There are few more intimate films at Toronto this year than Dominic Savage’s The Escape, which follows Gemma Arterton’s Tara as she is forced to engage with one of the last societal taboos, playing a wife and mother unsatisfied by a seemingly idyllic life and fighting to break free of her situation and the depression it carries.
The film is heavily improvised and draws strongly on Arterton’s suburban background against which its narrative is set. Dominic Cooper plays Arterton’s husband, who struggles in every moment to connect with and understand his troubled partner.
On the set last year on London’s Southbank, Deadline watched as Savage, best known for his work on television, shot the film guerrilla style; positioning Arterton amidst the heavy pedestrian traffic of one of London’s most touristy spots and whipping out his camera to capture the natural reactions of the people she interacted with.
The camera was kept out of view in the moments between takes, meaning that, remarkably, most passers-by didn’t notice the film being made in their midst. In one hilarious moment, a James Bond fan who had the apparel and gift shop bags from a nearby exhibition of the Bond cars, did a double take as he saw Arterton, who starred in Quantum of Solace. But, perhaps scarcely believing the coincidence, even he carried on walking; so little attention did Savage’s paired-down crew attract.
The film premiered at Toronto this week and Savage sat down with Deadline to explain more.
I’ve never been on a set like this one. Why is this naturalistic, guerrilla approach so essential for you?
The idea was to embed the characters in the reality of life throughout. To feel like they were living in this journey for real. I try to get close to something that’s authentic to them as possible. I want the actors to feel not only that the characters are very true to them, but also that they’re in situations that they can literally be involved. So, always part of that is to try and keep the process as simple and integrated into the situation as possible.
How much do you work with the actors before you start shooting?
I developed this story from the very beginning with, and for, Gemma. So, the way the process started was from our first meeting, which was something like a year before, and it was literally about finding out about who she was. What kind of person is she? What are her natural characteristics and instincts? And then actually thinking of a story that I wanted to tell that was in tune with what she is as a person. So, in a way, it was kind of working backward. It was saying, what’s the story? Or, actually, what are your thoughts with this person?
There’s a lot of her in the story. There were lots of escapes in her real life. I based the story on something that felt very natural to her. We shot in her hometown. That was all part of it. So, therefore, I didn’t rehearse. There was not one rehearsal. It was just talking to her a lot, and talking about all of our ambitions, and then day one we started shooting.
I needed to make sure she was comfortable and undisturbed. We shot in a real family home, and the children in the film were a part of the family that lived in that house. She was able to move into its walls and become that person.
Is there risk that comes with that kind of process?
It’s high risk. You don’t know. There are no guarantees about what you’re going to achieve or what its value will be. But it’s backed by a formal process, which is, what is the story going to be? The budget? The schedule?
It’s a cheaper way of working than most, but it’s also not the cheapest. We shot in Kent, London and Paris, so there was a certain amount of expense for those three locations. But we worked fast and the shoot was quite short. I think that brought a real energy, and you really gain from that freedom because you shoot all the time.
And the beauty of working like this is a lot of scenes were tried that don’t appear in the film because they didn’t quite work. You end up with a whole load of material that’s representative of the journey you’ve been on and the choices you’ve made and it gives you complete freedom in the editing room. It’s organic, all the way through.
In the film, Gemma’s on-screen mother tells her she’s silly to be depressed by a seemingly happy existence. But it’s a very human response.
Yes, a lot of people would say, “Well, of course, you should be happy.” That’s what most people want in their lives, isn’t it? A family, a house, two cars, security. What I wanted to do with the film was represent the idea that for some people it’s not what you have, it’s what you are. Your life won’t be fulfilled as long as you’re not the person you want to be. I think a lot of people – and women particularly – are sold on an idea of what happiness should be, and it’s not necessarily the case. It’s a bit of a taboo because as a woman you’re not supposed to leave, that’s for sure. This story was to challenge that, and to say, “Why can’t a woman be truthful to herself? It’s not just a man’s right to do that.” Because it wouldn’t be such a taboo if the man left.
How do you feel about what Gemma has done with this role?
I like the fact that it’s a very understated performance Gemma delivers. Even when it comes to her showdown with her husband, she doesn’t lose it. She kind of holds it all in, still. There’s pain in her. And when he loses it, of course, he doesn’t know how to deal with this. It’s an impossible situation for him. I think she felt the film was truthful to her. For instance, the scene you refer to with her mother in the garden, that was shot in Gemma’s actual mother’s garden. Frances Barber, the actress who plays her mother in the film, spoke to Gemma’s mother and got a real sense of Gemma’s real life. The autobiographical nature of the process, if not the story, required a lot of honesty from Gemma. But she likes challenges and she likes to be pushed. I think she came back with remarkable work.