Fede Alvarez – Don’t Breathe

Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez joined a very elite club a couple of years back with his remake of The Evil Dead. Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic is hallowed ground for film fans, and everyone expected Alvarez’s version to be another shameless, lazy cash grab by cynical Hollywood moneymen.

Instead, like Zack Snyder with Dawn of the Dead and Jon Favreau with The Jungle Book, he proved it’s possible to stand apart from and in some ways even better a beloved original movie.

Alvarez’s The Evil Dead gave the premise a well-designed contemporary subtext, it didn’t scrimp on the grime and gore, the practical effects had a hand-made charm, and it was as scary as f&%k.

The other elite club he joins is that of filmmakers like James Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious) and Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity), who leveraged horror’s potential for low budgets against the love audiences have for the genre to launch hundred million dollar franchises.

Given Don’t Breathe’s early success, can a big budget franchise blockbuster be far away? As the 38-year-old director tells in Los Angeles, don’t hold your breath.

The sound design was pivotal to the movie, how much do you sketch out exactly how the music and sound effects were going to behave beforehand versus on the day?

We knew from the beginning big chunks of it were going to be completely silent, at least there wasn’t going to be any dialogue, and that was very exciting.

If you’re trying to sneak out of a house where there is a blind person, you better not make a sound, and there wasn’t going to be a lot of dialogue in those set pieces.

So of course that gives a lot room for all the magic of movie making – the sound, the music, the camera work, the performances and all that takes over. It becomes this visual art form and sound is just crucial to make those parts work.

And how does the score fit in?

I didn’t want to have too much music in it, things that felt like music. There is a score in the movie but most of it was done with these strange instruments a guy in Tucson, Arizona built in his backyard out of junk. They are all strange pieces of metal that the composer would bang on or plunge into water and make these strange sounds.

I always wanted to stay inside the house. We needed to make music with things you can find inside a house – metal, wood, pipes – all the music is composed with those elements. That is why it’s hard to know in the movie – even for me when I watch it now – what’s sound design and what’s music. There is a very thin line there.

So did you find and settle on all the music in post or were you thinking about it during the shoot?

Not on the day no, I even thought at the beginning that I wasn’t going to have music. I felt like maybe I would just use sound design and not do music at all. Music is a very powerful thing, but if you use it wrong it could be annoying, so I wanted to use it in the right measure.

It was during the editing when I showed the movie to Roque Baños, my composer, that I started thinking about what to do and that’s how we came to what you saw in the movie.

Why did you decide to make your antagonist blind?

We started with the idea of having the robbers as the protagonists because we don’t see many of those stories. Robbers are an element we all love to hate, most of us have never really met them. So it was interesting to get to know them and show why they do the things they do and hopefully get the audience to go ‘I kind of get that’.

We knew having them break into someone’s house would make for a great, suspenseful story, but then we knew that wasn’t enough. We needed a very worthy opponent for them, someone that was cinematic.

If he wasn’t blind this wouldn’t be a cinematic event like the one I wanted it to be. First of all we’ve never seen that character before, not as a villain, you might have seen great heroes that are blind, but I thought ‘why don’t we take that away to make him evil?’

I think someone wrote or someone said ‘what if he’s blind?’ and you start thinking about all the advantages the story could have and how it would make every scene unique, it’s something that’s not there just because it’s there. If he wasn’t blind the movie would work completely differently.

What are the pros and cons of shooting a suspense thriller versus a supernatural film like The Evil Dead?

In some movies you don’t know if it’s supernatural or not, and you can play with that. Actually people went to see this movie and it’s not until the middle that they realised there wasn’t going to be any ghosts, because we don’t need them.

At the beginning, because of the mood and the music and the setting, the audience doesn’t know. I think that helps, you can play with that a little bit.

So you find reality scarier?

Reality is so scary. When you’re in the real world little things are scarier, dangerous things are way more powerful. You do those things in a supernatural environment people go ‘I don’t care about that, show me a ghost’. In our world, just [the blind man] coming through a door like he does goes a long way and makes it very scary, so both have their advantages and disadvantages.

But I love the real world because you can’t get away with everything. In ghost stories you can have a door slamming and you go and open the door and there’s nothing there. It was a ghost. You can do scares, but then you don’t have to deal with a scene.

In our movie every scare creates a scene, he jumps out of that door in the cellar and then you have to deal with that, he’s not going to just disappear. That’s exciting, it puts me in a place and forces me to create a scene. As a writer it’s beautiful, as a director it’s great to have material that is pushing itself all the time.

What scares you in real life?

Everything you see in my movies. It’s simple really. If you ask a comedian what things are funny, probably all the jokes he has. You can’t write scary stuff by design, I can’t write something that isn’t scary for me but I’m sure people will think is scary, it doesn’t work that way. It has terrify me when I’m writing it.

Why the things are scary for me I don’t know, as a kid my brother locked me up in a basement for like two seconds and told me they was a rat in there, maybe that’s why I am scared of cellars, every idea and theme in the movie is probably part of my deepest fears.

Based on past directors with small films that do very well, you might find yourself offered a Star Wars or Jurassic Park. Would you do one?

Stars Wars is my weak point, it’s one of those that I would definitely do if I could. The rest I’m not sure because I enjoy the freedom to get away with whatever I want without a committee telling me what I can do. I’d rather keep making this sort of movie than the way Hollywood is getting young directors to do those.

It sounds like they’re doing you a favor, but actually what they want is someone they can control. I’m very cautious with those, I had those opportunities after Evil Dead and I really didn’t want go there. With Star Wars, because I am such a big fan it might be a different story if I ever had the chance.

The rest of them – all those Marvel movies and all that – it’s hard for me to distinguish the style of one director and the other just because the movie is bigger than anybody. I am not particularly interested in just being a shooter.

Stephen Lang – Don’t Breathe

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