Coming off a successful first film, many talented directors fall victim to the dreaded "sophomore slump," the second film in a director's catalogue that builds so much hype, anticipation, and expectations that it's nearly impossible to find any sort of success.
Hype and expectation couldn't have been higher in 2013 when a relatively unknown director with only a few short films under his belt took the reins of the Evil Dead reboot. With Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Rob Tapert providing support, director Fede Alvarez crafted a stunning, gory, and terrifying film.
Now in theaters, Don't Breathe is Mr. Alvarez's second feature film, and I had the opportunity to talk with the filmmaker about his success, inspirations and influences, cinematic pairings, and guilty pleasures.
Congrats on all the success, Fede. Evil Dead is one of my favorite reboots to date and Don’t Breathe is fantastic. It had to have been both exciting and terrifying helming the new Evil Dead with people like Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and Rob Tapert so involved in the process, and Sam and Rob are back for your second film. What did the screening room feel like this time around when you showed them Don’t Breathe for the first time?
Fede Alvarez: So, Sam is there and basically I show him the movie and as soon as the movie is over, that's the moment when you’re a filmmaker and you just turn around and say, "so?” And just waiting for the first real audience that have seen the film to express an opinion, and the first thing he says is, "You have conquered the inevitable sophomore curse."
I see some parallels to a film called Wait Until Dark with Audrey Hepburn. Were you familiar with this movie? What kind of influences shaped Don’t Breathe?
Fede Alvarez: It wasn't even an inspiration on any level because I didn't really know about the film. I've probably heard the title, but I haven't seen the film and I had no clue what it was about until I was done with the script and we were about to make the movie. I called my mom and she asked what the movie was about, and I explained to her what it was, and she said, "That's just like Wait Until Dark." And I was like, "What is that?" And she said, "It's this wonderful Audrey Hepburn movie that she was nominated for an Oscar for." So I thought I should check it out and I did, and there are obviously similarities that come out of the natural premise of having motivation and a blind person.
We always talk about originality in horror. And what you did with the Evil Dead film is so fresh and innovative while also paying tribute to the original. In many ways, I feel the same about Don’t Breathe. You can feel influences from different places, but you also make it so original and different from the mainstream. Was this a story that you had in mind for some time?
Fede Alvarez: Not for a while. We were basically promoting the Evil Dead Blu-ray coming out at Comic-Con, and it wasn’t until that point that we realized people really liked this Evil Dead. And we knew that it worked at the box office, but a lot of people don’t follow or create a following afterwards. Sometimes movies are big and a lot of people watch them, but maybe they don’t like it as much as they thought—they like it, but they forget about it. We were at Comic-Con and I was talking to people and I found out that people actually loved Evil Dead, and I was excited about that. And I felt like I needed to give those people another movie, so that’s why I decided to stay in the genre a little bit more and do something that wasn’t exactly a straightforward horror movie, but was still something for what I felt was the audience for Evil Dead.
So on the drive from San Diego to Los Angeles, I was with my co-writer [Rodo Sayagues] just chatting and talking about what we were going do next, something that would be very suspenseful—we didn’t want to do something that was about the shock like Evil Dead was. Though this one gets pretty shocking at moments, we wanted something that was about the suspense and trying to make the most suspenseful film that you had ever seen, especially for the younger audience, because they don’t make movies like this anymore.
Usually movies have breaks and different scenes, even very scary horror movies have these moments in the middle to relax, to have some drama. But this one is different—a major set piece that once you start, 50 minutes into the movie it still hasn’t let go and won’t until it’s over. That aspect hasn’t been done in a while, so we were excited about that and we always wanted to tell a story about robbers, we were fascinated by those characters and I thought it would be interesting to show the audience where they are and what they do, get them to decide who they like or not, and then put them against a worthy opponent.
We had to figure out a character that was bigger than life and could be very cinematic as well, and that’s when we realized that he should be blind. After that, the idea came together very quickly. The idea and how it clicks is the hard part, how you come up with that concept and once you have something, it’s very fertile and all the scenes and everything you see in the movie comes together. And when you put a bunch of robbers in a house trying to steal money from a blind man, you create situations that become interesting to the story.
You create a great opponent for the robbers. They underestimate him and you accomplish some great scenes with real subtlety on the part of the blind man. He’s a war veteran, he has unsuspecting abilities and this brings so much tension because the viewer is seeing these small yet important things develop over the course of the film. That’s something that isn’t often thought of in horror films these days. Everything is so big and loud.
Fede Alvarez: Regarding the loud stuff, we weren't really looking for that. This movie has a few jump scares to keep you on the edge, but, funny enough, most jump scares in movies are when the music hits and that's what scares you, the big slam of the music. Here, because we were trying to be really honest with the filmmaking, there is no music with the scares. It's the small things that scare you here, the sound of the dog hitting the window and the creak in the floor when the blind man comes out of the cellar right in front of her face, those are the things that I'm really proud of. We all know cheap scares and here we tried not to do that.
Let's say you were going to program a double feature with Don’t Breathe, what would be the film you program?
Fede Alvarez: I would do something simple and show them Psycho. They would be good together because they have some similarities; the way we set up the story, we have a robber trying to get away with some money and bad things come their way because of that. The big twist in the middle that really takes the story in a different direction, Psycho does that as well. It was a big inspiration, but they are completely different movies.
We all have guilty pleasure movies or television shows. What’s your guilty pleasure movie or show?
Fede Alvarez: When I think about guilty pleasure films, I have to think about bad films, but there must be a reason why I enjoy them so much. The Wicker Man is a movie I always enjoy a lot. It’s a bizarre one. But now that I think about it, there are some similarities, with the twist and how nothing is what you think it is, the story starts in a place and goes to some very bizarre destinations, and we’re talking about the original Christopher Lee one and not the Nicolas Cage remake. They’re really helpless, they’re going onto someone else’s land. The rules aren’t the rules of the world, they are the rules of the owner of that land. It’s one of those classics, it’s very hard to understand and I’m not really sure why it’s so good, but I loved it.