Leon Schuster: Mad Buddy of SA film
28 June 2012
It is illogical that one man dominates the South African movie scene with such unbridled ferocity. This man is Leon Schuster.
He has delivered one blockbuster after another without an ounce of CGI, or international input, and he’s made a mint while doing it. Let’s put things in perspective. Schuster’s most recent film, Schuks Tshabalala's Survival Guide to South Africa (2010), made a whopping R37.4-million at the box office.
It continued a trend that started in 2001 with his monster hit Mr Bones. His movies are so popular that they have even out-grossed mainstream Hollywood franchises Harry Potter and James Bond.
'Give the people what they want'
Like pioneering comedy auteur Jamie Uys, Schuster’s philosophy is simple: give the people what they want. So he has perfected a brand of comedy that is slapstick in nature and candid camera at heart.
He started with the You Must Be Joking films of the 1980s and went on to develop a broad burlesque style typified in later films like Panic Mechanic (1997) and Millennium Menace (1999).
With distinctive stereotyping and hi-octane pranks, he has consistently poked fun at South Africans regardless of class or race.
His relentless social commentary has probed our national identity, relative culture and disparate heritage, and this with the wholesome impunity of a medieval court jester.
But more than this, keeping it simple has meant an ear to the ground for his audience’s tastes and desires: arresting situations, lovable stock characters, un-PC shenanigans and ridiculous romps.
This magic touch has been with Schuster since childhood.
Schuster was drawn to filmmaking as a boy when he and his brother would film practical jokes played on friends and family with a home movie camera.
Even then, it was pranks and dress up, and strictly just for a laugh. From family lounge to national stage, it was simply a matter of scale, and time. As he has grown, so has his audience. What’s more, they are loyal to a fault.
Schuster is clear about the reasons behind his success. "I think it’s a matter of knowing your audience. I don’t deal with high and mighty people," he says with conviction.
"I’m chommies with the okes who tell stories in pubs. Those are the people of this world, the ordinary oke walking the streets of Gauteng or the Free State and my rugby chommies with whom I grew up in Bloemfontein. Those okes tell me what they like."
From pub to page, his brand of filmmaking is a business, not an art. And like any thriving business, it is defined and sustained by a ready market.
'Making the issues easier to talk about'
It would be true to say that his fans (until fairly recently) have been white and Afrikaans. But this is the sociopolitical landscape into which he was born and in which he grew to professional maturity, so his comedy is designed to their expectation.
What more can one expect from a court jester? In talking to his audience on their level, he makes the issues easier to talk about – for them and for us.
If one were to remove the sociopolitical dimension, Schuster might sit comfortably alongside irreverent social commentators like France’s Coluche or the Italian Lino Banfi, beyond more obvious comparisons to the lowbrow Farrelly brothers (There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber) or the likes of Adam Sandler and Eddie Murphy.
But Schuster has not held a mirror to ordinary (white, Afrikaans) folk. He has also been custodian to their fears and dreams. In fact, he takes this as an injunction to entertain, and he has been doing this consistently, if not consciously.
There's a Zulu on My Stoep
Let’s roll back the clock a little. "I ventured into something that was very risky with There’s a Zulu on My Stoep (1993), with characters who didn’t like each other because of apartheid history," he says.
Released on the cusp of South Africa’s transition to democracy, There’s a Zulu on My Stoep was an astute examination of racist attitudes of the time.
Ironically, it might not sit as easily with us now in these dark days of self-righteous opprobrium. But remember for a moment that Chris Hani was assassinated in 1993. The country was in no way resolved about its future as many of us may have forgotten in the rainbow haze.
With There’s a Zulu on My Stoep, Schuster broke with his past. He found traction with black audiences. They attend his film in droves now, but then it was new, and what he wanted.
"My biggest reward is not an award, it has been sitting in movie theatres where I see mixed audiences – black kids, white kids, black mamas, Indian mamas, people – all together," he says. "
"It’s a matter of unifying the nation on a very small scale. To get different demographic groups together in one theatre is a very satisfying prize and Mad Buddies is tuned in that direction."
"Again," one might add. So he seems to be attempting to move the (white) masses along despite pervading suspicion and fear. And what better tool to use than comedy where only the fictional people get hurt?
So is Mad Buddies a departure? Perhaps.
The story is about two larger-than-life characters, Boetie (Schuster) and Beast (Kenneth Nkosi), both dedicated anti-poaching officers. The backstory is a botched mission where they cause each other physical harm and become mortal foes.
Years later, Boetie encounters Beast at the wedding of the daughter of the minister of tourism, Mda (Alfred Ntombela), and they expunge their mutual anger, only to ruin the wedding. Of course!
To save face and prevent a media frenzy over a 'racial incident', the minister instructs the wretched duo to walk across the country. This will be an exemplary feat of racial harmony.
They duly trek from KwaZulu-Natal to Gauteng with endless mishaps. What Boetie and the Beast don’t know is that the trip is being filmed as a TV reality show by a conniving producer (Tanit Phoenix) and that the whole of South Africa is in on the joke. When they discover they’ve been conned they join forces to exact revenge.
So the question begs: Do we need to see exercises in racial harmony 18 years into democracy? Schuster clearly believes we do. Knowing that he has his finger on the pub and grub pulse, he may well be right.
Schuster as himself
There is another interesting shift. Audiences will know Schuster best 'in character' – as a prophesying white sangoma in Mr Bones or in black drag in Mama Jack.
In Mad Buddies he plays a real person, sans dress up. As a foil to his real Boetie, Schuster has found a new comedy partner in Kenneth Nkosi, best known for his hilarious role in White Wedding (2009) – and for serious roles in Gaz’lam, Tsotsi, Jerusalema and District 9.
Schuster consigns long-time co-star and diminutive funny man Alfred Ntombela to the supporting cast, as the stereotypical minister, thus leaving the space open for a 'real' relationship with Nkosi.
Incidentally, Schuster and Ntombela's pairing spans seven years, including Oh Schuks I’m Gatvol (2004) and Mama Jack (2005), since their first film together, Oh Shucks! Here Comes Untag (1989).
Schuster is moving with the times, and moving his audience along with him: Ntombela to Nkosi, stereotypes make way for real characters; broader perspective means broader appeal. It’s a clever move any way you view it.
Inspired by Jamie Uys
The inspiration for Mad Buddies comes from a similar character-pairing. Hans en die Rooinek (1961) is an early comedy by Jamie Uys (The Gods Must be Crazy) and features a Boer and Brit at loggerheads.
White society then was still coming to terms with the awkward marriage of English and Afrikaner under apartheid, even if politically there was a greater struggle emerging between black and white. So this is history repeating itself and Schuster has made the link.
"I’ve been a great fan of Jamie Uys my whole life and started following his films when I was six years old, and Hans en die Rooinek made a particular impact on me," says Schuster.
"It’s about an Englishman and a 'Boertjie' who couldn’t get along and as punishment they had to walk from Johannesburg to Cape Town and were forced to bond, but no way could they.
'True to South Africans'
“With Mad Buddies I brought that idea into the new South Africa and a rainbow nation. The audience will wonder whether or not these guys will ever be friends," Schuster says.
"They really hate each other … but there are moments in the movie when they inadvertently get close; they are alone on the road, so who can they talk to? As they get closer and closer the audience will think, 'Come on, please shake hands, it’s high time already.' Then bam, something happens and they are off on a tangent."
Does this not sound unbearably familiar? Are we not confronted with this narrative daily, in life, in the media, in our hearts? The court jester, at work.
Nkosi picks up on this: "As South Africans we can all see ourselves in this movie because it is true to us. I’m a black South African and Boetie’s a white South African and we have our differences, but in this movie it’s a case of how do you use those differences to get together instead of using them to clash."
Schuster first noticed Nkosi's comedic abilities in what he calls "the great local brew movie" White Wedding (2009).
"I observed the way he can play with his face, and get aggro, so there wasn’t even another actor in my mind. We didn’t audition anyone, and we gave the part to Kenneth cold," he says.
"When you write your own script you already see the person, maybe not the face, but you know that he has to have a fat gut, be bulky, and have a funny face."
What Schuster is not saying is that Nkosi also has a vulnerable streak. This is a healthy quality for any enduring (and endearing) clown, but it is also a must for any real character of depth.
Most surprising is Mad Buddies' link to Disney. The international studio has acquired the rights to distribute the film worldwide, under the Touchstone Pictures banner. It is the first distribution rights acquisition of a South African film for Disney.
Producer Helena Spring knew that Schuster was a solid commercial brand when she was looking for film financing.
"Disney is about family entertainment and so is Schuster, and we were offering a project to which they could relate, with solid comedic and commercial audience appeal," she says.
This is something that Schuster never dreamed of. "I still don’t know exactly how it happened," he recalls.
"When Helena said that there was a possibility that Disney might come on board I nearly fell on my back! It was like a dream come true but she said, ‘No, don’t get excited - let’s wait and see what happens.’ They asked for DVD copies of my four recent movies, and the Mad Buddies script, and then they came back and said they will join us."
Whether all of this keeps Schuster at the top of his game remains to be seen. But when one considers his creative acumen, and decades of getting it right, Mad Buddies seems destined to do exactly that. As well as add to his fortunes as the most reputable film brand in South Africa.
Anton Burggraaf is an executive producer at Ochre Moving Pictures and lover of all things good. He writes in his personal capacity.
This article was first published by the Gauteng Film Commission. Republished here with kind permission.