Don’t Breathe: Fede Alvarez Talks Finding New Thriller

The Evil Dead director offers a harrowing new take on the home invasion thriller with Don’t Breathe.

Uruguay-born filmmaker Fede Alvarez was mostly an unknown when director Sam Raimi picked him to continue the Evil Dead franchise with the 2013 remake starring Jane Levy. Three years later, Alvarez is back with an original idea that gives us a much better idea of what a fantastic filmmaker he is in his own right.

It once again stars Levy along with Dylan Minnette (Goosebumps), playing two of the three petty criminals breaking into homes for money to try to get out of a recession-torn Detroit. When they learn of an old blind veteran (Stephen Lang) living on the outskirts of town with a large sum of cash in his house, they break in late at night, not realizing that the man’s military skills make him a much bigger threat than they’ll ever be.

The movie premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW) earlier this year where it received rave reviews. Indeed, Alvarez’s use of cinematic technique to create the most tension possible showcases a filmmaker with the sense of a modern Hitchcock.

Den of Geek sat down with Alvarez for the following interview when he stopped through New York, shortly after showing the movie at Comic-Con. We got a lot of details about how the filmmaker created such an intricate movie out of such a simple plot and mostly in a single setting.

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Den of Geek: Was this something you had been working on or developing before you worked with Sam and Rob on Evil Dead?

Fede Alvarez: No, no, no. This came right after Evil Dead. By the point I was done with promotion on the Blu-ray of Evil Dead, that really was the time to go and say, “Okay, what am I going to do next?” and started thinking about the movie.

Did you have other things you wanted to do beforehand? I thought you had been working on something else as your first movie.

We were developing some other things like you always do in Hollywood. You never know which one is going to go, right? I think we were developing Dante’s Inferno with Universal at the time—we’re still trying to figure that one out—and then, what else was working on?

I thought you had done a few shorts and were working on something based on those.

No, because the short that took me to Hollywood was this short called Panic Attack!, this sci-fi short, and I never was considering making a feature version of that short, even when we started developing an alien invasion movie at some point—that was the first movie I started developing with Sam before Evil Dead. It was never based on the short. I thought that idea was just for short-form, not for feature.

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What got you going on this one? Was there something that happened or that you read about? It’s a simple idea, but you do a lot with it.

It’s one of the things that you discover. We knew that we wanted to make something that wasn’t a home invasion. We never saw it as a home invasion, because the concept of home invasion is that usually, you get invaded. Someone invades your house, and that’s why it’s scary, that genre of scary movies, the home invasion, is “Who’s going to invade my house?”

We didn’t want to do that, but we knew that just based on watching that scene in many other movies, usually when you have a character you care about entering someone else’s domain, it’s always scary, because it’s an unwritten rule that the owner of the house can do whatever they want with you, right? It’s such a strange thing. It’s such a no-man’s land almost inside someone’s house. It’s not like that obviously. There are laws and rules about that, but most of them say that you can shoot them. This is America.

I was going to say that’s a very American idea. I don’t know if you had that in Uruguay.

We do have some similar “Stay Your Ground” laws. We did a lot of research on that, actually, and it is in the movie, but it’s not a political movie like that, but we were making some clear statement. Let me show you the point of view from the robbers. Sometimes, they might not deserve to get shot in the face. In this case, it’s actually super-interesting for me right now. If you got onto YouTube and read comments on the trailer, you get 50/50 of “Oh, they got what they deserve” and then someone says, “I don’t think they deserve to get executed that way.”

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Yes, there was a couple of real stories about kids breaking into people’s houses and getting executed—there was this guy that went to jail for that. I think it was mostly based on that feeling that we know that when you get characters that you care about breaking into someone else’s house, they’re at the mercy of the owner of the place, and in a strange way, where it’s actually legal. We’re trying to come up with that story where we knew they were going to be thieves, but those are the kids that do that for a living, and do that every day.

In this case, they’re not professional thieves. They’ve been doing it for a few days probably, and they’re going to try and stop doing it. We knew who they were, but the mystery and the challenge was to find a worthy opponent. Who was going to be the owner of the house that really could give you a cinematic experience? Most of all, we knew who it was going to be, but also, what’s going to be his story, because usually, what you want is that whatever you see in the trailer to just be the tip of the iceberg of something that’s going to be bigger.

We’ve all been very inspired by classic Hitchcock horror. You think about Psycho. You might think that it’s about this girl trying to get away with this money. For most of the movie, that’s what the movie’s about, but then suddenly, something happens that you never see coming, and it’s about something entirely different. That makes it very interesting as an experience, the classic great movie.

Of course it’s harder to be surprised by it these days, because everyone knows Psycho involves Norman Bates…

But talking about surprises, one of the things that makes it interesting as well—I don’t know how it was for you—but most people when they watch Don’t Breathe, something they tell me, and it’s something I realize watching it with an audience, is that they don’t know how it’s going to end. The thing is that they don’t know how it’s going to end, because they don’t know how it should end. Morally. If they knew how morally it should end, they wouldn’t guess the ending, because Hollywood would usually give you the morally correct ending. This one, because at the end of the day, they did enter his house—and even at some point, he even says, “You shouldn’t have broken into my house”—he has a point, and a lot of bad things happen, and even worse things happen, because they did that.

It really puts bad people against worse people, and that makes the whole thing harder to figure out where you’re going to go with the story. For me, at least, as a filmmaker, that’s what you want. You want to give the audience a story they can’t really know how deep the rabbit hole goes until the end of the movie.

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You don’t really specify where the movie takes place…

It’s Detroit. We don’t say it. Actually, they say it. They say “bye bye, Detroit” at the beginning.

But you didn’t shoot it in Detroit, did you? I thought you shot this in Eastern Europe somewhere.

We shot in Detroit, yeah, and we shot in Europe.

How did that work? I was curious about the outdoors scenes and the aerial shots of the area around his house.

Yeah, that’s Detroit. We spent a lot of time in Detroit. We started in Detroit to scout for the house. We were trying to find this house that was in good condition in a dilapidated street where everybody was gone. We did find that house and that’s the house you see in the movie. That’s in Detroit. A family still lives in it and everybody else is gone. There’s nobody else left on the block.

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Once we knew that we were going to shoot there, we actually reproduced that house on a soundstage to be able to control the elements, particularly a movie like this with that cinematic experience, that kind of filmmaking craft, you need to control the house and you need to control the walls and the environment if you want to get the camera under that bed, you can’t be stuck in a room for real trying to figure that out. We knew we needed to build the house on a soundstage, but then right after the shooting, when we were wrapped in Europe, everybody flew to Detroit and then we spent a week there shooting everything that was exteriors, and even part of the scenes where they come out of the house, those are in Detroit.

You worked with Jane before and you kind of put her through hell in Evil Dead—quite literally. This one, she gets put through a lot as well.

Even worse, because psychologically, it was even heavier for her. Evil Dead, she was having a lot of fun, and it was physically exhausting. She was covered in blood all the time, the make-up took hours, but I think she had an even tougher time in this one, just because of the ideas and themes of the movie, and the psychological violence of the film I think just made it very difficult for her. But I think she did an amazing job. Every time we finish a movie she hates me and that’s where we’re at right now.

I’m not sure if we’ll make another movie together, it’s always that loop, but I have great respect for her as an actress. I think she always delivers really beautiful emotion, and she doesn’t fake anything. She really lives the character in a way that not a lot of people do. Hopefully, it works on the screen, but for me, it works amazingly when I see it.

I’m surprised she doesn’t get as much work as much as other actresses, because she really has proven herself in your two films.

I think it’s because she doesn’t like this kind of work. These kinds of movies are so exhausting and hard, so I think she wants to do smaller indie dramas, and she does. I think that’s her cup of tea. I’m happy to hear that she’s doing something on the new Twin Peaks show. She’s perfect for that world and a sucker for David Lynch, so she was so happy that she got a part on that show.

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Casting Stephen Lang was also kind of an inspiration to get him. He has done military roles before, but you don’t automatically root for anyone in the movie and part of that is because Stephen Lang does make you feel for his character. I was curious about casting him.

That was kind of the key. There were many aspects to that character that were important to get from an actor. Obviously, the acting chops that we knew he had, he’s an Actor’s Studio, New York stage actor. He did a lot of stage work, and most of the time his thing has been playing military guys, which I thought worked in his favor, because he knew that character but never played under that light, being a visually-impaired man.

I think that truly was very attractive for him, because usually he’s super-powerful and a guy with all his senses, this sharp machine. I was interested to see what would happen if we took one of his senses away, what he could do. But like I said, we needed a character that first, when introduced, you could believe was this frail, older man. He’s 66 by now, right, and there’s not many actors in Hollywood that can pull that off—to be that guy and then turn it around and become that relentless predator during the movie. It’s incredible. He put us all to shame, he’s so in shape.

What was it like shooting in the interiors of the house you built? How much planning did you have to do in advance to be able to pull this off? Much of the film relies on how things are shot so that you can cut it together later.

Look, the key for me, and the last thing you want to do in a movie, is have the characters behave in a way that is not realistic, that just serves the story. That’s usually when you get the “Don’t go in there” moments and have the characters heading in a direction where they shouldn’t go, but they’re doing it just to serve the story. We actually laid out a chessboard blueprint on the table of my house with the heads of department. I have a lot of Star Wars action figures, so we put them on the table and said, “This is the blind man upstairs sleeping. The kids come through this door, and then the blind man eventually goes downstairs…”

After that, we really made it like a chess game or like a turn-based strategy game. When it’s your turn to make a move, you make a move and then the other party makes their move. We said, “The blind man makes his move. Time for the kids to make their own.” We really wanted them to behave as you might in real-life in that space. At first, the house was kind of a blank canvas, so if the only way they can go if the blind man is here is in that direction, well let’s make sure there’s no doors or windows in that direction.

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We covered them in the drawing, and if there was a door, you erase it. You really adjust the house until it’s a perfect machine of consequences and traps and narrow hallways. While they behave in a natural way, they end up being trapped in a hallway or corners that doesn’t help them, and that really makes for a good plot and good suspense. Instead of making them behave in a strange way, I will make the house behave in the way [we need]. Also, a house doesn’t complain about, “Why would I do that?” The actors do that a lot.  We made sure the house was perfect, so that the actors can run free to do whatever they would do.

The classic situation when doing these movies is that the guy shows up over there, and you tell the actor, “You go to that corner” and the actor goes, “That’s the last thing I would do. I’m going to run for that door over there, that’s what I would do.” If you’re a bad director, you’d tell them, “I don’t care, you go there,” and that’s not going to work and you’re contriving the whole thing, and forcing the characters to do things where the audience goes, “Those guys are suckers, why would they do that?”

We might commit that sin at some points in the movie, hopefully not a lot, but most of it was because the layout of the house was done in a way… there’s just one way they can go, and that’s usually how it happens in the movie.

That makes sense, and it’s not like when someone designs a real house, they’re not really thinking of how to design it for someone to escape from it.

But we did here, right? It’s also something very simple: if a house is hard to break into, and most houses in a bad neighborhood would have bars in every window. My parents’ house back in Uruguay, while it’s not a terrible neighborhood, there’s bars in every window. As it is, it’s very hard to get in. All it takes is for someone to lock the front door, and it’s going to be hard to get out. It makes for simple logic, but it works that way in the movie. But also, you have to keep reinventing the spaces and places, so it keeps the story fresh, and you don’t end up stuck in the same room the whole movie.

I also wanted to ask about working with the dog. That dog was terrifying, and there was that one scene with the dog inches from Jane’s face… which may have been when she decided she’d had enough. So how did you work with that dog in those types of situations?

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I’ll tell you, it was a challenge, because we actually had three dogs—two in Europe and one in Detroit. They were very different dogs and their attitudes were very different. Some of them were very violent, some were more docile. It’s all the magic of filmmaking and how you cut that, ‘cause if you use one extra frame, you can see that he’s the nicest dog ever. So, it was really how to make it look fierce and menacing and kudos to everybody who was involved in cutting and shooting and the trainers, of course. It’s all of this.

They do say, “Never work with kids and animals,” and that’s for a reason. It was really a challenge, but look, I like a challenge because I know that if I succeed and I manage to do that thing everybody tells me not to do, then I give the audience a unique experience.

Like on Evil Dead, it was the practical effects. Everybody was telling me, “Don’t go practical. It’s so easy to make it in a computer these days. The blood is easy to make in a computer. Why would you do that?” And I was like, “Well, because there’s a reason why it’s hard, and there’s a reason why I do it digitally, but I understand that if I go the hard way, at the end, the reward is bigger.” Not just for me, but for the audience honestly, and I think this was one of those. At some points, I wanted to say, “We should get rid of the dog in the script so we don’t have to deal with that,” but instead I said, “Let’s deal with that.” I’m happy to hear that it worked for you.

I also wanted to talk about the sound and sound effects, because that’s something I really notice when it’s done well, so are you working with the same people between movies?

Yeah, it’s the same people as Evil Dead, and on this one, two parts of the sound design were crucial—not just the sound designer and sound mixer, but also the composer Roque Baños, who was my composer also on Evil Dead, and he’s one of the best composers in Spain and now he’s done a lot of things in Hollywood. Since day one, we knew that we didn’t want to make just a score and the thing you get most of the time in Hollywood, so he found this guy in Tucson who has this orchestra called Anarchestra, and he created all these strange instruments made of metal and wood and strange machines.

Like he’ll have dishes on a drum set, connecting metal with guitar mics, so you’ll hit them and then you pull this lever and plunge them inside a tank of water and create all these strange sounds. All the soundtrack is created by sounds and elements and things [that are logical], that you can find in the house of the blind man.

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It became that creepy tune [where] the house is singing all the time—it’s all sounds that you can find there. It’s really hard even for me watching the movie, knowing what is sound design and what is music, because it kind of became the same thing. We do have some emotional cues of music at some point, but most of the time it’s atmospheric, and has all these strange, bizarre sounds. I’m happy that it’s completely different from what is the standard.

You can also read what Alvarez said about making another Evil Dead movie and development on the script for Monsterpocalypse (potentially his next movie) right here. Don’t Breathe will open nationwide on Friday, Aug. 26 with previews Thursday night.