Case Study: A Prayer Before Dawn films Thailand

A Prayer Before Dawn opted to shoot in Thailand when filmmakers found the perfect set and fantastic local crews.

A UK-France co-production shot on location in Thailand and the Philippines, A Prayer Before Dawn is the story of the real-life imprisonment of British felon-turned-kickboxer Billy Moore in the notorious Bang Kwang Central Prison, also known as the Bangkok Hilton, in the Thai capital.

Sol Papadopoulos of Liverpool-based Hurricane Films produced the picture with Rita Dagher of Paris-based Senorita Films. The filmmakers originally considered basing the production in Malaysia, which has a tax break for incoming productions and where Pinewood Studios has a facility. However, after consulting with local line producer Nicholas Simon of Bangkok-based Indochina Productions, they opted for Thailand, which at the time of principal photography had no incentive. It has since introduced a tax credit of 15%-20%.

Shooting in Thailand suited the vision of French director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, who was determined the film would be as authentic as possible.

“We felt far more comfortable telling our story in Thailand, especially when you think about the number of extras that were needed for the prison scenes,” Papadopoulos explains. “The thing that made it work for us was finding an abandoned prison outside Bangkok where we could shoot.”

Once the filmmakers had “cut the jungle back” and repaired a few gates, they had a real prison.

A Prayer Before Dawn was shot almost entirely in Thailand, with five days at the end in a working prison in the Philippines. “Jean-Stephane had scouted there on a research trip, thinking of the Philippines as an alternative or back-up to Thailand,” Papadopoulos explains. “Our partner in the Philippines, Jane [P Aguirre], developed a close rapport with the governor of the region and also the inspirational prison director, and they allowed us to film there with the welcome participation of the guards and inmates. With that access came 2,000 free extras for our grand-finale fight.”

Most of the cast, apart from the UK’s Joe Cole who plays Moore, were Thai and were non-actors. They were hired during the months Sauvaire had spent researching the project in Thailand.

Through Indochina Productions’ extensive list of contacts in the Thai government, Simon was able to guide the filmmakers through many of the logistical and bureaucratic challenges of working in the country. First, the script needed approval from the Film Board of Thailand. The producers were wary given this was a true story exposing the brutality of the Thai penal system. What the censors were more concerned about were any hints of defamation toward the Thai royal family or the country’s flag. A scene in which Moore did not stand up for the Thai national anthem had to be removed.

Apart from two or three heads of department who were brought over from Europe, the crew was entirely Thai. Papadopoulos describes them as “fantastic”.

“Not only are the Thai rates significantly cheaper, crews are also accustomed to working six-day weeks and 12-hour days are standard,” he explains. “The crews we worked with are world class. Through their professionalism and belief in the project and its director, we were able to put the money on the screen.

“You have a bigger crew than you might normally expect but they are not paid in the way the European crews are so you are still saving a substantial amount of money on the budget.”

Papadopoulos notes the heat and humidity of Thailand can be oppressive but says everyone eventually acclimatised. “Some of us adapted more easily than others,” he admits.

Bangkok attractions

The filmmakers enjoyed being in Thailand. Bangkok has a thriving nightlife and is a hugely popular tourist destination. Papadopoulos says there was always plenty to do in breaks between filming. One downside was the sheer size of the city and the permanently gridlocked traffic. “Fortunately for us, we were based in one space in the prison for 90% of our shoot,” he says.

On the days when they were shooting elsewhere in the city, “getting people to the right place at the right time was logistically challenging because of the amount of traffic on the streets. It’s such a big city, you’ve just got to make sure your locations are all pretty tightly corralled together.”

The producer also recommends making sure productions secure the proper permissions from the authorities as early as possible. Billy Moore booked himself a ticket to Thailand for the production only to discover he was on a blacklist and not allowed into the country having spent time in its prison system.

“He didn’t wait for us to clear it with the right department,” Papadopoulos explains. “The only way we could work it out [for him to be on set] was for him to go to the last week, which was in the Philippines.”

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