by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
In 1978, Tim Jenkin was sentenced to prison for twelve years for working on behalf of the African National Congress (ANC). Soon after his incarceration, he and several other inmates began plotting an escape that would take them a year and a half to execute. Escape from Pretoria (starring Daniel Radcliffe, Daniel Webber, and Ian Hart) is the story of how they made their getaway.
LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher talked to Jenkin and the film’s director, Francis Annan, about bringing the story to the screen.
John Bucher: Tim, I’d like to begin by asking you if you’ve had time to reflect on these difficult and traumatic experiences in your life being turned into a film?
Tim Jenkin: Well, it was 1987 when I wrote the first version of the book. And the very first efforts to make the film failed because they couldn’t raise the money to do it. Ever since then I’ve been signing contracts every five years. And this current one is the second attempt by the producer to make this film. So, finally, it’s happened 40 years after the actual events. I had a long time to reflect about this story.
And it is a bit strange now that it’s made. I never believed it would happen. Now it’s happened. I’m very excited about it. Although the actual escape has sort of dimmed in my memory, it’s a long time ago, and when I watch it and I read my own book, it’s like reading about someone else’s story – very hard to believe the thing you had to do in those days.
John Bucher: Were there moments when you saw the film that did take you back to that experience or remind you of details that you hadn’t thought about in a long time?
Tim Jenkin: Yes, of course. The incident particularly at the start of it where we were releasing recycled leaflet bombs – the explosive devices that threw leaflets up into the air. They were quite harmless. That brought it all back for me. I’d forgotten about all that, and strangely, the ending of the film was very accurate indeed. And in fact the tool that I used to break out of the final door of the prison in the film is actually the tool that we used to break out of our prison in Pretoria forty years ago, so that is very realistic.
Some of the other events are fictional, in the sense that the true story takes place over a year and a half is very spread out and you can’t really capture all of that in a hundred minutes. So some of the events in a sense – summaries of whole lots of activities – they’re not 100% correct, but the general substance of the movie is correct. It doesn’t deviate much from the truth and certainly doesn’t go off on a tangent and end up in the wrong place. It starts off as a political story and ends as a political story and maintains that throughout, so I think it’s pretty accurate.
John Bucher: Francis, as a director, how did you get such established actors, like Daniel Radcliffe and Ian Hart, through the story?
Francis Annan: I talked a lot about the physicality of the scenes where there wasn’t much dialogue. I showed them other escape films where actors had accomplished similar ideas without much dialogue. I wanted to use lots of short shots and lots of closeups, so we talked about what that would mean for their performances.
John Bucher: Tim, were there moments in Daniel Radcliffe’s performance that you feel like captured some small detail or nuance of who you are?
Tim Jenkin: I think all of it really. He played the role very well. You know, we’d talked quite a lot. Even before the film started, we had some online interaction and then when I was on the set, we sat together and he wanted to know as much as possible about the thinking of the event. He would talk to me about what my feelings and my thoughts were. He is an excellent actor. There’s not an awful lot of dialogue in the film. It’s more of an action film, and the music and the visuals are more important than the dialogue. So I think he captured it.
Francis Annan: Yes, aside from Daniel’s excellent performance, sound is a very important part of the storytelling in the film. I wanted you to experience the prison through sound. I wanted you to be aware of the potential danger even if you don’t see anything and sometimes sound is essential for that.
John Bucher: The story feels very relevant, watching it in our current political climate. I wonder if you could speak to that?
Tim Jenkin: I see the escape as a metaphor or analogy of our current situation, where huge environmental and political and economic problems surround us and I see that as like a prison. We are all trapped in this giant prison and we’re all looking for a way out. Our physical prison serves as that analogy, and instead of adopting some kind of high-tech approach or getting a helicopter to lift us out of the prison or digging an impossible tunnel, we adopted a very low-tech approach that no one would expect would work. That was just making wooden keys. The wood is like a symbol of basic materials. You don’t need anything special. It’s quite simple to find the solution to the barriers.
We didn’t have a grand plan of how get out. We simply tackled the barriers as we approached them one at a time, and each time we got through one barrier everything looked different. As we improved our capabilities and we realized we could open any door in that entire prison, suddenly an escape route that we didn’t think about in the beginning became a reality. And that’s really how we need to tackle our current predicament.
John Bucher: I know many of our readers are creative people who may never find themselves in an actual prison, but often in their own lives, in their own work, they feel trapped. I wonder how you kept hope all those days when it seemed so dark?
Tim Jenkin: We kept sight of our goal. Each small step gave us the encouragement. Each time we moved slightly forward – that first step, opened each door, one at a time – suddenly we realized we could do more each time. I think this is the way we need to accept a life problem. You can only achieve big goals by attacking them step by step. And each step provides you with encouragement and then move on to the next one.
John Bucher: What do you hope that audiences who see this film will walk away with?
Francis Annan: For me, putting your money where your mouth is, is very interesting. Sometimes the temptation to recoil, where there’s great potential costs, can be overwhelming in difficult situations. Also, sticking with an idea – even when it seems impossible. Making the choice to really stick something out is something, I believe, people can learn.
Tim Jenkin: I’m hoping that it will show that dedication and commitment and attention to detail and a slow progressive approach is the way to tackle problems, and that small actions have big rewards and big endings – that an individual can overcome huge barriers, as we did. Not just the physical escaping from the prison, but undermining the confidence of the apartheid regime.
Three people could demonstrate that in their own small way, they could embarrass an entire state, that they can evade capture, that they could escape, not only from the prison, but from the country and they can overcome all the security apparatus, all the barriers they were thrown up against and show that the big powers are not invincible. I think that, in pursuit of a goal, tackling it step by step, will help you to get to where you want to get.
Escape from Pretoria hits theaters today – March 6, 2020.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.