Love him or hate him, Leon “Schuks” Schuster is part of the fabric of South African culture. Like braais, the Springboks, Mrs Balls and Spur, Leon somehow slip right into our pantheon of cultural emblems.
With plenty of excursions in fully plot-based movies over the years; or ones where they combine a plot and candid camera pranks; Leon and the team have this year returned almost completely to their roots, with the same crazy candid camera pranks that show South African’s in their most natural states, and give us all something to laugh about this crazy country of ours.
I sat down with the team behind Oh Schuks! Your Country Needs You! to discuss the past, present and future.
LS: Leon Schuster
G: Gray Hofmeyr
A: Alfred Ntombela
R: Rob van Vuuren
L: Laré Birk
I: Well firstly, I appreciate you all sitting down here today with such big smiles on your faces, you must be tired from telling the same stories over and over all morning…
R: No. No, not at all. You’ve probably caught us at the best time. Our stories are so much more practised by this stage.
Everyone makes similar sounds of agreement.
R: Well, if Laré can get her brain together that is.
Everyone cracks up laughing for a while.
L: (Indignantly) Well I’m trying my best okay!
I: Well, firstly, the most important question I think South Africa needs to know is: Gray, is your hat part of the man? What’s the deal with that, it’s in every photo I’ve ever seen you in?
G: Oh the hat….
R: ….Listen, and it’s not just the one hat, he has a whole collection…
A: ….Vast Collection….
L: …It’s never just A hat…
G: Well look, I have a skin condition that makes me go up in the sun quite easily; but the truth is, by this stage I have no idea if I even have one on anymore, it’s all one person, me and the hat. We’ve become one.
I: Ah well, class never goes out of style.
L: True dat.
I: So, Mr Schuster, Leon… It seems like a whole big part of this latest movie (Oh Schuks! Your Country Needs You!) is that it’s not time for your retirement yet, that there’s still some laughter to be given to the world….so are we still gonna see some more movies? Are we gonna get another decade? What can we as South Africans hope to still get out of you?
Leon Schuster: You know, even if I get to the age of 80, which I might not, I would still want to be making movies. It’s my life, it’s Gray’s life; it’s our passion. It’s a great career to be in, that makes it very difficult to leave. I mean, I can’t go and buy a Spar or McDonalds franchise now and think I’m gonna be happy. I would like to inherit one, if I had a dad to give me one, but I probably still wouldn’t work there.
I: And then Rob and Laré, you’ve had some good careers til this point, but this movie is quite a break for both of you in the South African comedy film scene; is this something that’s made you want to carry on along these lines; do you think comedy movies are for you?
R: Yeah yeah, as Leon said, I have to agree with him, making movies is such a wonderful experience, we both grew up as having this what we wanted to do; to get this opportunity to work with guys like Leon and Gray in such a successful brand; what Gray calls part of the fabric of the South African world, and I agree, and that’s why it’s such a fantastic opportunity. And yeah, I hope I get to work with these guys again.
L: Yeah I agree.
Leon Schuster: I think Rob is gonna wait a few years, and then he’s gonna make his own candid camera movie, and he’s gonna let me play his grandpa, if I’m lucky…
Leon Schuster: That’s the little consolation he’ll give me.
I: Cause Rob, in Oh Schuks! Your Country Needs You! you play Schuks’s son; is that just for this one movie (Oh Schuks! Your Country Needs You!); or is that a sort of hint for the future?
R: I think that’s up to these guys.
L: In a nudge nudge wink wink sort of way.
I: Well that’s great….and Laré, did you have a different experience cause of being the only girl in the main cast?
L: Oh it was amazing! I was definitely the poppie on set. It was amazing, cause this was my first big project, and I got the feeling that they all took me under their wings, and they showed me the ropes, and they were so patient with me, sometimes….except Rob…But it was awesome none the less; and I learned so much. But it was incredible, and it still is… I don’t want it to end ever.
I: That’s great hey. And for anyone now, I can imagine this is the type of project where you’re all sitting around throwing out ideas, and it’s getting crazier and crazier…Who would you say is the voice of reason in your group?
Laré puts up her hand.
R: Haha I don’t think we have one of those….
L: Definitely not Gray though.
I: So what’s the problem with Gray, does he just push and push?
L: Yeah! He’s probably the guy with the least sympathy and empathy and caring in the world….He does not care on the set…He just pushes for more, and you beg him to stop, and he doesn’t listen!
Leon Schuster: We made a movie, Sweet and Short, in which I broke my Achilles heel. It sounded like a shotgun behind me, that’s how I knew it broke. And Gray said “Stand up! Just stand!” And you try to stand, but you just can’t, cause your foot falls to the side, and I say “Gray please!” and Gray says: “Don’t be a sissy and stand; we’ve got five scenes to shoot here!” Next minute I’m in an ambulance to the hospital; he doesn’t even come and see me in the hospital! I come back in a wheelchair, and Gray says “Hi how are you?”
Everyone packs up laughing.
A: But one thing that was good there, the concepts suddenly changed, cause you had to act with a crutch in all the scenes from then.
L: You know what we did there was, we had a scene where I was a homeless man on the streets, made to look all injured and damaged, but it was real, my crutch was real.
R: So I think the short answer to the question is; there is no voice of reason, we’re all mad.
A: It’s just to say, what of our best are we giving? We all just give what we have to give and we don’t hold back, cause we want it to be our best out there.
I: Of course; and I mean, Alfred, you and Leon, you two have worked with Gray for so many years now, decades, and it’s always been you two together that South Africa has come to know…how would you describe your relationship in real life, is it the same as what we see in the movies?
LS: Yeah. It’s like, what’s the thing someone used once….Gray doesn’t love me, Shorty loves me.
R: They’re very cute together, you can see that they’ve worked together for so long, and that they have a deep professional and personal relationship, and that was great for me, cause I remember wondering the same thing when I watched the movies back in the day.
L: Yeah it’s very admirable.
Alfred makes noises of agreement.
Leon Schuster: You know what the trouble is with candid camera and Shorty is though…You can’t put him out there in front of the other people cause immediately he’s recognised. You gotta hide him the whole time, like put him in a dustbin, put him in a cot, in a pram… you just can’t use him! And Gray and I go to great lengths to try and figure out new things to do with him. In our one movie, we had him dress up as a woman cop; he looked like a woman, sounded like a woman, but you could see through that disguise and see it was Alfie underneath.
R: I probably have Alfie to thank for getting this part in this movie (Oh Schuks! Your Country Needs You!) for that reason; they needed someone that nobody knew what they looked like.
I: I just need to point out that I think the Alfie jumping out of stuff pieces in your movie still work, and that they’re some of the best parts.
I: Now Leon, Is Schuks, the character you play in your movies; is he different from Leon the man in real life?
Leon Schuster: You know, I don’t think so. I mean, I am a prankster, I pull a lot of pranks, I’m always fooling around with people. I hate people in Afrikaans, they call you “Oom” and they’re like 25 or even flipping 30, and they’re calling me “Oom.” Thankfully Laré doesn’t; and I tell all my son’s friends from a young age to call me “Schuks” and the name at least stuck then already. It’s part of my life, everyone calls me that now. When I walk in Pick n Pay, all the mammas are like “Shucks Shucks come and take a photo with us!” …So I think it’s an identity that will stick with me til I get my last klap and die.
A: And when people call me “Shorty,” that’s a name he gave me, so when that name carries on, it’ll be because of him.
R: And he really is so mischievous at heart; I mean yesterday Leon was on a roll, hiding our phones everywhere, soon got us all going into that same mood altogether.
I: So I guess I don’t need to ask whether you had a good atmosphere on set, cause it sounds like it was very easy to get on?
R: Yeah yeah, I mean, we all like each other and it’s great fun, but on the other hand, it’s very stressful, cause the stakes are so high, you’ve got to get the funny, and its hard work, its not just a walk in the park.
G: And also what you’ve got to bare in mind is, what you see on the screen, is I don’t know what percentage of what we’ve shot, but we’ve probably got 4 movies worth of material we didn’t use. For two scenes that make it through, there’s probably 8 or 10 that didn’t, for whichever reason. And for these guys, especially Leon, it’s enormously draining if it doesn’t work….. he gets recognised, or it’s just not funny when it’s up there. So it can be very very frustrating as well. Especially for Leon, whos baring the brunt of it out in front there.
R: Yeah the big misconception about candid camera movies is that they’re easy to make; and its really quite the opposite, cause in a regular movie you have scenes and shot lists you can work through; but with this, you can lose an entire day, cause one little variable just doesn’t work out. What was interesting for me to see behind-the-scenes was how important it was to Leon, so much is riding on the movies and the gags, so when it gets to down to it, he’s very serious about what needs to be done. And it’s a huge amount of preparation and stakes up when he gets to work, and that’s when he gets very professional.
Leon Schuster: You know, one scene in this movie, I play a black policeman; and on the one shot, I walk up to this man and say my line in a straight, English, South African white accent…cause I forgot the character I play cause I play so many in Oh Schuks! Your Country Needs You!. And Gray had to come and remind me, and he said “What are you today?” And I said, “I’m a cop.” And He replied, “But youre a black cop, not a white one.” So I got confused between all these different disguises, it happens.
I: Okay, well just a couple more questions I think. Leon, you’re used to getting smacked around by angry South Africans, but Rob, it was rather more new for you, were there any times you were actually properly scared?
R: Every single day, it’s very very scary. Especially in this country, I mean s**t can go wrong, on a catastrophic scale, so as much fun as I had, it was equally terrifying.
G: Before we did the Rugby prank in this movie; Rob couldn’t really come out, we were frightened he would be recognized; so we hid him in the toilet. And I went to go check how he was doing, and I’ve never seen someone look so frightened; he was just standing there, bleek, and I said “Are you alright?” and he replied in a whisper “I’m so so scared.”
Everyone laughs about it, Rob looks a little embarrassed.
G: And the thing is, there was nothing I could do to help him feel better. So I just left him.
R: And that’s what you realize, you’re just on your own, and you need to make it work, so you get to it.
L: Yeah that’s what I found to; the pressure on you as an individual, if you screw up a gag, you ruin it for so many people; you’re the one driving it forward, it’s all on you. So what are you meant to do if you mess up? Mostly I just cried for a little bit.
R: Yeah cause it’s not just the fear of getting klapped, it’s the fear of a gag not working.
A: You know when I was most frightened? When that old man started running onto the field to smack you.
L: Yeah even I got smacked! Remember the Wimpy gag I did? The one tannie hit me! She hit me on my boobie!
R: The best advice I got during Oh Schuks! Your Country Needs You! was near the start, from Kevin, he said “When you do these scenes, its not about you, its about the person your’re pranking; they’re the star of the show.” Don’t get all fancy, just work off of them to let them shine; and that was very good advice.
I: And then, final question, if you all had to say what the secret was in making a good comedy versus making a bad one is, what would you say that was?
Leon Schuster: The secret lies first in a good script; you can make a bad movie from a bad script, but it’s much harder to make a bad movie from a good script. It’s about learning to be natural, when youre tricking someone. That’s why, like Rob says, the less you do the more you get out. That’s the philosophy behind candid camera. But it was really a jol. It was the first movie I shot in my life where there was never one moment of bad vibes on set, never. Rob is a very calm and professional man; Laré is new, so she knew her place, mostly….
R: Well she’s forgotten it now.
Leon Schuster: ….Shorty behaved himself like never before, and Gray got his wife back and was happier than ever before.
Everyone breaks out laughing again at each other.
I: Thank you everyone; it’s been an absolute pleasure, and good luck with the release of Oh Schuks! Your Country Needs You!.