CS Visits the Set of the Thriller Don’t Breathe

CS visits the set of the thriller Don’t Breathe

August, 2015 – We are at Stern Film Studio in Pomáz, Hungary just outside of Budapest to visit the set of Don’t Breathe, the second film from co-writer/director Fede Alvarez and producer Sam Raimi, who last teamed on 2013’s Evil Dead remake.

As we enter “Felvetel A” (Studio A) we see a blue Camero chopped in half for use as a process car. It’s a huge soundstage, quite imposing, and as we make our way further in, we see a large brick house set along with an alleyway. It only takes up a quarter of the stage space, but it is in this house set that most of the action of Don’t Breathe takes place in.

The house began as a found location in the township of Linwood, Michigan, standing in for barren Detroit. The cast and crew shot all of their exteriors there, and then rebuilt the shell here in Budapest in order to create a more modular/filming-friendly set that has a completely redesigned interior from the location house. It has been redesigned for maximum terror.

Don’t Breathe is a shockingly simple story of three young low-level thieves whose M.O. is breaking into houses. When the leader Money (Daniel Zovatto from It Follows) catches wind of a house where a blind man is holding a massive stash of cash, the security expert Alex (Dylan Minnette of Goosebumps) and cohort Rocky (Evil Dead‘s Jane Levy) reluctantly band together for one last big score. It goes awry when they fail to reckon with how dangerous The Blind Man (Avatar‘s Stephen Lang) truly is, and wind up fighting for their lives to escape his clutches.

As we enter video village, we see them rehearsing a night time scene where an imposing Stephen Lang (who goes by the nickname “Slang” on set) is pulling a body with a bag over its head across a living room floor. Alvarez gives notes on color adjustment and other details from a separate video village in his distinctive Uruguayan accent. Slang wears a bloody wife-beater over his muscular frame.

As the take begins, two of the other actors (withholding spoilers) enter the room on tiptoes only for Slang to come through another door holding a gun and a garbage bag. The two are still and quiet and this Blind Man tends to wrapping the bag around their associate’s head, then dragging the body. After he drags the body into a room he senses something, then a phone alarm goes off and he fires his gun at the disturbance! We won’t tell you if he hits his target or not, but even on set it played as very suspenseful.

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At the end of the take, Slang very carefully takes the uncomfortable bag off the person-in-question’s head to make sure they are okay. A few minutes later he walks out to the exterior of the set and asks Fede, “How’s all that working out for ya?” Fede confers with Slang about a few technical details, and you can see this veteran performer is very concerned about making sure Fede is happy.

“He’s a wonderful filmmaker,” Lang tells us. “He’s got a real mastery over the spectrum of what’s available working in film. He’s bringing out lots and lots of techniques. And I like watching him and listening to him. He always wants another shot, always wants another angle. I have a lot of faith in his ability to make a movie.”

“We wanted to do something that was very, very, very, very suspenseful,” says Alvarez of his second directorial effort and first ORIGINAL feature story. “We started thinking: what is one of the things that creates a lot of suspense? For me, regardless of genre or what kind of movie it is, it’s when you have a character walking in someone else’s domain. We are so precious about our private space and our house, and we all have this fantasy of what if somebody walks into your house? But also when you are in somebody else’s house, and when you see characters doing that, like violating that space on the big screen…”

It can be terrifying. The idea of making the antagonist blind not only lends his character an unusual amount of sympathy for a villain, but also posed a challenge for Lang. His character was blinded in the line of duty while serving in the Iraq War, so not only does he bear a shrapnel scar on his cheek but also is forced to wear contacts to create the appearance of someone with scorched retinas. The contacts have the added effect of rendering Lang mostly blind himself, which helped add to the verisimilitude of his performance.

“When it can be real, it’s so much easier, simpler than acting,” Lang says. “It’s just something you don’t have to worry about. I wondered about exactly what the percentage is. If I put the lenses in and try to look, then I think I can see probably around 30%. But I relax my eyes constantly anyway. When you relax your eyes it cuts it down to just shadows, and when they say action I really try and turn my vision off.”

“Before a take he’ll just sit with his eyes closed and get into the space of, I guess, not being able to see anything,” Minnette explains. “But it’s definitely not method. He’ll joke with you and talk with you in between takes. If it were method I’d probably be ready for this to be over with. So, thank God he’s not method.”

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“He’s a nice man, but when he’s in character about to roll, he’s terrifying,” says Levy. “And he also can’t see. He’s wearing contacts that actually… not make him fully blind, but basically. I think he can see shapes. So he runs into you. [laughs] He’s also really strong. That, to me, is the coolest part of the script, and it’s something that I’ve never seen before, watching this villain in the same room as these people, but he actually can’t see them. There’s really cool stuff there, like shot-wise.”

“I’m going blind in my own particular way,” adds Lang. “What I did do is I went to the Internet and I looked at real blind people and how they do it, and I’m going to do my best to make it totally believable.”

At one point in the movie, The Blind Man turns the tables on our protagonists and shuts off the power in his cellar, making them as blind as he is and equaling the playing field, so to speak. Alvarez achieved this visually by turning all the lights out and shooting with a camera which has lights around the lens.

“Our process was like, ‘OK. The audience gets it.’ They don’t need to have someone with a camera. They know that there’s a certain look, that it’s monochromatic. There are no shadows being cast. They buy it as darkness. Also, you have the characters with their pupils completely dilated all the time, which was a pretty effective effect. It creates so many opportunities for darkness. Like a shot where you’re seeing someone just sinking into darkness just because you are moving away from them is pretty bizarre. There’s actually a very nice piece in the cellar with that style. We’ll see if it works.”

We get to see some of this footage in sizzle-reel form and it eerily effective. The camera work is very dynamic, and it’s clear Alvarez knows how to milk every ounce of suspense in pure cinematic terms.

We then toured the interior set. The kitchen has a skylight which has telltale footprints and handprints on it. The washing machine room is filled with tools like hammers and drills. Camera equipment is littered throughout. There are pictures of a daughter on the mantle, one of which is turned upside-down. An ashtray is full of sunflower seeds. The blind live very much like we do. The set is built so they can fit a camera anywhere and also remove walls and ceilings.

Across the studio is a second-story set built without a façade. The rooms are bare with one broken window. Dylan and Daniel play a game of soccer with two other crew members, although their characters in the film are slightly at odds due to a love triangle.

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“Money is a smart kid and he knows Alex likes Rocky,” says Zovatto. “He doesn’t feel any fear from Alex. I think he does like Rocky. He cares for her, but he’s not in love with her. He’s kind of like, ‘We have a perfect scenario here. You tell him what to do because he kinda likes you. I tell you what to do. We go to this house. And we can all get money from this. You can go to college if you want. You can go to California and I get money.’ It all works out.”

“Alex’s dad works for a security company, and Alex’s dad has all the keys to the homes that the company uses,” explains Minnette. “They decide there’s one house where this man has a big settlement of money because of something that happened to his daughter. Money and Rocky want to go get this money. When Alex decides that it’s best to leave Detroit and go to California, he decides the best way to do that is to have this money. So he decides to do it. That is driven by his affection for Rocky. Alex is very passionate for her and will, at the end of the day, do whatever she wants. Not in a bad way, but he just will follow her. And that’s kinda what drives him into this house. That’s where things take off from there.”

“Rocky is a young girl from Detroit who doesn’t want to live there anymore and wants to start her own life and doesn’t have the means to do so,” Levy said. “She and her friends start stealing stuff so that they can make enough money to get out of Detroit forever. The main robbery in this film is not their first, but it’s their first time stealing cash. Rocky has a little sister that she’s really close to. She wants to get away with her sister to California.”

“I think who you are rooting for in the movie is going to vary throughout the entire thing,” continues Minnette. “Each character really has their own reason for why they are doing it and why they think they shouldn’t. By that point, the audience understands why they are doing it, so I think that it’s kind of up to you on which character you agree with.”

“I would say like 20 minutes into the movie when they are really inside the house, everything goes quite silent,” said Fede. “There’s not much dialogue. The movie table is like a big set piece. From the moment it starts, it plays in real time from that moment on.”

The one thing we know for sure about Don’t Breathe is Stephen Lang, a.k.a. Slang, may have created another truly iconic baddy to add to his repertoire with The Blind Man.”

“He doesn’t really want visitors,” explains Lang. “He doesn’t want visitors at all. He’s a victim, but he’s not a total victim. There are surprises in the script. So you’ll find that he is… there are reasons that he wouldn’t want anyone to come in the house.”

Find out those reasons when Don’t Breathe opens nationwide on August 26.