Last year the Sundance Institute introduced their Short Film Challenge, inviting independent filmmakers to submit a short film depicting innovative ways of positively impacting those less fortunate. Pretoria-based filmmaker Willem van den Heever heard about this challenge in April 2014, shortly after returning from two film festivals in the USA. The deadline was in June which meant he didn’t have much time to play with, but he knew he couldn’t let the opportunity pass him by and so he got to work on a short film, Dropping In. From the pool of entries, Sundance selected 5 winners who were given a $10 000 grant and the opportunity to have their international premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Willem’s film was among those selected, and his premiere was held at the festival on January 28.
Dropping In is a coming-of-age skateboard drama inspired by actual events. It follows the story of Sam, a young skateboarder living on the streets of an informal settlement, who gets picked up by the nearby skate park owner Marcus. In helping Sam to overcome his vices, Marcus becomes his skateboarding coach as well as his life mentor.
“I heard the true story of a guy living in Jeffrey’s Bay who was studying something the system and his parents expected from him,” Willem says, recalling the story that inspired his film. “However, it wasn’t what he wanted to do and so he started doing drugs to help get his mind off it until one day, after overdosing, he realised that it was time for a drastic change. So he left his studies and opened a surf school. He didn’t only teach tourists and holiday goers how to surf, but also some of the kids on the street. His aim was to help them invest their energy into something positive. And this is how some of the street kids have winded up as professional surfers, surfing for South Africa today.”
Without having the time or funding to base Dropping In on surfing, Willem spun the story to centre on skateboarding instead and he filmed it in and around Gauteng. “It was quite a stressful process with the little time I had,” he says, “and after hearing that I made the shortlist I had a lot of paperwork to complete and get signed.” Getting everyone’s proof of identification proved particularly difficult because a few scenes were filmed in, and featured local talent from, an informal settlement. “After a few days of missioning around I got everything I needed to submit, and a few weeks later I received the news that I was one of the 5 official winners.”
Willem’s interest in filmmaking began early on. “As a kid I always enjoyed messing around with the family camcorder, but it was somewhere in the beginning of high school that I saw Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic and just knew that this is what I wanted to do,” he explains. While still in school, he began helping out on music video shoots, which gave him a good indication of what it’s like behind a camera and on a film set.
An earlier short film that Willem produced and directed with Vaughan Coetzee, Coffee, tells the tale of a young passionate musician forced into his family business who, after meeting an eccentric girl, is persuaded to leave town to pursue his own dreams. Coffee formed part of the Official Selection (2014) at the Josiah Media Festival in Texas as well as the National Film Festival for Talented Youth, where it received the Best New Talent Award. More recently, Willem’s short A Man Made of More – inspired by the true story of young South African Mokgethwa Mapaya – was a Cannes Lions finalist.
A self-described perfectionist, Willem enjoys having full control over a scene he’s directing. The extreme time constraints he was working within to make Dropping In in time for the deadline, however, meant that this wasn’t always possible. “There are some things I would definitely have re-shot if we had time,” he reflects, “but I also think that in some ways it all worked out to my advantage.” Being forced to improvise and work with what he had contributed to the rough, grungy environment that the story takes place in.
Excitement and nerves were equally present for Willem during his premiere at Sundance – it was the first time the film was being screened on such a large scale, and in front of such a big audience. “I had a very positive screening with some great feedback,” he tells us. “The original Lord Of Dogtown and skateboard pioneer Stacy Peralta (who was a big inspiration for Dropping In) saw it and wrote me a personal letter, which is published as a foreword to the film. This whole process has showed me again that, with enough passion and dedication, anything is possible!”
Now back in South Africa, Willem has just finished production on his latest short film, Lovepsych. A complete departure from his previous work but also a personal favourite, it’s something along the lines of a “romantic dramatic thriller” and is set to have a local premiere in the near future.