JAIL CAESAR is an innovative prison drama with a historical twist about to get a wide release after winning acclaim at festivals worldwide. Telling the story of Julius Caesar’s early life it differs from other period pieces in that the period is totally fragmented – writer/director Paul Schoolman set out to film the script in a modern day prison, featuring inmates as supporting actors. He ended up realizing his dream over thirty-odd years, eventually shooting inside institutions at varied locations such as South Africa, Canada and Cardiff. The production also managed to attract no less a talent than Derek Jacobi in a key role, as well as Alice Krige, who co-produced and helped develop the prisoners’ acting talents. Well-known for her movie roles like the Borg Queen in STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT, she recently received the award for Best Supporting Actress at the Madrid International Film Festival, one of a string of honours for this unusual and challenging effort.
THN caught up with Paul and Alice for a chat about what it was like to create a movie in perhaps the ultimate high pressure environment and what they hope its legacy will be. However the interview began with Paul outlining the genesis of JAIL CAESAR…
Paul Schoolman: I wrote to the Home Office years and years ago and asked for permission to make a feature on the early life of Julius Caesar based on a play I’d put on. It was a piece of total theatre… We took over spaces and turned the audience into the crowd as it were, into the Romans. To my amazement after about six months they came back to me and said ‘We’ve given your proposal a great deal of thought and we think the prison that would suit you best is Dartmoor, so we’ve arranged for you to go down and meet the governor. And I thought ‘Bloody hell they’re trying it on, they’re testing me’…because Dartmoor had about the worst reputation you could possibly have.
I went down and more or less started work straightaway. I mean there was nothing like it in Britain, there was no theatre in English prisons at all, I’m talking a long while ago, this was the 1980s… I started going in, at first it was very difficult, I had to work on landings, on the stairs or wherever I could get inmates in ones and twos. And then of all people the Prison Officers Association took a liking to what I was doing and they started to help me… I took in lots of top class pros, some of the best actors in England, writers from France, where I’d studied… We all submitted reports to the Home Office, which built up into a big portfolio… Not being funded in any way by the government, we funded it ourselves. We’re not rich, we just wanted to do it with no strings attached. Today I’d never have been allowed to work (this way) in the first place.
So in a sense it was good that it was a long-gestating project?
PS: Oh I think it was the only way. I mean, the prison officers who I’ve subsequently worked with say nobody would get anywhere near being able to make a film like that today.
Alice, you ran workshops with the prisoners for quite a time leading up to the shoot?
Alice Krige: In many different prisons. We ran workshops in Drumhella Penitentiary (Canada), three prisons in Wales, in Medium B within Pollsmoor (South Africa) which was the mens’ prison. It was one step down from Medium A in that the security was handled in a different way. For example, in Medium B we would be let in at about nine in the morning, and essentially locked in, sometimes with only one officer and then unlocked again at one o’clock in the afternoon. Whereas that couldn’t happen in Medium A… No-one would go into Medium A, no outsiders, certainly not doing what we were doing.
A lot of people would say you were all quite brave undertaking this project. Your first big scene has you on a pool table surrounded by prisoners and you’re waving a knife around. What was the atmosphere like on a day like that?
AK: I know that people might think we were brave, in fact what we found… going into the jail as it was, all our groups were volunteers, no-one was obliged to come, so everyone came because they wanted to… Everyone who came worked with an extraordinary candour and commitment, and we didn’t realize this ourselves, but it became clear when it was explained to us by the prison governor… a remarkable man called John May… he said to us ‘What you’ve done is given individuals that we couldn’t necessarily reach a sense of their own potential value… That someone thinks they have worth.’ And it’s probably the first time that that’s happened to them… That was what they responded to, was our saying ‘We want you to tell this story with us because we think you’ve got a very special contribution to make.’ And we weren’t being social workers, we were being filmmakers. And everyone responded. So what happened was, not only were they receptive, but because they were very protective of the project and really wanted it to have a good outcome they were incredibly disciplined in their approach to it. There was never any blurring between reality and this being a performance, or a created reality. So I’ve never felt safer than when I was inside, I mean that moment on the pool table, it appeared to be totally chaotic… But it was totally disciplined and everyone knew what they were doing, and everyone as working towards the same goal. It was ultimately exhilarating, because there was such focus when we were working.
Paul, how did the prisoners take to the script?
PS: As you’ve seen the film you know it’s quite a complicated script and some of the language is extremely difficult… English is a second or even a third language for most of those men in Pollsmoor. I think everybody thought I was mad, it stood no chance of coming out the other end at all. We did months of workshops and by the end of it they were in step every beat of the way. They were translating it fluently amongst themselves, they were discussing the best way of putting a line across. They’re highly intelligent men and women. The level of intelligence blew my mind.
You worked with a lot of non-actors, but how important was it for you to have, for want of a better word, “famous” performers involved?
PS: I think it gives the film a different life… We could have made a film without them but I think it would have been a very different film… It worked on many levels, for Derek Jacobi has a huge following. Alice Krige has a very large following from STAR TREK… So it’s perhaps opened it up to an audience that wouldn’t normally see such a film… Apparently the number of hits on Google at the moment asking for Derek Jacobi and why he’s in it is quite extraordinary.
How involved was he in the overall shoot and how did the inmates react to him?
AK: What was wonderful was that Derek was hugely supportive of the project as we sought the financing. Over a period of about eight years he allowed us to use his name which was very, very helpful. Ultimately we financed it ourselves but they stuck with us, he and Richard Clifford (MY WEEK WITH MARILYN)… they helped wherever they could. Then when we actually shot it they worked on a deferred basis. We fed them, we flew them out there, we gave them somewhere to live, which was essentially someone’s apartment … They were there for about two weeks. I think it was an overwhelming experience for Derek, he was deeply disturbed by the conditions in which the prisoners were living. It made him desperately unhappy. I think he found it very, very challenging. In terms of his relationship with the prisoners, he is a man of enormous humility and great sweetness, in spite of these towering roles that he plays. He is a very gentle human being… And the prisoners treated him with the utmost regard. He just came in, didn’t ask for any special treatment, put on his prison uniform, came in and was locked into the prison. We didn’t stop for tea or for lunch… people had bottles of water they had to bring in themselves… He dressed himself, he did his own hair…
He got stuck in by the sounds of it?
AK: Absolutely… And turned out astonishing work. On Derek’s last day the prisoners had hand made made a card for him and everyone had signed it, to thank him for having come from England to work with them… He opened it up and his eyes welled with tears… I think that was a measure of how moving the experience was for him.
Paul, as director what would you like people to take away from the film?
PS: I think an awful lot… on many different levels. There is of course the whole prison side of it, in more than one country. And that’s happened in a way since we started, prison work is not now unusual, even though it would be very difficult for people to get the permissions we got. The idea of prisoners getting up and doing wonderful acting is no longer unusual… Just unusual to see it like that. So in a sense that’s already started to come to fruition. And also I love, personally, the complicated storytelling. Many films have become so made by committee and they are so simplistic, and I’m not badmouthing other films, I’ve got huge respect for anybody who gets a film from one end to the other.
Alice you’re having a very varied career. What are you currently working on?
AK: As an actor I’ve just finished a series for Fox called Tyrant (the controversial new drama set in the Middle East from Homeland creator Howard Gordon)… It’s about a fictional kingdom, in the turmoil of the Arab Spring. It hasn’t quite broken the country open yet but it’s simmering and the ruling family undergoes a crisis which is that the President – my husband – dies of a heart attack at his grandson’s wedding. And the second son who had fled the country because he couldn’t cope with it and gone to America… has come back for the first time in twenty-five years for the wedding. And what happens then is the family slowly gets torn apart by the question of who should rule, the eldest son who’s been groomed to rule or the second son… The logistics are very challenging. We were shooting in Israel and got pulled out before we’d finished the last two episodes as the land invasion started. So logistically they’ve got quite a problem, to get the feel of a Middle Eastern country so where do you shoot it that’s safe?
Oh and I’ve just done an episode of NCIS! Which was so much fun. I had crossed paths with Mark Harmon twenty years ago because we shared a manager in LA and I had worked with Michael Weatherley. In fact he was cast in NCIS just as we were wrapping on a show that he and I had shot in Sydney about Natalie Wood… It was wonderful, one to see him again and to meet Mark, but… usually when you do an episode of a long-running series and you’re not a regular you’re kind of wheeled on like a parcel and wheeled off… their interest is in developing the regulars… but they made me feel as if I was part of the family, as if I’d been there from day one. That was really lovely, it was just four or five days of work but it was quite wonderful.
JAIL CAESAR are making an announcement about a release date soon.