Though streaming services are packed with full-blooded historical dramas from your HBOs and BBCs, Jail Caesar is something a bit different. An independent movie starring Derek Jacobi and Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact) which recently arrived on Netflix, it appears to be another ripe slice of actors projecting amongst the pillars. However the details behind this tale of a young emperor-in-waiting are anything but conventional. It was shot inside real prisons, using their plight as a context to the action, and featured inmates working alongside the professionals.
The brainchild of director Paul Schoolman, it was born out of a ground breaking series of workshops conducted within Dartmoor in the 1980s. When Home Secretary Douglas Hurd put the brakes on development, it kept evolving over the decades before finally reaching screens in 2012. So far it has won a string of awards on the worldwide circuit, such as Best Supporting Actress for Krige at the Madrid International Film Festival. Appropriate given the project’s globe-trotting nature – Schoolman took his team inside the infamous Pollsmoor Prison in South Africa (which played host to Nelson Mandela), as well as a facility in Cardiff. The cast blends Jacobi with names like John Kani (A Dry White Season) and Richard Clifford (My Week With Marilyn). Prestigious though the movie turned out to be, the real goal was to provide a means of expression and a lasting legacy of empowerment for the men and women behind bars. To this end Jail Caesar has made some inroads to its destination, laying the groundwork for its participants to leave their former existences behind and go on to become a real part of the film industry, in locations as far afield as Los Angeles.
As an admirer of Schoolman’s aims and ambitions, it was a privilege to be able to speak to three very diverse but key players in the making of this release – Sam Burns, a British writer who met the director whilst in Dartmoor… Peter John Christians, a formerly-incarcerated South African musician and rapper… and Warren Adler, an actor and businessman who eventually became the star and co-producer. I began by asking them about their backgrounds and the paths they took to getting involved in the production…
Sam: “I’m a working-class boy. Got into drugs, became an alcoholic and a drunk, joined the British Army. Made it up to being a paratrooper and a solider, messed that up cos I married the wrong woman. I was a speed freak or an amphetamine taker, intravenously and orally. And at thirty-five I got diagnosed with severe bi-polar, and schizoid-empathic disorder, which means I’m a borderline schizophrenic and I see things that are not real when I’m ill. Plus on top of that I’ve got post-traumatic stress disorder. My war was Northern Ireland, and I have recurring nightmares, night terrors… and then I have epilepsy and I have Type 2 diabetes. That’s a full drawer isn’t it? Full house in five card stud!
I went to Dartmoor for a robbery. I was a nasty piece of work mate, I had no conscience. And I’d use as much violence as I had to, to take what I wanted. Prison is immensely boring. You spend an awful lot of time in prisons just locked up… so all these tattooed maniacs would come rushing downstairs to watch a sitcom before getting banged up halfway through it. I sat there and changed all the dialogue into filth. I even had the screws laughing… Tony and Frank (two fellow inmates) said ‘Go on big mouth, go on this!’ On the board there was a little sign that said: ‘Looking for four guys who think they’d like to write a screenplay on the early life of Julius Caesar’. I didn’t have to do much, so I went.
That night I wrote two films, I had to do something. You get banged up at ten o’clock, I’d pull my bed into the centre of my cell, stand on it, and there’s no power in the cell. I hand wrote by the security light. I had no idea I could write and still I can’t punctuate, I’m a phonetic speller, and grammar’s like Japanese to me. Paul absolutely changed my life. I wrote a play which subsequently got put on at the Edinburgh Fringe. Me and Paul went on breakfast telly… that was very successful.”
Peter: “I was born in Cape Town. At the age of eighteen I was charged with murdering my stepfather. After spending two years awaiting trial I got sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. Inside Pollsmoor I discovered the ability and passion to write poetry and songs. At first I used my skills to help fellow inmates write poems to their girlfriends and family who were on the outside. In prison word gets around fast, so I got approached by other inmates who also wanted to rap and write poetry.
Before long I founded the I.K-Crew (Incarcerated Knowledge). Then one day a warder, who was very supportive of our crew and all inmates aspiring to positive change, informed us about Paul and his film crew busy in another section of the prison. We asked him to escort us to there to hang around and see what all the fuss was about. After a few minutes we got infected with the creative energy of their group. On the second day Paul’s interpreter was absent due to falling ill and I volunteered myself to stand in for him. By the end of the day, Paul asked me whether I’d be interested in taking on the role of Cicero. I accepted and as they say, the rest is history.”
Warren: “I was at school with Alice Krige’s nephew, he was a very close friend of mine. And when I went overseas to live in Los Angeles and look at the film industry he put me in contact with Alice. So I had dinner with Alice and Paul at their home in LA, where they introduced me to… it was called STRING CAESAR at that time (in reference to the movie’s overarching theme of string theory), and the work they’d been doing in prisons. And I was intrigued by it. I was over there obviously looking for acting opportunities, and one thing led to another.
I ended up getting more involved with them both, from a producing perspective as well as an acting perspective. Coming from a business background in South Africa I understood the principles of producing… putting all the pieces together, bringing all the players and the locations together, to make the film work.”
Warren: “Sam’s an interesting character. I think he’s got a lot of history and a lot of depth to his character. I found him very interesting, especially for someone who had been in and out of prisons and understood the prison culture. He had an unbelievable aura, this powerful energy that surrounded him. And I think… working with him both on that sequence in the changing room and on the basketball court one can get that sense of prowess in him. He’s just a really good guy.”
Sam had long been a free man when he worked on the shoot, whereas Peter entered Paul’s world as an institutionalized artist. The director’s way of working inspired him.
Peter: “I immediately opened up my mind to Paul’s creative process and his vision, because through me the group had to get a clear understanding of the insights he shared with us. Therefore I had to let go of any stereotypical or prejudicial habits a person tends to develop being in a position that I was in. Luckily, being a creative and a creative facilitator myself, it wasn’t a hard task for me. So we worked really close together and I really appreciate him giving me the freedom to edit the script of my character. I wanted the lingo to be more fluent and comfortable to my mother-tongue and cultural background as a Cape Town Coloured. For the rap scene at the funeral, I totally had to get out of Cicero’s mind/persona and look at the script through the eyes of Julius Caesar himself. So I wrote a song especially to reflect on Caesar’s perseverance through his trials and tribulations and his determination to be number one.”
For Warren he approached the process from the opposite end: the perspective of a regular citizen immersing himself in one of South Africa’s most dangerous settings.
Warren: “I’ve got to tell you the first day that I ever I walked into Pollsmoor Prison was… before I went in, obviously one was a little bit nervous. Not apprehensive, but you didn’t know what to expect. And we were met with warm smiles, friendly attitudes, an openness from both the staff as well as the inmates themselves, and a willingness to want to work with us and meet with us, and help facilitate whatever we needed on the inside. So I found it a very warm, engaging environment, and I felt extremely safe working within the confines of the prison.
We worked at length with all the inmates that wanted to work with us, both on the production side, on hair and make up, on wardrobe, on acting, on camera, on a little bit of post production… On elements of the ‘Making Of’ we gave some moonlighting cameras to some of the inmates to go round and record some footage and tell some stories, and that was an extremely rewarding process. To take these guys, with no opportunity on the inside, and take things through a work process and skill them up with certain life skills… where they wouldn’t have had the opportunity on the outside or the inside.”
Arguably the biggest challenge lay in acclimatizing the famous talent to their new workplace. The transition proved to be surprisingly easy, as the aims of the visitors fused with those of their collaborators.
Warren: “With Derek Jacobi and Alice Krige and John Kani, who were all known in terms of the work they have done… I think they brought a level of credibility to the work that Paul had set out to do. Working with those three seasoned, veteran actors, hugely talented people… the inmates really fed off their energy and enjoyed the interaction. For Derek it was quite a life-changing experience as an actor, to work within that scenario. He was extremely complimentary to the guys, for what they gave to assist him in getting to where he got to in the film… I think when you watch the film you won’t be able to tell who are the actors and who are the inmates, the prisoners.”
Indeed, Jacobi’s performance is striking in the way he blends into his surroundings, despite his theatrical presence. But the real yardstick for Jail Caesar is time. How will ensuing years treat the end product? Will it make a difference to the relationship between art and institution, or could it languish as a curious social experiment?
Peter: “The process of working on this production made me more determined to pursue my art-form and nurture my creative talent. The appreciation for my work boosted my self-respect and made me see some value in my past experiences. Although sometimes it feels as if it was all a joyride…. it would’ve been nice if the movie could make some money so I could set up a home studio and invest into recording equipment. My criminal record doesn’t allow me to get a decent job or any financial credit. I still write and rap and hold on to the beautiful things in my life, my family. When I have to choose between being a full time creative and doing an odd job for someone to at least buy necessities, I have to choose the latter. The compliments I get are feeling more and more like insults. They do not reflect in the reality I’m living: homeless, my suitcases full of potential.
I’ve recorded a few songs so far and a documentary about my life post-release from prison. I’m trying to get funding to do a campaign in schools with it. To use my music and documentary as inspirational tools to motivate youth at risk to stay in school and away from a criminal lifestyle.”
Sam: “I didn’t achieve very much at school, I was too busy getting caned and whipped. If I was born today I would have definitely been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, you know? I just wouldn’t behave, they couldn’t control me. They’d use corporal punishment, they’d beat me. Now I’m a Christian. A Baptist Christian. I always play devil’s advocate in my writing.
I’m hoping that Jail Caesar will go viral on the internet in the end, and I hope Paul makes some money because I will. And then maybe I can get off benefits, because I’d love to be off benefits. I don’t like being on benefits, I’ve worked hard all my life when I left school, and never was on the dole. I really was a good soldier, I had an excellent record, till I messed it up. Unfortunately I didn’t know I was ill then, but the Army should have picked up on that. Now I’m fighting them over a war pension and a lump sum for the damage done to me.”
Warren: “I think its legacy is going to be extremely long-lasting, because if you take the adolescence of Julius Caesar and his scripted journey that the film takes you through, there’s no difference in modern day life than there was in the days of Julius Caesar. All that has happened, in my opinion, is the artillery, and the means of war, of warfare and gangfare, have somewhat changed. One just needs to take a look at the world today and look at the Somali pirates that are capturing all these big cruise ships and holding them hostage… you know, Caesar himself back in the day was ransomed, in real life. The methodology is identical. However the ammunition and the warfare they use in today’s world is just different to what they had then.
History has a way of repeating itself, and in today’s world there are many Caesars and many leaders going through the world trying to make difficult decisions and trying to make things better for their country and the world. I think if people can look at Jail Caesar in that context and see how history repeats itself, I think this film can have a long-lasting legacy, especially with the youth.”
Sam is currently writing a book, ‘Somewhere The Weeds Grow’, based on the parables of Jesus. He’s also working with Paul Schoolman on a forthcoming documentary.
Peter is working on new material – a link to his music can be found here: INCARCERATED KNOWLEDGE.
Warren is pursuing new business interests and hopes to return to acting soon.