Don't Breathe Director Fede Alvarez Explains Our Fear of the Invaded Home

Fede Alvarez directing Don't Breathe

Standing in front of an eager audience at San Diego Comic-Con 2016, director Fede Alvarez begged them not to believe the hype about his new film, Don't Breathe; to appreciate the film on its own merits. There was certainly plenty of hype to go around, after Don't Breathe debuted to critical acclaim at South by Southwest earlier in the year, and a chilling trailer set up the movie's premise: a small gang of thieves - played by Jane Levy (Evil Dead), Dylan Minnette (Ghostbusters) and Daniel Zovatto (It Follows) - break into the house of an old blind man (Stephen Lang) with the intention of stealing the large pile of cash that he's rumored to be sitting on. Unfortunately for them, their intended victim is far from helpless.

The last time I saw Alvarez was almost a year prior, during a visit to the set of Don't Breathe. Usually on set visits, an interview with the director will last around ten to fifteen minutes - and that's if you're lucky. Sitting in the basement of the blind man's house, however, Alvarez spoke to the gathered journalists for over an hour. He had already taken the time to show us a rough cut of a trailer for the movie (then called Untitled Fede Alvarez Thriller after losing its original title of A Man in the Dark), which he had edited together on his MacBook using scenes shot on the Budapest set and music from the original soundtrack of It Follows - another horror movie set in Detroit that Alvarez had nothing but praise for.

The set visit took place almost two months into filming, and there was a definite sense that Alvarez was dying to talk about his movie to people who weren't already involved in the making of it, with the director responding to each question eloquently and enthusiastically (Levy told us earlier how much Alvarez's English had improved since she had worked with him on Evil Dead). Due to the length of the interview, we've included a truncated version here.

How long has the story idea been percolating for?

Fede Alvarez: We were coming back from Comic-Con. We were promoting the DVD release of Evil Dead. And on the way back we just drove from San Diego to Los Angeles with Rodo [Sayagues], a writer on Evil Dead and on this one, too, and many, many things we did in the past. We wanted to do something that was very, very, very, very suspenseful... And we started thinking: what is one of the things that creates a lot of suspense?

For me, and this is regardless of the genre or what kind of movie it is, is really when you have some character walking in someone else’s domain. We are so precious about our private space and our house, and we all have this fantasy of what if somebody walks into your house? But also when you are in somebody else’s house, and when you see characters doing that, like violating that space on the big screen… It’s just the concept of walking into someone else’s domain, because you are under their rules. And in the real world, in The United States, you can be shot and that’s completely legal and fine. So it’s pretty scary to be just walking into someone else’s house.

Jane Levy as Rocky in Don't Breathe

Jane mentioned that she came in sort of at the last minute. Did you not consider her right away?

FA: I did. When I finished the script she was the first one to read it. We got together in Los Angeles right after she knew about the script. We had dinner and we talked about it. And at that point I wasn’t casting... And then by the time we started casting the movie, she was busy with another project and she wasn’t available. So we went through the casting process and I was looking for someone. But I guess I always was looking for kind of Jane and she wasn’t available.

So towards the end I remember being frustrated with the process and like, “S---. I want to find that girl.” I think she puts a picture on her Instagram... She was in San Francisco. I was like, “Aren’t you supposed to be making a movie?” And I called her and she was like, “No, that movie didn’t happen.” I was like, “Do you want to come to Budapest and make a movie?” It was like, “F---yeah! Let’s do it!” And she flew over like next week. But she was the first one to read it and always knew the story.

We’ve heard that there are bits of the film that are shot almost completely in the dark. 

FA: Yeah, you saw the shot… you know the last shot in the teaser? It’s kind of what I call the title shot because it’s a man going into darkness. But yes, that’s something that hasn’t been done before. It’s always been a challenge in movies, like how do you portray full darkness when you need light to see stuff? I guess the audience already is in a place already from probably Silence of the Lambs to today… remember that creepy last scene with Bill in the cellar? But he had the device. He had the night vision device.

Our process was like, “OK. The audience gets it. They don’t need to have someone with a camera. They know that there’s a certain look, that it’s monochromatic. It has no shadows. There’s no shadows being cast. They buy it as darkness.” And also, you have the characters with their pupils completely dilated all the time. So we created a pretty effective effect.

The characters have to stay quiet, I imagine, if there is a blind guy hunting them.

FA: Yes. Exactly. That’s why his senses are a little more refined, let’s say. So they really, really have to be so, so quiet. So there’s very few lines. There was more lines in the script and we’re really stripping it down to the bone. It’s looks. It’s where we go. We go that way, walk, stop, The Blind Man is there. As you’ve seen today one of the scenes, The Blind Man happened to walk right in front of them just trying not to breathe.

There’s a scene we did on the weekend. One of them gets hurt, so then, suddenly, he’s trying to hide, but the problem is he has hurt his ribs, so every time he breathes in, he does this sound. So it’s like either he gets found or either he stops breathing.

Why did you decide to set the movie in Detroit?

FA: I guess because it’s the isolation element. This guy lives in a house that’s on a street where there’s nobody. And not even a street. It’s a neighborhood that is empty. That’s something that you find in Detroit. It doesn’t represent the whole city. The city is actually starting to come back to life and it’s amazing how a lot of young people are going there. Downtown is beautiful. It’s a great place to go. But because it’s a city that was built for 2.5 million, 3 million people, and now there’s... big sections of that city are completely empty. And they were middle class, upper middle class neighborhoods that now are completely dilapidated and empty.

So you can find a character like this one, which we did find. They are the last men standing in their neighborhoods. They have the right to stay there and the city cannot just cut them off and cut the power, so they have the right to be there. They stay there. And they live pretty particular lives, like surrounded by houses and all this kind of urban decay thing, but they keep their house pretty neat and they cut the lawn every morning.

For the genre I think it’s something very strange. Usually you show a nice house and there’s a scary house and that’s where the story happens. In this one it’s the other way around. It’s like all the houses are scary, there’s a nice one there. That’s where the weird s--- happens. So it’s pretty unique visually.

Fede Alvarez on the set of Don't Breathe

How would you compare the experience of making this film to making Evil Dead?

FA: When I was doing Evil Dead, honestly, there was no restriction whatsoever. [Producer] Sam [Raimi] never wanted to step on set. So it was really like they sent me to New Zealand where we shot that movie and they really want me do whatever I wanted. I was so grateful to them. Sam... knows that for a director, what he wants is producers that enable you and they give you the freedom to do what you think is cool. That’s what happened on Evil Dead.

So here it’s even more freedom, I guess, because there’s not a previous movie that I have to kind of honor and tap into. And there’s no story that I have to echo... Every shot I did in my life it was always from something new. But this is the first time I did a movie that is 100% that you take out from thin air.

What qualities in Jane made her perfect for this role, just like she was in Evil Dead?

FA: I love the strong female characters. I think she did a great job in Evil Dead of playing that character. At the same time, most of the movie she was a monster, right? And then eventually she became the hero in quite a strange storytelling twist. On horror, it’s not the drug addict that becomes the hero at the end, and definitely not the monster. So it was pretty strange. But it really works...

I guess that something happened with that character that people really connect with her somehow. And, at the end of the day, on Evil Dead it was just like those last 10 minutes and the blood rain where she is just a girl trying to get away from all this, and she managed to come back on the other side of life. So I really wanted to make movie with her exploiting that a little bit more... It’s a completely different character, but that type of character, like a girl that starts in one place… At first she’s not that strong in this movie either. She has an abusive mother. She lived quite a s---ty life. And part of the reason why she wants to break into the house is to kind of break free from all that.

Do you have a favorite character in the movie?

FA: I guess I have to say The Blind Man... I love movies that force me to pick sides but without giving you the answer to the questions... The worst part of Hollywood is sometimes the movies just spoon-feed you with the answer of who you should like: “These are the good guys. Bad guy is the bad guy. And you are going to like this guy"... And that’s changing a lot. If you think about Games of Thrones these days, you are so confused about who you should like. And I think we all enjoy that somehow, being able to like the bad guys eventually and then they make a choice and you go, “No. I don’t like you anymore.”

So here that’s what I’m trying to do in this movie, not giving you good guys and a villain. They all are villains. They are all doing something that is very wrong, all of them... in their own way. So it’s really up to the audience to choose who they are going to root for. They’re probably going to love the kids first. And then enters The Blind Man, who is a victim of these kids. He wants to defend his home and he’s not going to let them take his stuff and just walk away. So eventually you are going to understand him a little bit... You put yourself in his skin and it feels like s--- to be home invaded, right?

Stephen Lang as The Blind Man in Don't Breathe

What made Stephen perfect for the role?

FA: I think he was born to play this role, honestly… I can’t think of a lot of actors that are in his 60’s that will be able to play frail and their age, and [also] be able to play so fierce and so strong. Also, it’s a guy that played many military roles in the past, but they are always from a very strong place. So it was nice to take his eyes away and see how he was going to deal with things. So it’s just someone that knows what it is to be a military guy and suddenly been confined to this life and this house by himself alone. When we started thinking about cast we started thinking about, “Who is the guy who can pull that off?” As soon as somebody named Stephen Lang it was like, “Oh, f---yeah.”

The way he moves is very scary in the clips we saw. He’s kind of like a shark. He moves very quickly.

FA: Yeah. He goes into hunter mode and he has to hunt these kids. I don’t want to spoil too much, but definitely he has to do it. There’s no way he can let them go. There’s not an option to, “Well, maybe I go and talk with them. Maybe I can just call the…” It’s not an option. He has to kill these kids. That’s why you see him so determined in the movie. But, I don’t know. I think he looks pretty badass playing that role. And he has a presence that is pretty unique.

Eventually a trailer is going to go into movie theaters. Do you keep that in mind while making a film?

FA: I do tell the scenes for the audience. I always think about the audience when I’m shooting a scene... There is some pretty f---ed up choices we make in this movie... They have definitely never been done before and it’s a scene that I have never seen before. The first time we talk about it… You’ll know what it is... But when we sit down and start talking about that scene, at first everybody was like, “Are you sure about that? Are we really going to do that? How do we do that?” That studio was like, “Are you considering just dropping that scene?” The more I heard that and every time somebody read the script, it was like, “Dude, are you sure about that scene?” Everybody says something like that, I’m even more excited.

Evil Dead had a few of those, many of those. There were a lot of discussions about, like, “Are you really going to do that, and this, and that, and shoot this way? It may be too much. NPAA is going to give us an NC-17 and we’re not going to be able to release the movie.” All those things for me just proving that they may be the best things about the movie sometimes.

Fede Alvarez - Don't Breathe

That idea, did that evolve out of the story? Was that an idea you had which worked its way into the story?

FA: I think it evolved out of the story. I mean it depends…I write in a way that once I write the first word in the actual draft, I already know what the whole story is. Some writers like to just jump into the adventure of: “Let’s see where this takes me"... I just have a treatment and I know exactly what’s going to happen... That was definitely in the first draft. And that was actually something that really, like I said, got me excited as soon as everybody was reading it and jumping at that.

Can you tell us more about the technique you used to shoot in the dark? Is there a light around the lens of the camera?

FA: Yes. The light is coming straight from the lens. So you don’t have shadows being projected. It just creates this very unique look. And, again, it’s not about the look. It’s about the tension that you can generate in complete darkness. I believe there’s a beat here where they are trying to get away from him walking in darkness, and of course they are completely lost, and he’s blind, so he’s just sprinting through the darkness... At some points they are actually walking towards him believing they are getting away from him and he’s right there.

Do you think this movie is more of a thriller or do you think it’s more of a horror?

FA: I think it’s more of a thriller... It’s definitely somewhere in between because it has horror elements. But there’s a lot of thriller because a good thriller is a chase... I remember talking with Slang [Stephen Lang] about it. He said Psycho is one that kind of fits the structure. Psycho is horror, right?... But half of the movie is Marion Crane trying to get away with some money that she stole. It’s a plot that seems to be about that. And Norman Bates is nowhere to be seen and it has nothing to do with him. And eventually at the midpoint she stops at the wrong motel. Just the story takes a turn and everything that had to do with the money just goes to hell and it has nothing to do with that...

Evil Dead was old-school gore, in your face gore. It wasn’t like, “Oh, we are doing another gory movie,” like a $20 million gory movie. They weren’t doing those. So like it’s still one of those classic, old-school, gore in your face. And it worked great. The audience responded and they showed up. So, here again, this kind of movie, kind of more on the line between horror and thrillers, they’re not the movies the studios are doing all the time. When they do horror it is always supernatural... That’s what the audience wants to see. But I believe the audience wants to see something new all the time.

Don't Breathe set photo - Fede Alvarez, Stephen Lang and Jane Levy

Is there a recent horror movie that’s really impressed you?

FA: A recent one? It Follows. But it was a lot of nostalgia for me just because of the score and the John Carpenter style of it all. And just the premise was brilliant, I think. It was just so specific and so scary as an idea and something that taps into something that we all have, that social anxiety of seeing someone that you think is looking at us. “Is that person coming at me right now?” So that one, definitely.

What was the first actual horror film that you watched?

FA: I don’t remember... Evil Dead was actually one, the first one that really terrified the hell out of me. Again, I was 11 or 12 and we rented it. And we shouldn’t have done that. That’s why the take of my movie is what it is, because when I saw Evil Dead, I didn’t think it was funny at all, because it wasn’t. It was just so scary and so perverse and so wrong… And the low budget elements just make those films look scarier, because they didn’t look safe like other movies... It always feels weird and creepy because of the budget... I remember really being scared out of my mind and not being able to sleep, just thinking about that cellar. Little did I know.

Do you have final cut on this movie?

FA: Same has it. Usually it’s Sam. And Evil Dead was the same. It’s the only way to get the studio, I think, to give you so much freedom. But the way we work, at least, Sam, in Evil Dead, never really even stepped in the editing room. And that was his baby. So I’m assuming that’s the way it will happen with this one. But, who knows? Maybe I make a disaster and he has to come in and save it… [laughter]

Right now there’s a trend, particularly from Blumhouse, to make horror movies for $1-2 million and then multiply that many times at the box office. How do you feel about budget? Do you like being kind of restricted or do you like having money to spend?

FA: There’s always a sweet spot where you can have creative control, because eventually you spend too much money, particularly on something like this. With Evil Dead we could because it was a title. When you are doing something that is original, you cannot spend so much money. There’s always a sweet spot there where you can still have creative control.

But I’m very conservative with my filmmaking. I like things to look good... I’m doing no handheld on this movie. I’m just sick of it. I like to be pretty old-school that way. So low budget works for certain stories and definitely works for Blumhouse. I know [Jason Blum] and he’s a genius... He’s really giving young filmmakers the chance to go and try their things. A lot of times those movies don’t get released, but at least he’s really giving the chance to young filmmakers to come in, because that’s a format that’s kind of an echo of what used to happen in the ‘90s and the ‘80s when the VHS boom. They were making movies all the time, nonstop, and that will bring so many young filmmakers into the game... Roger Corman never got a lot of respect as a filmmaker himself, but come on. How many… like Oliver Stone, and Coppola, how many of them… all started working for Corman?

So that’s why I think it’s a great format. It is expensive to make movies look a certain way and have your sets and to build your vision from the ground and get exactly what you need, and not trying to fit it to a particular location and stuff like that. But I think you can do great stuff in that format. If your mind is in the right place and you accept those boundaries, I think you can do great things.

Don’t Breathe is set for release on August 26, 2016

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