After grossing out audiences with his gore-drenched 2013 remake of Evil Dead, director Fede Alvarez returned earlier this year at the SXSW Film Festival with Don’t Breathe, a frenetic and terrifying thriller which finds three would-be burglars relentlessly stalked by their intended victim: a blind US Army veteran.
I was lucky enough to be in the audience for the film’s world premiere at SXSW, and in my review I called it “a full-speed descent into terror and suspense.” It’s one of my favorite horror films in recent memory, and when I was offered a chance to sit down with Alvarez during San Diego Comic-Con, I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough.
Hey man, nice to see you! We chatted in Phoenix for Evil Dead a couple of years ago.
Fede Alvarez: I remember that! I remember Phoenix, that was a very hot day.
Just be happy you aren’t there at this time of the year. I was lucky enough to see this at the world premiere at SXSW, and this movie scared the shit out of me. It’s just so fast-paced and so intense and it never lets up. I was physically exhausted when I walked out of the theater.
Fede Alvarez: That’s great! That’s a good thing, that’s the intention. [laughs]
I just love the idea of this seemingly fragile old man really turning the table on these characters. Where did this idea start?
Fede Alvarez: It was actually right here in San Diego, the last time I was here, in 2013. We were promoting the Blu-Ray for Evil Dead, and I was driving back to L.A. with my co-writer and we were starting to think about what the next movie should be. We knew we wanted to do something that wasn’t Evil Dead 2, but felt like a follow-up to that movie, and that had a lot of things in common. It’s always about trying to find “what is that thing that scares everybody?” What is that theme, that concept, that idea that is always creepy, regardless of the genre of the movie you’re watching. What is that thing that, when it happens, it really tenses everybody up?
And one of the things I discovered is that it’s when you have your main characters walk into someone else’s house. When they come in through the window and they’re going down a hallway trying to get something, it’s always terrifying because of course, this is America, and they can shoot you. And also, you’re walking in someone else’s domain, so it doesn’t even matter what country you’re in, honestly – if you’re in someone else’s house, then you’re playing by their rules. You’re helpless. If you walk into that space without being invited, we all agree socially if someone does that, then if something bad happens to them, it’s their fault because they shouldn’t have done that.
That’s why I think it’s so scary, in general, and we really wanted to explore that. But we wanted to give them a worthy opponent and a character that would make this concept unique, and that’s when we came up with the idea of the blind man. At the beginning the kids think this will be easy: let’s walk into this guy’s house, he’s blind, let’s take his money, it should be easy. And as you know, that’s not the case, because that guy is played by Stephen Lang.
Was he always your first choice for that role?
Fede Alvarez: Honestly, yes, he’s the only one that we went out to and said “do you wanna make this film?” As soon as I saw his photo, I was like “this is the guy.” Think about it: how many actors in Hollywood who are 65 have his physical presence, who can be just an old guy and then suddenly turn it on and be the animal that he can turn into? There’s not a lot of people who can pull that off, and also be such a great actor like he is. I was really honored to have him.
One of things I really enjoyed about Don’t Breathe was the design of the blind man’s home. There are so many hallways and passages, and every time we think a character is safe, we find out that he’s already ahead of the game.
Fede Alvarez: You’re completely right. Everything inside the house needed to work like a Swiss clock. It needed to be very sharp, so we knew we had to create a house that was like the perfect chess board, in a way. Everything the characters do should mirror what the audience would do if they were in that situation – that’s where movies usually fall apart, when the characters do something that you think you would never do.
So in order to do this, we needed to create the perfect house, and we actually built a scale model of this house, with little figures, and we just played a chess game over and over. When we got to a dead end that didn’t work, we would reset the whole thing and start again. I don’t know if you play turn-based strategy games, but it was really like that: you have X amount of moves to get one of the kids somewhere, and then your turn, the blind man makes his move. And it really worked.
Another thing I wanted to ask about – and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here, because it’s in the trailer. There’s a moment in the film where the power in the house gets cut, and the way it’s shot is just gorgeous. I’ve never seen a “night vision” sort of scene with this specific look before.
Fede Alvarez: It’s one of those things that I’m super proud of, because it’s pretty unique. In any movie, if I manage to do something that pushes filmmaking forward on any level, and does something that’s like “oh, now we have to do things this way.” Like on Evil Dead, the whole thing of making every special effect on camera when you can do them with CGI, it kind of cut the trend of using CG blood all the time, and we went back to classic gore.
With this one, the darkness was crucial for the premise of the movie. The fun is that when the light does out, he’s not the one that’s at a disadvantage. As far as how we did it, if I tell you all the details it’s like spoiling the trick. If a magician shows you a great magic trick, you don’t want to know that he wore a card up his sleeve and all that shit, you wanna believe that it’s real. It’s a combination of many things, but mostly it’s that we rehearsed the scene many times, but then we put the actors in complete darkness so we could capture that and get reactions that would be very hard to fake.
I’m glad you mentioned Evil Dead, and doing all the blood and gore in camera. In that movie, the level of violence and bloodshed is so over the top, but I would say that Don’t Breathe is every bit as violent, just in a completely different way – it’s shocking because it’s so brutal and so grounded in reality. After coming off Evil Dead and going to something like this, did you have to exercise a little more restraint to make sure you didn’t go too far with the blood and gore?
Fede Alvarez: This movie is kind of a reaction to Evil Dead, on many levels, and one of the things I didn’t want to do was to overdo the blood. Once you have too much blood, it just takes over, and it’s all about that. The audience can’t wait for more gore, more blood, the next shocking moment, and it becomes all about that. So for this, it was all about making sure it wasn’t going to be bloody.
So that was one of our rules, and if at any moment I was about to say “maybe we’ll add more blood here,” then I would catch myself and say “no, let’s be faithful to the rules we’ve established, and hopefully it will take us to a good place.” And I’m proud that we did it that way, because we showed with this movie that you don’t need the blood to be shocking or scary on any level.
Don’t Breathe opens in theaters on August 26.