Producer extraordinaire – Helena Spring
In this, the month of the woman, who better to interview than the Worldwide Head of Production at Anant Singh’s company Videovision Entertainment, Helena Spring. Her most recent feature credits include Mama Jack, starring Leon Schuster, the Best Foreign Film Academy Award nominated feature, Yesterday, starring Leleti Khumalo of Sarafina! fame, Red Dust, starring Hilary Swank, the record-breaking box office hit Mr. Bones, with South Africa’s box office number one star, Leon Schuster, Bravo Two Zero, a BBC co-production starring Sean Bean, The Long Run, starring Armin Muehler-Stahl and The Theory of Flight, starring Academy Award winning Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter.
In Focus spoke to Spring at her Johannesburg offices.
In Focus: How did you get into the industry?
Spring: By accident. I wanted to be an actress and studied drama at Stellenbosch University. I then travelled to Johannesburg to seek my fortune and considered applying to the SABC who at that stage were offering training courses. No courses were due to commence for another three months, so I made contact with Dirk De Villiers (well known director) who I had met previously. Dirk kindly introduced me to the industry.
In Focus: Quite different from acting! What was your first ‘role’ in the industry?
Spring: Well, I started as a runner and a continuity girl and moved into production and producing from there. I discovered early on that my psyche was not robust enough to cope with the process of securing work as an actress. You have to be prepared to reveal your greatest vulnerabilities. So I have great admiration and respect for the acting profession - however I am afraid I did not have the required courage. I also realised at this time that producing is where I wanted to be. I enjoyed being involved with all the elements, balancing the business and creative aspects, and I started by learning what happens on the factory floor.
In Focus: So Dirk de Villiers was a great help to you?
Spring: Dirk was very gracious. He introduced me to the industry, and he got me involved in feature films. In fact, a couple of years after I started when I could have worked for the SABC, I declined. I had fallen in love with the independent industry and produced many television series but in the end I always knew that feature films were what I ultimately wanted to focus on.
In Focus: You set up your own production company – tell us about this.
Spring: I worked on a host of movies and around 60 television projects. Most of these were drama series but our company also did music videos, variety shows and educational series. At that time, television was where it was at. Barry Coetzee and I owned SCY Productions, based in Blairgowrie, Johannesburg. I was at SCY for 13 years and worked on a multitude of productions during this time.
In Focus: So how did you migrate to Videovision?
Spring: I met Anant Singh and enjoyed working with him during my period at SCY. Given my interest in feature films and changes in the TV landscape at the time, I decided to join Anant and focus on feature films. I had known Anant for eight years so it was a considered move, and I have now worked together with him for close on 20 years.
In Focus: How is he to work with?
Spring: It has been a fascinating and rewarding experience, not least of which has been watching him grow and develop from being a very significant filmmaker into a major force in many different arenas. It has been a great privilege to have been part of that.
In Focus: What production has made the most impact on you?
Spring: The production that makes the most impression is always the next one. It’s a kind of addiction. My feelings about a project are often shaped by the production experience and the people I collaborated with. But once it is on the screen, I let it go. Moving from one project to the next is like kicking the bird out of the nest to make space for the next one. The highlights however are Sarafina!, Cry the Beloved Country and Theory of Flight to name but a few. You know we have made such a broad range of pictures from Mr. Bones (Leon is an outrageous talent!) through to intense and deeply probing features like Red Dust – and also Sarafina!. They are all different and each one is special in its own way.
In Focus: What makes your job different?
Spring: We do get the opportunity to experience situations that many people in other jobs don’t. For instance, I have been in submarines, on aircraft and all manner of interesting objects and places. I have met from the poorest to the wealthiest, and have been able to look into people’s lives. There is something enormously satisfying about starting with nothing and ending with a finished product that goes on to have an independent existence. It’s a process of evolution and it’s different every time.
I am often asked – what’s it like being a woman in the industry? – Well, it has never been a problem for me. My experience has been that if the film delivers creatively, it’s on schedule and within budget, those are the things that concern people, not whether you are a guy or a girl.
In Focus: How do you feel about the future of the industry?
Spring: I am an optimist about both South Africa and the film industry. There is always room for good work, and it’s an exciting time. The new DTI rebate will add great benefit. In the last few years new voices have started to emerge. Our industry has always had good technical skills which have kept pace with international standards, mainly because of the service industry, but in the main, there hasn’t been a strong sense of creative vision. I think that balance is starting to change now and this together with the revised rebate bodes well and will show an upsurge of new South African films. Remember it is almost impossible to make only one film and have a hit, but if you are making 20 then there is a chance that you may have a few.
In Focus: Are there any other changes you foresee?
Spring: The old model of marketing and distribution has changed. There are so many different platforms now, each offering new possibilities. A time will come when we will download movies as easily as emails. There are so many different ways one can now experience movies.
In Focus: Does the new technology scare you?
Spring: Not at all. We’ve shot a few features on HD now and I am very keen to try the newly launched Red one HD camera which I believe is phenomenal. As I recall it was Spielberg who said that one day a 13 year-old from Arkansas will make a big hit movie on a Handycam. I suspect that this is true - but hopefully it will be Soweto or Brakpan rather than Arkansas. Film will eventually be over taken by technology, irrespective of whether the movie ends up on the big screen or not. The exciting thing today is that technology has made it possible to tell any story – the only inhibiting factor being cost.
In Focus: Thanks very much.