Making Jail Caesar

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Sun, 11/23/2014 - 13:26 -- Nick Dager

Jail CaesarHow does a young man some called “a wastrel” become, at just 33, Julius Caesar, ruler of the known world? For writer, director, producer Paul Schoolman, that question was the genesis of his new film Jail Caesar. Starring Derek Jacobi as Sulia, John Kani as Marius and Alice Krige as the Pirate Captain, the movie is set in three South African prisons and features prisoners in key roles. The film has won several major awards around the world and will be available on Netflix later this year.  I spoke via several emails with Schoolman and co-producer Krige, about the long, hard task of bringing Jail Caesar to life.

Digital Cinema Report: What was your inspiration for Jail Caesar?

Paul Schoolman: I bought one of those big cheap coffee table books as a gift for my partner. It was in a sale for 50 cents so I could just about afford it. The opening paragraph amazed me: 

“For two thousand years Julius Caesar has been regarded by the western world as the greatest man whoever lived, yet until he was 33, Rome thought of him as a playboy, a wastrel, and a homosexual.” (Note: I bought this book a long time ago.)

The book then immediately jumped to when he was 33 and leaving Rome to take up a post in Ulterior Espania. Well! I wanted to know how he achieved this amazing jump. This metamorphosis. In my world, if you were nothing at 33 it was unlikely that you would become ruler of the known world. So I started to research it.  This was a long time ago and there seemed to have been very little done on Jail Caesar early life. I managed to get permission to research in the old British Museum Reading Rooms! It was pretty awe inspiring knowing that Karl Marx et al had all worked in there! I was mesmerized by the tales of gang warfare, corruption...etc. Nothing has changed! Jail Caesar rose through gangs to become Julius Caesar! Prisons! 

DCR: Was this your first film as a director?

Paul Schoolman on locationPS: No. I shot a short years ago. Somewhere Else. I improvised with actors in Paris and Basle. We used the Faschnach Mask Festival of Basle as our inspiration and the prostitutes of the Rue St Denis as our canvas.  That did well in festivals.

I also shot a long doc in Zimbabwe as research for a feature that never happened. We covered a play writing competition hosted by a school in the highlands. St Augustines. Hundreds of people wrote plays in all three of Zimbabwe's main languages but one character was central to all the winning plays - the Nganga or traditional healer. So I set out on an adventure to find Ngangas in the newly independent Zimbabwe. The white people who saw it in the UK thought it was politically incorrect to say there were Ngangas in Zimbabwe, so its life stuttered and stopped.

DCR: How were you able to convince such experienced actors as Alice Krige and Derek Jacobi to participate?

PS: Alice was very difficult to get through to so I wrote to her and promised to make love to her if she worked with me. As we'd been married for about four hundred years by then, she found the offer interesting. Alice had been at the Royal Shakespeare Company with Derek Jacobi; she played Miranda to his Prospero and Roxanne to his Cyrano, so he was prepared to read the script. His partner, Richard Clifford, was also hugely supportive of the project. I must stress though that getting an actor like Derek to read a script is a long way from getting him in front of a camera. Once Derek signed on John Kani, another true genius, also said yes.  And Bo Peterson, a truly wonderful South African actress, brought all the great South African actors on board. They were brilliant! 

DCR: How were you able to gain the participation of the prisons?

PS: Hard work. I wrote to the UK Home Office and explained that I wanted to make a film about the early life of Jail Caesar with prisoners. I was always 100 percent upfront with all prison departments. In fact with everybody. I cannot bear manipulation. I had been at Coppola's Zoetrope Studios in Hollywood for nearly a year and watched the great man work on a daily basis. So I had pretty good credentials.

There were no drama workshops in Brit prisons at that time and they asked me to go and checkout Dartmoor Prison - England's most notorious prison. To everybody's amazement the prison officers jumped in and started to work with me straight away. They were great! I took in a huge number of professionals and they all wrote reports and we bombarded the Home Office with very professional criticism of the prisoner's work and attitude. I did get banned at one stage but that appears to have been orchestrated by angry parties inside the film industry. Alice and I visited Richard Attenborough in his home. He invited us in, gave us tea. He was the epitomy of English greatness. He had literally just got off the plane from filming Biko. He told me he had read all three of my prison scripts and he agreed with me that the one to make first was Jail Caesar. He was going to see Douglas Hurd, the Home Secretary that afternoon. He telephoned us at home that same evening and simply said, “Mission accomplished! Go and get on with your work!”

Derek JacobiDCR: What was your biggest challenge working with prisoners as actors?

PS: Keeping up with them. I was hugely privileged in having studied under Jaques Lecoq in Paris. His work was extraordinary. I worked with prisoners exactly the same way I work with actors. No difference at all. Also - I come from a very, very poor and deeply dysfunctional family. I think the prisoners sensed this. I wasn't a voyeur. I was actually looking at myself - there but for the grace of God.

I also tried to use the most important lesson I had learned from both Coppola and Lecoq: openheartedness.  These two great professionals both understood the technical aspects of their crafts better than anybody on earth, but they both seemed to operate from their hearts.

DCR: What was your budget?

PS: Piecemeal. We wrote several budgets with many professionals over the course of the years but at the end of the day we just had to spend what we had. Pawn and sell stuff and max out our credit cards. All in all it ended up costing ... I am going to hand over to Alice here as she paid for everything and did all the deals.

Alice Krige: Jail Caesar has so long and organic a gestation/evolution and has developed so powerful and determined a life of it's own that budget is a complex answer. However, production, post, and some marketing could be pegged at about $500,000. Festival submission has lasted about 18 months and the social media campaign is ongoing.

DCR: How was your film funded?

PS: Alice footed the bill and all the actors and pros worked on deferrals or at least part deferral. 

In the early stages we were given funds by a local TV station, which no longer exists and the Sasakawa Foundation out of Japan. The BFI funded a writing season from which two other scripts, Nonce and Stone Hotel, emerged. We were offered full funding by an independent group made up of film professionals; we actually spent a week storyboarding with them at Bray Studios, but they started to move the goalposts: they wanted most of it to be CGI with pro actors and when we did go into prisons the actors had to be a minimum of 10 feet from the prisoners. A nonstarter for us.

Alice Krige on locationAK: Two absolutely crucial aspects of the funding are that all the actors worked on deferrals and for a profit share - without their support Jail Caesar simply could not have been shot in the way that it was - and that the prisons did not charge a location fee. Also of the utmost importance is that the co-producers and executive producers worked purely for ultimate profit share. Also, cast and crew and musicians accepted the minimum wage, deferred or not.

ClearCut Post Production (the company that did the first pass in post) and Goldcrest both deferred a portion of their costs. 

All the above are an indication of the passion and long term commitment given by every one who has contributed to Jail Caesar at every stage of it's journey. (An exception was mentioned by Paul.) It was and is extremely important to Paul and to me that the percentages of profit share arising from revenue from Jail Caesar should be substantial, and there will be a profit share corridor for cast and crew once we've paid deferrals and as we begin to recoup costs. Twenty percent of gross profits will go to StringCaesar - The Turning Point Foundation to continue creative work with prisoners and ex-prisoners. This is important to us for several reasons, one of them being that we were not allowed to pay prisoners. Jail Caesar qualified for he UK spend tax break and this was extremely helpful.

DCR: What things went into your decision to shoot with the Canon XL H1?

PS: I was at a film Expo in LA and firstly I loved the image it produced - didn't seem so hard and in your face as other cameras. Then I fell in love with the camera itself. Its look, its feel. Purely instinctive. Then Birns and Sawyer in Hollywood were brilliant. They could not have been more supportive. And the same with Canon.

Canon XL H1DCR: What specific lenses did you use?

PS: 20 x 200m XL

5.4 - 108mm

1.6 - 3.5


6 x 200m XL

3.4 - 20.4mm

L 1 1.6  - 2.6


DCR: How was the film lit?

PS: God.

DCR: How did you record sound? 

Shooting in Pollsmoor PrisonPS: The integral board on the XLH1. When I bought it I asked Birns and Sawyer for the best sound shop in Hollywood. They told me it wasn't necessary - but I went anyway. The shop looked at the specs in the XLH1 handbook and agreed with them. But I bought:

A set of body mics x 2

And a set of Sennheisser x 2 

A boom

I don't ever recall using the body mics, as radios are used in most prisons and they would have interfered with each other.

I used the boom attached to the camera and operated by an inmate for a couple of weeks. I soon gave this up as I was dealing with large crowds and the cable was a danger factor. I shot most of the film with the Stennheisser mics actually on the camera, which worked out fine as there was virtually no camera noise.

DCR: How long was your shoot?

PS: Very long. We shot in Cardiff, Drumheller in Alberta and Pollsmoor in Cape Town. It really took the whole year.

DCR: Where did you post?

PS: London: Technicolor, Goldcrest and Molinare.

DCR: Talk about the challenges of post-production on a tight budget?

PS: Overwhelming. Our home in California burned down during the Pollsmoor part of the shoot. We lost literally everything except the stuff we had with us. We were offered hospitality in London and we were grateful to accept it. But this meant we had to break a golden rule: Work with who you know. Work with who you know. Work with who you know.

I had many, many hours of footage and I did not want to cut it myself. I wanted an outside eye. I made the first assembly and we were introduced to a London based editor who was sick of working at film school. He saw the assembly and waxed lyrical. We paid him far more than anybody else and eventually he just stopped working and said he had to change the structure. I said we had to make the first cut according to the script he had agreed to. If that didn't work we could of course talk about restructuring. But he simply refused to work. 

A scene from Jail CaesarThis is not me moaning. I subsequently met other directors who suffered the same treatment. In Perth, Australia, we met a highly professional and respected American who suffered exactly the same fate. They started their seminar with “Sack earlier, not later!” 

It's sad to have to put such a comment in an article about creativity but then it’s very important that your readers are aware of these dangers. The editor in question caused us massive public embarrassment, and cost us literally hundreds of thousands of pounds and lost time. We are still paying off the legal bills. Tell your readers to make sure to get contracts signed up front. The days of handshakes are over

That said, we actually had a brilliant relationship with Sahil Gill who took over the editing and really salvaged the work. We were very pleased that he was nominated for Best Editor at Madrid. Also, the people and groups he brought on were all magnificent: David Mackie, sound, Christoph Bauschinger, composer etc etc. Molinare, and Goldcrest. Great people.  

DCR: What was involved in securing Netflix distribution?

PS: The U.S. distributor is Corinth and they took care of Netflix. Corinth have been wonderful.

DCR: What format or formats will you use to distribute the film?

PS: We are still looking to Art House because Q&A is so very important. Prisons are a problem everywhere. And we did start a charity, StringCaesar - The Turning Point Foundation, in Cape Town, with Archbishop Tutu as one of the patrons.  But certainly the main format will be video on demand.  Alice screened the film for Amanda Neville of the BFI who said. 'It will open very small but it will have very, very long legs!'

DCR: What is your next project?

PS: I'm working on three films, plus one theatre piece, which will use video. The theatre piece is Ingmar Bergman's Persona. I was very privileged to be able to rehearse in his house on the island of Faro in Sweden. And Alice and I have been rehearsing with Branka Katic the wonderful Serbian actress.

The three films! One is very big and expensive. The script is finished and in the right hands -- but I really can't talk about it! Unlucky. But the other two are great:

At the Jakarta International Asian and Pacific Filmmakers Festival. Jail Caesar took the Gold and we were very please to be surrounded by young, great filmmakers. I started working relationships with two of them, one from Australia and one from Southern Africa - and we are in the process of working with them both. Low budget and digital! Which I Love!

Also, we have finally finished Shingetsu, which is being submitted to festivals as we speak!

Fingers crossed!