Before watching Don't Breathe, I had a bad track record with director Fede Alvarez. His remake of Evil Dead was a movie that I didn't enjoy at all. Now granted, when I first saw it, I didn't truly appreciate the horror genre, and I think if I revisited it today I would be kinder, but what a difference it makes when you learn from your experiences. Don't Breathe is huge step for Alvarez, and his no bullshit star Stephen Lang, or as his friends like to call him- SLANG, leads in a film that is a unique combination of thriller and scares, making it one of the best horror films of 2016. Alvarez and Lang sat with me, film critic Jim Alexander, and film critic Michael Snydel to talk in a roundtable interview about the recent success of Don't Breathe.
ROUNDTABLE: Was this the first screening since South by Southwest?
Fede Alvarez: We also screened at Comic-con in San Diego, New York, and a lot of word-of-mouth screenings.
AMG.COM: Stephen- I want to start out with you, after you read the script to play the role of the blind man, how do you get into the head space? Did you do any method-like techniques to prepare for this performance?
Stephen Lang: Well, I entered into the head space of the character very quickly. Because when you read a script, there is a critical faculty going on. There is also a quality of just entering in as you are examining the "could I"? Or, should I? Would I? And the how will I? That's all going on, and this role kept enticing me along the way, partly because of the silence, and the blindness. It kept presenting challenges to me that are new, and I have been doing this a long time. Later on in the script, a truth is revealed about the character that is extremely off-putting and frightening, as I said in the Q&A last night, that seemed like a very good reason to do it. When you're afraid of something, that's a very healthy human response. When you actually decide you are going to take the leap in, that's a good thing, a measure of your own abilities.
In terms of the method, that's on everybody's minds now a days.
ROUNDTABLE: Jarred Leto?
Stephen Lang: I guess the cynic in me would say, look, I am just as capable of abusing the method as the next guy. We are imbued as a generation of actors with the method, whether you consider yourself a method actor or not, the odds are you are employing processes and techniques that are method oriented. It's got to do with naturalism and it's got to do with your relationship to the role. The method was a response to another type of acting, which really does not exist. There are a lot of people claiming the method, which is complete and utter bullshit, there's no understanding of what it really is and basically they are substituting a self indulgent, masturbatory practice, for what is in fact hard work. It's gimmicky and some people are using it as a career advancement.
ROUNDTABLE: Blindness is a major part of Stephens character, but one of my favorite parts of the movie as a whole, is how it used the other senses, specifically smell. From a scripting, directing, and performance point of view, how did you two talk about approaching the other senses?
Fede Alvarez: It's what I call the premise of the premise. Every premise promises you something. So, it's simple in this movie, a couple kids are going to rob this blind man and it's not going to be easy. Right away your brain goes, oh I get it. This is his house, your trying to escape or hide from him, it's not that he has heightened senses, he just uses them better than we do. Right away you go there, and to deliver on that promise, you better have one scene that touches on each one of those senses. In the beginning, he touches a piece of the lock or the glass, and knows that's a part of that door. The taste is the only one we left for the sequel I guess. The smell is the only one where we exaggerated. We know a blind person wouldn't smell a shoe like that, but we liked the idea, and Stephen found something more animalistic. He gave him the aspect of a predator finding the prey in his house, and it conveyed that.
Stephen Lang: I liked the idea of the smelling of the shoes. It's funny, because you bring it back to me, Fede remembers certain things better than I do. The one moment of the film that I look back at and I am critical of is the sniffing, because it reminded me of one of the most frightening performances I'd ever seen, which was the child catcher in Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang. He did this sniffing thing. It was a kids movie, but it's fucking horrifying. I know how I was operating and we did speak about animals, that was all in it. If you work through a scene enough times, I think you can integrate some of the metaphors of the child catcher. You can integrate them in a way that it becomes completely organic, I would say I came close to that, but I think I could have done better there.
Fede Alvarez: I think it works great, you related to blind people, and you were faithful to portray him in a realistic way. We did that, because its not like a pan falls in the cellar and he goes (looks wide eyed), I got it! We were really careful and never crossed that line. Stephen told me something powerful while shooting, I said he would sense the people there. He said, “I wouldn't sense shit. Close your eyes, are you sensing me right now? It's impossible to sense them, either you smell them or you hear them.” It was a valid point. I needed to create that or he wouldn't know they were there. We were careful not to make him like a superhero or a ninja, that would be insulting for a blind person.
ROUNDTABLE: The film has a lot of ebbb and flow, it felt a bit like 10 Cloverfield Lane, it had that tension, and I got the sense of a haunted house. Was that kind of your take or feel you were trying to go for?
Fede Alvarez: It worked well at South By Southwest, that this would be one of the guesses, oh there must be some ghosts in this house, that makes it scarier right? I think the cameras always float around in nobodies point of view, it's almost like God's POV. It puts the audience in that place. You can get under the bed and see the gun, so I try as the director to make you a part of that experience. You are not just a passive audience in this movie because you know shit is gonna go down. You see a hammer, a door that is locked and your brain right away tries to solve the problem. I don't know how it's going to come into play, but it will. I try to show it in a way that's not so subtle, you think you got it, but I try like any magic trick, you mislead and do something with your hand on this side, when something is going on the other side. All of those elements are there to make you participate.
Stephen Lang: I think also, it's the mark of the auteur, because it's the presence in a very good way of the filmmaker. You are seeing what he chooses you to see, obviously that is true of every film, but when you pause on a hammer or a photograph, that to me is the presence in a Hitchcock-ian sense. When you think about it, you have never seen a Hitchcock film without being aware of him. To the extent that he is in his films, which is a statement to that effect. There are many directors who don't want to do that, but in this particular case, with this director it works stunningly well.
AMG.COM: Fede- early on, your work with cinematographer Pedro Luque does an impeccable job of mapping out the house and what surrounds it, was there a conscious choice working together to pay attention to intricate details in the house that would come into play later?
Fede Alvarez: Most of it's in the script already, in order to make it work you better have a good plan in the paper that plants an idea and a payoff. The work with Pedro was more about how are we going to show this in a way that feels more organic. It's almost accidentally that I show you things. I follow one guy who ducks and then theres a hammer. Particularly when you are scared, you pay more attention to these things. Not just Pedro, but the camera operator was very good. In British films, nobody cares about the DP. It's that operator who is the hero. It was a culmination of this team, it was easy to write it on the page, but hard to catch it on the camera that feels organic. That's the art of being a DP and first camera operator.
ROUNDTABLE: I wanted to specifically ask you about the basement scenes, they have a completely different feel. Did you approach that different than the rest of the house?
Fede Alvarez: Yeah, it was, regarding the light, one of the things that I was proud of. We were entering a territory that was uncharted, nobody did it that way. You’ve seen Silence of the Lambs, Buffalo Bill with the goggles, or someone with a device looking into the dark. That's different from what we did. Dramatically, it's great, because then we realize how much we have underestimated their opponent and the abilities that he has, which they don't have at all. Whose disabled in that scene? The two kids are, I really loved that. So, we needed a way to show the audience everything that was happening. It was a conversation, maybe we have light from the windows and you see the shadows, but that would be frustrating. We took a leap of faith, developed a look that reminds you of night vision in a way, but basically because there are no shadows, and there's no high contrast, then you can believe that it's full darkness. And of course the great performances of the actors which really sells that idea. I'm proud of it because of that, I think every film that I do in some level, if you look back at filmmaking, at first a guy used a camera and said, "let's shoot a play." Then someone said let's make a close-up. And that's how each movie advances. The more time passes, the harder it is to improve filmmaking and add tools that are new. Adding in a way that anyone can use it, I think this is one of those. Even if it moves filmmaking this much, a quarter of an inch forward, I'm a happy man. Someones going to make a movie that needs to tell a scene in full darkness, we looked back and could not find a single reference. We took a leap of faith, did it in a full black & white and when there's a gunshot the color will come in. Now, I am hoping people will use it in other movies just because it worked so well.
AMG.COM: Thank you to both of you for talking to me today. Loved the film, congratulations.
Fede & Stephen: Thank you.