Interview: 'Don't Breathe' Director Fede Alvarez On Taunting Stephen Lang And Reinventing Cinematic Darkness

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 bulls***ting.

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're making this film for the entire f***ing 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 "F*** 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 s*** 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.

fede alvarez interviewIt'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 "F*** 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 f***ing 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, "F*** them! F*** them! F*** 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.

fede alvarez interviewI had an accidental double feature of sorts at SXSW. I saw Don't Breathe, which is about a blind man terrorizing home invaders, and then I saw Hush, which is about a deaf woman terrorized by a home invader. They end up acting as fascinating and accidental mirrors of one another. I was wondering, was there ever a point where the blind man was intended to be more of a victim?

It was always the way it is in the movie. The core of the idea was always what you see in the movie. I had no idea about Hush! It wasn't until Hush was coming out that I knew about it. In a way, Hush is Wait Until Dark with deafness instead of blindness. Our movie is a reversal of that. So I think they're so different. I haven't seen it yet. I hear it's pretty good.

It is good! Someone needs to program a proper double feature. One of my favorite scenes in Don't Breathe is when the lights go out completely and you depict total darkness in this faded, almost monochrome way. There have been a lot of horror movies that utilize green night vision or simply allow light to creep in from unknown sources for scenes set in completely darkness, but I don't think I've ever seen it shot like this before. 

You haven't seen that before. We did so much research trying to find if anyone had done anything like that, because we were trying to find the answer to "How do we do this?" If somebody has done it in the past, let's copy that! The truth is that no one has done it and we knew there was no room to allow characters to have any night vision device. If anyone was going to have something like that, it would be the blind man and that would be ridiculous. We didn't need that. The other characters wouldn't have that kind of high-tech thing. My logic was that, by this point, audiences are familiar with the kind of night vision look. It's low contrast and no shadows. The light comes from the lens itself, in a way. We could reproduce that easily. The challenge was going to be...we need light. We have the light, we treat the image to make it look right, but the actors have to see. It's very hard to fake being in the dark. The trick, the revelation, was that we gave them contact lenses to simulate dilated pupils, but those lenses were also blinding them. I was like having your fingers over their eyes. They're blind and that's what I need. I just needed them not to see. If there's light on set, it makes no difference. That's how we did it. They're so lost because they can't see s***! It worked pretty well, but it was a leap of faith. If that didn't work, we'd have to reshoot the whole scene. Pedro Luque, the director of photography, and I both went for it. We decided to just shoot it and if it works, we'd be pushing filmmaking just a little bit further and adding a new tool. Have you seen the documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey?

I haven't, no.

You've got to see it! It's awesome. It's a documentary about filmmaking and techniques. There was a time when someone just put a camera down and shot something. And then one day, someone said "What if we do a close-up?" And in the next movie, "What if we do an over-the-shoulder?" That's how filmmaking advances. You invent some new technique. You one day put the camera on a crane! I was excited to add a new tool to the normal tools of filmmaking, because I don't think the look belongs to this movie. I think we can just assume that's what darkness looks like [on screen]. It will work in any genre movie and even in a drama movie, you can say "That's darkness."

I was lucky enough to see this in a theater with an immaculate sound system, which really drove home just how important the sound design is to selling this movie. Since a key character is blind, every single creak and crack is important and startling.

I remember reading an interview with David Lynch where he said something and I was like, "Oh, s***. He does that, I don't do that!" What he said, basically, was that while he's shooting, he thinks about the music and sound design in every shot he does. What's going to be the sound design in this shot? Is there going to be music in this scene or not? Most directors, we don't do that. You shoot the scene and you don't think about that until later. I thought it was brilliant. He had the brain to think about that while shooting. I thought I should try to do that. Every day on every scene, I was trying to be aware if there was going to be music or not. That would allow me to treat the scene differently. If I knew there was going to be music, I won't go into detail about who steps on a crack and if there would be sound. If there's music, you won't hear that.

I'm not sure if you noticed, but most of the jump scares in this movie don't have a music sting. Most horror movies will give you a big orchestra hit because they're scary. We do it in a different way. Think about the dog in the window, the first jump scare. There's no music. It's just the sound of the dog hitting the car and the metal. That creates a big scare usually. The guy coming out of the cellar, right in front of [a character]. There's no music there. Just the crack of the door sounding very loud. It was another leap of faith. Let's hope that works without music. The key was to take that David Lynch advice and really think about sound design and music while shooting and not leave it for the end. I knew what I wanted, so when the sound team got involved, I was like "This was always intended to not have music here or not have sound design there."

fede alvarez interviewBoth Don't Breathe and Evil Dead don't feel like typical American horror movies. They don't feel safe. They feel more like the horror movies that have been coming out of Europe for the past 15 years.

Thank you.

Was there every any pressure to make a less harsh movie? To be less cruel?

No. I've been super lucky in Hollywood so far that the two movies I've made, obviously because I made them for a budget, I get the freedom to do what I want. Having Sam Raimi as a producer and him being a director and him knowing that a director wants freedom to really deliver a movie...I've been very lucky with both movies to get away with exactly what I wanted to do. Movies can alway be better and I'm sure my movies can be better and I try to learn on each movie I do and make my next movie better than the previous one, before I start declining in my career! [Laughs]

There was something I realized lately. On Evil Dead, they said to do whatever I wanted and to go crazy as long as I had a house and a book. It's like going to a friend's house and they tell you to feel like you're at home and take whatever you want from the fridge. You don't take your pants off and grab a beer. You don't do that! On this movie, I did that! This movie was my home. It's my script. Me and my co-writer wrote it from scratch and took it to the producers when it was ready: this is the movie we want to shoot. We wrote it on spec, we didn't pre-sell anything, which we could have done, but we decided to keep it for ourselves. It was us doing exactly the movie we wanted to do. I've been lucky so far that Sony has empowered my and financed my movies and have taken a lot of risks. That's a lot of credit to them. There might be an instinct at some point to making something more...what's the word? It's not even more Americanized, just more down-the-middle. This could have been a PG-13 movie if you wanted. You'd have to kill a lot of things, but you could turn it into a PG-13 movie.

I'm definitely not in this for the money. Otherwise, my second movie would be one of those franchises I was offered after Evil Dead. I didn't want to do that. I just wanted to do my films. To try to keep making my films. This one is really a display of all my obsessions and the things I channel in all of my movies and everything I like about the genre and everything I think a good genre thriller should have. That big twist scene in the cellar that divides audiences...I know that because I hear people talk about that. Some say "It didn't need that!" and others say "Thank you so much for that!" That's my kind of audience. I think this movie should be provocative and should push boundaries. All of the classics have at least one scene, one moment, that was completely f***ed up. We've gotten used to them and they're not so shocking anymore. Watch those classic movies. Go back to Psycho and The Exorcist. People were losing their minds, running out of the theater, was all kinds of madness! And that's what made those movies as big as they were and so polarizing.

Don't Breathe Fede Alvarez interviewI have time for one more question so I want to ask about my favorite scene in the movie. I'll mark it with a big SPOILER WARNING so people can stop reading and come back after they've seen it.

Thank you.

The dog in the car scene at the end. It's perfect. First, you don't kill the dog, which is such a tired horror movie trope. Second, it's almost a Buster Keaton routine with the intensity amped up to maximum levels. It's a terrifying silent comedy routine! How did this scene come about?

That was actually a rewrite during the making of the film. I hate to rewrite during pre-production even more during production. I think you need to have a good story and not alter it too much because it's a recipe for disaster. But because it was the ending and because you need an outcome, it was easier to change it. In the original script, it was too cliched. She would run inside some abandoned church. It was a pretty cool setting, this huge abandoned church in Detroit. She would run in there, but it was like "Why would she run in there?" I always have my temptation to go for the cliche of classic horror of the '80s because I love that s*** and like to see it happening. Thankfully, my common sense wins over and I realize I can't do that. The audience, especially a young audience, will be pissed and ask why that's happening. So she used to run into that church and the dog went after her and she'd climb a scaffold and find one of those drugs that they threw at the dog at the beginning and she'd throw it at the dog and the dog would fall asleep and then she'd go down and get captured. It was way lamer. And it was also bigger. We didn't have time to go to that location, so it became "What can I do that I can shoot anywhere?"

So we came up with the set piece in the car...which, honestly, was really just a rip-off from Cujo, which I found terrifying as a kid. Like I said, most of the movie is made of things that terrified me as a kid. From movies, stories, and even music videos. The first horror thing I ever saw was the "Thriller" music video, which was playing all the time in '85. That was my first contact with real, classic '80s horror. I'm glad you like it and I love it. It does something in particular that I like to see with an audience. Usually with these movies, the audiences tend to be smarter than the characters. Don't go there! Don't do that! Oh, man! Please! It drives you nuts. In this movie, we tried to keep that to a minimum. The characters tend to behave like you would behave in normal life and the decisions they make are pretty clever most of the time. When you want to yell advice like "Go the other way," they'll go the other way, but it still ends up really bad! So you end up running out of advice for the characters. What I love about this particular scene is that you don't know what to tell her to do. She's inside the car. The money is outside. The dog is outside. No car keys. So what now? And then she gives you a solution you haven't thought of. I thought the solution was pretty clever! It's one of my favorites as well.