Interview – ‘Before Dawn’ director Jordon Prince-Wright discusses the intimate story behind a large scale World War I film

BEFORE DAWN is an epic retelling of one of Australia’s most significant triumphs during WW1, based on authentic war diaries. Jim Collins (Levi Miller), a young man from the outback, joins the ANZAC to fight on the western front with the hope of making a difference, leaving behind his family-run sheep station. However, the muddy, ruthless, and unforgiving nature of the war begins to weigh heavily on Jim, leaving him with a profound sense of guilt. As the battalion dwindles, and hope fades, Jim’s redemption comes in a pivotal moment during one of Australia’s most significant battles. He must choose between risking his life or living with the weight of leaving another soldier behind.

Leading up to the film’s release, in cinemas April 4, Nick L’Barrow had the chance to chat with Before Dawn‘s director Jordon Prince-Wright about the diaries he found that led to creating this film, harnessing the values of the ANZACs on set, and the moment on set he realised the epic scale of this production.

Jordon Prince-Wright: The fact that you’ve got a Mission: Impossible poster there – I like you already!

Nick: Well, thank you very much! It’s a great movie! And thank you for taking the time to chat about Before Dawn. I really appreciate it. It’s such an epic scale film. Was there a point during either the screenwriting process, or perhaps a moment on set, where you had the chance to take a step back and really take in the sheer scale of this project?

Jordon Prince-Wright: The point that it happened was when we were on set, and I saw 300 extras march past me in uniform. And that’s when I looked at the DOP and had a few… choice words that I said! It was a lot bigger than I ever expected it to be.

I think we always knew it was going to be big. We postponed because of COVID, and that gave me 12 months to go and make things bigger again! I was always so passionate about this project, so there was this kind of tunnel vision that we didn’t really take a step back and go, “Whoa! This is really big!”

It was only in that moment, when I was sitting there, having some lunch and I saw them walk past. And I went, “Oh, what have we got ourselves into?!” [laughs]

Nick: I read that a lot of the story for this film came from diaries you read with recounts from ANZACs who were in the trenches during the war. How did you come across the diaries? And was there a certain story or event from them that was the turning point of you adapting it for this film?

Jordon Prince-Wright: So, I read the diaries in high-school. And then I branched out to other museums to try and find other diaries, and you got to read the same event from different soldiers’ perspectives.

But the turning point for me was when I ‘d start talking to people about it, and I’d mention World War I, and they’d go, “Oh, Gallipoli, right?” Well, there’s actually more than just that! Yes, it was the bloodiest battle. But there were ANZACs on the Western Front! I’ve got to tell their story!

So, I made all these short films, which kind of got this crew all together. And then we made this feature with an unconventional way of getting funding. Then doing the same thing for Before Dawn, but on steroids essentially!

For me it’s almost like I want to find what’s impossible to tell on screen. Let’s try it. Let’s give it a crack. That’s the thing that scared me the most. Yes, we’ve got such massive sets, and it’s a big scale film. But it’s actually the intricate characters and the casting, making sure that was all right. There was so many layers with this production to pull off.

Nick: Was there a certain soldier’s diary entry that really helped you get in to the mindset of what the ANZACs were going through to create those intricate characters and intimate story?

Jordon Prince-Wright: It was actually Archie’s character, the young guy. Because for me, I remember when I did a short film, and I dressed up in the [army] uniform, and I was 16 when I did the short film. And I remember looking at Archie, he was 16.

I mean, no one can put themselves in that place. We don’t know how we would react until we’re actually there. But, I’d like to think if I was in that situation, I wouldn’t go out there and be there hero. I’d be like Archie. He’s very reserved and trying to take it all in.

Being able to read those diaries, I found a lot of times I was going, “What would I do in these situations?” And then I would flip it into what the character was thinking. What is that actual solider thinking now? And how we put that on screen was very hard to do.

Nick: The ANZAC spirit is well known to hold values including mateship, courage, ingenuity, larrikinism – how important was it for you to facilitate those values on set as well?

Jordon Prince-Wright: Yeah, look, the brilliant thing is I had an awesome cast to work with. I had an awesome crew to work with.

We were in the wettest winter on record. There was mud, it was raining. It was the closest thing you could get to the actual Western Front! I’m not going to lie – it was a really hard shoot! But after the first week, the worse it got, the happier we were and the more we laughed at things.

People would fall in mud, and people were pulling each other out of the mud, and we’d have a laugh. It really helped to get that camaraderie between everyone. I was working with actors who are well known names! But after a few days, it was like we were all best mates out of high school. That’s what it felt like.

And hats off to them because everybody was awesome to work with, everyone was down to earth. Also, we knew what we were doing. We weren’t just telling a story here. We weren’t just telling a story that’s based on true events. It was an ANZAC story. It had that extra weight that we needed to do this right.

Nick: Speaking of this cast, it’s often we hear actors say how important sets and costumes are to understand their characters. I’m curious what it was that helped you understand this story outside of the diaries?

Jordon Prince-Wright: For me, it was looking at the trench maps and understanding the scale. Looking at those maps and realising it was actually quite big, and how this scene would happen here, and that scene would happen there.

I knew in order to do this properly; I would need to build it to scale. But when we actually were filming, we had a few shots in the film where we would pull back and would look down into the trenches and could see everything going on. And it looked great, and we had a great set, but it took the audience away from being actually in there. So, we cut that all out and that’s why we stayed in there.

It served its purpose by being able to feel big in scale. But for me, reading those diaries, looking at the trench maps, trying to understand where particular events took place in the trench maps. It was so intricate.

Nick: I wanted to wrap up by asking about the opening of the credits of this film, where you have ‘For Grandad’ as a dedication on the screen. If you don’t mind me asking – what was your Grandad’s influence on this film, and on you in general?

Jordon Prince-Wright: Grandad has always been a massive, massive supporter of mind. He served with the British army. He was a Two-Pound Pom. Just the courage of doing that, right? Leaving the UK and coming to Australia with two daughters and no job yet! The courage to do that is just remarkable!

He’s always been supportive of me, and unfortunately, he’s no longer alive, but he was the type of guy who was always there. It’s something’s impossible, harness that energy and then go do it so you can say I told you so!

That’s why I wanted to dedicate the film to him, not just because of his military background, but because of the fact that every film we have down has got bigger and bigger, and he was a driving force of that.

Thank you to Jordon Prince-Wright for his time, and to Umbrella Entertainment and NixCo PR for organising the interview! Before Dawn is in cinemas April 4.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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