Don't Breathe Set Visit Report: Terror as a Chess Game

Don't Breathe poster excerpt

Making movies is all about trying to do as much as possible with the resources that are available, and a big part of that is deciding where to shoot. Given how valuable a film production is - bringing anything from a few million dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy - countries worldwide compete fiercely for the attention of studios by offering tax breaks and other incentives. Over the last few years, the city of Budapest in Hungary has managed to land some big catches, including Ridley Scott's sci-fi adventure The Martian and Ron Howard's Angels and Demons follow-up Inferno.

Last year, Budapest's Stern Studio played host to Don't Breathe, Fede Alvarez's horror/thriller about three amateur burglars (Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto and Dylan Minnette) whose plan to rob the house of an old blind man (Stephen Lang), goes awry when he proved to be far from helpless, and doesn't take kindly to the strangers in his home. Don't Breathe is set in the city of Detroit, which has for decades suffered from a declining population and increased unemployment and poverty (largely due to the decline of the local automobile industry), leaving many of the city's houses - and sometimes entire neighborhoods - abandoned. This plays into the plot of the movie, since not only is protagonist Rocky (Jane Levy) desperate to get out of the city and move to California, she and her friends also think their target house will be easy to rob, since it's the last occupied home in an abandoned neighborhood.

The filmmakers scouted Detroit for the perfect location, and eventually found a house in the neighborhood of Linwood. Production designer Naaman Marshall describes the area as being "pretty derelict," adding that Detroit itself is still in a state of "full shellshock." The house that was selected to play the part of the blind man's home was one of only three occupied houses on the street, and Marshall says that its residents - a woman called Mary and her son, who have a floor of the house each - have lived there for over 40 years.

Dylan Minnette, Jane Levy, and Daniel Zovatto in Don't Breathe

Having settled on the house they wanted, the filmmakers then went about rebuilding it on a sound stage in Budapest, creating a perfect replica of the facade but an entirely new interior. When the film was screened to an audience at San Diego Comic-Con last month, one audience member described it in a Q&A as having the feel of a video game; in their efforts to escape, the characters end up visiting more or less every room in the house, with each room presenting its own challenges as they try to survive encounters with the blind man.

It's no accident that Don't Breathe feels like a game; Alvarez himself says that his pitch for the movie has always been a chess game between the burglars and the blind man. Sometimes Lang's character turns the tables on the invaders, and sometimes they get the upper hand. His blindness is a disadvantage in well-lit rooms, but when the lights go out the burglars are left floundering in the dark while the blind man is as capable as ever. There are weapons in the house, which change hands multiple times. Alvarez compares it to a turn-based strategy game, and says that he plotted the movie out by building a model of the house and using action figures to work out where each of the characters should be (Lang's character was represented by a Yoda toy).

Speaking to Screen Rant during our visit to the set, Alvarez explained the careful structure of the movie:

"There’s a beautiful shot we did the other day here in the house that’s just a long tracking shot in the house when the kids enter it for the first time. It not only shows you the kids, but it shows you... there’s a hammer in there. There’s a skylight in there. There’s this lock here, this door that is slightly ajar. And I show you all the elements right beforehand. So the audience probably hopefully will start trying to take guesses: “OK. That’s how that element is going to play.” Maybe they are right and maybe they are wrong. But that’s kind of how the whole story is designed.

"It’s really like a chess game. They make their move, The Blind Man makes his own. Then they make another one and then The Blind Man another one. And then they make one and it’s check and then The Blind Man escapes that and then it’s check. And then eventually it will be checkmate for someone. It’s a nice puzzle, the house, and how every piece falls in one place."

Fede Alvarez - Don't Breathe

The design of the house involved some careful considerations about how a blind person might live. For example, in the movie the blind man never bothers to turn the lights on, because why would he? Marshall recalls a discussion that they had about what to put on the blind man's bedside table, since it would make no sense for a book or magazine to be there. The front room of the house has all of its furniture pushed towards the walls, so that he won't bump into it. The edges of the rugs are taped down with duct tape, so he won't trip on them. There is a layer of dust on everything, because he cannot see that his house is dusty. Perhaps the most interesting detail of all is a waist-high line all around the walls of the house, where the wallpaper has been marked by the blind man trailing his hand along it in order to keep track of where he is.

The movie went through a few different titles before settling on its final moniker. During the development stage it was called A Man in the Dark. During filming, it was Untitled Fede Alvarez Thriller. Finally, it was dubbed Don't Breathe for its theatrical release. The title is not only an instruction to the characters, who must stay absolutely still and silent in order to avoid being discovered by the blind man, but also to the audience. During the SDCC screening, you could have heard a pin drop as the audience held their collective breath at every tense encounter. Speaking in the Q&A afterwards, Alvarez explained that this involuntary response was the reason behind the final title choice.

"We were basically trying to find a more original title, I guess, and after screening it a couple of times to an audience we realized that... It's one of those movie's that's so silent in many parts, really deep, deep silence. There's no sound in the movie whatsoever, and we realized that that kind of suspense gets you to hold your breath for a long time. You have to remind yourself to breathe, and the characters in the movie are going through the same sort of situation. If they breathe, he will hear it. So we thought it was a kind of classy sixties/seventies exploitation title."

Also present in the audience at the time was producer Sam Raimi, working with Alvarez for a second time after the director made a well-received make of Raimi's classic horror Evil Dead. Actor Daniel Zovatto, who plays ringleader and wannabe tough-guy Money in the movie, told us that he didn't see Raimi at all during the production, while Alvarez said it was much the same for Evil Dead. By all accounts, it sounds like Raimi used his pull to give Alvarez total creative freedom with his movie. Technically, Raimi had final cut privilege, but Alvarez told the gathered audience that what they had just seen - and what general audiences will see in theaters this month - is his director's cut: "This is exactly what I intended it to be."

Don't Breathe arrives in theaters on August 26, 2016.

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