South Africa set drama Escape from Pretoria filmed in Australia

The film's producers talk to KFTV about filming in a converted car factory in Adelaide, accessing local financing, and preventing star Daniel Radcliffe from being mobbed by fans

By Chris Evans 11 Feb 2020

South Africa set drama Escape from Pretoria filmed in Australia

British director Francis Annan’s forthcoming film, Escape from Pretoria, set in the notorious South African prison during Apartheid, filmed entirely in the South Australian city of Adelaide.

The film tells the true-life story of political prisoners Tim Jenkin (Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber), two white South Africans who, along with other prisoners, hatched a plot to break out of Pretoria Central Prison in 1979 using handcrafted wooden keys, after being convicted of campaigning with the African National Congress (ANC).

Other producers had shown interest in adapting Jenkin’s book Inside Out: Escape from Pretoria prison, which was published in the late 1980s, but no project came to anything. That is until 2003 when Mark Blaney of UK outfit Footprint Films met with Tim over dinner and knew after talking to him that they had to make the film.

Blaney and his partner at Footprint Films, Jackie Sheppard, joined forces with Harry Potter producer David Barron at Beagle Pug Films and Gary Hamilton and Michelle Krumm at Arclight Films, based in Australia and the US, who are the movie’s sales agent.

Mark sent Annan, an unknown British director, Jenkin’s book back in 2012 (even though they didn’t have the rights at the time) and he loved it. Once they’d secured the rights [again, having had them once before], Annan took on the directing reins and co-wrote the adapted script with L.H. Adams.

Exploring South Africa

“We originally intended to film Escape from Pretoria in South Africa, and went out in 2017 to look at locations, including paying a visit to the (still functioning) Pretoria prison itself. We also met potential financiers, cast and crew,” Blaney explains to KFTV. “Our location manager in South Africa, Michael Auret, insisted we should also look at the backlot of Cape Town Studios where they had a set of Robben Island prison, which was used for the film Long Walk to Freedom.”

“It’s an incredible site,” Auret adds to KFTV. “I’ve done a film there before using one side of the façade, turning it into a diner (and its been used by other films), but the main quadrangle of the prison and the cells remain the same.”

Despite initial scepticism as to whether it could look like Pretoria, Blaney and director Francis completely fell in love with the place on the spot. They were assured by the guys at the studio that they could do anything they wanted with the set. So excited were they by the place that they thought it was worth investing a bit of the development money into having drawings done for the existing backlot set adapted into Pretoria prison.

Cape Town Film Studios' Robben Island set. 

Unfortunately, despite securing approval for the local rebate and looking at the builds, they faced difficulties getting all the funding together for the whole project in South Africa. “Having a first time feature director put pressure on what financiers would stretch to and eventually, although there was a huge amount of enthusiasm there, we just couldn’t get the budget together to make Escape viable to the production value that we thought it deserved,” says Blaney.

Adelaide double for Cape Town

So they moved to Adelaide instead, which had actually doubled for South Africa before. Its old colonial architecture was perfect. “On our recce there in November 2018, our production designer Scott Bird showed us a picture of Cape Town in the 1970s, it looked exactly like Adelaide now,” enthuses Blaney.

With the invaluable support of Arclight, they got to work. “We took possession of the main street in Adelaide at 6pm the night before our shoot date, and set about transforming it into Cape Town,” Jackie Sheppard, Blaney’s partner at Footprint Films, tells KFTV.

This included putting in coin operated parking meters, old cars with South African number plates, changing the street signs and shop fronts. They did such a convincing job that a South African woman living in Adelaide felt like she’d been transported home.

“One problem we had was the multiple access points to the street. This meant constantly blocking people from coming through,” says Sheppard. “The moment that people knew that Daniel [Radcliffe] was there the crowds formed pretty quickly. Amusingly, a local radio station put out a competition to see who could spot him.”

For the prison sequences, they took over an old Holden car factory, which was a massive site with huge warehouses. The interior of the two main prison wings were built in one of the warehouses. “The crew and designers did a great job to make it look like the Pretoria prison,” enthuses Blaney.

Holden at Elizabeth.

Holden factory, Adelaide

The exteriors were filmed at the old prison in Adelaide and the interior canteen at the old police academy, while a council chamber was taken over for the courthouse. “We had quite a few local extras and were the biggest thing that had hit Adelaide in some time so there was a huge amount of media attention,” adds Sheppard.

Local support

“It was a real combination of local crew and production talent, and also the support of South Australia Film Corporation who were really good as well. If there was ever a moment where you weren’t quite sure of something you could pick their brains on the local angle on stuff,” says Blaney.

Indeed, the SAFC and US-based MEP Capital are backers of the project. The latter helping cashflow the project. “It was great having MEP onboard, being in on those closing calls and hearing them navigate things. It’s easy to find money there, but it’s equally important to do it with people who understand what you are trying to do with the project,” says Blaney.

Arclight are also co-financing the film with New York-based Magna Entertainment. While post-production work was done in Melbourne, Victoria with local outfit Soundfirm, rather than in the UK [as originally intended], ensuring funding support from Film Victoria.

“It’s the sort of film you’d choose to see on a Friday night that will make you laugh and cry, and it will thrill you with edge of the seat action during the prison break, set against the backdrop of Apartheid,” enthuses Blaney.

Escape from Pretoria is due for release in UK cinemas on March 6. 

Homepage image of Daniel Radcliffe and Daniel Webber in Escape from Pretoria. Credit: Ian Routledge

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