After his men are killed in Myanmar, a lone soldier returns home. Filmed in the Queensland Rainforest by Australian Cinematographer Wade Muller HKSC, action-thriller Escape and Evasion sees that soldier hiding a dark secret and, confronted by an unrelenting journalist, is forced to face the ghosts of his past.
Australian Cinematographer Wade Muller HKSC had worked with Steadicam and Camera Operator and long-time friend Damien King several times in Asia. King had mentioned to Muller about the production of a new action-adventure-thriller called Escape and Evasion to be shot in Queensland. Soon after, Muller was on a call with Producer Blake Northfield and then with the film’s Director Storm Ashwood (The School) listening to his vision for the film.
Written and directed by Ashwood and starring Josh McConville, Hugh Sheridan, Rena Owen, Firass Dirani, and Steve Le Marquand. Escape and Evasion is set in contemporary Burma, now known as Myanmar, with the war portion of the film set in present time. The Karen conflict has been described as one of the world’s ‘longest running civil wars’. Karen nationalists have been fighting for an independent state known as Kawthoolei since 1949. Several thousand civilians have been displaced throughout the course of the conflict, many of whom have fled to neighbouring Thailand.
“The film was really intriguing to me because it was like two different films in one,” Muller explains. “It’s partly a war film, with a lot of action and some very traumatic war moments. But once Seth (Josh McConville), the sole survivor of a mission gone wrong returns to his family in Australia, the film becomes a heavy drama with his character dealing with PTSD and other mental health issues.”
“The original idea was a collaboration between Ashwood and someone close to him,” says Muller. “He didn’t go into to much detail on his past experiences. However, I understand he has friends and family which have sadly undergone trauma, guilt and suffering which you can see come through in the script. The film depicts one realistic portrayal of how people can suffer from PTSD.”
When choosing what cameras and lenses to shoot Escape and Evasion with, Muller went with one of his favourite combinations of ARRI Alexa with Cooke S4 glass. “I really like the way Cookes handle contrast and also the way they render skin detail,” the cinematographer says. “For the chopper to chopper work and other aerials we used a shotover with an Angenieux 24-290mm.”
The crew had Michael Turner on board as their Production Designer. One of the bigger sets for Turner’s team was a Burmese hospital, where a huge firefight takes place as it is surrounded by the Burmese military. Most of the references for this sequence came from the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian group who work throughout Myanmar today (formally Burma). “They are on the ground everyday delivering emergency medical assistance to sick and injured, they also protect and train ethnic communities,” says Muller. “Their images helped the production design team down to the finest details of the exact part of the country where the soldiers have been sent.”
Reference films for Escape and Evasion were Children of Men (2006, cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki AMC ASC) and the French film Bullhead (2011, cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis). “Bullhead was particular interesting,” says Muller, “as the camera seems to really get into the character space by following with steadicam directly from behind and very close. It also has some obscure angles of the characters faces when their stress and anxiety levels are extremely high. This suited the feel of our film very well.”
Early in pre-production both Director and Cinematographer were planning to utilise a lot of long, handheld camera shots similar to that of Children of Men. However, after a while, the pair began to see that it worked well in Children of Men because Lubezki mostly followed a single character. Whereas their war portion of the film generally had four main characters and not including the characters they met throughout the mission, so they decided to take a different approach. “After we went though some detailed plans of the action scenes we both agreed with another approach,” says Muller. They both agreed that allowing cuts to happen suited the script and number of characters in the action sequences.
“I really like a long Steadicam shot towards the beginning of the film,” says Muller. “The camera moves in slowly to reveal Seth looking at news footage on his computer. The camera moves to his hand which is scarred, then continues up to his face, looking intense. Finally, at the end of the shot, we reveal he’s holding a gun to his head. The shot is extremely powerful and I have to mention McConville, who’s acting throughout the film is beyond sublime!”
Escape and Evasion was shot completely on location. “I forgot how many ticks, leeches and snakes are in the Gold Coast hinterland,” says Muller. “There was one scene that had actors McConville and Sheridan strung up in a bamboo mud torture pit. This was talked about being a set, but because of logistics and scheduling reasons it was made of location in the rainforest.” The base structure was constructed out of a large water tank. Then a huge hole was dug, with the tank being lowered into the ground and the bamboo attached. “A lot of McConville’s character’s flashbacks involved him remembering his experience in the mud pit, so yes there’s a lot of mud in this film.”
There are a number of child actors featured in Escape and Evasion. “The director really impressed me here,” says Muller, “the way Ashwood worked with them and got them to deliver amazing performances.” Jessi Robertson plays Seth’s daughter Lizzy and Jai Godbold plays Tan, one of the displaced Burmese village boys. Both of these young actors had to deal with some extremely emotional scenes. “Ashwood did an amazing job getting the best out of both of them.” In general, Muller says it was an absolute pleasure working with Ashwood on Escape and Evasion.
Damien King, who had suggested Muller for the position, was on board as the film’s Steadicam and Camera Operator. “It was great to reunite with King,” says Muller. “He did an awesome job, as always.” Dan Clark (also known as Bushy) was Muller’s First Assistant Camera and helped him recommend the rest of the camera team; highly useful as this was Muller’s first feature in Australia. “I left for Hong Kong in 1999,” he says. Rounding out the talented crew was Robbie McKinnion as B-Camera First Assistant Camera, Alan Willis as Gaffer, Craig Bartlett-Sweiger (also know as Bart) as Key Grip and Bob Donaldson as their stellar First Assistant Director. “Was great to do a film back in my home country.
“The film does not have much in it by way of computer-generated imagery,” says Muller. “All the action/war elements were done for real with Clint Ingram and his amazing Special Effects team.”
The team will be doing the grade at Definition Films in Sydney, probably around the same time as Australian Cinematographer goes to print. But Ashwood and Muller are going for a different look for the war and non-war scenes. “The war scenes will have a more gritty, grainy feel,” he explains, “whereas the non-war scenes will be cleaner with some cyan introduced to the shadows and some mid tones.”
“I had an amazing time working on this film,” says Muller. “I had shot many Chinese language films over the past few years so it was really a pleasure working on a feature in English, with such a great cast and crew. I am hoping to do a lot more work back home in Australia.”
Wade Muller HKSC is an award-winning cinematographer based in Bangkok, Thailand, and Hong Kong, China.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.