Escape to Last Man Peak, a beloved Jamaican novel, is being made into a movie.
The book, written by Jean D’Costa and published by Longman Caribbean in 1975, tells the story of a group of children who escape from an orphanage to find refuge in a place called Last Man Peak during an epidemic on the island.
Through their journey, they have many adventures including finding two other children along the way and dodging a group called the Dancers who believe the blood of a child would protect them from contracting the disease.
The book contains some eerie similarities to our current pandemic.
In the first chapter, for instance, the eldest boy of the group, Jimmy, tells the children: “Remember what they said on the radio when the stations used to come on and Matron told us again: if people mix a lot it easier for them to catch the sickness. They should stay at home. Out in the country. And big people get it more than us.”
“It seems serendipitous,” says Tanya Batson-Savage, on the perfect timing of the project.
Batson-Savage, an author, playwright and filmmaker, and her business partner Analisa Chapman are founders of Have a Bawl Productions and are the producers of the movie.
She says the similarities of the COVID-19 situation and the book are really a credit to D’Costa’s research.
“She had explained that when she was putting the book together she had spoken to people up at UWI to see what if there was going to be a disease that would be cataclysmic, that would cause an apocalyptic type thing, what kind of disease would it be? They explained it would be something of the flu variety, easily transmitted and these would be the elements. Basically, we are living so much in this time right now and that makes it feels like serendipity, that we are right to be pursuing this at this time. It makes the moment feel like it’s perfect,” she says.
Both women met D’Costa, who they described as “unfiltered and amazing”, and got her blessing to adapt her book for the big screen.
The women began their journey towards making the film several years ago.
In fact, before either of them began making inroads into filmmaking they spoke about turning the book into a movie.
“It is a story that made that kind of impression on you, you wanted to see those characters come to life, you want to see them on the big screen, it is such a wonderful cast and it reflects us,” says Batson-Savage.
Chapman adds: “From so young it had such an impact and influence, you could see yourself on that journey, we could see ourselves as those kids when we were reading and the story has just resonated throughout our adult life and obviously when we were in a position to make progress to that goal we definitely went for it.”
And while there were many others who believed Escape to Last Man Peak was tailor-made for the big screen, Batson-Savage and Chapman were the first to really pursue it.
Chapman, who is an Intellectual Property and Entertainment Attorney and President of the Jamaica Film and Television Association (JAFTA), says the process to get the rights was a long, complicated one.
“It was a pretty involved process because it wasn’t just simply a matter of oh, let’s call the publishing company and get the rights. The book has been around since in the 70s and had gone through various different publishing companies and in the big scheme of the bigger companies as it keeps getting eaten up by different publishing companies, it falls lower and lower in their catalogue. It was about finding out first of all who owns the rights. It was a five-year process in just identifying that and then we had to have them locate it within their catalogue and negotiate the rights. It was a labour of love,” she explains.
This week, Escape to Last Man Peak moved one step closer to development with the appointment of Nile Saulter as Director.
Saulter, the brother of acclaimed Jamaican filmmaker Storm Saulter (Sprinter, Better Mus Come), will be embarking on his first feature-length film with this project.
The women said they always had Saulter in mind for the project.
“We were first introduced to his work at the Flashpoint Film festival in Negril and we saw a short film that he did and it really resonated with us cause it was set in this dystopic kind of setting and we said hey, this will be an interesting filmmaker, what about this guy to direct Peak and we have been following his work from 2006 onwards,” explains Chapman.
“He has a very keen sense of story, a very good eye, he is also a cinematographer in his own right and he has a passion for this story, for the book, for this project and all of those seem to align at the right moment and he was the perfect fit.”
Saulter tells Loop News that with the pandemic, turning the book into a movie seemed extra poignant.
“It made all the sense in the world, it’s kinda like one of those things you don’t want to give up,” he says of the opportunity to direct the film.
Given the popularity of the book in Jamaica, Saulter said there is some pressure but he believes there is more of an added advantage that there is such a connection to it.
He says the fact that the book has also been used in schools throughout the Caribbean also gives him joy.
“To me, it is something that is an added bonus. I love that is has been read regionally and it is known across the region. I am all about regional unity and connectivity and in my mind’s eye that is a positive element of the future.”
The producers are also buoyed by the regional appeal of the book.
“As the world reckons with the legacy of racism and colonialism…as it continues to build on that legacy one of the touchstones have been the need for more diverse storytelling and as Caribbean people, that message is kind of so yuh just a learn dat? Because we are a diverse people, as different as we are is one of the things we bear in mind,” says Batson-Savage giving kudos to D’Acosta for including a Chinese girl, an albino boy and a white baby in the story.
“This racial diversity is a thing all Caribbean people understand and it is a part of what the children have to come to terms with and have to deal with because while they are building their family, they’re constructing a family, they also have issues to contend with, they have things to deal with because they are not perfect, no family is.”
“Any family that is perfect would have come straight out of TV in the 1970s and that is not what we are used to. So there are all of those elements that Caribbean people can see and identify with. It is perfectly fine to have a very Jamaican story that a Trinidadian, or a Bajan or a St Lucian can identify with. I remember when I read Miguel Street in High School, I swear my mind used to hit pon my road because the characters speak to us and the experiences speak to us even though it is set in one of our islands.”
Nile Saulter, filmmaker and Director of Escape to Last Man Peak
Describing the movie as one that will be family-friendly, the women say it will have fun and serious elements in it.
Batson-Savage says: “It will have elements of some amount of action, some elements of fun. It is likkle pickney who are in an adult world that is in many times your enemy. It deals with some serious things but you retain your childhood. It is not about the loss of childhood; that is not what Last Man Peak was. It is a movie that brings about hope and the world right now needs hope and to have a movie that in many ways mirrors so much of what we are doing, the message is about hope and resilience and coming up, literally at the peak. It makes it a beautiful moment to be doing this film.”
Filming of Escape to Last Man Peak is expected to be completed by 2022.
Chapman says that 2021 will be about finalising the pre-production, the film development process, and casting with filming in 2022.
She says at the moment they are securing financing. The film is now in the second round of CineMart, a co-production film market in Rotterdam.
She says: ”We will know the outcome of that in December but once we advance we will have the opportunity to interact with international co-producers and financiers and that will be something that will be ongoing throughout.”