The only time you should ever trust someone who leads you into a dark room and says, “Do you guys want to see some cool stuff?” is when that person is Fede Alvarez. You can trust me on that because I survived to tell the following tale.
Last year I had the absolute privilege to get a behind the scenes look at Alvarez’s newest film Don’t Breathe during it’s production in Budapest, Hungary. Don’t Breathe stars Jane Levy (who previously starred in Alvarez’s remake of Evil Dead), Dylan Minette (Goosebumps) and Daniel Zovatto (It Follows) as teens, each with their own motivations, who decide to rob a few houses to get enough money to leave Detroit. After happening upon a blind man (Stephen Lang, Avatar) who was in the papers for winning a settlement, they decide that his will be an easy house to break into. But the kids soon learn that that is easier said than done, and that this job might be their last.
Detroit as a setting has seen recent popularity in the past couple of years, especially in genre films. Jim Jarmusch’s gorgeous Only Lovers Left Alive and the indie hit It Follows were set in Detroit. “It’s the isolation element,” says Alvarez, “For the genre I think it’s something very strange. Usually there’s a scary house and that’s where the story happens. In this one it’s the other way around. It’s like all the houses are scary, there’s a nice one here, that’s where the weird shit happens.” Lang’s character, the seemingly victimized old man, is your typical stick in the mud, refusing to leave. “He’s an isolated guy in the neighborhood. People have left. Everything is falling to disrepair,” Lang adds, “It’s not only a metaphor of the nation and that city, it’s a metaphor for his own state of being.”
“Stephen is a very nice guy, but he’s also very intimidating,” Minette says of co-star, Stephen Lang, “I genuinely find myself scared in some of the scenes we’re filming. We’ll be rehearsing a scene and I’ll start laughing simply because of how scary it is.” Lang definitely looks the part of the unassuming villain. Sporting a stained wife-beater and contact lenses that bring him down to what he says is about thirty percent of his actual vision, it would be difficult to discern when he would be in “Slang” mode, a nickname his co-stars gave the actor, and when he was in blind bad ass mode. “I think he was born to play this role,” Alvarez says, “I can’t think of a lot of actors that are in his 60’s that will be able to play frail and their age and again, be able to play so fierce and so strong. When we started thinking about cast… somebody named Stephen Lang, it was like, ‘Oh, fuck yeah.’”
The Blind Man’s house, which Lang likens to “your proverbial brick shithouse”, is just that, old, strong, and gives off the notion that it is not to be fucked with. Most likely an extension of the man himself. While not necessarily built with a blind person in mind, you can see that over the years, this house has been rigged in a way to suit his needs. Production Designer Naaman Marshall provides an extremely thorough aesthetic, “It was nice to tell a story of how much the house has been used. If you were blind and you had rugs, you would duct tape the corners down,” he says, “The furniture is pushed against the fireplace, he doesn’t use the fire, and then he just left himself this grand space, as opposed to what we would all live in.” Great detail was paid to the design of the house, down to a worn line along the wallpaper to show where The Blind Man trails his fingers as he walks, to ensure he knows where he’s going. “He is the master of his environment,” says Lang, “He understands it, he understood it when he had sight. Now that he doesn’t have sight, he’s set it up so that he can deal with it in a very effective way. He knows where everything is. So what does that say? If something is out of place, that’s a problem.”
During our tour of the proverbial “brick shithouse”, we took a break with Fede who led us into the aforementioned dark room, only lit by the soft glow of a projector. It was there that he showed us a mock-up of a trailer he had made of dailies from the past few days of shooting, and an edited scene set to the music from It Follows. Having Daniel Zovatto on set may have been his inspiration for that particular choice in score, “He’s always quoting directors, and movies, and references,” says Zovatto, “And he plays the fucking piano like Mozart. He never stops.” After the critical success of Evil Dead, everyone has been curious to see what else Fede would have in store for us. “He’s been working on this for a long time,” Levy adds, after revealing that the conditions on this set are a bit more comfortable than their last collaboration, “I think with Evil Dead he was really excited to be there and they did give him a lot of free reign, but he was walking into some else’s project. Their baby. This one is his.”
While the film seems like a lot of bad guys fighting bad guys, Fede says that that’s kind of exactly what he was going for. “The worst part of Hollywood is sometimes the movies just spoon-feed you with the answer of who you should like. They don’t really give you much choice. That’s what I’m trying to do in this movie, not giving you good guys and a villain. They are all villains, they are all doing something that is very wrong. It’s up to the audience to choose who they are going to root for.”
See who you root for when Don’t Breathe opens on August 26th.