Cannes: Why Sean Penn's 'The Last Face' Filmed in South Africa

Courtesy of Kelly Walsh
Bardem and Theron are international aid workers in The Last Face, which shot in multiple locations throughout South Africa.

Producer Bill Gerber reveals how the country's versatile locales and movie production incentives made it the ideal location for the festival entry starring Charlize Theron.

A year after Mad Max: Fury Road's rousing reception at the Cannes Film Festival, Charlize Theron is returning to the Croisette with Palme d'Or contender The Last Face, directed by Sean Penn. The film, set in a war-torn country and shot on location in South Africa, follows the director of an international aid agency (Theron) as she embarks on a conflicting love affair with a relief-aid doctor (Javier Bardem). The project made use of South Africa's versatile locales (the country stood in for both Western Africa and Zurich) as well as its various movie production incentives, including a 20 percent rebate for foreign works with budgets of at least 12 million rand (about $845,000). Ahead of The Last Face's premiere at the festival, THR spoke with producer Bill Gerber about spending three months (and braving the winter) along the South African coast.

When did you decide to shoot the film in South Africa, and why?

The story is a Western African story, so it was always our intention to shoot in Africa. The original scout that Sean Penn and [cinematographer] Barry Ackroyd did was in March 2014 — they went to Liberia and Moravia. It was hairy. It was right around the time the Ebola epidemic started, so they were very brave to go.

How long was the shoot?

We started shooting in August 2014, and we finished the movie in early November. At that point, we had been in South Africa and in Switzerland. We went back in July 2015 and did five days of additional photography.

How many locations did you use? How versatile were the locales?

What we did was Sean basically scouted Western Africa so we could find what we needed in Southern Africa, and after going to Southern Africa and looking at locations, everyone was satisfied that we could double the landscape accurately and that it would make for great filming. We shot in Cape Town, Port Edward, Upington and Pella, Northern Cape [where cave dwellings were filmed]. In Cape Town, we were able to double places as far as Zurich, whereas in Port Edward, that was all jungle exteriors.

Did you utilize South Africa's tax rebates and incentives or use a local facilitator for hiring crew and renting equipment? What was that process like?

We did. The incentives [South Africa offers] are enticing — it's very provocative. And we also got lucky in that the exchange rates kept improving in our favor the longer we stayed down there. We had a spectacular local production company called Moonlighting; we dealt with a woman named Genevieve Hofmeyr [who also helped with on-location shooting for Mad Max: Fury Road], and she just did an extraordinary job of lining up crew in all the departments, other than the key [crewmembers] whom we brought with us. They're very pro­lific down there and just great.

Did you do any local casting?

A gigantic amount of local casting. We had Sudanese characters, [and] we had all kinds of Western African parts in the movie. Our crew was spectacular. In the credits, Sean calls them his "kick-ass South African crew."

Were there any memorable moments shooting on location?

Working on the Wild Coast in Port Edward, you saw people's lifestyles that were kind of extraordinary — you know, people that would be fishing every day for their livelihood. It was a very peaceful place up there and very, very beautiful. For me, personally, I took several really long soft-sand runs on the coast, and I would maybe see one person the entire time. But it was really the people. I would say the most extraordinary takeaway was just how great the people were to work with — the local crew and actors.

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Hollywood Descends on Cape Town Studio
A steady stream of big-budget location shoots keeps Africa’s largest filming facility expanding
By: George Szalai

Cape Town film studios has attracted a slew of big movie projects starring the likes of Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Naomie Harris, Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds since opening its doors in late 2010.

Starz’s Black Sails has taken up much of the facility’s space In recent years, but an expansion during the past year allowed the studio operator to add The Dark Tower with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey to its list of big-name gets.

“We are extremely busy but happy about it,” Cape Town Film Studios CEO Nico Dekker tells THR. “The fifth soundstage and an additional workshop were completed by the end of January. International productions of note immediately started queueing up to book it.”

Dekker says he currently can’t fit any more projects at the country’s first custom-built Gerber studio hub, located only 25 minutes from Cape Town’s city center and 10 minutes from Cape Town International Airport. “We are too full — we haven’t got a single millimeter,” he quips. “We are in a good space. We have almost all the jobs at the moment that we can handle.”  

Upgrades to the studio, which offers 75,000-square-feet of production space, include a concrete roof and a sliding wall to enhance soundproofing.

This story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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