Watching Safe House in New York is a surreal experience. The film shows off Cape Town like it’s never been seen before on cinema – as the backdrop to the action thriller that plays out between Denzel Washington’s Tobin Frost and Ryan Reynolds’ Matt Weston. I never thought I’d see Langa township get a starring role, or witness Denzel wearing a SAPS uniform!
I interviewed the actors and also director Daniel Espinosa, and they spoke of their 5 months shooting the movie in Cape Town, lauding the country for its work ethic and scenic beauty. In the movie, which releases here and in the rest of the world this weekend, Denzel plays the agency’s most dangerous renegade, who stuns the intelligence community by surfacing in South Africa and when the safe house to which he’s remanded is attacked by brutal mercenaries, a rookie, played by Ryan, is forced to help him escape.
So, I present…
10 Facts About Shooting Safe House in South Africa:
1. The original script called for the film to be set in Rio de Janeiro but riots in the flavelas at the time of pre-production meant the insurance companies felt it was too risky to stage it there. The script was re-written to switch the locations to Johannesburg and Cape Town, and the production team found that the country more than fulfilled their wishes. Denzel agreed it was a good move: “You get a real texture and feeling when you shoot in the townships, and that’s one of the beautiful things about Cape Town. It’s so diverse, from downtown and the townships to the ocean and the mountains.”
2. The safe house to which Denzel’s character is sent in the film was built on a makeshift soundstage at the 3 Arts Theatre, one of the oldest theaters in Cape Town, and took nearly 3 months to complete.
3. The production made use of South African talent wherever it could, including for scenes with large crowds involving sometimes up to 4000 extras.
4. It took about four months of negotiation with the City of Cape Town to nail down the four-day window in which filming at Green Point Stadium could occur. Ryan said: “Filming at this pristine stadium creates an interesting juxtaposition for the film. There are moments where you see South Africa as a world nation. In other moments, you see Third World conditions, and you know people are doing their best to survive, day by day. This strange contrast creates a visual richness that we wouldn’t have had if we shot somewhere else.”
5. Daniel said they had great support from the locals, especially in Langa township, a main setting for the film, where people were hired for a variety of production roles: as assistants, security and location consultants, and many of them were included in each step of the process, from pre-production to filming and wrapping the shoot. “We spoke to the elders before we went in and they chose who was going to guide us around the township,” he said. “They really looked after us.”
6. The director said he found Langa to be much safer than other parts of Cape Town, including the CBD, where they experienced a few robberies. “But these were the kinds of robberies that would happen anywhere,” he admitted. “If you leave a car open with a Macintosh inside, it’s your own fault.”
7. One of Ryan’s favourite spots to eat was at Mzoli’s in Gugulethu: “It was so nice to be part of that community – to listen to the music and pick your raw meats and then they cook them. You can’t help but be in a good mood when you’re in Cape Town.” Ryan used his time off to soak up the culture, saying that he went “all over the place – Cape Point, Durban, drove along the Garden Route and I hiked up Lion’s Head a lot.” His Green Lantern co-star and girlfriend Blake Lively flew in for a few days to shoot re-takes for the superhero film, during which time she also took in the sights, like Cape Point, and overcame her fear of shark-cage diving.
8. The aspect of South Africa that most surprised Ryan? “The level of joy and sense of wellbeing among the people. There was probably more joy in the townships and shanty-towns than your average home in Brentwood, Los Angeles. It was really bizarre to see that people with no plumbing and no discernible electricity – or resources of any kind – had this strange level of joy emanating from them,” he said.
9. For Denzel too, the people were a highlight of his time in South Africa, even if he did find himself being asked for autographs and pictures more often than he’d liked. “The people are so welcoming,” he said. “I love it that when you give someone a tip in South Africa, they always put both hands out,” he said, adding he appreciated the warmth behind the gesture.
10. Both Washington and Reynolds said they found the crews “amazing” to work with. “I am sure after this more people will go there and make movies now,” said Reynolds. “Especially movies that show Cape Town for Cape Town. We certainly sell the place!”