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Pity and Terror: Fede Alvarez & Stephen Lang on "Don't Breathe"

As the thriller “Don’t Breathe” opens, a trio of friends—Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto)—have been pulling a string of home invasions in hopes of making enough money to leave their dilapidated Detroit neighborhood for the glory of California. Before long, they come across a potential target that seems too good to be true—several hundred thousand dollars sitting inside the only inhabited house in an otherwise deserted neighborhood. It gets even better when they go to case the joint and discover that the owner of the house (Stephen Lang) is blind. That night, they return to pull off what looks like the perfect crime. But when they wind up waking The Blind Man (as he is dubbed in the credits), it turns out that he's far more agile in his surroundings than they could have possibly expected. They also discover that, in addition to the money, he has a couple of secrets of his own that he is perfectly willing to kill to keep quiet. Trapped inside the house, which has been pretty much plunged into total darkness to boot, the intruders desperately try to figure out a way to escape from an environment that their pursuer, despite his handicap, knows like the back of his hand.

“Don’t Breathe” (which opens this Friday) is the second feature from Uruguayan-born filmmaker Fede Alvarez, who made a splash with the release of his 2013 debut, the ultra-gory remake of the Sam Raimi classic “Evil Dead.” Although he presumably could have spent the next few years making horror films, this effort is markedly different in many ways—there is very little blood to be seen (which is not to say that unsavory liquids don’t make an appearance). And regardless of what the ads suggest, it is more of a straightforward thriller than a horror film—think of it as a twisted inversion of “Wait Until Dark.” The film is a bit silly in parts—there are a couple plot points that are fairly difficult to swallow—but it does have two significant things going for it that warrant a recommendation—the undeniably stylish way in which co-writer/director Alvarez presents his story despite it taking place mostly in darkness and the performance by Lang (who you’ve seen in such films as “Manhunter,” “Tombstone” and, most famously, as the bad-guy colonel in a little thing called “Avatar”). Lang is ferocious, highly physical and, despite the things that his character does, sympathetic in a strange way.

This past weekend, Alvarez and Lang came to Chicago to present “Don’t Breathe” as the opening night attraction at the Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival. The day after the screening, they sat down with to discuss the film, the decision to follow up “Evil Dead” with something quite different in tone and the challenges of creating and portraying a character like The Blind Man. Before all that, however, Alvarez kicked things off by talking about this site’s namesake and the review that never happened.

FEDE ALVAREZ: I’ll tell you my sad Ebert story with “Evil Dead.” Obviously I was a big fan and when you make your first movie, the fantasy is wondering what Ebert is going to say about your movie. He was a big supporter of the original “Evil Dead”—when everybody else was just dismissing the movie, he was one of those who said that there was actually a lot of art in that film. So I was very nervous when my film was about to come out. The tragedy of the whole story is that when it was about a week before it came out, I was at CNN doing an interview to promote the film and that was when they announced that he had passed away. Now I would never know if he would have liked it or not. Even if it had been a bad review, just the fact that he would have talked about it—even if he trashed it, it would have been such a privilege.

You had a screening of “Don’t Breathe” last night in front of an audience that was comprised mostly of hardcore horror and fantasy film fans. Is that an easier crowd to play for, in that they are more primed to respond to a genre film of this sort compared to an ordinary audience, or is it more of a challenge because they have seen so many movies of that type before and therefore may be harder to scare?

FA: Well, I have already seen this film with that type of audience already. When I know that I have tested it with that type of audience before, I know that audience is going to like it and enjoy it. If I could look at the audience and pause during the craziest moment, I will get one person cringing and terrified and another just choking on their popcorn because they are laughing their ass off. That is a very particular thing because I am not in control of the emotions, at least not as much as I want to be. I am not in control of the scenes and the moments that they create—I lay them out and I know that people take them in different ways. Most of the people in this audience will laugh because they are so excited. I think horror fans can look at these films as comedy—maybe not this one but “Evil Dead” is one where they are going to laugh at the over-the-topness of the entire thing. With yesterday’s screening, I felt great. I felt it was a good audience and I was confident to a certain level. You never quite know how it will go but I thought they would enjoy what the movie was going to bring to them.

After the success of “Evil Dead,” I presume that you were offered practically every horror remake and ultra-gory project out there. “Don’t Breathe,” on the other hand, has very little blood in it and, despite the marketing, is more of a thriller than a flat-out horror film. Was doing a film along those lines a conscious decision on your part in the wake of having done “Evil Dead”?

FA: This movie is a reaction to “Evil Dead” in a way. As much as I enjoyed making that film—and I am proud of it, to be my first film and coming from Uruguay, which doesn’t have a tradition of film, I was proud of the film that I was able to make—there were things that I didn’t want to repeat. I didn’t want more blood—I had enough blood for a lifetime on “Evil Dead.” With that, I was trying to push the blood and the gore as much as I could. But with this one, I wanted to see if I could be provocative and shocking without being gory. That was the question that I didn’t know until I made this film—could I find other ways to shock the audience and get their jaws to drop without shedding blood? I think on some level, we succeed with this film when we get deeper into the story. It was a reaction to that, a reaction to “Evil Dead” being all about shock and horror—I wanted to try to do something more suspenseful. It was my way to try to go back to what my original idea of what a horror movie was, when my father started showing Hitchcock movies to me. He would never talk about scares, he would talk about the suspense and that they were scary because they were suspenseful. That was a feeling I was trying to put into this story—to create a story in the service of suspense.

Can the two of you talk, from both screenwriting and performing perspectives, about developing the character of The Blind Man? One of the most interesting things about the film is that for a good chunk of the story, despite the things that he does, he is actually the most sympathetic of all the characters.  

STEPHEN LANG: There is another word that I would use, maybe not to replace “sympathetic” but to add it to the mix, and that would be “pitiable.” I can be sympathetic towards you and then you can do something to me that would cause me to remove my sympathy. If you are pitiful, you are pitiful and it doesn’t matter how evil you are. He is pitiable in the same way that Job is pitiable. He has just had the woes of the world heaped upon him. I think that the character goes way beyond that as well but he earns the pity of the audience at a very early stage of the film. I think he earns sympathy as well and even a sort of grudging admiration because he displays strength in the face of certain adversity. He has overcome his own disability and made himself all that he can be. He has defined his environment in a way in which he can be effective and move with efficiency and economy so that he can exist. These are admirable things, it seems to me.

By the time we do get to whatever page in the script when we get to Act III, a new element definitely gets added to the mix which is a very, very dark element for sure, but I think that we have enough currency in the emotional bank at that point with the audience—and I believe we do—that it doesn’t completely extinguish the other qualities like the pity and the sympathy. That darkness is terror. He is a terrifying character. If you go back to Aristotle, the ancient recipe for tragedy is pity and terror. That is what he is and when I read it, I could see that he was a tragic figure.

FA: If I asked you right now to give me ten bucks, you would say no. If we went out to have a drink and you got to know me a little bit and I got to know you a little bit, if I then asked you for ten bucks for a cab, you might give it to me. He is asking for a lot from the audience—he is asking for empathy when he is explaining why he is doing what he is doing. If I didn’t spend enough time with him in order to get to know him and kind of care about him—if that was the first thing you saw about him—you would never even try to understand him. I think it was a good balance in that you spend just enough time with him so that you are invested in him and understand him and then suddenly I challenge you and show you who he is. For me, I think it works. Again, if you go back to Hitchcock—try to think about the first time you saw “Psycho” without knowing anything about the twist. You feel empathy for Norman Bates when he shows up—he is a damaged kid. Then his mother kills this woman, which is what you believe the first time you see the movie, and he is terrified by the whole thing as he is trying to clean up the mess. You are with him because he is also the victim of that horrible woman in the house. They spend enough time with him and then pull that twist. Then at the end, they have to explain everything.

SL: “He is his mother!”

FA: But what they do is show that it wasn’t him—he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Structure-wise, that is what we were trying to do with the script—spend enough time with him so that when he reveals who he really is, you are invested in a way. You are not objective anymore—it is subjective.

In playing a role like The Blind Man, there are any number of challenges for an actor beyond the lack of sight. It is an incredibly physical part as well and one in which there is relatively little dialogue. How did you prepare for the part?

SL: The first thing you do when you do research on just about anything these days is to go to the Internet, so I went there to see what I could see. Maybe I would see blind people and the way that they tilt their heads or whatever. What I got from there that was absolutely fascinating was that the Internet is filled with videos of blind people doing fairly extraordinary things that you wouldn’t think of them doing—skiing, jumping out of an airplane, swimming in the ocean, scuba diving, driving cars. What that sort of made me realize was that—look, it is a disability and you go through a stage where all is bleak and doom. But if you have fortitude and resilience, you can push through and take advantage of the possibilities and do all that you can do to live an aggressive kind of existence. I thought that I needed to do that. This guy needs to push through. All of that came just from the simple act of watching the Internet. That was a nice bedrock idea for the character. 

I have just been talking to you about tragedy and pity and Job and all this stuff but this is more positive. After that, there was a lot of mechanical stuff such as learning the geography of that house. By understanding how many steps were there between the first floor and the second floor and by tracing my hand against that wall, I was able to move with a real economy and efficiency through that house. That would establish the place as my domain and as some place that I really do have control over.

Considering that the vast majority of the film takes place in various levels of darkness, can you talk about both the visual and sound design concepts that you decided to employ here?

FA: In regards to the sound, what I tried to do on this one—that I didn’t do on “Evil Dead”—was a lesson I had learned from this master class that David Lynch had given. Lynch said that when he shoots a scene, he does something that most directors don’t do and that is think about the sound and the music in the scene. If there is going to be music, what kind? Is it going to be loud or not so loud? What kind of sound design will there be? He would shoot with all of that in mind. I read that and I thought that I was an idiot for not even thinking about something like music when I am shooting. How could I do that? With this film, I was aware in every scene of what kind of sound design I was going to use and what music I was going to use. I knew from the beginning that I wasn't going to use an orchestra and that would indicate many things. Think about any movie that has jump scares—this one has a few—and in most of them, the jump comes with a massive orchestra cue with all of the instruments hitting you at once and the jump is mostly due to that big impact of the music. I didn’t want to do that because I wanted to focus on what was on the screen. When the dog jumps up at the window or when he bursts out of the basement, there is no music. There is just the crack of the door and that is enough to give you that jolt. That was because we did it with that in mind—if I was going to use a music hit, I wouldn’t have cared about the sound of the door. That is the actual sound of the door that you hear. When I watched the movie, I realized how tight the sound design was in conjunction with the images—the image was designed, in a way, to serve what I wanted to do with the sound.

In regards to the image, one of the things that I am most proud of in the film is the darkness, not only because it makes sense but because it comes early in the movie and you feel like it should be the climax. I like to try to bring the climax to the middle of the movie so that the audience doesn’t know where you are going to go after that—you are entering uncharted territory and I have to keep pushing to bring new stuff in after that. I am proud of the fact that we kind of push filmmaking just a little bit in that we don’t have anyone with a night-vision camera or goggles. It evokes the look of night-vision because it is soft light without any shadows or contrast. It gives you a strange feeling right away that allows you to buy that you are looking into darkness. I was happy that we took the leap of faith and just decided to go with it and assume that the audience was going to get that this was full darkness. We also gave the actors contact lenses to make their pupils look dilated and those lenses, like his, blinded them a bit. At the end of the day, what I needed to do was not remove the light—I needed to put the actors in the darkness and shoot how they behaved in the dark. By giving them those lenses, it put them in a place where they couldn’t see that well and it helped their performances. It was a leap of faith and I’m happy that people watch it now and no one questions for a second that they are in the dark. 

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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