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Van Der Merwe

Interview with Bruce Lawley

The Van, the myth, the legend… VAN DER MERWEcomes to life on the big screen on 28 July and the role of Van is portrayed by the talented Rob van Vuuren.

Producers Bruce Lawley, Bruce Macdonald, Craig Jones and Murray Macdonald bring you this star-studded affair, filmed on a farm in South Africa, with the role of Van, the underdog and setting the scene for all sorts of problems and challenges.

I spoke to Director and Producer Bruce Lawley.

You have a background in advertising – how do you take this Van Der Merwe brand and turn it into something people will like. Everyone knows Van Der Merwe and has a different image of him. How will you convince people to buy into this image of Van?


“Everyone has some degree of a relationship with this character. Either they’ve heard the jokes or they have had an uncle or father who have told them about him through those jokes. Van Der Merwe never existed as a real living, breathing person like Superman or Garfield. He has evolved in the hearts and minds of people over the years. Most countries have that person– in Ireland there’s Paddy, in Israel there is Chaimie. The Van Der Merwe jokes are not truly original jokes, that have been drafted onto the personality of Van Der Merwe.”

“If I’m going to try live up to peoples’ expectations, I am never going to get that 100% right. There isn’t a model of who he is, because he doesn’t exist. He is a mythical character, so I do feel that responsibility, to get people to relate to my version or certainly feel that there is enough in this character that resonates in how they may have seen him or thought about him. The basic premise I took in creating the character is to make a person believe that there is such a person as Van Der Merwe and that he is a crazy, idiotic character and became the butt of all jokes. How would he behave, how would he get into all these situations? etc….” 

I can’t imagine why this has never been done before – What sparked the idea?


“I have been writing screen plays for many years and I though that it was time to try my hand at a comedy screen play. I wanted to write a screen play about a single character but with a South African twist, and then I thought about Van Der Merwe. I thought that perhaps it has already been done – I did research on it and found that no one had done it – I had discovered a pot of gold. That inspired me to write it and develop the character. He is so a part of South African culture. So I wrote the screen play, developed the character and went through various story versions.”

“In one of the first drafts I had Van born premature, and taken home in a shoe box, where he spent the first few weeks of his life, because he was small and tiny and odd. He had all these child hood afflictions. He was a problem child, not many friends, but through all that, he became this resilient character. I also wanted to turn him into a hero, as the underdog. That is essentially what the story is about.”

Do you think there is a Van in you?


“There is a little bit of Van in everyone. That’s the greatest thing about it. People can relate to it.”

When you were writing the role, did you have anyone in mind, and what made you decide on Rob for the role?


“I wrote the first version of Van Der Merwe about 12 years ago; in 2004 I started it and I finished it in 2005. At that time I was writing it for the late Bill Flynn in mind. He was one of my favourite actors. That goofy, startled look that he used to do so well was the right look for me. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get the script to him. So I did start off with him in mind. In 2015/2016 things came together and I was developing it with my producing partners. We started filling the other roles and I wanted cameo roles for some great South Africans so that it feels like South African history; like Barry Hilton as the barman, Kurt Darren as the wedding singer, Ian Roberts… all these great characters that we feel we know. I started signing these people to the film.”

“But the question remained: who was going to be Van? Rob was recommended by my casting agent and she was adamant that Rob was my guy. I spoke to a few people but once I met Rob and we discussed the role and the physical attributes that I wanted the character to have and how I saw Van being personified, Rob was all over it. He wanted to get involved and become this character. I went to watch some of his stand up, and after that I was convinced – he has the acting credibility and experience, he has the physical attributes and it was the best decision ever. So we were very lucky to get Rob on board.”

Why did it take so long to get this film out there – 12 years, and why does producing film in this country take so long?


“It’s primarily a finance issue. We don’t really have a film industry. By that I mean we don’t have a self sustaining self-perpetuating , viable film industry. We also don’t have a studio system like America, where there are people looking to finance films.”

“We don’t have a massive structural community that makes 5 massive films a year for example. So you are either looking for help from government or private investment or both. Investors with money are not in the position to just throw money at projects. They want a real investment to profit from. They need to have confidence in the product and credibility of the film makers. We run our team like a business, that is fully audited, in line with tax legislation, etc. The public also need to trust south African films.”

“We need to develop a film industry that puts out quality internationally standard films. It can only be created by an ecosystem; investors to invest, so we can grow the industry.”

So you have your existing fan base of Van Der Merwe, how will you sell this to the generation who don’t know Van Der Merwe?


“Well we had a great rating of PG 7- 9. So 7 years and up can watch the film. Ages 7 – 9 years can view under adult supervision. The youngsters will find it funny because there is a lot of slapstick humour. This is a family film. I am hoping that although Van Der Merwe is not a part of the millennial generation, I hope that it will be re-introduced to this generation. There is also a narrative drive to the film. It isn’t about the jokes, it is about the character and developing as a real person – weaving in a few of the jokes subtly.”