Safe House: How one film put Cape Town's movie industry on the map


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America has Hollywood, India Bollywood and Nigeria calls it Nollywood. But there’s no name for the burgeoning film industry in South Africa that’s suddenly taking off in Cape Town. What shall we call it? Towlywood? Let’s try Callywood.

Unlike Nolly and Bolly, Cally isn’t just a local industry. Although plenty of South African TV shows, movies and commercials are made in Cape Town, it’s the US movies being made there that are really making an impact.

If one movie can be said to have changed things, it’s Safe House . A big-budget actioner with stacks of stars from Denzel Washington to Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson to Sam Shepard, not only did it prove that Callywood was capable of handling tasks from set-piece locations to high-octane car chases, it also worked to promote the city. That’s because it’s largely set in South Africa’s Mother City. So, without ever being a travelogue, the movie has the spectacular scenery of Lion’s Head, the fine white sand of Clifton beaches and even the higgledy-piggledy earthiness of the Langa township built into its story.

Washington plays a rogue ex-CIA agent with a phial of incriminating data. When he’s chased by murderous gunmen he hands himself in at the US Consulate and is interred in a Safe House guarded by Reynolds. The Safe House was a set, built by Moonlighting Film Production Services, the South African company that’s spearheading the city’s movie success.

Philip Key is the CEO of Moonlighting and is an instantly engaging man with zen-like calmness. Not to mention the experience of over 1,000 commercials and 40 movies in the area. He is clear why Cape Town is a rising force.

“The place has a lot going for it,” he told me, standing on the turf of the city’s World Cup stadium, a key location in the movie. “ Many of the richer cities in the world are in the northern hemisphere, so shooting in their winter – our summer months – is trickier. The South African currency is generally weakish, so that makes us economically appealing to movie centres in Europe and the States. And our cosmopolitan population makes it easy to shoot something that requires a range of racial types.”

The growing success of the city’s film industry means that there are now multiple well-equipped costume centres and props houses. “ If you need a boat in a movie, there are people in Cape Town who can tell you what will be in our waters in the next couple of months,” Key explains.

And Key has been instrumental in the construction of state-of-the-art movie studios. Sumptuous and fully-equipped, with a permanent outside set that is versatile enough to handle multiple locations, the four studios gleam. “They lack the character and the patina of Pinewood, from which we borrowed a lot of ideas,” Key admits.

But they’re a statement of confidence, a determination that Cape Town has all that’s needed. The landscape is versatile, so you can shoot in the mountains in the morning and the city centre in the afternoon. Plus, the weather in the summer, from February to June, is reliably bright and sunny.

In some ways, Safe House was an easier shoot than normal. When Cape Town stands in for New York, it takes more than plonking a yellow cab into the action to do the trick. South Africans drive on the same side as the UK, so that means the traffic flow has to be turned around. And the street signage needs to be changed. At least when Cape Town is standing in for itself, with its landmark buildings like the stadium, the distinctive town centre architecture and the Table Mountain backdrop that dominates the city, it’s an easier transformation.

There are still challenges working in the centre of a city – the authorities prefer you to keep it to weekends if you’re closing the roads . And time constraints meant that in city-centre locations the film used multiple cameras shooting simultaneously, plus second unit filming for establishing shots on different days. Of course, you can’t see any of this. The magic of Holly, er, Callywood is that every part of Safe House is carried off with the professionalism, special effects, and gotta-love-the-star-quality of any mainstream US production. It showed the local crews, working with heads of departments from Hollywood, were capable of first-grade stuntwork and attention to detail.

Key is an evangelist for Cape Town’s rising star. He pinpoints other factors, like the fact that South Africa is both first-world and third-world, so it’s not as unionised as California, say. Or that the enthusiasm of Cape Town film crews is infectious so companies enjoy coming back.

The icing on the cake is the South African government’s support of movies, where it will pay for up to 15 per cent of the movie’s budget. When Safe House was being written, several locations were considered, including Argentina and South Africa. The headwind offered by the subsidy was just one reason the makers opted for Cape Town, finishing the script to make the city a crucial element.

There are concerns, of course. Cape Town, though no Johannesburg, is a place where you want to keep your wits about you, so location security has to be tight.

The days filming in the Langa township required detailed local negotiation to keep everyone happy – and even then there were complaints when the nighttime filming involved gunfire which disturbed residents.

And as Denzel Washington is a big name there, he had his own security entourage discreetly following him out of shot when he was filming in the city centre. Though that was just to save him being distracted by swarms of fans.

Still, Key’s – and the region’s – success is continuing. Mad Max 4 with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron is about to start filming, in what will be a massive endeavour. The crew will number around 700, thought to be the biggest ever for the Cape.

The hope is that Safe House has put the city firmly on the global map, both on and offscreen.

Safe House is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download on Friday 15 June.