in the moment: Dawid Minnaar and Katinka Heyns on the set of Die Wonderwerker.

Diane de Beer

Talking to Katinka Heyns and Dawid Minnaar feels a little like she must have felt when tackling a project on Eugène Marais. They have so much to say, it’s tough to decide what to let go and what to tackle.

But Heyns is blessed with her own magnificent scriptwriter, husband/ author/playwright Chris Barnard, and when he presented her with the script to read at the end of a long process, she was alone at their Onrus home, and she tucked in for the night.

Reading it twice, she knew he had the essence of a man who was tough to capture. It’s the breadth of what he has done that almost dooms a project from the start.

“Chris’ brilliance was that he honed in on a specific moment in time when Marais lived and worked in the Waterberg.”

It meant that as the camera zooms in on his life, we get much more of the individual than would have been possible if they had to ramble through his elaborate life.

When shooting, she was worried at moments that they might even have stripped it too much.

“His life covered such a huge expanse, from the insects in the ground to the vast night skies, it could’ve overwhelmed us,” she says.

She feels that what Barnard achieved was to isolate a part of Marais that in a sense encapsulates the whole – the soul of Marais. It allowed her to tell a very intimate story that reaches way beyond and much further than can be grasped immediately when seen on screen.

The trio of main players – Barnard, Heyns and Minnaar – had all done their research and perhaps with the director, it was her instinct to cast Minnaar, such a perfect match for Marais, that got the thing started.

That and the way Barnard had manipulated the text to allow her the freedom of telling a story that would capture the imagination.

“I was totally bowled over by the script,” she says.

That’s a beautiful thing, when you’re reading something that will take such a chunk of your life and it delivers on all your expectations.

She loves the way there’s a focus on two women in Marais’ life at the time, which also tells you something about the man, the way he affected people, almost like a drug.

These nuances are part and parcel of the film, which might feel simplistic, but once you start peeling the layers, is anything but. Heyns lost her heart to the multifaceted Marais and enjoyed the way she could introduce him to the world; almost show him off, in a sense.

“He wasn’t, as is so often thought, a morbid personality. He was a showman, that’s why he could stay with people for long stretches of time, because he entertained them, they liked him,” she explains.

He sought out people who could stimulate him, but also never looked down on ordinary folk. They were his people and he could relate to them. He also embraced children, which often resulted in a playfulness that many don’t expect from this man who also had an artistic talent displayed with poems like ‘Winternag’, ‘Mabalel’ and ‘Dans van die Reën’.

He could be as extrovert as he was introvert when he was studying his animals in nature or hiding in his room because of his addiction.

“It was like a cell for him,” explains Heyns, again pointing to the comparisons of his life with that of nature. But even if he could entertain people, he always stood a little aloof.

“He never fully showed himself,” says Heyns.

What happened was that he often became the catalyst in other people’s lives – simply because of who he was and how he represented himself.

What Barnard wrote can be described as historical fiction. It means that while he considered the facts, he had to rely on his intuition and imagination to fill in the gaps.

Why, for example, was Marais addicted to morphine?

Was it, as he said, because of malaria when he was young? Was it the death of his young wife, or was he experimenting as a scientist might do?

Barnard shows different angles to the problem and doesn’t make a decision for the viewer but allows for many interpretations.

Marais was a man who went looking for a heap of pearls in the depths of the ocean.

“He was an adventurer,” says Heyns – and all of that they wanted to reflect without giving a history lesson or losing sight of his soul.

The film has been devouring their lives for this past decade.

And Heyns isn’t finished yet. Because of the wealth of information she has at her fingertips, documentaries is where she has set her sights.

“When at one stage we didn’t think the movie would be made, I knew I owed it to Marais to capture at least the details of his life.”

As she talks about “rummaging” through everything she has unearthed, you can hear the excitement in her voice. She has not finished with this man yet, not for a long time.

With ‘Die Wonderwerker’, it’s your chance at her first glimpse.