EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling first-time feature directors who have films screening at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
In Rupert Wyatt‘s Sundance ’08 Premiere, “The Escapist,” Brian Cox plays Frank Perry, a man who has made peace with the fact he will spend the remainder of his life in prison. However, his acceptance changes when he is informed that his daughter has suffered a life-threatening overdose. Determined to see her before its too late, Frank makes a plan to escape, assembling a crew of helpers. But a fatal error puts the plan off course, and begins a journey for Frank and company. Sundance’s Trevor Groth says in the festival catalog that “what is so great about ‘The Escapist’ is that it functions as both a classic prison-break film and an existential puzzle and is thoroughly enjoyable either way.”
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Screenwriters: Daniel Hardy, Rupert Wyatt
Producers: Alan Moloney, Adrian Sturges
Cinematographer: Philipp Blaubach
Editor: Joe Walker
Principal Cast: Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Liam Cunningham, Seu Jorge, Dominic Cooper,
Steven Mackintosh, Damian Lewis
Ireland/United Kingdom, 2007, 107 minutes, color, 35mm
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Rupert Wyatt, I’m 35, my past jobs have included bike courier, poster paster, painter and decorator, essentially the kind of jobs which sustain the early days of filmmaking when no one pays you a decent salary but expect you to create cinematic magic on a dime. By contrast I was educated at Winchester College in England which is a great place to get an education, and most of my contemporaries now appear to be running the country. I grew up in England. I studied at University in Paris and I then went to live in New York for a few years. I now live in Venice Beach in Los Angeles.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking? What other creative outlets do you explore?
I’ve always loved telling stories but I’m not particularly articulate. I tend to waffle. So writing proved to be the perfect outlet for me. I find it a great challenge to write in a very precise and spare style, regardless of the complexities of the plot, so I fell into screenwriting which by its nature embraces that kind of blue print. Novel writing terrifies me, but I’d love to give it a crack one day. I think if I hadn’t been bitten by the filmmaking bug then I would have gravitated towards photography. I find it enormously helpful and inspirational to reference still images, either from other films, painting or photography from the point of writing a first draft right in to production.
Have you made other films, and how did you learn filmmaking?
I’ve made about fifteen or so short films. Varying in budget, length, subject matter… and quality. Some don’t deserve to see the light of day, others I’m very proud of, but all have been worthwhile in terms of learning on the job and building a very strong working relationship with various members of “The Escapist” team such as Director of Photography Philipp Blaubach, Sound Designer Theo Green, Co-writer Daniel Hardy, and my Producer Adrian Sturges. It’s hard to get short films made when you’re talking about shooting with a budget and working with professional crews and cast. The simple reason is that they don’t make much money back for their investors, but the learning experience for the filmmakers is worth its weight in gold and that’s why public funding programmes such as the UK Film Council Cinema Extreme Fund, which I was fortunate enough to be supported by, are vital.
Back in the 1960s you had great British filmmakers like Ken Russell and John Schlesinger coming out of the BBC Monitor documentary series where they were given the opportunity to cut their teeth on countless short films and docs and mini featurettes, then in the 1970s and 1980s you had the boom in advertizing which spawned the likes of Ridley and Tony Scott and Alan Parker, but for the current generation those routes in appear to have been marginalized, and so it’s fantastically important, especially for the British Film Industry which doesn’t have the bucks and diverse opportunity of Hollywood, to keep those programmes running. I doff my cap to those people who currently run them.
What prompted the idea for this film and how did it evolve?
The origins of “The Escapist” lie in a short film I made called “Get The Picture.” It was the first ten pages of a feature screenplay I’ve written (“Fourth Wall“) and I therefore intended it to be different from previous short films I’d made by functioning not only as a stand alone short ‘story’ but also a teaser by which I could perhaps raise finance for the remainder of the film. “Fourth Wall” couldn’t be more different than “The Escapist” – it’s a very ambitious film set around the world of a war photographer – the protagonist, and a London based print journalist – the antagonist.
I seem to remember thinking of that plan after seeing the great ‘making of a movie’ comedy “Living in Oblivion” and reading somewhere that it had been initially shot as a short and then completed as feature in the same way. In short my short did alright, won an award or two but we still didn’t get the feature off the ground, something to do with not being able to snare Colin Farrell… However, by way of an introduction made by a wonderful veteran producer called Simon Relph I was able to get the script of the short to Brian Cox who read it, liked it, had a few days to spare, and to his horror found himself signing up to shoot on a building site in rain-sodden East London, having just come off “Troy“. Against all the odds, we became very good friends, and the experience regardless of weather and schedule was a magical one. Not long after completing the film I had dinner with him in LA and was moaning about not being able to get anyone interested in the Feature version, how no one was willing to put $10 million behind an unknown first time feature director with grandiose visions of making an epic as his first film, such is the delusion of first timers! He suggested writing something more contained with a very strong central character that he could play. Well, it’s not every day a director gets an offer like that from an actor of his stature. So I drove home, racking my brains for an idea, something manageable and which I could get finance for.
To be honest, it was that straightforward and ulterior. Having said that I also knew you only make your first film once, and if I were to get something off the ground then I wanted it to be a story I fell in love with, it couldn’t be any old dross, not least because I knew Brian wouldn’t sign on to a piece of crap. Like many first time filmmakers I had numerous previous ideas, scenes, full scripts all lying around after years of development, but never made. I could have dusted something off, tarted it up a bit and sent it to Brian but I didn’t want to regurgitate something from the past. I felt the golden opportunity required a completely fresh start – an idea and a setting which when it came to me would sing its potential from the rooftops. Brian and I had had numerous conversations about our mutual passion for the lean understated acting style of such Hollywood greats as Spencer Tracey, Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando and filmmakers like John Ford and early Lindsay Anderson, and so I started thinking in terms of genre and the prison genre I’ve always been a huge fan of. What’s more, you can’t get a lot more contained than a prison environment! The structure of the film’s plot was inspired by a well known short story written in the late 19th century by Ambrose Pierce called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”
That story’s denouement hinges on the fact that a hanged man’s apparently miraculous escape is suddenly exposed as one long hallucination occurring in the short drop and cut short by the snapping tight of the noose around his neck. Consider me morbid but it’s a story I’ve always really liked as in many ways it’s our hopes and dreams within our life span, but all distilled into the briefest of moments. The device is nothing new though. Films like “The Sixth Sense” and “Memento” have also drawn on the source but I like to think there’s plenty of room to achieve something on a par with those Films yet manages to hit separate notes.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
Make it on time, make it on budget and make it good. That way you get to make another one.
Please tell us about how you secured distribition and the challenges you may have faced in doing so.
We have UK and Irish distribution in place with a great outfit called Vertigo. They signed on after reading the script and us securing our cast. Our production financiers required them to sign on before we got the green light from them so their involvement prior to production was vital. They love the movie which certainly helps as now it’s down to them putting as much money behind it as possible so that we stand a chance of competing with the major movie releases that 9 times out of 10 crush the independents with the sheer size of their P&A. They also have a great reputation for marketing films through internet and other guerrilla-style outlets. Their films get seen and talked about. It’s what makes them so successful.
What are your specific goals for the Sundance Film Festival?
Aside from watching as many films as I can, I just want to soak up the experience. It’s my first major festival. It’s my first major film, and who knows what comes next, so seeing as friends, family and so many of the team from the film are going to be there it’s going to be a brilliant and very fitting climax to a real labor of love for us all. I also hear the skiing is great!
What are your thoughts on the state of independent film today.
If “independent film” is defined by those working outside of the Hollywood studio system, then I’d say the fact that the Hollywood studio system has been so keen to take over the independent film scene says just about everything anyone needs to know.
What are some of your all-time favorites films?
“The Battle of Algiers,” “Harold and Maude,” “Sorcerer,” “12 Angry Men,” “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Samourai,” “La Haine,” “Being There,” “Don’t Look Now,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Le Trou,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Parallax View,” “All The President’s Men,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “L’Armee des Ombres,” “The Navigator,” “This Sporting Life,” “Sexy Beast” and “The Stunt Man.”
How do you define success as a filmmaker?
The opportunity to pick and choose. It’s only when you love something that you can make it shine.
What are your personal goals as a filmmaker going forward?
To continue working and learning how to make better Films with the same team of collaborators.
Please tell us about any upcoming projects?
That might be tempting fate!
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance FIlm Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.