Two Oceans Productions (TOP) is currently filming Laconia, a German/British production for ARD and the BBC. South African producer Giselher Ventzke describes the shoot as TOP’s “biggest project so far.”
Directed by Uwe Janson (Peer Gynt), the two-part drama tells the true story of the 1942 Laconia Incident, where a German U-Boat torpedoed and sunk the armed British vessel RMS Laconia, only to discover the sunken ship was in fact carrying large numbers of civilians and nearly two thousand Italian prisoners-of-war. Lieutenant commander Werner Hartenstein (Eine andere Liga’s Ken Duken) acted beyond the call of duty – and against the orders from the Nazi high command – in undertaking a daring rescue operation, cramming 200 survivors onto the top of his surface-level submarine.
Despite draping his gun decks with Red Cross flags, the story took a second tragic twist when they were spotted and mistaken for duplicitous enemy subs by an American B-24 Liberator bomber. “This is a very special story,” Giselher says, “a big and very important anti-war movie.” Written by BAFTA nominee Alan Bleasdale (Boys from the Blackstuff), Laconia is being produced by Teamworx (who produce approximately ten event movies a year) and co-produced by talkbackTHAMES (The Apprentice) as two ninety minute event movies for television.
Laconia has two gigantic 60x8m setbuilds of the decks currently visible at Strandfontein Tidal Pool and Sea Point in Cape Town. “Clive Pollick, the construction manager, has also built three submarines, including a 80 tonnes steel, full size sub that we are pulling on a tugboat out onto the open ocean next week, where we have scenes on the Atlantic with the submarine pulling lifeboats with 200-300 extras. We also built all the submarine interiors in a warehouse round the corner from our office in Paarden Eiland.”
Australia, Malta and Germany were all considered as alternate locations, but South Africa secured the job because of its superior value-for-money and TOP’s track record with Teamworx, which spans more than 15 feature films. “Our biggest advantage here is that we have proven that we can do it, again and again. The Department of Trade and Industry’s rebate is also very important.”
The tidal pool at Strandfontein offered an ideal primary location: isolated, sheltered and with beautiful sea views. However, Free Willy: Escape from Pirate’s Cove had already used the pool during peak summer season at the start of the year, leaving locals without their favourite swimming pool to cool down in. Negotiations to use the location were difficult, especially as the production needed to drain out the water and the sand to dig the pool deeper so that the actors could jump from the boat into the water.
The project was greenlit at the beginning of May 2009, but the permit for the location only arrived at the end of August 2009, a week after they were supposed to have started building. “This pool belongs to the public and is not a film studio,” Giselher says, “so we have to respect the public’s needs. Thankfully, we are shooting before summer, but it’s meant that we have to be out by the first of November, which doesn’t make our life any easier.”
DOP Michael Schreitel is shooting the film mostly on two handheld Arricam Lites from Cinegate. “We wanted to use a modern film language, rather than making this feel like a classical historical movie,” says Michael. “So we’re close and tight on the people, using quite short lenses, using the point of view of the main actors. Not observing, but in the middle. Of course, if you have such big locations, you sometimes use big crane shoots as well to get into a scene.”
Shooting a Second World War film at sea, his colour palette was always going to be dominated by brown and green uniforms and blue sky and water. “We’ve tried to avoid yellow and shot in high contrast,” Michael says, “We didn’t want to have this sepia, brownish Second World War look, so we’ve pushed for some new colours.”
He’s shooting completely on 35mm film from Kodak. “Shooting at night, with all the water and the explosions, film was the best choice,” Michael says. “We’re often shooting high contrast – into direct sun, with backlight, six stops over or under – so film was the only option.”
The production is expected to spend around R60 million in South Africa, with 90% of the crew being locals. “We have 61 shooting days after nearly 16 days of preparation,” says Giselher. “We’re working with up to 190 people, a big scale for a TV movie. In all, we’re creating nearly 30 000 working days, which is the biggest scale that we have ever worked with in terms of job creation.”
The postproduction will be completed in Germany and finished in German, English, Italian and French before being broadcast in the beginning of 2011.
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