Jan Gilbert talks to Rupert Wyatt about breaking out with his first feature.
After developing features for Miramax in New York, working in British television, and writing and directing several successful short films, Rupert Wyatt makes his feature debut with The Escapist, a prison escape drama about a life-prisoner who decides to break out of prison when he discovers his daughter is critically ill.
JAN: You made a number of short films before The Escapist, how have you found the move from shorts to features?
RUPERT: Hard, like anybody working in the UK to make films. Most independent films don’t make money so to get yourself a decent enough budget not only to make the film but then to distribute it, is a bit like winning the lottery. I’d made about fifteen short films and some of them were made for £100 or £200, and my last ones were made for £40,000 or £50,000. What was great about them was not only the experience of making films, working in drama, and cutting my teeth in that way, but also working with a certain crew which then went into the feature with me, specifically my director of photography Philipp Blaubach, my sound editor Theo Green, and my producer Adrian Sturges. And it also built up great contacts with the financiers that ultimately backed the movie – the UK Film Council and the Irish Film Board.
So how did The Escapist come about?
I started writing it in late 2004. I’d done a short film with Brian Cox called Get the Picture and he and I got on very well. It was a tough shoot but it was relatively successful as a short film, so I went back to him with a feature script but he didn’t want to do it because it was another supporting role. He asked me to come back with something with him as the protagonist and that’s exactly what I did. I’d been trying at this point for about seven or eight years to get a film off the ground and he told me to keep it genre and keep it very contained. A prison escape movie ticked both boxes. And Brian came on board from day one once I’d written the script with my co-writer Daniel Hardy, and he stuck with it through thick and thin.
That’s how Brian Cox got involved in the project, but how did you get the rest of the cast together?
(Laughs) Stalking them! Brian was really the temple of the whole film from the beginning. The kudos he brought to the project, and the very fact that he was always our leading man, gave people belief in me as well. I think, and this is from the experience of having written scripts that weren’t so good, when Daniel and I wrote The Escapist we both realised we had something good on our hands, and by that I mean that the reaction to it was always universally pretty much positive. And it’s very much an actor’s piece, it’s a character-driven film, and it’s an ensemble as well, and I think a lot of actors, especially British actors who have a theatre background, love to work in an ensemble. So I think it was appealing for a lot of actors, and not only that, it was appealing to a lot of very good actors, like Liam Cunningham, Damian Lewis, Jo Fiennes, Steven Mackintosh, and Dominic Cooper. It was ultimately a British and Irish ensemble, but we also wanted to make it a bit more universal without having to go to Hollywood or America. I’d seen City of God, and I loved one of the characters in that film called Knockout Ned, played by Seu Jorge. He’s a phenomenal musician but he’s also a brilliant actor, very natural. And he was someone we spent a long time tracking down and trying to get the script to. Ultimately, he got it translated and we met in California about a year before production. It was very important for us to try and build up an eclectic mix of great character actors, who in many other movies would have been leading men.
And you also had a track specially written for the film by Coldplay.
We had a music supervisor on the film called Lol Hammond, who’s a bit of an alchemist in terms of getting to certain people. He works with Vertigo our distributor, and he got the film to Coldplay and showed it to their management initially and then to the band, and they all loved it, which was great. So they agreed to write a track, which is now called The Escapist, and I think it’s going to be on their new album. They co-wrote it with John Hopkins, and we use it at the end of the film. It’s very ethereal and uplifting after being in the dark for ninety minutes within this prison and during the escape. It’s great to be lifted out of the movie at the end.
There have been some great prison escape movies over the years. Do you have any particular favourites and where do you see The Escapist fitting within those?
Of course there’s the American side of things like Papillon, Escape from Alcatraz, and Cool Hand Luke. But my favourites are A Man Escaped, a 50s French film, and another French film called Le Trou, based on the true story of four men escaping from a French prison, which was a huge influence. What was great about those European films is that they dealt very much with telling a story through a very limited dialogue. It was all about action, for example, a spoon carving up against the back of a wooden door in order to break through, which was played out over two minutes of screen time. I love the idea of that, of making the audience feel like they are in a prison where time has stopped, and everything is gradually played out, rather than a more Die Hard approach. But there are elements of Die Hard in The Escapist and that sort of action side of things, but I think I was trying to create a marriage between the more art-house side of cinema with a more out-and-out action film.
The majority of the film was shot in Kilmainham Jail in Dublin. How did you choose that particular location?
An actor friend of mine, who’d done a TV series called Rebel Heart, told me about this prison. I knew of it already because it had been used for In The Name Of The Father. And in the original Italian Job when Noël Coward’s coming down the stairs, that’s where they shot it. So Adrian Sturges, one of the producers, and I took a trip out to Dublin to see this prison, and that was actually my first time in Ireland. The prison is pretty extraordinary. There’s a very operatic feel to it because it’s built with the idea that if you’re a prison guard you can see at any point any part of the prison at any one time. And that’s exactly what I wanted for the film because I wanted to create a very enclosed world, but a world very much of our making, so you’ve got different levels and different hierarchies. So as soon as we found Kilmainham we realised that was where we wanted to film. And ultimately we shot in Ireland for four-fifths of our schedule.
And you had Alan Moloney of Parallel Films on board as producer.
Yes, Alan played a key role in the making of the film both financially and in terms of the actual production itself. Our production base was out of Ireland and we utilised a lot of Alan’s infrastructure. He has a TV series called The Clinic, and the majority of our crew were from that series so it was a really good experience because it was a very gelled crew who worked very quickly because they were used to working with each other and who understood the time constraints of our very tight schedule. We also filmed in a disused cigarette factory that Alan uses for his TV series and we used it to build a lot of our sets, like the prison cells that we couldn’t actually shoot in Kilmainham.
What’s next for you now?
I have a project set in New Mexico. It’s a modern-day Western about two US soldiers who take off into the mountains five days before deployment to Iraq. They go off in search of an injured Native American, and as we go up the trail, which is the name of the film, we flash back and we begin to realise that one of the soldiers may have had a hand in why this man is injured and may be going out not to help him, but to finish the job. And that’s something that I’ve been working on again with Daniel Hardy, my co-writer, and we’re casting at the moment.
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