Interview: ‘Don’t Breathe’ Director Fede Alvarez on Taunting Stephen Lang and Reinventing Cinematic Darkness
Posted on Thursday, August 25th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
Director Fede Alvarez is all about defying expectations. First, he did the impossible and made an Evil Dead remake that managed to live up to the nasty legacy of the original. Now, he’s back with Don’t Breathe, a terrifying thriller that never zigs when it can zag, pushing the boundaries of good taste at every opportunity.
The set-up is refreshingly simple: three young criminals break into the home of a blind man, hoping to make off with the fortune he supposedly has stashed away. But that blind man is tough military veteran played by Stephen Lang and those crooks are on his turf and he has a few surprises in store for them. It’s intense. It’s gnarly. It’s grotesque. It may even go a little too far, but hey, you’ve got to admire its gleefully deranged commitment. I enjoyed it as SXSW and enjoyed it just as much just a few weeks ago. Alvarez is the real deal.
I was able to sit down with Alvarez after my second viewing and like many of the directors responsible for the most gruesome of horror movies, he turned out to be thoughtful, funny, and full of great stories. We spoke about directing Stephen Lang, channeling (and rejecting) cinematic influences, and how the film’s best scene was the result of a last-minute on-set rewrite.
I’ve seen Don’t Breathe twice now. First at the midnight screening at SXSW with a raucous audience and again in the middle of the day with a bunch of jaded critics. It works with both crowds. It’s scary as hell.
What worked for you the second time around?
The second time around, I was able to appreciate how efficiently constructed it is. It gets straight to the point. You meet the main characters, they each get a single scene that explains their motivation, and then it leaps right into it. There’s no bullshitting.
I’m glad it works that way.
Let’s start with that. When you’re making a movie as tight as this, how do you go about whittling it down to find that lean story?
Some of it is in the editing, because there was a lot more in the script. As you’ll get to see in the extras on the DVD, there were three scenes that were deleted from the beginning. It’s always a mystery, how to…you’re making this film for the entire fucking planet, right? We’re spending $10 million, which isn’t huge, but it’s still a lot of money. I have to make it for the globe. It has to be an international story. And I like to do that. I always try to talk to everybody and not make it for one audience. That means a more sophisticated audience might take thirty minutes of slow burn and enjoy that version, because when people read the script, nobody complained about it being too slow. It had more story for Alex [Dylan Minnette] and why he decided to rob. He has a scene with his dad where we learn that he wanted [Alex] to become a cop and put a lot of pressure on him to go to the police academy. But he doesn’t want to do that. He just wants to leave town. He wants to be a lawyer. That’s why he knows about the law and all those things. That’s what leads him to make the decision to say “Fuck it, I’m just going to do it.”
In the script, there were other things with Money [Daniel Zovatto] and his family, but we didn’t shoot a lot of those things. We shot a couple of those scenes that were pretty good, but in the editing, it felt like it dragged. There’s another audience, not the film connoisseurs, that I call the savages! [Laughs] They want to get to the scares. “I’m not scared! I’m not scared!” and it’s only five minutes into the movie! They’re going to start throwing shit at the screen. So have to make everyone happy and that’s the goal with these movies and the catch 22 situation. When I watch the movie, I usually feel…when the night arrives and the sun sets and the music starts and you say “Here we go”, it’s the right moment to do that.
It’s a testament to the actors that they can sell the right motivation in just a few scenes. This is your second time working with Jane Levy and I’ve been joking that your feature filmography so far could be summed up as “101 Ways to Abuse Jane Levy.”
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s why she hates me.
What was it like working with her again? Was she prepared for this kind of movie after working with you on Evil Dead?
After Evil Dead we became good friends and as soon as I finished a draft [of Don’t Breathe], she was the first one to know about it. She read it and loved it and said she wanted to do this movie. But we weren’t ready to go into pre-production until about three or four months after I finished the script and she wasn’t available anymore. She was going to do another movie. I was reading everybody. Every young actress in Hollywood read for the role. I couldn’t really commit to anyone. Literally two weeks before the start of principal photography, I still don’t have her and everyone is freaking out. We need to cast that role Fede!
At the last second, I saw that Jane had become available because she posts a photo on her Instagram showing that she’s home because her other movie had fallen apart. I asked her if she wanted to come do Man in the Dark, which was the title at that point, and she was like “Fuck yeah, let’s do it.” She got on a plane and was there seven or eight days before we started shooting. Those days were pretty intense, going through the script and having a discussion about motivation in every scene. Why would you run this way or that way? To have [those conversations] in pre-production and not on set, because, you know, it takes a lot of time and everyone gets pissed because the crew is just waiting for you to reach a conclusion and that’s no good.
When did Stephen Lang get involved? He’s scary as hell in this.
He’s the key to making the movie work. Usually, you have a list of names that are available for your dates and we started watching the list and he was at the top. I was like, “That’s it.” It’s too good to be true. It’s exactly the way I envisioned the character. It’s not that I wrote it for him. When I write, I never cast in my mind. But as soon as I knew it was him, I jumped on the phone and he loved the script. He said something the other day the described that moment for him. The reason he wanted to do it was because he was terrified of the role. The role has a huge range in the movie and goes through many emotions. It’s a character who leaves the audience wondering if he has redeeming qualities or not. It’s a complex character and you need to sell the blindness. He was terrified of the role, but he liked that. “If the project’s not terrifying, there’s no room to display bravery,” he said. I love that.
I have this mental image of Stephen Lang being terrifying on set. Did he stay in character?
He would stay in character. He would say he’s method, but I don’t buy that. He’s Actor’s Studio and he really gets in that mental space. There were two things that made him terrifying on set. He was wearing lenses to make his eyes look like they look in the movie and that would impair 70% of his sight. In low conditions, he couldn’t see anything. He didn’t have to fake most of the blindness most of the time. He couldn’t really see. When he walked on set, someone was carrying him by the hand, avoiding cables. They would put him on the side and he would stay there, idle, like a character in a video game. I would go and piss him off! I’d go and tell him, “These fucking kids! They’re breaking into your house! They’re somewhere in your house! You don’t know where they are, but they have your money and that’s the last thing you have and that money is your daughter, man! They’re taking the last thing that represents her! I’ll be back in a second.” And he was like, “Fuck them! Fuck them! FUCK THEM!” He was just mouthing all of these hate words toward them. Then all I had to do was scream action and let the leash go.
It was fantastic to see him work, particularly in the first half of the movie, where he’s just a man whose home has been invaded. You’re with him. You empathize with him so much in the beginning and one of my favorite scenes is when he’s in the room and he hears a crack and he doesn’t know if there’s someone there and it’s almost like a ghost story for him. There might be someone in the room, but I don’t know where they are! You’re with him in that shot. You can see how scared he is, knowing that there might be someone there who saw what he did. But then it becomes personal, right? He crosses a line in the movie where he decides not to be afraid anymore. He has a lot of training as an actor for military characters. He knows those characters very well. He has a play on Broadway that’s amazing called Beyond Glory. They just made a movie about that. He plays a lot of military guys. He knows that character. So he was saying from that point, “I cannot let fear come and I’m a man on a mission.” That’s what he does in that scene. It clicks and he’s going to go after them. It was scary to see him on set and the other actors were terrified of him.