With a fistful of short films under his belt, as well as his impressive feature debut The School, writer/director Storm Ashwood stretches his cinematic canvas with Escape And Evasion, a gritty war drama that comes complete with full-scale battle sequences, intense gun-play, and edge-of-your-seat action. At its heart, however, the film has far deeper concerns, as it forefronts the modern tragedy of military post traumatic stress disorder, as our soldiers all too often return from the theatre of war to a world that they have trouble fitting back into. Escape And Evasion focuses on Seth (Josh McConville), an ex-soldier being slowly, horribly torn apart by his own experiences of war. With his family relationships in tatters, we slowly learn – through flashbacks – what has pushed Seth to the edge. An operation in Burma to reign in an officer (Steve Le Marquand) gone rogue in the jungle is quickly delineated as a mess, with Seth and his men (Firass Dirani, Juwan Sykes and Hugh Sheridan) instantly slapped in the middle of a physical and moral firestorm.
Where are you at the moment?
“I’m on my way to Kanchanaburi. You know The River Kwai? The Bridge On The River Kwai? Yeah, so I’m heading there. I was in Japan for a little bit last week and I’m heading over to check out a few things on The River Kwai. And then later on there’s some stuff I’ve got to check out on an island in the South China Sea. It’s research. I’m developing another tragic war story set in World War II. It’s a true story, and I just want to go and have a look at the actual places where it all happened. I can’t say too much about it right now…”
Where did the story of Escape And Evasion come from?
“The original essence of Escape And Evasion came from a documentary that I was going to make about ten years ago. My contact was a priest, and funnily enough, he was a big Gandalf looking fellow in Chiang Mai, and he was smuggling Korean people out of Myanmar. I was with a very, very, very close friend of mine who was in the military, and we were filming some stuff. We were going to go and do a run with him to just see exactly what was going on. That documentary was never finished because that priest was murdered. So I started doing a little bit more research on that. In the meantime, I’d already developed a script with that close friend of mine about events that had happened in Iraq. And just as it would have it, I wound up combining both stories and came up with Escape And Evasion. The real events around the Australian soldier were actually far more horrific than what was in Escape And Evasion. The guy really struggled with keeping himself together and found that he was a massive threat to his family. But I can totally say that he’s great now. PTSD never goes away though. That’s the sad thing. There’s no real cure. It’s just about finding a way to move forward when you’ve been surrounded by horrific trauma.”
What has been happening in Burma isn’t exactly all over the news…what motivates you to tell stories like this?
“I guess it has something to do with my own personal upbringing, but I like stories that find hope in an environment where it just looks dark, where everything seems hopeless. That runs through any script that I write, whether it’s a little horror film like The School or Escape And Evasion. There’s a science fiction series that I’m trying to get up which also has that feel. I get drawn to stories that are pretty dark, and then try to find the light. I worked on a story about fifteen years ago about child soldiers in Sierra Leone. I remember the director literally crying on my shoulders saying, ‘How can I make this film? There’s nothing good about this. All these children have been brutalised and they’ve been trafficked for drugs and trafficked for sex and there’s nothing good about this.’ And I said to her, ‘Well, we have to find some sort of hope.’ And one example was one girl is now fourteen with a child and a better life. The original story that the director had was just horrific…just sex and drugs and violence. I said, ‘Well, actually now, you can see the hope. So how about you give that to the audience?’ She redeveloped her story to show hope. I suppose that’s part of storytelling. If you’re going to do something dark, you need to offer the audience something. I don’t think you want to just keep it completely miserable, otherwise you’d wind up bloody slitting your wrists, wouldn’t you?”
A story like Escape And Evasion could have cost $30 million to make, but you probably didn’t have that much to work with…
“It was a really tight budget. From the original script, a lot of compromises were made to be able to make it within the budget that we had. And it was tricky too because it is also a war film as much as it is a psychological drama. And filming war stuff doesn’t come cheap. So it just meant really trying to be as clever as we could as a team with the designer and the DOP and the cast and the special effects and VFX guys. We can’t compete with American movies, but that’s what people expect when they go into the cinema. I mean, if you’re going to tell a story about a soldier, they’re going to want shoot ‘em ups and blow ‘em ups. People just want that. So you go, ‘Well, how do we bring that into the story to satisfy the audience as well as tell them the true essence of the story?’ We all just worked together to do that. I was very grateful for the DOP Wade Muller, who had a lot of experience in action films, and he was brilliant. He was fast at just going, ‘Right, so this is the action, this is the block through. We’ll do this angle here, and that angle there. Boom, boom.’ And we were able to achieve it within the short few weeks that we had to shoot the film.”
You had a pretty seasoned cast…that must’ve been reassuring?
“I was very lucky. I’d worked with Josh McConville before and I knew of his talents and his range from a long time ago. It was great to have him as the lead. It was a tough role to play because it was so broad a range to play that type of role. Josh was brilliant. And everyone else was just great. Firass Dirani was awesome, and Hugh Sheridan. It was great working with Rena Owen. I had her there for a few days and she was just amazing. I’d just chat with her and describe what I want and she’d just go, ‘Right, okay’, and there it is. She’s a great actress.”
If you get a job as a soldier, if that’s the life you choose for yourself, what’s your take on it? Are they protected enough? How do you view that whole universe?
“It’s a tricky one. A soldier’s role is sadly very important in any sort of country. We often forget that a soldier’s first purpose is as a peace keeper. And ironically, humans tend to be quite violent and prejudiced. From my experience, human beings are almost innately prejudiced. People become soldiers for so many different reasons, but I think the most important thing moving forward is mental awareness for people who actually wind up serving. Because you just can’t understand, as a civilian, what it is like to take someone’s life under a flag until it’s happened. Whether it’s self-defence or training or just a mission, there are consequences because it affects you. It’s not a normal job! When lines are drawn, you need to cross that. We tend to be very violent beings sadly, but taking a life is tough and it’s those sorts of missions that affect you. There just needs to be more awareness. There’s still that sort of scoffing concept amongst people where they see a person in uniform and still assume that they’re baby killers and stuff like that. It horrifies me that there’s still that mentality. Imagine if there weren’t those people out there that wind up joining the armed forces. We wouldn’t have this beautiful, great country that we rave about. Just a bit more awareness would be great. I know quite a few soldiers that have tried to find their way back into civilian life and there’s very little support. They’ve felt like they have no support and they go, ‘Well, I can drive a tank and I can jump out of a helicopter, but I can’t get a job as a labourer.’ It’s crazy. Once you’ve done your time in the services, you deserve to be looked after.”
Escape And Evasion is screening now. Click here for our review.