Daniel Espinosa interview: action sequences, sound design, and directing Safe House

Ahead of the UK release of Safe House, we caught up with director Daniel Espinosa to talk about the film’s action sequences, sound design and cinematography…

Tiny cameras, editing programs and computer effects may provide all sorts of new possibilities for the modern filmmaker, but there’s one thing, we’d argue, that is commonly messed up in contemporary movies: the action sequence.

Whether it’s a fist-fight or a car-chase, the worst examples arrive on the screen in a dervish of wobbling cameras and frantic cuts. The opening sequence of Quantum Of Solace springs to mind, where the number of cuts is so frenetic that it’s impossible who’s driving which car, let alone where those cars are in relation to one another.

Safe House – the forthcoming thriller starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds –  is notable for its restrained use of the above techniques, resulting in some of the most thrillingly shot and edited action sequences we’ve seen so far this year. Although Safe House’s plot is a familiar one, the film’s extremely well-made, and it’s a confident, technically assured Hollywood debut for Swedish director Daniel Espinosa.

So with the UK release of  mere days away, we were excited to sit and speak to Espinosa about the process of shooting the film’s action sequences, its Cape Town locations, and working with its two big-name actors…

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Congratulations on Safe House. Are you pleased with it?

I’m proud of it. But when you make a movie, you get stuck in a hole, right? So it’s cool that you liked it.

This is your debut feature in America, so did you feel the pressure of working with two stars like Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds?

I did. I felt the pressure in the way that, when you stand with someone like Denzel Washington, who’s been directed by people like Ridley Scott, you know that this is a man who’s used to getting brilliant direction, you know? So that makes you more focused. You have to approach it diligently, and you have to be well-prepared when you’re on set. So in that sense, yes, it was terrifying.

But, I mean, making a movie is terrifying. It’s an absurd trade. You go away and do something for three or four years, in a way, and then you suddenly have to put it out. You have to let the rest of the world judge you – or applaud you. So making any movie, in Sweden or in America, doesn’t allow me to eat or sleep. My anxiety levels are high. I’m equally terrified by projects in America and Sweden.

So what attracted you to the project in the first place?

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In the movie I did in Sweden [Easy Money], it was my third feature. I’d increased the tempo and the size of the plot to push the story forward, and I could see it was doing something to my characters and my work, which I thought was interesting. So when I went to America, and they started giving me scripts, I wanted something that was almost an archetypical journey.

I wanted to find a classic clash between two characters, and I wanted a stronger tempo – almost like an experiment for me as a filmmaker, to see what it does. Because it changes the rhythm of how you tell a story – you’re not allowed to take breaks in the same way.

If you create a movie that is only character driven, with a weak plot, then you as a director, you have to make sure you keep pushing the tempo. But when you do have a movie with a great tempo, your job is the opposite – it’s to pull on the handbrake, and stop, and be with the characters, and tell their story. That, to me, was interesting.

What struck me about Safe House was that, although you had all the car chases and fight sequences you might expect, the direction and cinematography’s presented in a fresh way. How was that storyboarded? Or did you have a different approach?

I tried not to storyboard at all. Not even the action sequences. Because what can be the problem with American cinema, sometimes, is that everything can be so planned. There are no surprises, and that can create a lack of curiosity for the audience. If you just storyboard something, you’ve already planned it, and you’re stuck in the limitations of your imagination. What I did was, I let the actors into the rooms and let them play out what came naturally to them.

When I was standing there, I would see where it was natural for me to stand and observe it. I had a teacher who said once that, if a person is crying, you won’t get up right into their face, and say, “Are you okay?” You’d probably move behind them, to give them space. And that’s where you should put the camera. Because as an audience, you’re almost trying to sneak around.

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The common problem, too, with a lot of modern action films is that there’s so much camera movement, and so many cuts, you can’t tell where two characters are in relation to one another. There’s a lack of spatial awareness…

Definitely. And when it comes to action sequences, I always tried to shoot them in public places. Because one of my core inspirations for the action sequences was the bank robbery in Heat. I think it’s quite brilliant. That was in our reality, you know? I almost wanted Cape Town to be a character who pushed these people towards a change of personality.

That’s why I put them in public places, because you have that sense of geography – you’re not in some obscure cellar, or industrial backlot. You’re in a place you know – a football stadium, or it’s the middle of a populous city.

With that journey through the city, they start in the rich part, down through the middle-class areas, then through to the poorest parts of Cape Town, and finally to a remote part of Africa. They’re in an area that’s completely desolate, almost like a cowboy movie. I thought that was interesting.

It’s funny you should mention Heat, because as I was watching Safe House, I thought both films make an interesting use of sound design. Was that one of your big considerations when planning the film?

It’s Per Hallberg who did that. He did the sound design in Ridley Scott’s movies and Heat, and the Bourne movies. Hallberg was actually the first guy I hired. When I got the contract to do the movie, they said, which director of photography do you want, and all those traditional people that you hire. And I said, you have to get one guy, he’s Swedish, and he’s quite brilliant, and he’s called Per Hallberg.

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Because I wanted a fellow Swede on the team, and he’s also one of the most brilliant sound designers on the planet. He has a realistic way of portraying sounds. Because I wanted the sound design to get you inside the action, like when people are shooting, I use a lot of the sound to go round the characters, so you as an audience feel like you’re inside of that world.

The sound design and cinematography work well in tandem, too. There’s one sequence with two characters crashing through a window that worked particularly well…

Yes, yes, yes. The cinematographer [Oliver Wood] is a great man. I met several cinematographers, but when I met [Wood], he told me, “Daniel, they really dig me, but they never understand what I’m doing. So they’re pretty much going to let you do whatever you want.” And I thought, that’s my cinematographer. That’s the guy I need.

The logical question to wrap up, then, is what are you going to do next?

I don’t know. I think I’m looking for something different. The movie I did before was a gangster movie. This is an action movie. Both have very strong character stories in the background. But I want to carry on my journey, and keep challenging my movie making, because, you know, I’m still young. I want to challenge my cinematography and my editing.

Daniel Espinosa, thank you very much.

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