The Escapist co-opts a familiar genre, the prison escape flick, and transforms its standard plot-driven focus into something deeper and richer. Directed and co-written by first time feature filmmaker Rupert Wyatt, the film is less about the mechanics of the escape masterminded by prison lifer Frank Perry (Brian Cox) than the journey he and his fellow prisoners take to get there and the personal redemption they seek. It premiered at Sundance in 2008 and is now in limited theatrical release and available through IFC Films On Demand to cable subscribers everywhere. In an exclusive interview, Film School Rejects spoke to the director about the film, which co-stars Joseph Fiennes, Seu Jorge and Damian Lewis.
At first the film seems like it’s going to be a standard genre piece, but it ends up being an intensely emotional character study. Can you talk about your impetus for making it?
It’s very true, and it’s very much a character driven film. That was always our intention. I made a short film with Brian three or four years before, back in 2004, and we’d got on very well and the short was relatively successful and it worked out so we stayed in touch. I wanted to do something else with him, this feature script that I’d written that wasn’t The Escapist. And he said at the time, “Oh no, I don’t want to do another supporting role for an up and coming filmmaker. If you want me to do something, then write me something with a bit of meat on it.”
So I set out to write this character very much around Brian. One of his favorite actors is Spencer Tracy. He’s always loved that school of less is more, that stripped back, muscular sort of acting, the old Warner Bros. movies of the 50s and so that’s where it started, and then I thought, “ok, well let’s tell a story about a man who’s kind of raging against his environment,” kind of raging against the machine, and I thought, “what better place to do that than set in prison?” And I thought, “if I’m to be honest prison works” because I know from my first movie that we’re not going to have a huge budget, so keep it confined and it all came out of that. The story is inspired by a well known short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, so I set about with my co-writer Daniel Hardy writing this story using that as our template, but rather than tell a shaggy dog story, which is the tendency perhaps with that story, we wanted to be really, really sure that the film ended up with a sense of redemption.
The look of the prison is so antithetical to the usual sanitized depiction of such places. Can you talk about picking the prison and shooting in it?
It is exactly that. We made a choice to get away from the antiseptic fluorescence, cold metallic feel of what a contemporary prison would be and is, for two reasons. One, I wanted to create more of a hothouse environment because it suited the characters better. I also felt that for the audience to really get close to these characters and this world it needed to be aesthetically attractive. I didn’t want to distance people from it. And it also worked according to Frank Perry because this is a man who’s been in prison for so many years. He’s never seen the outside world so in a way he’s starting to exist in his own time and place. That time and place will be relatively retro and there’s the opportunity, therefore, to create our own world around him and that’s why we did that.
Therefore that’s the reason why we ended up shooting in Ireland because all prisons in Britain are built in the same way, which is on a stacking system of different floors. And therefore you can’t avoid that more antiseptic, colder feeling. So we started to look further afield and my whole idea was to make something more operatic, and I had a friend who’s an actor who’d made a TV series in Ireland and said you should check out this jail, and it’s the same place they shot In the Name of the Father and the original The Italian Job and it’s amazing. It’s no longer a prison, it’s a museum now, but it’s built on the basis of a prison guard can stand at any particular point of that prison and see anything, so it really has a sense of space and therefore we can create the ape colony that we wanted to do with all of these different characters and their hierarchies.
The film is very densely structured compared to most prison escape films. What was the conceptual basis for interweaving the escape with the planning for it?
The characters and the whole nature of who they were and how they fit into the escape was all based on the [question of] what purpose did they serve for the escape? So baring in mind Frank Perry is the tentpole of the story, how else is the tent propped up by these five other characters? So, for example, his closest friend, or his only friend within the jail, is this man Brody, and this is a man, we were thinking, who knows the way out. Then we were thinking how does he know the way out? His past must have come through being a sewer worker. What would it be like to be a sewer worker? You could easily have gotten claustrophobic as a result. That might lead to drinking heavily and that’s maybe why he committed the crime that he did, which is why he’s in jail. So the very fact that he has to go back down underground is not enticing to him at all.
How did you choose the locations for the escape scenes?
It took about four years to get this film financed and during that time I did a lot of research on existing locations in London. We didn’t have enough money to build sets, which actually in the end worked to our advantage because we thought, “well, we’ll have to shoot on location.” Although it’s not particularly fun for the actors and the crew to be shooting underground in an air cell, visually it gives you a wealth of opportunities. I thought to myself, let’s start small in an enclosed space, that might be a prison, and then as the escape unfolds they get into bigger and bigger spaces. So I set about trying to find those locations. One in particular, which is an amazing place that had never been filmed in before, is beneath Tower Bridge in London.
What led you to Joseph Fiennes? He’s not someone one would naturally think of to play such a brooding, physical part.
Originally, way, way back when I started working on it, we cast Tim Roth in that part, who is much more how one imagines Lenny Drake to be. Tim dropped out, I think to do something else, we didn’t have the money in time so he went to do something else, so I was thinking who can I find for this part? Brian mentioned to me, they just filmed Running with Scissors, and he said you should really look at it and consider him because people never consider him to be a character actor, he’s always considered more of a romantic lead, and I think baring in mind Joe is a very, very intelligent man, he’s always fought or made very specific choices to get away from that. I think as an actor when you suddenly become, ultimately after 1998 a superstar after being in a movie [Shakespeare in Love] that was universally seen, it’s very hard to break that, the frilly collar romantic lead parts, so his choices have been really eclectic since then, and one could say on a career level that’s quite a risky thing to do. So when I sent him the script it was really to my benefit that he did consider characters like this; that he wanted to do something different.
There’s circularity to the film that feels purposeful and important. Can you talk about that motif?
Personally I love watching films which create windows for the audience, and that window is then opened at a later state so you get to understand the film from various aspects. Rashomon is a good example of that. It was one of those things where by the very fact that we were subverting the genre and taking what could have been a very linear story and chucking it up in the air, the idea was to give the audience a sense of place and understanding because there is no exposition. When we first meet Frank Perry we have no idea who he is. All we see is his granite face, and we’re getting to know him by his look and his demeanor, but when we come full circle I would hope the audience has much, much more of an understanding of who he is. There’s something really cathartic about that.
What did the Sundance selection mean for the film?
Getting into Sundance was a complete game changer for the prospects of the film, because it’s a small British film. It’s got high profile actors involved and we tried to do something above and beyond our means, but so often British films or foreign films from the American point of view, by the very nature of being a foreign movie it’s hard to get a film seen. Some, The Full Monty or whatever, break out and some never make it here and I think by getting into a festival like Sundance it affords the film a platform to be seen, so when that happened we obviously knew we stood a chance of getting distribution. So often if you don’t get into a major festival as an independent film it’s very hard to secure distribution. That’s the place to do it.
How did you get from there to here?
THINKFilm picked it up soon after [the festival]. At the time that was great news. Mark Urman, who’s terrific, called me and said “oh we’re so excited” and then two weeks later they were not in position to be buying the film. In a way that was actually a saving grace for us because if they had actually paid for the film we would have been trapped in whatever drama they’re going through. So we managed to extract the film, but we were still without distribution. We had quite a bit of interest from various people; Fox, for example, Peter Rice was really keen on the film. And it was very strange, I’ve never been to a major festival before but I gather that Sundance last year was a bit odd in terms of not many films were bought and not a lot of money was being paid. The writers’ strike was making people nervous. So although there was interest nobody bit, so when THINKFilm picked it up it was a great coup. When it didn’t work with them IFC stepped in very quickly and they’ve been our saviors.
Why do you think the small release and video on demand platforms are ideal for The Escapist?
The very fact that we’re getting released and the very fact that we’re getting the support that we’re getting, fingers crossed the reviews are going to be good, we got great reviews in the UK so that bodes well. There’s many stories, of Croupier, Clive Owen’s breakthrough movie out here, that film tanked in the UK, I don’t even think it got a theatrical release. Shooting Gallery at the time released it out here and it just went through the roof. And it was all word of mouth, it was a small release, so one can dream. You can say, “start small is the best way to go, and see what happens.”
The Escapist can now be seen in limited release and on IFC On-Demand.