Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez faced both an amazing opportunity and an intimidating hurdle when he was hired to direct the remake of Sam Raimi’s horror classic The Evil Dead. Building on Raimi’s blood-soaked vision, Alvarez was able to craft an Evil Dead that paid homage to the original while still presenting a different—more serious, perhaps, but no less exaggerated—take on the “ultimate experience in grueling horror.”
Alvarez brings that same intensity, if not the excess, to his second film, Don’t Breathe, which hits theaters this weekend. Starring Jane Levy and Dylan Minnette as young burglars looking for a big score and genre veteran Stephen Lang as the blind veteran whose fortified Detroit home they break into, it’s a lean, edge-of-your-seat home-invasion thriller that, once it starts building, doesn’t let up for a single moment.
The A.V. Club spoke to Alvarez the morning after his film played at Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival in Chicago in front of a hushed crowd, punctuated by the occasional involuntary yelp. Along with his philosophies of horror, filmmaking, and life in general, we talked about the film—including one scene that, although it’s a potential spoiler, is already being talked about, so we felt it was important to discuss it here. We’ll warn you again just before it comes up.
The A.V. Club: A lot of the horror of this movie comes from the visceral pain that the characters go through.
Fede Alvarez: The pain they go through?
AVC: Say, when someone falls, like [Jane Levy] in the crawl space. You feel it, you hear the sound.
FA: I think violence in movies, for it to work, you have to use it smartly. People get numb very fast. If you have too much violence in the beginning, it gets to a point where you don’t feel it. This one, we don’t overdo it—for a big part of the movie no one’s getting hurt at all, they’re running around, crawling, but nobody’s getting hurt. It’s not until later in the movie that the pain really starts coming, and it feels so real.
Last night, it was a very quiet audience. It depends on the theater. Some audiences are louder than others. But yesterday in general was a quiet audience, but there was a few moments where they couldn’t keep quiet. It was funny: When [Lang] steps on [Levy’s] foot, they were like, “Oh my God!” A very simple thing, but I think if you always find a spot that as an audience you can empathize with, that pain—be it emotional or physical—it just goes a long way. You’re scared that that’s going to happen again, somehow. There’s not a lot of that, but when it’s there, it works.
AVC: Does the sound design play into that?
FA: I guess so, yeah. Definitely, as you were mentioning, when [Levy’s] trying to get out of the crawl space, and she moves her bone and it cracks. You go, “Ouch, that hurts.” We did a lot of work on the sound design. It’s all about being subtle in this film, at least in the execution. Because the story’s not subtle at all. It really goes through extremes. But in the execution, we were really trying to find subtlety. I think it’s just a reaction to Evil Dead, where nothing was subtle.
AVC: That actually leads into the next question. In some ways, this story is similar to Evil Dead, because they’re both about trying to survive a single night in one location. In what ways were you trying to set Don’t Breathe apart?
FA: I think in many ways. Not particularly in the setting, because I think you can tell completely different stories in that same environment, trying to survive a night, as you put it. I think Evil Dead—I had a lot of fun making that movie, and I’m very proud of that film, because we survived. It was something that felt like it was impossible to survive, a remake of a classic horror movie that’s still beloved. [But] I’m still alive, and that survival, that’s actually a good thing. But everybody involved in the movie, they really allowed me to do whatever I wanted. They gave me free range to do whatever I wanted. But still, it always had the limitation that it had to be an Evil Dead film.
FA: That’s a big limitation in a way. You need to honor the originals. So I could do whatever I wanted, as long as it’s an Evil Dead film. And this one, I could do whatever I wanted. The only thing they had to honor was whatever my vision of the film was originally. So that felt great. It was a big difference for me, and the way people reacted. I think they also reacted to the fact that we used so much blood in Evil Dead. The blood takes over in the movie. The character and story kind of disappear in the gallons of blood. I wanted to do something where the story and the character will have more impact, particularly with the protagonist.
You’re more invested in what he’s doing and how he’s doing it, and what happened to him. It’s incredible how much you get to know [The Blind Man] for what little dialogue he gives you. He doesn’t say much. But the house tells a story, the sounds tell a story, the images that you see, the photos—all of that tells his story. That was a challenge, and I was happy that that came across. We didn’t just create an experience like we did with Evil Dead, we created at least one character that stays with you once you leave.
AVC: So do you see it as The Blind Man’s story, then?
FA: Well, he’s the one that has the biggest ordeal in front of him when the story starts. That’s why he makes for an interesting protagonist. Because when the premise is laid out, who’s the one who has it most difficult? It’s him. In the story of, “Are they going to get out of there with the money or not?” when you think about it, it feels like, if anyone’s going through a problem, he’s the one. “I’m blind, and guys are in my house, and I have this money, and I don’t know how I’m going to stop them.” It’s very easy to empathize with him at the beginning of the film. Then eventually you know more about him and I’m challenging you, and then he says things that make you empathize [with him] more. And then of course he goes even further.
But that’s what I’m trying to do—to push and push [so you can] see who you’re going to like and who you’re going to root for. I don’t want to spoon-feed the audience, like, “This is the funny guy, this is one you hate, this is the one you like.” A lot of movies do that. They don’t really give you a choice. They show you the jock, and he’s an idiot, and everybody has to hate him. You have no choice. And I really don’t like to do that. I really don’t like to go for the stereotypes. I try to give you characters that you don’t know until you get to know them, and [decide] how you should feel about them.
AVC: One thing that was interesting about Stephen Lang’s character is that you could take that idea—the blind guy who fights back—to a place where he’s invincible, and he can smell them from across the room and stuff like that. You didn’t do that.
FA: No. The movie is an exercise in reversal. We reverse everything—everything you expect, the opposite happens. It’s a home-invasion movie, but you’re with the invaders. It’s never like that. Usually the house in a movie [like this one] is the scary house on the nice street, and this is the other way: It’s the nice house on a scary street. Everything was approached from that angle. I love to defy those stereotypes.
Jane Levy, my direction to her was, “Be Bruce Willis. Do what a leading man would do. Don’t think about the stereotype of what a leading lady would do.” In some moments, she’s not terrified. When her instinct as an actor would be, “This is the part where I cry or scream or run away,” I was like, “No, just be focused.” If it was a guy playing your role, he wouldn’t be screaming and crying. It would be unacceptable. No leading man will be doing that. So why would a leading lady do it? Don’t do it. Just be strong and go for it.
Of course, any of them are completely fucked up, and they might cry and be in suffering, but that’s a human thing. And the same with The Blind Man. Blind people in movies are often patronized and are shown in a way, like, “Aw, poor fellow. Aw, he’s always nice. He’s a wise man,” and all those things. So we liked to turn that around. And also, just to be respectful to that community, we didn’t want to portray a guy that has super hearing, right? [Blind people] don’t have super senses, they just pay attention more. We did a lot of research in that world, just to make sure we portrayed that character in a fair light.
[Hey, this is the part we mentioned in the introduction, where we talk about a major plot point in the film. Scroll down to the next bit of italicized text if you don’t want to know.]
AVC: So, you were talking about how you didn’t want Jane Levy’s reactions to be too stereotypically female, and you also mentioned that she gets pushed to the point where she kicks the shit out of Stephen Lang’s character. But in that moment, it does become a female thing, in that the threat is something specific to a woman.
FA: Spoiler alert!
AVC: But what was your thinking behind that? Were you just trying to ramp up the intensity and push the extremes?
FA: It was organically where the story took us. I feel it’s over the top, and when you’re watching it, you’re going, “Seriously, that’s what they’re doing?” But I think it makes complete sense for [Lang’s] character and where he is in his life, as long as he can find justification in a moral code. And he does, because she’s guilty of many things. What he says is very true: “She would be alive if you hadn’t broken into my home.” I think it makes sense in the context of the story.
But the real motivation, and what I love about the whole insemination scene, is that usually antagonists and villains in movies are looking for power. They never look for something that doesn’t give them power. I’m a dad now. Two years ago I had my first kid, and I’ve been through the process of childbirth. I was fascinated by the simple fact that men, we don’t do anything. We just give the woman some sperm, and she’s able to give you back a human being. It’s insane. It’s the most powerful thing ever. That’s the way I saw women in this film. They’re portrayed as the most powerful thing ever. They’re able to create life.
As [for Lang], the gimmick, the machine, the thing he’s looking for—it’s not a bomb to destroy the world. What he desires is a child. In order to do that, he needs a very powerful thing, which is a woman. So you see the simplicity that is shown in the movie: You see he just has the sperm, he’s just going to do this thing, and that creates life for him. I think that’s mind-blowing. If you could see it in fast-forward, he does that, she stays there, and she gets a person out of it. That’d be insane. Of course, we don’t see it that way. But I was seeing it that way, and I was like, “That’s what he wants. And that’s why he thinks she’s powerful.” That’s why the lead is a woman as well, because she’s the one that’s able to do that. That’s why he’s not looking to kill her most of the time. I don’t think he wants to kill anybody, he just has to.
[Okay, that’s it.]
AVC: On the surface, this is a pretty simple story. If you were to describe the plot, you’d say, “Well, they break into this guy’s house, and he fights back.” But it’s so unrelenting, and so many different things happen. How do you go about unlocking the story and giving it that sort of tension?
FA: I think the reason why it works—because there are other movies that try to do the same thing, but fail—I think the key here was to be faithful to the truth. That’s something we’d always repeat to ourselves, my co-writer and I, and in all the things the characters are saying and doing, we try to be faithful to the truth. Meaning, it would be what a person would do in that situation, based on real desires. Regarding the plot and the things that happen, basically we’re being very honest in the way that we’re introducing the story.
It’s almost as if, I don’t know, you were going to cook something. And the first half is just, I show you the recipe, and these are the ingredients, and this is what’s going to part of the recipe that we’re going to see eventually, this thing we’re going to cook. I think, if I’m honest, I show you all the elements. There’s a house, there’s a dog who’s asleep. I never said how long he’s going to be asleep. I’m not cheating. I’m not saying he’s going to be asleep the whole time. That’s what bad movies do, they cheat their own rules. Here, the rules are very clear. We’re establishing them, everything we plan out in the first act comes back.
Good stories should be like a trail of dominoes: You just push one, and then the rest happens by itself. This is kind of how this story goes. Every element is laid out, and of course we make some choices, but everything you see there makes sense. The twists and turns are important, but more important is to make sure that everything that’s going to pay off in the movie, you’ve seen it somehow and I’ve shown it to you. So it feels like, your sense is, “I should have figured it out. I should have known that the dog was going to be back. I should have known there was something in that cellar.” If I show you a lock at some point, there’s something in there. And if the money’s in the closet, what’s in there?
I think the more honest you are with the storytelling, the better it works. That way it doesn’t feel like betrayal. Something I love to read about this movie is that it’s a smart movie. It’s actually pretty simple. The smartness is that it does things that you didn’t see coming, that you wouldn’t have done, and [those things] save the characters. The thing that the audience [thinks] the characters should do gets them killed in this movie. So they shut up, and they go, “I’m going to let the characters show me how to survive this situation.” And they do it in smart ways sometimes.
AVC: There’s this idea that there’s horror, and then there’s “elevated horror.” What do you think about that? Are you trying to elevate the genre?
FA: I’m trying to make the best film I can. I’m not trying to elevate anything. It does happen, yes. Sometimes with movies like this one, you try to elevate the script. You try to make the best rendering of the script, so you read it, and you go, “I get it.” Some people read it and they go, “I get it. I’m going to have to trust you that this is going to be a relentless ride, and how it’s going to work.” And that’s when you bring in all those elements—the music, the camerawork, the performances—to make sure everything is the best version of what it can be. I think always as a director you try to elevate the script. You try to take a script—even though it’s my script and I loved it, you have to do the best job you can.
I think it’s elevated also in the fact that some horror movies are like some comedies—most comedies actually. Comedy is all about the joke. Comedies usually don’t do anything fancy with the camera [or] the lighting. It doesn’t matter. It should never be fancy. You don’t see a wonderful shot in a comedy. Why? Because they don’t want to distract you from what matters, which is the joke. It has to be funny, so usually all the things in the background don’t matter.
In horror movies, sometimes it’s the same. It’s got to be about the scares. So the scares are the main thing, and then the filmmaking techniques are kind of sloppy, and nobody cares. They don’t spend too much money on those sometimes, because as long as you have an idea that is scary, and you put the camera pointed in the right direction, the scares will happen over there, and it works. I’ve seen a lot of movies that were great and scary, but not particularly fancy in their filmmaking or performance. And they’re still scary, and I think a good horror movie should be scary above all things.
In that sense, you might say this one is more elevated because it’s scary, but it doesn’t have a monster or a creature or supernatural stuff like that. So I feel like [as a director] I need to do more work. I need to create a whole cinematic experience. I think that’s what it takes to get the audience to the theater and justify seeing [a movie] on a big screen. You have to give them a cinematic experience.
AVC: That’s true. You have to give them a reason to go to the theater. What sort of media did you grow up on, and did that influence the way that you approach your style? Were you a big horror-movie kid?
FA: Yes. The first big horror movie I saw was Evil Dead, and from that point on, I was obsessed with finding the most radical stuff I could find. Not just in movies, also music. I was going from, at 12, a Guns N’ Roses fan, then I was like, “Fuck that.” Then I was into thrash metal, then, “Fuck that, that’s easy.” Death metal! Now I need speed metal. Then Cannibal Corpse. Whatever the thing was that was radical and wasn’t in the mainstream, that’s what I wanted. I think horror movies [do] the same thing. When you’re trying to find a horror movie, you’re trying to do that. You’re trying to separate yourself from everybody and the movies that they’re watching. There was a more mainstream time when I was watching Friday The 13th. But even those get silly, and I was looking for more hardcore stuff. For me, as a teenager, that was definitely that thing I was looking for.
Me and my co-writer, we’re big heavy metal fans. He has a room full of equipment in his house. We became friends because we were in a heavy-metal band for 10 years. So that period of trying to differentiate us from what’s mainstream is something that we still have—him even more. That really defines our style in our movies. In Evil Dead, we were given the chance to make a shiny Hollywood movie with a wide release that’s going to be in every theater in the world. If they’re playing it safe, we go and make a fucked-up, B-class horror movie with very graphic gore. That doesn’t sound commercial at all. It sounds like you’d do that for a bunch of people who would appreciate it. I was like, “Dude, I need to do something. I need to go hard R on that.” The whole thing sounded like it was going to be NC-17. I don’t know how we managed to make it an R. That’s really what drives us when we’re making films.
The style, I think you develop it just by doing it. It’s like all our styles—how we walk, how we dress, how we talk. It’s all influenced by our lives: who our friends are, who our parents are, and who the people are that we admire. So it’s very hard to know exactly what comes from where. Even today, some people go, “You know, you walk just like your dad,” and I never noticed that. I take things from everywhere, and I still haven’t figured out where I took [some things] from.
AVC: It sounds like, for you, being middle-of-the-road is not an option.
FA: No. It would be depressing. With my movies, at least. We all have things—in my everyday life, I can be as square as I want. But when it comes to movies and telling stories, I can’t. I’ve got to be radical, and on some level, that’s what I like to do. I like to get the audiences cozy in their seats, feeling safe, and suddenly they’ll be shocked out of their minds. They’ll go, “How is this thing playing here?” This movie does that on a different level than Evil Dead, but it does some of that.