There’s been no shortage of home invasion thrillers over the last decade—horror fans have flocked to diverse and inventive films like You’re Next, Inside and Funny Games—but there’s been surprisingly few films that have structured their entire story as effectively around the intruders’ disadvantages as Fede Alvarez’s new film, Don’t Breathe.
Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are three wayward teenagers hoping to make a quick buck by breaking into the house of “The Blind Man” (Stephen Lang), a mysterious figure who’s rumored to have untold riches stashed away. They soon realize that they’ve dramatically underestimated this man, who more than compensates for his lack of sight with an encyclopedic knowledge of every nook and cranny in his house, and a deadly proficiency.
Blood literally rained down from the heavens in Alvarez’s debut, a more somber but still gratuitously violent remake of Sam Raimi’s splatter horror classic, The Evil Dead, but Don’t Breathe is an entirely different kind of beast. It still knows how to make you squeal when the violence comes, but it’s more likely to shatter your nerves as the camera crawls across every inch of the floor, silently waiting for its moment to strike. It’s Wait Until Dark for a new generation weaned on finely tuned jump scares and household objects as murder weapons.
Following a marathon of festival screenings, Paste had the chance to sit down with Alvarez and “The Blind Man” himself. Together, they talked about finding the balance between realism and entertainment in portraying blindness, the satisfaction of adding something to the cinematic language and the influence of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
(Note: This interview was conducted with two other interviewers. Their portion of the interview has been re-printed with their permission.)
Stephen, your character in Don’t Breathe is a unique role for you in terms of his blindness. How did you get into the headspace for a character like this? Did you do any forms of method techniques in order to prepare?
Stephen Lang: I entered into the headspace of the character very, very quickly. When you read a script, there’s a critical faculty that’s going on, and there’s also a quality of just entering in as you’re examining, like, “Could I, should I, would I, how will I, do I wanna do this role?” That’s all kind of going on. And this role kept enticing me along the way partly because of the silence, and then, of course, the blindness. It kept presenting challenges to me that were new, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. And then, later on in the script, a truth is revealed—something new about the character that’s extremely off-putting and frightening. That seemed to me to be a very good reason to do this script. When you are afraid of something, that’s a very healthy, human response. And then when you decide you’re going to take the leap, that’s a good thing. That’s a measure of your own judgment of your own abilities, or whatever it might to be.
In terms of the method, I’ll say to you: “Method” is on everybody’s mind these days. There’s a lot of method stuff going on out there. I guess the cynic in me is saying, “Look, I’m as capable of abusing the method as the next guy. But we are imbued as a generation of actors. We’re not the first generation—it’s been a number of generations. We are imbued with the method. Whether you consider yourself a method actor or not, the odds are that you are employing processes and techniques that are method-oriented. It’s got to do with naturalism and it’s got to do with your relationship to the role. That’s just the way it is. The method was a response to another type of acting that really just doesn’t exist. I don’t want to get into it too much, but there’re a lot of people who are claiming the method, and it’s complete and utter bullshit (laughs). There’s no understanding of what it really is. Basically, they are substituting some kind of self-indulgent, masturbatory practice for what, in fact, is hard work. It’s gimmicky. There’re people who are using it as gimmicks, and there are also people who are claiming it and using it as career advancement.
One of my favorite things about the film is the way it uses senses—especially, smell. So I was wondering from both a scripting/directing point of view, and a performance point of view, how did you two talk about how to approach the other senses the character uses to replace his lack of sight?
Fede Alvarez: It’s what I call the promise of the premise. Every premise promises you something. So, it’s very simple in this movie that when you have a bunch of kids who try to rob a blind man, it’s not going to be easy. Right away, you go, “Oh, I get it. Of course, this is his house, and you’re trying to escape from him or hide from him. He doesn’t have heightened senses, he just uses them better than we do.” So, right away, you go there.
To deliver on the premise, you better have one scene or a bit that touches on each one of these senses. Even touch, when he’s touching the piece at the beginning with his foot. He goes, like, “I know that belongs to the door.” Even the glass he touches, he knows that belongs to the window in the bathroom. And the taste is the only one that we left for the sequel, I guess (laughs).
The smell is the only one where I think we betrayed the reality a little bit. A blind person wouldn’t have been able to smell the way we did it, but we like the idea…I think we were talking about it that day, and I think you[, Lang,] were saying, “My character wouldn’t have done that, why would I?” But then you were saying, “You know what, Fede, I get it.” And you found some idea that’s more animalistic-like. He’s a predator, and he’s going to find prey in his house, and it conveyed that. It wasn’t very realistic, but I think a blind person will let it go. What I liked when I saw the movie last night again was I really like how you grab a character’s shoe, and you smell it as well. It feels like that almost gives it away that it is a female. It almost feels that way to me.
Lang: I never have any problem with the smelling of the shoe. It’s funny because, you bring it back to me because there’re certain things that Fede remembers better than I do. Maybe there’re a few things that I remember better than him. But the one moment that I look at in the film, and I’m critical of myself, is the sniffing—because it’s a little bit too much. And I remember when we were discussing, and I might have even brought it up. But I always remember one of the most frightening performances I’ve ever seen was the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I don’t know if you remember, but he’s out in the town square, and he does this sniffing thing. And you know, it’s a kids movie, and it’s fucking horrible (laughs). I know that I was operating around that, and we also did speak about animals. So that was all operating in it. If you work through a scene enough times, I think you can sometimes integrate the metaphors—the child-catchers or deer or whatever it may be. You can integrate them in a way that it becomes absolutely and completely organic. I will say, I came close to that, but I could have done better.
Alvarez: I think it works great in the movie. And related to blind people and being faithful to portraying them in a realistic way, I think we did. It’s not like a pin falls in the cellar, and he goes, I got it, because that would be ridiculous. We were very careful never to cross that line. And I remember you told me something very powerful while we were shooting very early. I was like, “I think you’re there in the room, and I think you kind of sense that they might be there.” And he goes, “I wouldn’t sense shit.” He was like, “Close your eyes, Fede, are you sensing me right now?” It’s impossible. You don’t sense. You smelled it, or you hear them. Sensing is just a spirit that is there. And it was a valid point. I needed to create a sound, or otherwise, he wouldn’t have known they were there.
So we’re always being careful to not make it like a superhero. That would be insulting for a blind person. And suddenly, it became this bigger-than-life thing. So we were trying to be very realistic, and I think the smell one is alright. And also, he’s smelling a part of very smelly shoes that any of us could have caught (laughs). Those are the shoes that belong to a person that died, and I’m sure those are very smelly. That’s what catches. It’s that touch when you smell hers. That is the detail. Now you know they’re shoes, but we always joked like, “Female, she’s not having her period, twenty four year old.”
Lang: In the sequel, it’s like [moves his hand to gesture holding and licking something], tastes like shit, but good.
Don’t Breathe feels more like a thriller than a horror film, but there’s still elements that feel distinctly horror-like. Especially as the characters first walk into the Blind Man’s house, the camera moves in a way that feels like there’s another presence there with them like a haunted house. It’s a very active experience—how did you conceptualize that feeling?
Alvarez: I think something we were playing with, and it worked pretty well at SXSW when people watched the film, is that we wouldn’t tell them anything about it. Like, that would be one of the guesses like, oh shit, there must be some ghosts in this house, and that just makes it scarier. Or you’re more tense because of the way we shoot it. I think almost those cameras float around like they’re no one’s point of view. It’s almost like God’s point of view witnessing what’s going on, and it puts the audience in that place. And you can even get under the bed, and see the gun.
I try as a director to make you part of the experience. You’re not a passive audience in this movie. You know shit’s going to go down. You see a hammer, a door that is locked, the gun under the bed. And your brain right away tries to solve the problem. Ok, I don’t know how it’s going to come into play in the story, but it will. I try to show it in the way that’s kind of subtle but not so much that you go, “Yeah, I got it.” You think you get it, and you’re the only one to catch it—everybody catches it—but I try to put you in a place where you believe you are figuring it out. And then, like any magic trick, you’re misleading and you do something with your hand on this side when everybody’s paying attention on the other side. And that’s how I like to construct these movies.
I really try to show all the cards at the beginning, like this is the character and here’s what’s going on. There’s that shot that’s showing his side of the story because suddenly, we’re in his room, and there’s a guy invading his room, and it feels like it’s his story now. And all those elements are there to make you participate. So if your guess is like, “This is a haunted house”—great. At first, it can be whatever you want it to be, and then eventually there will be an answer to all these mysteries that we lay out in the first 20 minutes.
Lang: I think, also, it’s the mark of the auteur a little bit. It’s the presence in a very good way of the filmmaker. Because you’re seeing what he chooses you to see. Obviously, that’s true of every film, of every shot. But when you pause on a hammer, pause on a photograph or anything like that: That’s the presence in the Hitchcockian sense of the director. And when you think about it, you have never seen a Hitchcock film in your life without being aware of Hitchcock. There’re many directors who don’t want to do that, but in this particular case with this particular director, I just think it works stunningly well. And it’s not something that’s necessarily going to be remarked upon or noticed.
You’ve talked in previous interviews about how you worked with your cinematographer, Pedro Luje, to map out the house, but to what extent was that level of detail—the hammer, the bolt that falls off the door—in the script? And how did you and Pedro talk about showing these details?
Alvarez: Most of the stuff is in the script already. In order to make it work the way it works in the movie, you better have a good plan on the paper that plans an idea and pays it off. The words with Pedro were more about: How are we going to show that in a way that feels organic? It’s not the camera just turning around, and going down there, and finding something. You [tell yourself,] “Don’t do that.” It’s almost like accidentally I show you things.
I’m following this guy, and he happens to duck, and oh, there’s a hammer there. And oh, he stands again. He’s just walking by that door, and before I turn around, I spot that. And the audience is just scanning for things. Particularly when you’re scared in situations like that, you pay more attention. You’re paying a lot of attention because you’re scared something might happen, or that someone might show up. That’s a good moment to show all those details. But Pedro, and not just Pedro, but like the cameraman was really good. It used to be in Hollywood that the first camera operator used to be this figure. It’s the DP and the first camera operator [who] really are the eye of the DP. And lately, the DP has become the figure.
In British films, nobody cares about the DP. It’s the first camera operator—the hero of this thing. It was definitely amazing in this one. It was a combination of that whole team, and it’s easy to write on the page, but it’s hard to catch them on the camera in a way that feels organic. That’s the art of being a good first camera operator.
The basement scenes—which are shot with the blacklight and have a completely different feel: As far as the mapping, did you approach the basement entirely differently than the rest of the house?
Alvarez: Yeah definitely. Among all the things we did, regarding the light and the camera—that’s definitely one of the things that I’m most proud of. We’re entering a territory that was uncharted. Nobody did it that way before. Of course, you’ve seen Silence of the Lambs with the scene with the night vision goggles. But that’s someone with a device looking in the dark, and that’s different than what we did. We just said, “This is the language we’re going to use to show you what happens in the dark.”
And obviously, dramatically, it’s great because you realize how much [the three teens] have underestimated their opponent and the abilities that he has that they don’t have at all. And suddenly, who’s disabled in that scene? The two kids are the disabled ones, because they don’t have the ability to move in the dark. I love that aspect of it, but it was we really needed a way to show the audience everything that was happening. It was a conversation like, “Maybe, we’ll have some light come in through the windows, and you see the shadows.” But that would’ve been boring and frustrating. You wouldn’t have been able to see what’s happening. So we just took a leap of faith. We developed a look that you see in the film that’s kind of reminiscent of night vision in a way. But it’s just because there’re no shadows, and there’s no high contrast. So it feels like you can believe that that’s full of darkness. And of course, the great performances of the actors really sells that idea. But I’m proud of it because of that.
If you look back at filmmaking in general: At first, a guy put a camera and said, “Let’s shoot a play”; and then someone said, “Let’s try a close-up”; and then someone said, “What if we do an over-the-shoulder?”, and that’s how each movie advances. And one day, a guy put a camera on a crane, and suddenly it was that crazy point of view that nobody had seen before.
The more time that passes, the harder it is to improve on filmmaking and adding tools that are new. And in a way, anybody can then use them after you use them in your film successfully. Even if you only move this much [gestures with fingers to indicate small increments] in filmmaking like just a quarter of an inch forward, I’m a happy man. I think—in this aspect at least—when someone else is going to make another movie that needs to tell a scene in full darkness, they will try to find a single reference to tell you how to do that. And we just had to take a leap of faith and say we’re going to cut to black, and fade in slowly, and it’s going to look like this. And then it’s going to be a big set piece in black and white. And when there are gunshots, the color comes in, and then it goes away.
We just took a leap of faith and it worked, and now I am hopefully sure that people will use it from now on in other movies because it just works so organically. As a filmmaker, and Pedro as a DP, we’re proud that we took that risk.