Exclusive Interview: Director Daniel Espinosa on Safe House

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Landing in theaters this Friday, Safe House stars Ryan Reynolds as CIA Agent Matt Weston. Responsible for guarding a secret facility in South Africa, Weston is suddenly tasked with watching over Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a renegade former operative who has spent a decade evading capture. When the house comes under attack by heavily armed mercenaries, Weston is forced to flee with Frost as his prisoner. Pursued across South Africa as he tries to make his way to another safe house, one man begins to question his allegiances while the other slowly reveals his secrets.

ComingSoon.net sat down to talk with the film’s director, Daniel Espinosa, who is making his English-language debut. Best known for his 2010 Swedish film Snabba Cash (Easy Money), Espinosa talks about the fast pace of his production, shooting in and around Capetown and making his first Hollywood blockbuster with A-list talent.

ComingSoon.net: How did “Safe House” first come your way?
Daniel Espinosa:
In February or March, I got the script for the first time and read it on my way over on the flight to LA, among other scripts. Then I met the producers, Scott Stuber and Alexa Faigen and we had the discussion about the script.

CS: What was it that drew you to sign on?
Espinosa:
I liked that it had a strong pace and was almost a classic American cowboy story. It’s almost like the reverse story from “Unforgiven.” You have the old gunslinger who’s been corrupted by the nature of his work and the world around him. Then you have the young guy that believes that he can maintain the sensation of adventure and ethics. There are morals within that world. The old guy sees himself in this kid.

CS: South Africa is a big part of the film. Did you have any experience with the area beforehand?
Espinosa:
Well, I grew up in different parts of Africa. I grew up in Mozambique and places like that. I’ve been in South Africa many times. For me, it was like coming home.

CS: You get to work with some very high-profile actors here. How does that change how you direct?
Espinosa:
It doesn’t for me. I try to make them as unique characters as I can and there were long discussions with them over who these characters are and where they come from. Then we make the movie. I don’t adjust if they’re bigger or small stars. I try to do my work as director.

CS: So what’s the first step in sitting down with these guys and figuring out how to play the characters for the screen?
Espinosa:
With Denzel, we sat down and talked about my movie that I had done previously that he had liked. Then we went into the script. I told them what I thought were flaws and how I perceived Tobin Frost. Then he told me his version and we had a discussion. Then we went into script-writing and we worked on the script, me and Denzel, for about three months. That’s how we created the character. It was also a huge opportunity for me to sit down with Denzel and get to know him. To get to know his cadence. That way, when we shot the movie, we were brothers in arms.

CS: It’s a tricky dynamic for the Frost character because, while we want to trust him, we’re not sure if we can. How do you strike that balance of making him charming while also not giving audiences too much to hold onto?
Espinosa:
I don’t think in those terms. I think that any character that somehow resonates within you that he has been better before but that something has happened and destroyed some part of his soul that makes him into the character that we see in front of us, creates curiosity for the audience and a need for an explanation both as to what happened and if he’s going to go back and become the person that he once was.

CS: It’s a pretty intensely paced film. Is that something that’s echoed behind the scenes?
Espinosa:
Absolutely. I run a fast pace on my sets, man. I like the energy of the scene to be the energy on the set. I think it affects the actors and I think it affects the crew. There’s that sensation like you’re really shooting it for real, like in a documentary. If the crew is hit by the situation that we’re trying to portray, I think we get a real and a stronger moment with the camerawork and the actors.

CS: In terms of some of the bigger action pieces, how hard is it to get permission to film in Capetown?
Espinosa:
It’s always tricky in a city, but they were extremely kind to us. They let us shut down the highway for a couple of weeks. The main highways. They allowed us to shoot a big action sequence in the central parts of Capetown. They were very, very kind to us, I must say.

CS: Was there much research involved into what American safe houses would actually be like in foreign countries?
Espinosa:
Yeah, we had a guy who used to run safe houses and used to be an active operative CIA agent. He was there all the time so I could talk to him. We always had the reference of the real McCoy.

CS: You mentioned feeling like this was an American western. Can you talk about some of your own influences as a filmmaker?
Espinosa:
“Heat.” Michael Mann’s classic gun battle outside of the bank was something that I was very influenced by. I worked with the same sound engineer, who did the sound of those guns. We tried to get the same sensation of realness. Then I had other directors like Alejandro Inarritu, who has a very strong sense of cover and character movement, which also influenced me to hire his production designer. Then, of course, we had the “Bourne” series, which was a new, realistic way of making action movies. That’s why I hired Oliver Wood, who shot the “Bourne” franchise. On top of that, I have my own rythym and my own cadence. If you look at my earlier work, you can see my stamp on it.

CS: Between this and “Snabba Cash,” is the crime world something that particuarly interests you?
Espinosa:
No, it’s where I was at that point in time. I think it’s always interesting to make sensational stories where, if these people don’t make the right choice, it actually puts marks not just on their souls, but also their bodies. That means that you can visualize existential questions. That’s what I like about that genre.

CS: There’s definitely a rapid pace to “Safe House” and I’m curious if that’s something that you play with much in the editing room. Do you discover that some scenes need to move faster or slower in ways that you couldn’t have anticipated while filming?
Espinosa:
No, I think the pace of the movie was how I shot it in many ways. I always wanted the scenes where he meets [Nora] Arnezeder to be a resting point. The camera work is also very different in those scenes and there’s nice character moments when they meet people and have these discussions. That came from shooting in many ways.

CS: Looking to the future, what do you want to do next?
Espinosa:
I would like to do something where I could continue exploring the character work. When I did “Safe House,” I did a movie that had a stronger tempo than my last movie to see if I could maintain my feeling of character within it. Now I want to go back into the more character-driven stories. That’s my motivation right now. But you never know. You’re waiting for a script or an idea to come close to you that demands that you do it. Then you have no choice.

CS: Do you think you’ll maintain a balance between English-language films and Swedish ones as well?
Espinosa:
Yeah, but you never know. What attracts me to work in America is that you have many of the greatest talents on the planet and to be able to sit down and create a scene with Denzel and Ryan is an experience that I could never have back in Sweden.

CS: What would you say is the biggest difference stepping onto the set of an American blockbuster like this?
Espinosa:
It’s huge. It’s so big. The biggest difference is the time that it takes you to walk from parking all the way up to the set. Normally, it’s just two feet away.

Safe House arrives in theaters this Friday, February 10th.

(Photo Credit: Sean Thorton/WENN.COM)