Chronicling the true life story of a talented boxer who has struggled to overcome adversity to get back to the top of his game on screen has often been driven by sensationalism and shock value. But the new biographical sports film, ‘A Prayer Before Dawn,’ powerfully avoids relying on using clichés to tell the poignant story of an ordinary hero.
‘A Prayer Before Dawn,’ which is based on the 2014 novel of the same name by boxer Billy Moore, chronicles how the athlete-turned-author spent years self-destructing, before he managed to overcome his demons and take control of his life again. The drama is even more intriguing for the fact that Moore, a British national, found a way to overcome the obstacles he faced while he served a prison sentence in Thailand. He was sentence in connection to his use of drugs in the Asian country while he was there boxing. Much like the book, the screen adaptation provides a unique perspective for the boxer’s sincere human story.
The visceral action movie is now playing in theaters, as well as on DirecTV, courtesy of A24. ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’s official distribution comes after it had its North American premiere during the Midnighters section at this spring’s SXSW, where ShockYa had the privilege of seeing it for the first time.
The thriller was directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, who also served as an associate producer, and written by Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese. The crime biopic features ‘Black Mirror’ star Joe Cole portraying the real-life English boxer, as well as a supporting cast of primarily real former inmates, who play Moore’s fellow prisoners. The film further encompasses an authenticity by being shot in an actual Thai prison.
‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ tells the true story of Billy Moore (played by Cole), a young English boxer incarcerated in two of Thailand’s most notorious prisons. He is quickly thrown into a terrifying world of drugs and gang violence, but when the prison authorities allow him to take part in the Muay Thai boxing tournaments, he realizes this might be his chance to get out. Billy embarks on a relentless, action-packed journey from one savage fight to the next, and stops at nothing to do whatever he must to preserve his life and regain his freedom.
Sauvaire and Cole generously took the time recently to talk about directing and starring in ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ during exclusive individual phone interviews. Among other things, the helmer and actor discussed how they were drawn to adapting Moore’s book for the screen, so that they could highlight the boxer’s vulnerabilities as he struggled to survive his prison sentence. The duo also expressed how they felt it was beneficial to shoot the biopic in an actual prison in Thailand with real ex-prisoners, in order to make the story feel more authentic.
The conversation with Sauvaire began with him began with him saying that he became involved in directing ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ when “The producers sent me the idea for the film. It’s an action-based movie that’s based on a true story. That story is set in prison, and is also driven by boxing. So I told them that I would be happy to hear more about the project.
“So the producers sent me Billy’s book, which is his memoir. I read it, and thought the story was fascinating,” the director divulged. “He was very violent, but also very relatable, in a way. He’s a guy who’s fighting his own demons, so I thought it would be interesting to see how we could visually translate that struggle into a film. So I decided to met Billy in Liverpool, and I immediately thought he was an interesting guy to focus a film on. His story is incredible, so I said, ‘Let’s do it.'”
Casting Cole as Billy in the screen adaptation of the boxer’s book is a decision that Sauvaire fully supports. “I was really impressed by Joe’s previous work…He also has the face of a kid, but his body is built like a boxer. He’s an amazing actor, and was great for the part. It was also important for me to have an actor from the U.K., and is a middle-class guy. I saw some similarities between Joe and Billy, including their appearance. So I thought Joe was the perfect actor to play this part.”
Cole began his interview by stating that he was drawn to play the protagonist in the drama. Moore’s “story is something I’ve never heard before, and couldn’t quite belief is true. So I was immediately interested after reading his book and the script.”
Once he signed on to play Billy in ‘A Prayer Before Dawn,’ the experience of building his working relationship with Sauvaire was one that Cole enjoyed. “Jean-Stéphane was a fantastic captain for this project. He spent a year in Thailand, and embedded himself in the criminal underworld in Bangkok. He met many prisoners, ex-prisoners and prisoner boxers.
“So I felt like I had to match Jean-Stéphane’s intensity. I knew he was a guy who’s fearless. He’s been held at gunpoint on more than one occasion, making documentaries all over the world,” the actor shared. “This guy’s prepared to put everything on the line, and so am I. I think that was important for this movie, and I think that’s how I got the material that we got.”
The actor also noted that he cherished the process of forming a bond with Moore. “After meeting Billy, I realized that he was a far more complicated character than you might initially think. He has this physical and threatening presence, and appears to be a very tough guy. But underneath all of that, he’s a little boy in a man’s body. He has this vulnerability and caring charisma. I think he has so many layers, and is a fascinating character study for me. So I was very keen to take on that challenge.”
The fact that the script for ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ is based on Moore’s book was helpful in Cole’s preparation for his portrayal of the boxer. “There was so much information included in Billy’s book that really helped me.” The actor did further research into the boxer’s life by “watching interviews with him online.”
But the experience of personally collaborating with Moore, and “getting to know the man, as a friend, took the preparation process to a whole new place for me. I spent a lot of time with Billy in Liverpool, where I was filming ‘Peaky Blinders’ Season 3. During that time, his mom also told me about her experiences with her son, as well as his experiences with his step-dad and brothers.
“I also uncovered a new level of truth as we got to know each other. As we became friends, Billy started to open up to me, on a whole new level. I learned more things that I read about in his book, or that he discussed in the interviews with him that I had seen. That meant that I could create a whole well-rounded performance. So I felt grateful that I had the opportunity to get to know him,” Cole shared.
Sauvaire also cherished the experience of collaborating with Moore during the production of the movie. “When you’re telling a story that’s based on a real person, it’s always great to work with them. We became really good friends. He was really involved in the writing of the script. Anytime we asked him about the reality of life in the prison, and if he could describe his life there in greater detail, he would. We also asked him to describe his relationships in the prison in greater detail, and he would. He was very generous, and gave us a lot of details about the backstory. It was really interesting to hear him describe all of those elements,” the director shared.
Moore “then met Joe, and they spent a lot of time together in Liverpool, while Joe was shooting ‘Peaky Blinders.’ That was an amazing experience for Joe, because he had the guy he was going to play with him. Joe could ask Billy anything he wanted, including what his relationship with drugs was like. Joe was also able to meet Billy’s parents. So Billy was very important in the development process of the film.”
Sauvaire added that “I thought it would be great for Billy to visit the set, but unfortunately, he couldn’t visit Thailand, because he’s blacklisted there. So he just visited the set the last five days of production, because during that time, we were shooting in an actual prison in the Philippines. During that time, we shot his scene that’s in the film.”
Cole also emphasized the fact that “The prison movie genre is one of the most immersive and pinnacle ones for actors throughout their careers,” when he then began discussing the process of also preparing and training for the fight sequences. “This genre was one that I was subconsciously seeking out. So the physical aspect was something that drew me to this project. I have a bit of a background in martial arts, but not much, so I wanted to take that to a new level.”
Cole also mentioned that the boxing sequences “were shot in long takes. The middle fight was actually shot in one take. For the other fights, we would do the whole fights in one take. That meant we couldn’t fake the punches and kicks, which felt like we were in a real fight. Since we also didn’t break up the fights, I had to have the endurance of a boxer, so that I could last for many hours of filming. So it was an interesting and special experience.”
Sauvaire also discussed the lengthy, in-depth process of working with Cole on creating the physically for the fight sequences. “From the beginning, I wanted those scenes to feel really authentic, so we shot them almost like the were a documentary. I spent about a year-and-a-half recreating the prison, and casting the actors. Many of the supporting cast members are non-professional actors, and are former prisoners who spent about 10 to 15 years in prison. I also went to all of the boxing camps in Thailand, trying to find real boxers.
“I wanted to recreate the real experience for Joe when he arrived in Thailand. I wanted him to be immersed in this world. So he went to boxing camps, and treated the practice fights like they were going to be filmed,” the helmer divulged. “I wanted to show that Billy was the only prisoner who didn’t speak Thai, and the other prisoners didn’t speak English. So we wanted to show how he was immersed in this world, and what life was like for him in prison. I think it was really brave of Joe” to completely engage himself in the story’s world.
One of the interesting aspects of ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ is that the other Thai prisoners speak in their native language, like Sauvaire mentioned, and the thriller isn’t entirely subtitled. He feels that helps audiences relate to Billy’s isolated experiences in the prison. “We wanted the audience to feel what Billy was feeling in that situation. When Billy was put in prison, he didn’t speak Thai, so he couldn’t understand the people around him. So he began to freak out, and feel vulnerable. He only had his hands to defend himself. So he began to immerse himself, and try to understand what was going on. So that’s why we didn’t include the subtitles,” the helmer shared.
“In the script, we had a lot of dialogue for the Thai prisoners in English. But then I realized that since these guys are former prisoners, and not actors, they didn’t speak English at all. So we had to find a way for Joe to understand these guys,” and that was through the fight scenes, Sauvaire also divulged.
Being able to shoot ‘A Prayer Before Dawn’ in an actual prison in Bangkok with a cast of primarily real inmates “certainly helped. It’s one of the oldest prisons in Thailand, and it closed down not long before we started shooting,” Cole shared.
The prison “was almost like another character in the film. There was writing on the walls, and loads of notes and prisons that were left behind throughout the prison. Those items were still there when we got there,” the actor also revealed.
Sauvaire also chimed in on the experience of shooting the biopic in an actual Thai prison with a supporting cast of primarily former prisoners. “Since the movie is based on a true story, we wanted everything to feel authentic. I couldn’t imagine not shooting the film anywhere besides a real prison. It took me awhile to find the perfect prison, as well as the former prisoners…They ended up being the most dedicated people on the set. I think for them, the film served as a way for them to tell their own stories.”
Working with the Thai men who “spent most of their adult lives behind bars certainly helped make the experience feel as real as possible. That was how we got this level of authenticity,” Cole admitted. “They were serious dudes, and were able to bring their prison experiences to the set, which helped us collaborate. Jean-Stéphane wanted, and encouraged, them to tell their stories, both on- and off-camera. That way, we could learn from their experiences. As a result, the script changed and developed as we went along.”
The experience of bringing the drama to SXSW was something that both Sauvaire and Cole enjoyed. “Going to the festivals was great. We finished the film about a year ago, and we have been able to share it with people all over the world since. We had a great crowd at SXSW-they really enjoy cinema, especially these types of action movies. We had an amazing time there with Joe,” the director shared.
Cole also noted that “It’s been amazing to show the film across the world. We had some of the Thai prisoners fly over and share in that experience. It’s amazing that the film is finally coming out now, as we shot it two years ago, and we’ve been doing premieres for the past year. So it’s amazing to know that this journey has only just begun, in some ways.”