Escape from Pretoria is easily one of the most anticipated films at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival and understandably so. This adaptation of Tim Jenkin’s real-life story, Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria Prison, of South Africa during apartheid sees Daniel Radcliffe taking on the lead role.
We caught up with upcoming and exciting director, Francis Annan, to talk about the gruelling shoot and how the issues of the film are still particularly relevant today.
Escape from Pretoria is such a powerful story- is there added pressure because these events actually happened?
It is interesting in a number of ways. On one level it can be quite comforting because you are not sat down staring at a blank page trying to write something.
You can go to Tim’s books, back to the source material and that is useful when you are stuck. But with this you have something that has a pre-existing life where fans can say you’ve cocked up something.
Once that realisation starts to hit you, you start to go back to check if a particular date is accurate or did something really happen in this way.
For me I became aware of it during the writing process and to sort of marry that tension on one hand where finances want it to be tense then on the other wanting to pay respect to Tim and Stephen.
The first draft I wrote, I literally went through the book and found the best bits and wrote it and they’d said it was a bit paint-by-numbers and I thought great, it is accurate!
The more people that read it said it is a bit much and needs to be more cinematic. Mainly what I was doing was condensing what happened over a period of months into one event.
I also wanted to have each new bit of the prison escape, as it were, to feel fresh. So that was tense.
From the beginning did you always have Daniel Radcliffe in mind for this role?
They wanted a star. You know, I was like okay. You need someone who picks interesting projects.
Dan fits into that categorically and yet is also a star. I was like he’d be really interesting. A film of his called Imperium had just come out, I thought was a great film and he just carried it beautifully.
When the chance came up we just sent the script to his agent and she loved it. She sent it to Dan and he devoured it and then we met and was like bang I am in!
I needed someone of that level who would consider a project like this, effectively a low-budget indie movie.
During the preparation for the film did you guys have Daniel spend a lot of time with Tim?
Well, Dan had read the book and watched some interviews Tim had done. Both their schedules were packed but Tim and Dan did manage to meet to do prep.
Tim gave some really useful notes about certain things that happened and we used those tips in the film. That was good to have that input from Tim that actually ended up making it into the film via Dan’s performance.
Before the shot and before Tim came to set, we hired a cinema where we got Tim on a massive huge screen for a Skype call. We had this call for about two hours with him and filmed it.
It was so helpful to have that just a week before shooting to put the right ideas into the minds into the characters.
What an intense experience it is to watch – was it anything like that at all when making it?
It was hot! We lost time. The shoot was like trying to run across a field in winter being chased by wild animals.
Constantly running the whole time. I’d wake up at 4.00am, go to set and bang we are up against it.
Get up again the next day and do it all over again. I did that for 29 days. It was tough because we were shooting an extra half-page or page more than what we had time to almost everyday.
I felt like I was this sort of maniacal dictator to get it all done.The thing is everyone enjoyed it.
The crew were like a family. There was one scene that we literally had 11 minutes to shoot. One of the actors wanted to do another take but didn’t have the time as there is an allocated 10-minute break for the crew.
One by one, every crew member said they’d give up their break to let Grant, who plays Captain Schnepel, shoot another take of his scene. Grant actually ended up crying afterwards and said he’d never experienced that in all his years of filming.
We were kind of like it was all of his versus the schedule. I loved that. Somehow that comes out in the film.
The film is about that as well, there are 10 guys on prison wing even though they disagree on certain things fighting against the regime. And we were fighting against the schedule and the constraints.
So how did you keep the mood light on a set that was no doubt stressful?
There was banter and laughs, we were all running around at crazy ridiculous rates.
Australians, like South Africans, are fun and take everything on the chin. That kind of levity was really helpful.
There was actually one day the Focus Puller [Bayley] and DP, Jeff Hall who is in a band, brought in conga bongos. I was really frustrated that day because we weren’t able to get a shot we really needed, totally hacked off.
He just pulled me off set and had set up a bunch of congas. Bayley, Jeff and myself for about half an hour had a jam session.
Everyone started grooving and it was a lot of fun.
Escape from Pretoria seems particularly poignant today with everything happening and the divides in society. So was that something you were mindful of?
You look at the 50s, 60s and 70s it felt, especially like with a modern lens, that there was so much to fight for.
There’s that infamous picture of the guy in Tiananmen Square in front of the tank, Vietnam and the Cold War. So many injustices in the 70s and 80s youth were active. Now it can feel in the West that everything is comfortable and nothing to fight for.
But you look underneath that there is quite a lot of stuff going on. When you look at beyond the West at the Arab Spring, what is happening in other parts of the Middle-East, Hong Kong as well as other parts of the world there are revolutions going on around the world.
Globally there is still a lot of division and tension and lot of people fighting causes. It made me think a lot about that. It made me think a lot about what are the things these days that people either are or would be imprisoned for plus who would have the mindset to not stand for it and sock it to the man.
What is next for you? What do you have in the pipeline?
We are showing the film at the Guadalajara Film Festival. Then off to L.A to see my agent, got a bunch of scripts with ICM and meeting a lot of people. I’ve got about seven or eight of my own projects.
I’ve got this project about the Notting Hill Riots in 1958 and how that all started. I might write that myself or co-write it.
Also have this Mexico/Texas border thriller that is really interesting to me.
It looks at what happens at the coal-face in terms of small border towns in America being the last line of defence against what some perceive to be a potential wave of drug cartels or general criminality coming over.
These massively under-resourced border towns are only really equipped to look after 6,000-7,000 and suddenly they are being thrust to the frontline.
The film tries to look at that and there is a script and let’s see what happens with that.
Signature Entertainment presents Escape From Pretoria in Cinemas from March 6th and you can read our review here.