Cannes Hidden Gem: Joe Cole Survives a Thai Prison in 'A Prayer Before Dawn'

A Prayer Before Dawn - Cannes Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

French director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire traveled to Thailand to tell the real-life story of a British convict turned Muay Thai champion who honed his skills behind bars.

When French director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire met Joe Cole, he knew he'd found the right man to star in his drama A Prayer Before Dawn, based on the true story of Billy Moore, who spent two years in a Thai prison, where he became a Muay Thai boxing champion in order to survive.

"He had the violence I needed for playing this guy, but he also has the kind of sensibility which was important for this character," says Sauvaire of British actor Cole, who has managed to stand out in impressive ensembles like the BBC period drama Peaky Blinders and Jeremy Sulnier’s horror-thriller Green Room. "Billy has two sides — the violent and dark side and also the vulnerable."

A Prayer Before Dawn, debuting May 19 in the Midnight section in Cannes (and to be released by A24 in the U.S.), is based on Moore's book about his time in one of Thailand's most brutal prisons, Klong Prem, aka the notorious "Bangkok Hilton."

Cole met with Moore before taking on the role, spending time with him in Moore's hometown of Liverpool and meeting his family. "He's a fascinating guy," says Cole. "He's an addict. He's clean now, but, as they say, once an addict, always an addict. He's a great guy. He's a lot more complex than you might think on the surface."

Cole trained for several months to learn Muay Thai techniques, working with champions of the sport, some of whom had themselves learned to box in prison. "They put me in these grassroots-style training camps that didn't have the luxuries of, say, an Equinox. It was a little more rough and ready," says Cole, who stuck to a diet of mostly Thai food and a lot of protein.

Other than Cole and Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm (recently seen in Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives), the cast is made up of non-actors. Ahead of shooting, Sauvaire spent one year in Thailand to cast the project, hiring gang members, former prisoners (including several transsexual prostitutes, who are often incarcerated) and boxers. He directed them via a translator.

"It was frustrating sometimes but ... it was the reality of what Billy went through,” says Sauvaire, whose 2008 film Johnny Mad Dog, about child soldiers in Africa, won Cannes' Un Certain Regard of Hope award. "Nobody was talking English to him. That's why the experience was so strong for Billy. They had to speak with their bodies, find a way to communicate."

Cole says it was a "cathartic experience" for many of the former prisoners to once again be behind bars, but this time for a film.  "Jean-Stepane created a world where they guys were allowed to express some of their negative aspects of their lives but in a positive way," he says. "For me, it felt like the relationships in the film were more real, everything had a little more authenticity to it."

Moore was scheduled to fly to Thailand (the project was filmed in an abandoned prison) for the shoot, but when he arrived at the airport, he found out that he was banned from the country because of his prison sentence. He went to the Philippines for the shoot's final days and has a cameo. Sauvaire has shown Moore dailies from the shoot, but the first time he'll see the final product will be in Cannes.

"Billy knows how hard I worked on it. He knows how hard Jean-Stephane worked on it," says Cole. "I think Billy will be very happy."

Adds Cole with a laugh: "But if he doesn't like it, then we'll have to get in the ring, won't we?"