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The police officer turned bank robber

New film tells story of South African Andre Stander

By Stephanie Snipes

Thomas Jane as Andre Stander in "Stander."
South Africa
Bronwen Hughes
Crime, Law and Justice

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- In the late '70s, a disillusioned Johannesburg police officer, Andre Stander, turned his back on the laws he swore to enforce and started robbing banks.

He went on to become one of the most infamous bank robbers in South Africa's history.

Few outside the country are familiar with the story. Stander, a police captain who specialized in robbery and homicide, robbed banks (sometimes on his lunch break) then returned to the scene with fellow police officers to investigate the crime. He was a master of disguise; the witnesses he interviewed never recognized him.

He got away with this charade for three years.

In 1980, Stander was arrested and sentenced to prison. Three years into his 75-year sentence, Stander and two inmates, Patrick McCall and Allan Heyl, managed to escape from jail and they formed the "Stander" gang. The trio robbed up to four banks a day in their short-lived crime spree.

Now, 27 years after the first robbery, director Bronwen Hughes ("Forces of Nature," "Kids in the Hall") has brought the story of Stander (Thomas Jane) and his notorious gang to the big screen.

One of Hughes' biggest challenges was recreating the 1976 Tembisa riots, a gruesome township uprising that quickly turned deadly. The crucial scene involved guns, dog trainers, helicopters and more than 1,300 extras.

Hughes, who wrote the final script for "Stander," sat down with to discuss the film.

CNN: This was not a familiar story. How did you get involved with the film?

BRONWEN HUGHES: I didn't know anything about it myself. I just started reading [the script] like a virgin not knowing what I was about to read. And, by page 10 I was hooked. Page 10 is about where the riot scene begins and ... the prospect of directing a scene like that was so mind-blowing and incredible that I kept reading.

CNN: What was it like to film the riot?

HUGHES: It was wild. The riot scene was, like I said, the scene I was most looking forward to and most daunted by at the same time. ... most of all because I was looking into the faces of the people who had lived it. I was distilling the very recent and raw history of South Africa down into one dramatic sequence. Which is too much weight for one scene to bear.

CNN: Did you meet any resistance from the government?

HUGHES: We had incredible cooperation from the South Africans. We had the South African police sending us advisors and lending us the uniforms and the gear and the vehicles. And we had access to the real-life locations like Andre Stander's very own prison cell, and the courtroom he was sentenced in, which was the same one [Nelson] Mandela was sentenced in.

Stander (Jane) with his gang: Lee McCall (played by Dexter Fletcher) and Allan Heyl (David O'Hara).

CNN: It seems that this is a story the government would want to keep quiet.

HUGHES: I was actually surprised myself. For sure, the film couldn't have been made with that kind of openness before the regime change. But in the spirit of the new South Africa ... these are the kinds of stories they want out in the open.

It was also a delicious news story for South Africans who were news starved in the apartheid era. It was very, very controlled press and reporting. ... And for the most part [Stander] was an incredible anti-hero for the people.

CNN: How did you do your research?

HUGHES: When I first officially began the rewrite I wanted firsthand stories. No more reading the press articles, which were a very slanted view of Stander, the government owning the press not wanting to paint such a balanced or sympathetic portrait of the man. So, I got on a plane and when to South Africa and I started meeting everybody I could that knew him.

CNN: What was the best piece of information you uncovered?

HUGHES: The coup ... was to find out that Allan Heyl was still alive. He was the only surviving member of the Stander gang [and] is serving a 33-year sentence in Krugerdorp.

CNN: Was he open with you?

HUGHES: He was reluctant to talk to me at first because he's ... always been painted as a monosyllabic thug. ... He started to open up and tell me everything that I could possibly hope to know. From the words they spoke, what the bank tellers said to them, how they did it, how they planned it, what it felt like before, during and after, what made them do the things they did and that was the coup for me in research.

CNN: Why was Thomas Jane the perfect person to play Stander?

HUGHES: Well, what I really wanted more than anything was to work with a real actor. There's such an incredible challenge for the actor in the lead of this because he does a transformation from one end of the spectrum to the other. And there's accents, and there's Zulu, and there's sex, and there's violence and tenderness. ...

And I saw Thomas' demo reel that had scenes from all the films he's done, and in each one he looked like a completely different person ... making him the ultimate chameleon and making him the ultimate match for Andre Stander.

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