Exclusive Interview – Director and Star of The Umbrella Men: Escape from Robben Island
The Umbrella Men: Escape from Robben Island, a Known Associates Entertainment production, offers the return of the beloved ensemble cast from the film 2022 film The Umbrella Men. Reuniting the cast in the spirit and setting once of the beautiful old quarter of Cape Town, South Africa – the Bo Kaap – the language, identity, music, and heritage are once again all again represented on-screen in iconic splendor. After the successful Umbrella Men heist, our usual suspects, Jerome, Morty, Mila, Keisha and Auntie Val find life is sweet. But revenge is sweet and soon Jerome and Morty land in the recently reopened Robben Island Prison. Keisha, Mila and Auntie Val need to bust them out and clear the boys’ names so they can return to the Bo Kaap as free men. This time around the women take control and our South African feminist heroines are vital, clever, and inspiring leading the action in The Umbrella Men: Escape from Robben Island.
The Umbrella Men: Escape from Robben Island makes its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival running September 1-17. Our exclusive Classic Couple Academy interview with director John Barker and lead actress Shamila Miller follows.
Few films realize the opportunity to have a sequel. How did this present itself for The Umbrella Men: Escape from Robben Island, now the second film in the franchise?
John Barker: I guess it even started from when we were on set with the first film. I’ve been around the block and I’ve done enough productions that you know when the chemistry is right. And you hope that the content that you’re working on is great. When we were on the set of The Umbrella Men it became like a standard joke that we’ve waited 13 years to make this film but the film was kind of waiting for us to all get together. That’s such a great window and we were lucky to get our four leads. To have four young, talented actors from their community, who were just so good, it doesn’t happen every day.
Chemistry was there. We worked really hard on set but there was a great camaraderie that felt like there really was a family vibe. We enjoyed being around each other and we enjoyed the hard work and the challenge. We decided to talk about doing the sequel and it just developed from there. We wrote and spoke to the actors. The actors were obviously very happy and the crew were all very happy.
How did you prepare to reprise this role and reveal even more personality of your character?
Shamila Miller: The story picks up lsix months after the first one ended, so there’s not a lot of time in between the two stories. What was really interesting about this time around is that while Keisha did play a pivotal role in the first film, she is the love interest, right? She took on the role of being the love interest and that was all good and fun.
With the second film I was given an opportunity to build on her as a character because she took this hero, front and center leader position. I think Keisha as a character coming from a banking background is such a go-getter and ambitious person. I feel like I could really showcase that side of her personality within this film within the storyline. It was a lot of fun to do because you’re in the middle of getting your hands dirty, and just showing her authority and leadership—that development for me and her taking on that role was so special.
The women—both mature and young—in the film are fierce and resourceful. How are these portrayals reflective of the past and contemporary roles of women in South African society?
Shamila Miller: Personally, I think that we are showcasing the Cape Malay community and the women within that community are very strong. And they usually may not be in the forefront but they’re always getting things done, whether it’s behind the scenes or in front of the scenes. To showcase the strength of that community through the women is an important story to tell because it’s very much what happens on a day to day in the lives of these women. We wanted to tell the story of the umbrella woman but then tie it into the umbrella man world. John and Phillip just did such a great thing in creating this world for making the centerpiece women.
John Barker: When we had the idea of making the sequel, we didn’t want to fall into the trap of sticking to the same genre as the first one. To keep the second one fresh, it just made a lot of sense to make it more about the women. The women are such great characters and I thought that we hadn’t examined enough of their characters. There’s action again, but it’s the girls who are brilliant.
Shamila Miller: Actors like myself, we have such strong personalities already. We’re very adventurous and we want to do things. I think that part of our personality is showcased through the characters because we’re very adventurous go-getters. I think John saw that in the first film, or everyone saw that, and he took what we had and developed it.
The first film is a bank heist, and now we have a prison escape caper as another perfect vehicle for an ensemble cast. Did you draw on other films in the genre for inspiration?
John Barker: Yes, absolutely. We pay homage to Papillon homage and the scene where Steve McQueen sticks his head through the hole in solitary confinement. People may say it’s a complete rip off, but it’s meant to be an homage. All our vision boards had Papillon on one end and Escape from Alcatraz and Reservoir Dogs. Even Stir Crazy with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. We use those references all the way through the film. There’s hundreds of films that we watched that we used as references and hope people can see those references to the originals.
Musical performances are peppered throughout the film to help tell the story. How is the music different in this film?
John Barker: We use a Greek chorus in the choir formation to tell some of the story for us. So that was hugely important. Keeping the Goema Club as the centerpiece of the film was also very important. The first film is more about the minstrels and the minstrel music that they create and the second one has more Cape Malay music, and the sounds also have a very much of an Arabic background. Music is so important in the community, and we could keep it quite fresh with this approach.
Can audiences expect more The Umbrella Men films?
John Barker: That’s key question because it’s about if the audience loved the first film and they love the sequel. If we have lots of people who see it and talk about it because they really do love the characters and the stories and they love what we’re doing, that would be amazing. Then, we will definitely continue.
Shamila Miller: This film was because of the audience and the reception of the first film. The first time around we were thinking how cool would it be to make a sequel. The fact that it was so well received—that pushed us into making another film. We’ll have to wait and see.
Classic Couple Academy Recommends
Watch the The Umbrella Men: Escape from Robben Island trailer.