someone else to take charge and he immersed himself in the role, which he describes as “the South African Forrest Gump story”.
But when you talk subtitles, another irritation rears its head. “I think if you are shooting for an ethnic minority, that’s whom you should serve. Send the subtitled films overseas.”
But this performance has reaped rewards and was a role of a lifetime, says Willie. “When Koos (Roets) said something, I listened,” he said, and probably learnt. “I have been pleasantly surprised,” he says about reactions after a few public screenings of Faan se Trein, “and deeply humbled”.
It was about not messing with a good script. For the future, Willie wants to focus on making movies. Television is fun, but it’s a tough way to work, to keep churning it out. And the techno-smart Willie is discovering new and easier ways to market his products, for example through iTunes. Vaatjie is selling like vetkoek in Australia at the moment.