Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire is a French-born writer-director best known for the 2008 feature film, Johnny Mad Dog, which dealt with the harrowing phenomenon of child soldiers in Africa. His latest film, A Prayer Before Dawn, is a similarly visceral experience. Based on the autobiography of Liverpool-born Billy Moore, Joe Cole plays Moore, a heroin addict who is locked in a Thai jail and must fight – quite literally – to survive.
ASFF: How did you set out to adapt and evolve Billy Moore’s book?
JSS: The first draft – and it’s also in the book – I had a lot of scenes of foreigners in prison. There’s another UK guy, who was locked up with Billy. But I’ve seen that sort of thing before – two UK guys locked up together abroad. Maybe it’s going to be much more interesting for him to be alone. That’s what happened when Billy joined the boxing team. He was the only foreigner there.
ASFF: Joe Cole is remarkable in the film. How was he to work with?
JSS: He was giving everything. He was really brave on set. I know it was intense for him. We shot thirty days. Every day, he did fights and boxing, so physically it was a lot. Plus I did long shots, sometimes ten minutes. I don’t like to cut. I prefer to keep going. So, for Joe, I saw it on his face. He was tired sometimes. And he’d hate me sometimes as I wouldn’t cut! But his performance was incredible and realistic.
ASFF: Talk about your approach to filming. The film feels hellishly authentic…
JSS: I like mix between documentary and fiction. I love to work with non-professional actors, who give you also a sense of authenticity. They tell you how it was in prison. I haven’t been in prison. So if you write a script, you can write from your imagination, but it won’t be the reality. Most scripts are based on other movies. In this case, it was a challenge for me not to do another prison movie based on all the other prison movies we’ve seen before.
ASFF: You shot with real prisoners. Was this all part of your quest for authenticity?
JSS: Yes. I have the feeling when you do something different, when you shoot differently, the audience also will see and experience the film in a different way. Even for Joe, I really wanted for him to be immersed in this kind of world. When there are fifty people with tattoos who look at you – all gang members – you don’t really have to act. You feel what Billy was feeling when he went to jail; the audience will feel it … I wanted the audience to experience what can be a prison. Not just watching from a distance but trying to understand how it can be if I end up in prison, in Thailand or wherever.
ASFF: How did Billy Moore react to the film? It must be painful to watch…
JSS: I think it’s cathartic [for him] but he’s not at the end of the troubles. Someone asked him [in a Q&A], “Would you like to go back to Thailand?” He said: “I’d love to, but the problem is not the country, but myself. I’m still struggling.” The problem with Billy … he hated himself when he was a kid. And he’s still struggling with all this stuff, even if he’s doing better now.
A Prayer Before Dawn opens in cinemas on 20 July. For more details, visit Altitude Entertainment.
1. Joe Cole in A Prayer Before Dawn.