With Fede Alvarez film EVIL DEAD being one of the very few remakes that garnered one hell of a lot more praise than it did criticism, audiences were left anxious to see what the helmer would cook up next. Three years later, and, based on early reviews, it’s looking like his latest project, DON’T BREATHE, is the horror film to catch this year (although he’d rather you didn’t pay too much attention to the hype. But more about that a little later).
DON’T BREATHE follows three young friends (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto) who decide to break into the abode of a wealthy blind man (Stephen Lang). Unfortunately for the intruders, as Zovatto quite rightly puts it in the trailer, “Just ‘cos he’s blind don’t mean he’s a saint, bro.”
Ahead of the August 26 theatrical release of the movie, Howard Gorman caught up with Alvarez to shed some light on his latest palpitation-inducing premise.
TERROR TIME: When you shot EVIL DEAD, one of your main concerns must obviously have been to live up to all the expectations die-hard fans of the original had and you ended up being one of the few directors that came out of a remake with a respected reputation. DON’T BREATHE is a very different kettle of fish in that it’s a premise you’ve devised from scratch. What have been your main concerns or pressures this time round?
Fede Alvarez: It’s like everything really. It changes. With remakes you have some things in your favor – classic movies are great as you get to take ideas from them, but at the same time, it’s kind of like a double-edged sword. When it comes to remakes, everybody wanted to hate us and nobody wanted to hear about the project so it is harder to win over the fans. But I believe we did that for a lot of people that ultimately enjoyed the film.
And then for DON’T BREATHE, it just seems a lot more relaxed somehow. Nobody really knows about it until the movie’s over so in that aspect it’s very enjoyable. However, at the same time, you don’t have a big brand that supports you and all that so I guess the scary part is always, “Are we gonna find an audience?” I try and make the best movies I can for a massive audience but you never know if they’re going to show up until the opening weekend. That’s always the scariest part of making something original and fresh. Although the audience always complains about Hollywood making remakes and sequels, at the same time, people rarely show up when you have an original idea so you have to blend things a bit. We’ll see, but so far there’s a lot of excitement for the film.
TT: Absolutely. It’s gone down amazingly well on the festival circuit. Having said that, I know that just before the film screened at fests and press events, you told audiences to try and approach the film without taking account of all the hype it’s been getting.
FA: (laughing) That’s totally true. I actually said that a couple of times. It’s good to have an audience that’s excited to see a movie, but usually that’s not going to help you. At some point in our lives we’ve all fallen in love with a movie and every time we watch a movie we think the same kind of thing is going to happen, right? It’s kind of like when you start dating someone. Every time you go on a date with someone, you often think that this could be the right person for you. You think that maybe this is the time you are going to fall in love again but that only really tends to happen once or twice in your life. It works the same way with movies. Whenever anybody thinks a movie is going to change their life, most of the time it tends to disappoint them.
So I’d rather have the audience going in with no expectations if I can, or at least lower ones, so I have a better chance to succeed than if they go in believing it’s “the best horror movie in the last ten years,” like the press and marketing have been saying. I’m certainly happy to have got such a good response from audiences so far but, yeah, when I’m at the theater I try to convince them it’s actually REALLY bad! (laughs). In San Diego I told the audience, “Actually, the movie kinda sucks, so if you want to leave now you are allowed to do that and I won’t be offended.”
TT: Tell me a little bit about where the idea came from and how you wrote the script with your EVIL DEAD co-writer, Rodo Sayagues. I read that the theme of the invasion of someone’s personal space is based on your experiences growing up in Uruguay. Is that actually true?
FA: That’s not true. That information probably comes from a combination of statements I’ve made. There is definitely the Uruguay factor where growing up there it’s not uncommon to hear stories of someone having robbed your friend’s house. It never happened to me but it did happen to close friends or family and you think, “Oh my God. They love their house and someone invaded their personal space.” This even happened sometimes when people were inside their own houses. I think it’s such a common problem and thieves are people that we all love to hate but rarely do we get to know them or chat with them. So I thought it was interesting to tell a story about those guys and try to understand why they would go to your house and risk their lives. I mean, in the States everyone owns a gun so they really are putting themselves at risk just to take a laptop or whatever.
Obviously, we needed more than that to make a film out of it so we needed to give them a worthy opponent; someone that was really cinematic and who could really carry a movie. And that’s when we came up with the idea for The Blind Man. It was someone who was obviously strong, but at the same time, the blindness at the beginning really puts you in a place where you don’t know what to expect. The thieves think everything is going to be too easy but then quickly realize that it’s the other way round. That’s essentially how the whole thing started.
TT: And what was it about Stephen Lang that made him fit this role you’ve just described?
FA: He was one of those guys that when I heard his name and saw his picture, I just thought he was too good to be true. He was perfect. He had played the military type guy in the past, but never like this; never as a blind man. That gave us an actor that everyone knows as a military character but now played under a different light. But then the rest was already in the script. It was almost as if we had known that Stephen Lang was going to be playing the role because there’s no other guy who is 65 and as in good shape as he is and so disciplined, just like the character. It just made the whole thing easier somehow. When you have good actors it makes your life easier. He is very believable and was very committed and he did something that was very important for me: He didn’t judge the character. He never said, “This guy is a mean mother fucker.” He always said that he understood the man’s pain and where he was coming from. He also understood why the man was doing the things he was doing, even though they are so radical. That’s really important. For an actor to be able to play a role they have to love the character and understand why they do the things they do.
TT: I’m guessing both you and Stephen did your fair share of research to ensure the character and his living quarters proved as authentic as possible.
FA: Yeah, I think Stephen went off and did his own research at first. Most of his research was to try to understand what it means to be blind and I’d heard stories that he was blindfolding himself in his house and trying to walk around and just trying to figuring out just how well he knew his own space. Obviously, he realized he didn’t really know his own house as much as he should, even though he’d been living there for a really long time. So he was really trying to understand the skill of what it really means to be blind.
On my side, it was a lot of reading and a lot of stories and interviews with blind people to try to get in their heads and understand them, something that was really hard. That’s why the movie works so well. Blindness is almost like a magical thing for us. It’s a myth. It just feels almost impossible to understand what it is to wake up every morning and be in complete darkness. Unless you’re blind, it’s just so hard to understand that.
Interestingly, one thing I used a lot for my research was a YouTube channel of this guy called Tommy Edison. He’s blind and he answers all kinds of questions there, and then today he showed up at this press junket to interview all of us. IT WAS GREAT! He’s a film critic actually. He’s called The Blind Film Critic and he reviews films based on the sound and the story and the dialogue and most of the time he really nails it; he really understands what’s going on and he’s really fantastic.
TT: Talking of disabilities, Mike Flanagan’s recent film, HUSH, encountered quite an outrage from the deaf community because they didn’t use a deaf actress. At the end of the day, it’s called acting for a reason but what’s your take on that? Did you consider blind actors for the role?
FA: Exactly what you just said! Everything about movies are fake and all about make believe. Of course if you have a Chinese character played by a white man then that’s disgusting. That’s terrible, but with something like this that just makes no sense. Imagine if I had to narrow things down to cast from a choice of only blind actors. I would have been stuck with very few choices and it would have been very hard to find the right person. It would have been insane, and kind of pointless. If you are doing everything correctly in movies then people will buy into them because they want to go along with the ride.
TT: Stephen Lang’s character turns the tables on the thieves in his house when the lights go out. At this point, darkness (and the accompanying visuals and sound design) plays just as important a role as the protagonists. Can you talk us through your work with the cinematographer and sound team?
FA: It was definitely a complex process. I was very lucky to get cinematographer Pedro Luque (THE SILENT HOUSE) to do this movie. He’s been my DoP all my life and shot PANIC ATTACK! with me, which was the short that took me to Hollywood. It was great to work with him and we have a very easy dialogue with each other. He just allowed me to go crazy and just do whatever I thought was right. The same goes the other way round too. If he wants to then he proposes something. Nothing is wrong or right. In our relationship he can definitely bring some of the craziest ideas and we’ll just go for it. So that really helped to be more creative and just to do things that were all the more riskier, like the whole darkness scene, right? I really don’t think I could have done all of that with anyone else. Collaborations with people who you have worked with all your life always go a long way.
And then with the sound design, it was all the people we worked with on EVIL DEAD: Jonathan Miller, Jonathan Wales. From the script we knew that there we going to be big chunks of complete silence with no dialogue so we knew that we were going to need powerful sound design and music to carry those moments and keep you hypnotized by the images. We use this really weird tune that really keeps you mesmerised constantly.
There is also something really amazing that the composer, Roque Baños, did in the film. It’s really hard to know in the movie what is actually music and what is sound design because most of the stuff you are hearing is actually music. He used all these instruments made out of junk because he wanted to use instruments made out of all the sorts of things you could find inside that house. He would hit all different metal or wooden objects or pipes with a bar or sink them into water and that’s most of the music you hear for the whole movie.
TT: Just to wrap up, are you willing and able to let us in on any future plans at all? Maybe some TV, especially after all that talk of a possible introduction of Mia’s character into the “Ash Vs. Evil Dead” show?
FA: Well maybe. I have been spending the last couple of months working on some television shows that we’re developing just to create them with my co-writer. Hopefully you’ll hear about those pretty soon. And then in terms of movies, we’re writing MONSTERPOCALYPSE for Warner Bros. which is a big movie that’ll take some time. There are a lot of things in development but we’ll have to see. I mean, I feel like I have to really fall in love with a movie to go after it so we’ll see what happens.
TT: Thank you so much for talking with us, Fede. We wish you all the best with the release.
FA: Thank you, Howard. I really appreciate the push and the support.
Be sure to catch DON’T BREATHE from August 26 in theaters and we’ll leave you with the official trailer below:
Keep an eye out for more from Fede Alvarez. Many great films to come