Earlier this month, we shared the trailer for Brake, a new thriller starring Stephen Dorff as a secret service agent trapped in the trunk of a car.
Similar to the 2010 film Buried, which starred Ryan Reynolds as a man buried alive in the desert, Brake takes place entirely in one location. Unlike Buried, however, Dorff’s character in Brake isn’t just fighting for his survival. He’s also fighting to keep his sanity as he is tortured by an anonymous tormentor obsessed with learning the location of Roulette: the place where the President is taken during an attack on Washington D.C.
It’s a pretty interesting idea for a movie, and definitely a different take on the genre, so Screen Rant reached out to director Gabe Torres to learn more about the film.
In our interview, we talk to Torres about how he wanted to make not just a contained thriller, but a contained action film (or, as he puts it, “Die Hard in the trunk of a car.”) We also talked about the difficulties of filming in one location, working with long-time friend Stephen Dorff, and the advantages of pre-releasing a film on Video On Demand.
Screen Rant: A film like Brake must be difficult, because you only have one location to work with. How do you keep things engaging and entertaining for the viewer over the entire 90 minutes of the film?
GT: There’s a couple of things I did when I took on the project. When I first read the script, I started to get into it and I was about at page 24 or 25 when I looked up and saw the page count and realized that we were still in the trunk of the car and I knew that this was going to be a challenge. But the good thing was that, even though the script needed some work, the concept was solid because I didn’t look up to see where I was on the page until I was at page 24. So 24 pages into it, I said, “You know what, I have to hook the audience the same way.”
So the first thing I set as a goal was that the point-of-view of the film was that the audience would always travel with Jeremy and I would never give the audience any more information from a story standpoint, a visual standpoint, or an auditory standpoint than the main character. My goal was to put the audience in that trunk with Jeremy. So you never see any shots that are from the outside looking in. Any time you look outside the trunk, it’s always what Jeremy sees. It’s always what Jeremy hears. And there’s never any more information given to the audience about what’s going on in the story than what our main character gets. So they’re left with all the same questions and concerns and fears that our main character has.
Taking that approach engages the audience and makes them travel along the same journey. It’s like, if he has no information, the audience is like “What’s going on here?” So I tried to reveal as little as possible in the beginning from a story standpoint and visually, and I designed the reveals to come out in increments, both visually and from a story standpoint so the audience would always be wondering what’s going to happen next.
So the reveal of Jeremy’s situation, when he wakes up in the beginning, he’s just a face in a red void. A red and black darkness. He has no idea where he is and neither do we. We don’t know it’s the trunk of a car until he does.
So I started out in darkness with just him and the clock – the two things that we know. He wants to find out why this clock is counting down. Then you add the layer of the Henry character that comes across the CV. Then, when the car pulls out of the garage and the bad guys get into it, light leaps in through the sides and we define the space of the trunk. Later, we turn on what we call the “torture lights” – which weren’t in the script, I added that in – and we reveal more about what this plexiglass containment is.
So visually, I take that one location and I turn it into almost three or four. I keep changing up the look of the interior with different kinds of lenses and different kinds of lighting. So you go from the black void, which is about nine minutes when we get into this trunk, which is still green and red. Then we get into the lit-up box. Then he turns around in there a couple of times and I messed with the look of that. When the car gets rammed, the lights start to flicker because they’re shorting out, so that gives the environment a different look. As his mind gets more and more chaotic, so does the environment. I tried to keep that one location evolving and changing as the story does, visually and from a coverage standpoint.
SR: Is it right that you filmed this movie in 11 days?
GT: 12 days. We did 11 days in the trunk set and 1 day outside. And I did a second-unit day in Washington D.C. to get some POVs.
SR: How was it for Stephen to film so much in that tight space for such a condensed period of time? I imagine you worked pretty long days.
GT: The days were pretty good; they actually weren’t that long. But any time you put an actor through that it feels long. On a normal film, when the actors are working, you might have two days of work then you have a day off. You might be able to go to your dressing room. There might be one scene in the morning before your scene. But with this piece, Stephen is the only one on camera so he’s working all day and is working at a level of intensity, because of the nature of the story and the nature of what Jeremy is going through, he has to maintain this intensity of performance across a full day. So it’s a very draining experience emotionally for him as an actor, but also physically.
I wanted it to be a very visceral and gritty film. I wanted it to feel like you were really in that trunk, so the set was built with half of a Crown Vic and mounted to supports. The box was built in practically into the trunk of the car – so it actually does fit, there’s no cheat there – and it could rock up and down like a teeter-totter. It took a team of about 10 people, who we called Team Trunk, to create the movement scenarios. These involved people who would work the handles all over the sides of this, so it could go up and down, side to side, twist and turn it to create the centrifugal forces of a moving car.
But then you have to imagine that as the car turns and goes down streets or comes up and accelerates onto on-ramps at different speeds, the sun is going to be moving around. So we had a lighting team that would move the key lights around so that the lights coming through the cracks of the car would shift as the car went around turns. All this had to be choreographed so that when the car turns left, the centrifugal force drives left, the sun has to move in another direction and light spills through in different ways – the light is spilling through the front of the car instead of the back of the car.
We kind of created the movie in 5 to 10 minute sequences. We would first put a stand-in in and we’d rehearse the entire movement of the car. So Team Trunk all had headphones on and the movement coordinator and I would coordinate certain things. I would give hand cues at certain points in the story when I wanted a slam to happen and they would fling the thing up like a teeter-totter and then the double or Stephen would be slammed, literally, into the top of this thing. Or the thing would be rolled to one side so he’d be driven to the left or the right, creating that centrifugal force of a car that was being spun. And cameras were mounted inside as well as out so they could experience the faint vibration and shakes of riding in a car.
So we do about an hour to get the movement down, rehearse it with a double. That would be the scene early in the morning and while we were rehearsing the movements, Stephen would be in make-up. He took more and more time as time went on as he got more beat up, with a broken nose and everything. So then he would come in and we’d do one quick run-through without much movement, just for the lines. I didn’t want him to know what was going to happen movement-wise because then we would roll. We’d roll A and B cameras and throw him through the scenario of movements and he wouldn’t know whether the car was going to slam into the top or to the sides or all around, and he would get beat up. We did probably two or three takes like that and then we would stop if we had it and reset and he’d go back to the dressing room and we’d rehearse the next movement scenario.
And all the other actors who play the other parts that he communicates with off-screen, who are on radio and cell phones and stuff, they were all there on set, but he would never see them. I had a little black booth built, like a tent, and they would be in there on a microphone. So he never got to see the actors who played all those other parts until the last day. He never met them and I would hide them from him so that I would only just be a voice until he saw them. We shot chronologically in order and storyboarded from beginning to end.
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SR: That’s amazing, just to consider how much work went into getting it right. When you have a compelling story and compelling characters, you don’t spend time thinking about, “Oh, well that doesn’t seem right. The light should be here,” or “He just slammed into the car, why does he look like that?” You just go along with it. But you have to have those technical details right or you risk taking the audience out of it.
GT: Those kind of details, if you get them wrong, people notice. But if you get them right, you suspend the disbelief and they buy in. They don’t notice that the light is in the right place or it shifts as the car moves around, it just feels right. It’s when it feels wrong, when something feels wrong from a technical standpoint, the audience notices. When it’s spot-on and it’s right, they’re engrossed in the story and they go along with it. You really don’t want people to notice that it’s right. You want them to be engrossed in the experience, and that’s when you’ve won. When you don’t get those little details right, they’ll say “Oh that feels like a set,” or “That doesn’t feel real.”
SR: I imagine that maintaining suspension of disbelief is especially important in a movie like this, which really is a high-concept thriller. You already, from the get-go, are questioning whether something like this could actually happen. So to keep an audience going for 90 minutes, you really have to keep the movie cracking. I saw Stephen had previously referred to the film in a different interview as “Die Hard in a box.”
GT: Yeah, that’s how I always described it. He picked that up from me. I said I wanted to make this be ‘Die Hard’ in the trunk of a car. I wouldn’t define it as a contained thriller, even though that’s sort of what it falls under. I always saw this as a unique genre, and something I’d never done before, which is a “contained action movie.”
It seems like an oxymoron, which is why people would look at me strange when I would say, “I’m making an action movie and it all takes place in the trunk of a car,” but that was my goal. Just like you would in a big traditional action movie, like a ‘Die Hard,’ you have action set pieces: you have the bees, you have the ramming sequence, you have the gasoline drowning sequence. You have these big action set pieces within the structure of the story as you would in a bigger action movie. You have the chase scene, but the chase scene is all from the perspective of the trunk of a car. The guy getting rammed, getting shot at. You have all these traditional sequences being told in a very different way.
SR: Is Die Hard just a favorite movie for you, because it’s my favorite movie of all time.
GT: Oh, I love ‘Die Hard.’ That’s what I wanted this guy to be a very flawed, heroic, working-class guy like John McClane. That was kind of the goal. As I was shooting it, I think I even became subconsciously affected by it. You know, him in the t-shit, with the sweatiness and stuff, talking on the CV; he started to take on this John McClane vibe in the close-ups.
SR: I think Stephen Dorff has always slipped under the radar somewhat, but he seems to be having a kind of resurgence here as an actor. He was really highly praised for his work in the Sofia Coppola movie Somewhere. How did you like working with Stephen and how did he become attached to the project to begin with?
GT: Stephen and I have a very unique history. I’ve know Stephen since he was 12 years old and I’ve been a friend of the Dorff family for many years. When he was a kid, he was like a little adult. I met him just after he did a film called ‘The Gate’ as a kid. I was doing a movie for Disney and I needed a great 12-year-old for this movie. We were at a sci-fi convention – I’d done this movie that had a lot of special effects in it for the Disney channel called ‘The Legend of Firefly Marsh’ and Stephen had done’The Gate,’ which was another creature effects kind of movie – and this was a panel discussion on visual effects. This was in 1986 or 1987. He was there with the director and his mom, and we met and I said, “You’d be great for this movie I’m doing.” We sent him the script, and that movie didn’t come to pass, but I ended up becoming really great friends with the family and they were like my second family out here. So I kind of watched him grow-up.
We almost worked together a few times when he was a teenager when I did a film called ‘December.’ So we kept in touch over the years, of course, spent holidays together and things. Then, just a few years ago, just after he started Somewhere, his mom, Nancy, who is one of my dearest friends, passed away. So we kind of said, you know, his mom wanted us to do something together.
When I saw this script, I said, “I need somebody who’s just going to be able to nail it. I need a great actor.” Because there’s no way I would have been able to get away with this and do all the visual stuff I was thinking about unless there’s a great performance in there. Unless you care about this guy, no one is going to go along for 85 minutes in the trunk of the car.
So I gave it to Stephen to read knowing that A) he is going to react to the material, because it’s a challenge for him as an actor. Like a lot of great actors, his ego is going to say, “I want to try this. I think I can do this.” A lot of actors don’t respond to that material, they become scared by it, but Stephen’s pretty fearless when it comes to his work on camera.
I think our personal relationship really played into it, because he’s never been directed by anyone who knows him as well as I do. So that was both a challenge and a blessing. He just got into that headspace and I just kept him there. Sometimes, I wouldn’t let him out of the box, and he’d get upset. He’d want to get out, and I’d say, “No let’s roll again, let’s do another take.” He’d start pounding on the walls and stuff, and some of that is actually in the film.
But he would do it again, and say, “Let’s do it again,” so we’d keep rolling it and he’d let that anger build up. One of the key things for me was that I saw this character as a guy that’s in control at the beginning, but unlike John McClane does not hold onto that control. He starts to spiral into madness. So the movie is a journey into madness for him as they continue to throw an onslaught of both physical and emotional artillery at him. He almost comes to the point of breaking, but he doesn’t. He sacrifices his own sanity to keep the secret that he’s vowed to keep, which is the location of roulette.
SR: You’ve already released the movie on Video On Demand, and then you have a theatrical release. From a filmmaker’s perspective, what do you think of releasing movies on demand prior to a theatrical release? Is that a business model that’s beginning to make sense for Hollywood and do you see other studios going that way in releasing their films?
GT: It’s a business model that I think works for small independent films. I’m not sure that a larger picture would work in that direction, but from an indie standpoint it works really well. The pre-theatrical video on demand window does not cannibalize the theatrical opening. That’s sort of been discovered. The video on demand reaches so many places that a theatrical opening for a small independent wouldn’t. So what we’re experiencing is that people in rural areas, smaller communities and smaller towns, have been able to access Brake through on-demand and iTunes during this pre-theatrical window when they might not have ever seen it. Then when it opens theatrically in the five cities it’s going to start in, people who want that theatrical experience in these smaller art house theaters will seek it out. So the on demand presence and all the Internet buzz tends to act as advertising for that theatrical opening.
Brake is available on-demand now, but can be seen in select theaters beginning March 23. Check out IFC.com to see if the film is playing in your area. If you’re in Los Angeles, check out a special showing on Friday night at 7:45PM at the Laemmle NoHo 7 theater. Following the screening, there will be a Q&A with Torres, Actress Chyler Leigh, Director of Photography James Mathers and Composer Brian Taylor.