Interview: Director Fede Alvarez on Don’t Breathe

Interview with director Fede Alvarez on Don’t Breathe

By his own admission, Fede Alvarez has not had a normal director’s career. After showcasing several inventive but low-budget short horror films, he was offered a development deal with Sam Raimi’s Ghosthouse Pictures which soon morphed into helming the long-in-development Evil Dead remake. And while that film succeeded for Sony Pictures, Alvarez himself is the first to admit that it was contentious (“people either loved it or f*cking hated it”) and was not what many directors would get to make for their first film.

All of that has lead him to where he is now, a hotel meeting room in Austin, Texas where he is talking about his newest thriller Don’t Breathe, which had its world premiere at the SXSX film festival, the lessons he learned from Evil Dead, and what he sees for the future.

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Fede Alvarez: It really started from some rules my co-writer and I had after “Evil Dead.” Most of the time everything we do is a reaction to our past experience. If you fail at some job you work harder, you try and look at those love-hate relationships and look at those reason. For “Evil Dead” it worked for some people who love horror and not for others, it was a very polarizing movie you either love it or f*cking hate it, but in my experience there were 3 elements that were on it – it was a remake so a lot of people saying it was impossible to beat a classic, so the whole movie doesn’t make sense so they won’t really like it. That bothered me. There was also a sense that with a lot of blood you can do anything, just throw it on the screen it’s easy – I hope it’s not that easy. The other one was that there was so much shock, there wasn’t much room for suspense. I’m proud of those choices.

But when I came back, I went, [“Don’t Breathe” is] not going to be a remake, it will be 100% original, there will be no blood in it and it has to be dry, very suspenseful. I think it’s a trend of horror lately that it’s supernatural so we said let’s tip away form that. It has to be in the real word, there’s enough horror in the real world. Those were self-imposed rules.

Then thinking what is always tense and creepy and scary and the conclusion was breaking into someone’s house. When the main characters step into someone’s domain it’s tense and eerie for some reason. When they enter someone’s living room, the audience gets tense and they shouldn’t aught to be there. When you walk into someone’s domain, it’s their rules, the king of the house can do whatever they want. That kind of triggered the idea of telling the story of three robbers.

And it’s fascinating hearing the stories these kinds of guys go through. I’m not going to judge them, of course it’s wrong, but still it’s one of those adventures that happens every day – you walk in while people are still there, trying to find elements of value and get away – it’s a real life, every day adventure that most of us never have but these guys have all the time. So it must be interesting to see a movie through their eyes.

The blind man came from, we need an original character who was unique to be the owner of the house and the antagonist. Sometimes you naturally give them powers and make them more menacing than a normal person, so we thought what if we do the other way around and take his eyes out and make him a blind person. So suddenly that really sends everything to a different level. Those were the ideas we had one day driving back from Comic-Con in San Diego to Los Angeles with my co-writer and we start cracking the whole idea of the movie and we got super excited about it and everything that happened in the story was just part of the process. When the characters went down into that basement…

Fede Alvarez: It was really tough to visualize, because it hadn’t been done before. That way. It’s taken from classics like “Silence of the Lambs” but there was always a device, a camera or something like that. There was no reason for the characters to have a camera or something like that, so we took a leap of faith with the DP, Pedro Luque, and said, “Pedro, let’s just assume the audience knows the [visual] language, that if they see the light but no shadow and its monochrome that they’ll assume it’s darkness,” which is such a strange fabrication because there’s clearly plenty of light, right? But you believe it. It was a big risk.

CS: You said last night you didn’t have a lot of time to make it. Were there things you think were better because you had to think on your feet or things you think could have been better?

Fede Alvarez: I think it’s never a privilege to have no money, but this is not one of those scenarios, it was the right budget for the movie we needed to tell. It was probably half of the money we had on “Evil Dead,” which is why I feel like it should have been my first movie. “Evil Dead” is not the classic first movie a director normally gets. Particularly coming from very ultra low-budget shorts I came from, so it felt great to be going back to.

But when you make movies you’re compromising every day. If you ask James Cameron making “Titanic” if he had everything, he’d probably complain about not having enough money. I’s always the general feeling that you don’t have enough to accomplish what you want.

How does it help? I don’t know. What this kind of budget does, you can get away with anything. It’s way easier for Hollywood and the studio to let you go and do your thing without having to worry if it was going to work, if the box office is going to work. When you’re not spending a lot of money, you have a lot more chances to be creative and more original and take more risks. That’s definitely an advantage, the less money you spend.

CS: You’re more free to tell the kind of story you’d like that at a higher level you wouldn’t be able to.

Fede Alvarez: Definitely. After “Evil Dead” made a lot of money for the studio, I we had the temptation to do big franchises but I had a clear idea in the beginning that was not the way I wanted to go. I was just ‘let me do my first movie,’ I want to have the normal process of going through those steps before I go there, if I ever go there. It’s hard to give the audience something unique and original and new when you’re working on those kinds of movies. I think I care too much about my movies to give them something usual they can get anywhere.

“Evil Dead” was like the band where I was the guitar player and this is like my solo album.

CS: Is this the kind of movie you want to keep making or is each film going to be different?

Fede Alvarez: I don’t know. I enjoy the tension of last night’s screening, it comes from the movies I love so even if I don’t do horror or a thriller… “Evil Dead” and this one are who I am and what I love to do. Straight up drama or comedy isn’t me. I watch all kind of movies, but it doesn’t mean I want to make them. But who knows what I will do next, it’s not till I’m really done making one that I think about what the next one will be.