Dean Devlin has been active since the 1990s, where he wrote and produced the Roland Emmerich triple-whammy of Stargate, Independence Day and Godzilla, and since has produced a wide range of movies and TV projects. He's now forging his own destiny with production company Electric Entertainment recently making the move into distribution (last year they released The Book of Love and LBJ). Next up is his own directorial project, Bad Samaritan.
Starring Robert Sheehan and David Tennant, it's a tale of morality and atonement. Sheehan plays Sean, an innovative valet-thief who, while burglarizing a house discovers a girl chained up. The captor is Tennant's Cale Erendreich, who after Sean's fateful decision to leave the victim behind begins a deadly hunt.
Screen Rant caught up with Devlin recently for Bad Samaritan's theatrical release to discuss how the movie came together, what its two stars brought, as well as dive deep into his view on the modern Hollywood machine and what the future holds - for him and the industry.
Screen Rant: I want to talk about one element of the movie that really jumped out to me - all the ingenious modern elements. You couldn't make this movie ten years ago really, it lives and dies on how both characters use modern technology. How important was that in making the movie, making sure it had all these modern flavors?
Dean Devlin: Well, you know, I think actually the problem with making films today is that to create isolation realistically when we are so connected is really difficult. So we set out from the beginning to not pretend like we don't have technology and then we said, alright well it's going to be a little more difficult to crack this, but let's be more realistic with what people can and can't do with technology. If a psychopath has the same access to that technology, what's he going to do with it?
SR: It's very interesting that you do it from the very start. One of my "how did they come up with this?" moments with this film was the valets using the sat-nav going to steal stuff. Was that based on anything real or did that come out of those discussions you mentioned?
DD: No. The writer of the script [Brandon Boyce] in a previous life had actually, for a very short time, been a valet at a restaurant and he realized he'd been handed the keys not just to the car but to the person's house. That led him to realize "I bet the person's house is programmed right here into his nav". And suddenly, my god, how vulnerable are we when we hand over our car and our keys to strangers?
SR: So it's a very natural, oh my god realization? I imagine the answer to the next question will be a bit different, but in terms of developing how David Tennant kidnaps the girl and keeps her, how did you develop the mechanics of that? Because that isn't something people are naturally going to have experience with!
DD: It started with the discussion the writer and I had about horror. There's been a lot of great, really scary movies over the past couple of the years but they tend to either deal with creatures or the supernatural or super high-tech knowledge to create something science-fiction-like that doesn't really exist in our real world. And they're great, but we really want to do something where the horror of the film is something that actually exits. That these types of people live in our world and could be down the hall from where you live or could living across the street from you. So everything about it we tried to ground in some kind of reality that we were able to research or read about in the news. But, at the same time, we were very careful... it was very important to us to not sexualize this abuse. One, I think sexualizing it is very simplistic and to be able to create something that's really much more about power was, I thought, scarier and more interesting. And, just additionally, as the father of two girls, I have no interest in putting something out there that's a rape fantasy.
SR: Speaking of the realism that you brought to it, the movie is very aware of its location. You set it in Portland and you have that be a dominating thing - from the very first shot you make that very clear. Why Portland? What was the thing that drew you to that city?
DD: Well, I've been working up there for about ten years between the TV series The Librarians and another show we did up there called Leverage, and I got to know the town really well. One of the things that's unique Portland is that it has all the accouterments of a big city but the heart and soul of a small town. So while it may have all the large buildings and venues and a lot of people crammed into a small space, everybody kinda knows everybody else's business, so there's this intimacy about the town. So for me, when our villain goes into kinda Iago mode trying to tear our hero apart, it felt much more credible to me in a place like Portland where everybody knows everybody else's business and rumor spreads quickly.
SR: Going to the development of the movie, it was originally titled, I understand, No Good Deed, which is in a similar area to Bad Samaritan as a title - it's a twist on what we know, a suggestion of things being known but unknown. What motivated the change in title?
DD: Well, actually the original title was Iron Girl. And the writer chose that because the girl is chained in iron, but as we started to work on the movie, people started to think it was a sequel to Iron Man, so we said that's not going to work. And I liked the title No Good Deed, but then another film came out with that title. And it really boiled down to what is the crux of the movie, what is the movie really about? At the end of the day, it's about this moment where this small-time thief discovers this woman in jeopardy and he's at this crossroads: does he stay and try and save her or does he leave so he doesn't get caught in the house? He makes the ultimate bad decision and therefore is our bad samaritan. He leaves her, which is shocking and horrifying, but I think in real life we've all made mistakes and we've all done things we regret. The question is about making a mistake, everybody makes mistakes, the question is how do we deal with those mistakes? Do we rationalize our behavior and write it off, which to me is the ultimate act of cowardice, or do we look it in the face and go, "No, I'm not going to let that moment define me as a person", and that's what our character goes through. Our character realizes he made the most cowardly decision of his life and he can't stand the idea that that's going to define for the rest of his life, and so he'd rather die than let that stand as his narrative. I think that's what makes the movie compelling, and it's where the title comes from.
SR: And that's one of the most interesting about the script is that you could easily flip this movie and have any character be the villain. It relies so much on perspective and the underlying morals of each of the characters. How tricky was getting that right and making it so you can have these characters... at the start of the movie, Sean is not a good person. How do you get the audience on-side and how do you make sure the morality is clear?
DD: This is where you have to have really good actors. The advantage of making this movie independently was that there was no one there to tell me who and I can and cannot cast. And therefore I was able to cast actors who are incredibly skilled. I think that most actors, especially under 30, their egos wouldn't allow them to be as cowardly as that character needed, but Robert Sheehan's an ego-less actor. He is willing to be humiliated in that moment because he knew it would drive the character; even though this is a somewhat morally flawed person, that he saw his pain and guilt over what he had done would become a human moment and on a human level you could root for him. So I think it was very tricky to pull. I don't think... I know the studios wouldn't have even attempted it because they would have thought you couldn't pull it off. But to me, it all comes down to performance and if you can get the right actor who's willing to go that far, then I think it does, it becomes a human and we can all relate to moments of humiliation and fear.
SR: Speaking of Robert, many people in the UK grew up with him in Misfits. I wonder where you first came across him and that quality you just talked about, how did you recognize that in him?
DD: It was Misfits, it was Misfits. I'm a giant fan of the show. I think it's brilliant. I actually think it redefined the entire superhero mythos. And my wife and I used to watch the show together and just marvel at this kid and I just thought he was amazing. A couple of years ago I was working on another project and I wrote a small part for him and we were able to get him onboard, and as I started to work with him I just realized how deep his skillset was - that he wasn't just a guy who had a really funny personality, he didn't turn it on, but this was a really gifted actor. So I actually turned to the writer of Bad Samaritan... the role was originally written as an American and I said, "Can we rewrite this as an Irish kid?" And he said, "Can't the actor do an American accent?" And I said, "He can but there's an intimacy that I want out this character and I want him to work with his natural voice." And as soon as we started changing it to Irish, all these other interesting things came out - about how he's putting his immigration status at risk and this whole expat feeling of being in a country that's let you down. It just added a lot to the film, but it all came from my desire to work with Robert.
SR: So that immigrant aspect - the whole coming to America, is it as great as the traditional view always is? - that wasn't in the original draft? That came with Robert?
DD: Yeah. These were the great side benefits that happened. And obviously pairing him with Carlito and working for an Italian immigrant restaurant owner, and to do all that during this weird immigrant hatred happening in the United States, it just added something to the storytelling and gave us something to latch onto.
SR: He's playing opposite David Tennant, who is probably best known for Doctor Who, but he plays such a good villain. Most recently, most famously, Kilgrave in Jessica Jones where he's also another menacing manipulator. What drew you to David to play that role? Did the Jessica Jones stuff, which was so big and so successful, play a part at all in your casting of him?
DD: First of all, I think David is the most underrated actor alive. If you think about how different Kilgrave is from the Doctor, and how different the character he played in Broadchurch is from both of those: it's hard to imagine the same person playing all three of those parts. And not just doing them well, not just being appreciated, but literally being loved for those performances. That's unusual. If we fall in love with an actor who does comedy, we tend to appreciate or tolerate their dramatic work but we really want them to go be funny again. With David, whatever he does elicits passion, and that's a real tribute to his skill. So, these were all the things that I needed for a character this complex. But if you and I are going to be candid, I'm just a giant Doctor Who nerd and to work with the Tenth Doctor was going to be the coolest thing in the entire world, so it all worked out in my favor.
SR: You mention Misfits, Doctor Who, Broadchurch. You sound like a big fan of British TV. Is that something you're drawn to, does that have a big influence on how cast roles and how you think about storytelling?
DD: Living in the United States, we get the best of the best of British television, so I kind of grew up thinking that everything in England is just genius. Then I moved to London for a year and a half making a movie and I realized, oh no, most of the television is absolute crap, but occasionally they do something that's incredibly brilliant. So when they do it right in England, they do it better than anyone.
SR: I 100% agree with you - you've seen three of best. We've talked about the actors, we're talked about the development of the movie. I wanted to talk about you taking on this project because it's a bit out of your wheelhouse in terms of the stuff you're traditionally associated with. It's smaller, it's got a much more intense horror aspect to it. What grabbed you about this project and what made you want to take this genre leap?
DD: Honestly, it started with a script that I just fell in love with. I read this script and I thought it was terrific - I couldn't put it down and got very excited about it. But then, quite honestly, the fact that it was so different than anything I'd ever done before, I didn't have a great deal of confidence that I could do this well, and once I was frightened of it, then I knew I had to do it. I knew that I would be having to change the way I see things visually. I would have to frame shots differently than I'd ever framed them before. I would look to the actors in a way that I hadn't worked [before]. That I was going to have to completely leave my comfort zone to do this movie, that was terrifying, but it's also motivating. I'm turning 56 and to try and do something completely new is invigorating and exciting.
SR: I have to ask, how did this experience of making this movie differ to your experience on Geostorm? Which is obviously a big movie and has studio connections, whereas this was independent. How was the experience different and did you prefer either?
DD: Well, there's no question. Working at a studio is not something I should ever do. I don't have the right personality for it and it's not creative, it's not a good experience, and it's not something I should be doing. I think you need a very different type of personality work with studios - and I don't have it. So to be able to work independently and really surround myself with the people who I want to work with - with the DPs the want, with the crews that I want, with the actors that I want, with the writers that I want, to shoot in a way that I feel comfortable - it made a giant difference. All of my television work has been independent, most of the stuff I've done in the past twelve years has been independent. For my personality type, I do much, much better work when I'm working independently.
SR: And so, talking about what's next: in terms of approach of genre, would you be tempted to go do another horror-thriller, or as you were saying about that challenge, that sense of being out of your comfort zone - would you rather do something completely different, something you've never done - unlike even Bad Samaritan?
DD: You know, I try in my career to not figure out what I want to do and instead be passion-based. In other words, if I fall in love with something, to pursue it. And sometimes that worked spectacularly for me. Sometimes it hasn't worked. But it's always invigorating when you're doing this because something has moved you emotionally, you know? All filmmaking is hard, so whether you're making a giant film or a small film - it's all hard. So if you're going to spend a year and a half or more of your life working on something, you really need to feel passion for it. So to me, if someone wrote a romantic comedy that I went crazy about, I'd make that my next film. If it was a really great action picture, I'd make that my next picture. If it's another great scary movie that just compels me, I'll do that. But it has to start with the project. I think studios try to figure out what movies audiences want, rather than figure out what movies they want to make. And I think the thing is, if you could left-brain this whole business, then every director would come from Oxford or Yale, and every film would be brilliant, and every movie would make money. But it doesn't work that way. Art is a passion-based thing, and for me, I've always approached it from a fan point of view. What movie do I want to see? If no one else is making it, then I'm going to go make it.
SR: And do you see yourself focusing on directing movies in the near future? I know you've got TV stuff still to come, but in terms of what's directly next for you - do you see yourself diving into a directorial project?
DD: Well, you know, it really all depends on how this movie performs. As I said, not only did we finance it independently, we are distributing it ourselves. There's no studio involved even in booking the theaters - we're doing it ourselves. So if this can be a viable business, then I'll absolutely continue doing it for as long as I can. And if not, I really enjoy all my television work and am happy to do it - I'm very proud of the stuff we've done on television and happy to do more of it.
SR: Speaking of distributing in cinemas, were you at all relieved or happy when Avengers: Infinity War moved away from that May 4th weekend?
DD: They were just frightened of us, I don't blame them. They went "we can't go up against Bad Samaritan", so they got the hell out of dodge. [laughs] No, it was a giant gift for us because obviously everybody stayed away from that weekend because they were worried about Avengers. When Avengers moved it really made it possible. Again, I don't look at us as being a film that's going to be number one at the box office, but I think now there's enough breathing room while we're out there that we can perform well, and that's really all we're hoping to do.
SR: I have to ask, because you're so important with this franchise, about Independence Day. it remains a fantastic film, the original, and the sequel obviously set up more. Do you feel a third one is likely or possible at this point, or is that something where it's up to Roland?
DD: You know, I don't know what the studio is planning in terms of doing a third movie or continuing the franchise, I really have no idea. But if the franchise continues, it will be continuing without me. I really think that my time working at studios is over.
SR: That's fair enough. That's so hard in the modern industry, so how do you see this sort of more independent style of filmmaking going forward. We just talked about the Avengers, and so many studio movies are engineered as big blockbuster movies. How do you handle working in a very competitive area of it?
DD: I honestly believe that when you go to a restaurant, you want to have some choices. I think that our studios are narrowing your choices, and there's a whole swath of movies that they just don't want to make any more that I think audiences would really like to see. I know that as a fanboy, there are movies that I'd like to see and for the most part the studios have abandoned them. But when they show up, you get very excited about them - when a movie like Baby Driver shows up, it's fantastic, and for the most part, the studios don't want to make that anymore. Or when a movie like Get Out comes out, it's fantastic. So I think there is room to make a different type of film, I just don't think you can do it at the studios.
SR: It's interesting you mention Baby Driver and Get Out because they both succeeded at the box office and with audiences, but they had the low budget aspect as well - Baby Driver was somewhat costly but comparative to its box office success it wasn't - and that's a big part of how they succeed. Is that model - that Blumhouse model - where you see the sweet spot being?
DD: I wouldn't generalise to just under 10-million dollar horror pictures, but I think the whole mid-sized film is something that studios don't... studios have no interest in making a $35 million movie or a $45 million movie, and I think the right kinds of stories can be made still for that kind of money. I think there's still a $70 million movie that can be made and would do really well. Studios, for the most part, have just lost interest in it. I think you're going to be seeing movies like this come out of independent places like us or Entertainment Studios, I think they're trying to do things like this. And even more towards the arthouse, you're going to mid-size films coming out of A24 and STX. So I think we may be entering an age that's not dissimilar when in the 1980s all these little indie labels started making music that the big record companies had given up on. I'm hoping we're going to get a renaissance of film and people are going to be excited about going back to the theater again where every movie doesn't have to a $200 million superhero movie.
SR: That would be very good. Just for reference, how much was Bad Samaritan's budget when all was said and done?
DD: It was very low. [laughs] Very low.
SR: If it was very low to the point you're emphasising it, did that pose any specific challenges, because you're talking here about the mid-range budget and they're not making those, but if Bad Samaritan wasn't in that mid-range, did that pose any problems in terms of being able to achieve stuff? You've got some stunts and spectacle in this. Did that pose a challenge with it?
Well, the biggest problem with it was that, originally, I was supposed to shoot the movie in 31 days and we got hit with five snowstorms, so that added about six days to the schedule - that hit the pocketbook pretty hard. But, at the same time, it gave us this beautiful snow that we hadn't intended on having, and I think the snow actually played a really lovely role in the picture, so while it did cause a huge challenge on the production, ultimately I think it was a great gift to the film.
Bad Samaritan is in theaters now.