“My idea of a director is someone who decides what story he or she wants to tell” – Fede Álvarez and How “Don’t Breathe” Became a Hit

by Gabriel Lerman August 28, 2016
Director Fede Alvarez and a poster of his movie Don't Breathe

Getty Images

In 2009, when Fede Álvarez uploaded a 5-minute short titled Panic Attack to YouTube in his native Uruguay, it stirred a big enough commotion in Hollywood to produce multiple offers and enable him to continue his career in the United States. Álvarez eventually struck a deal with Sam Raimi’s Ghost House to direct the remake of Evil Dead. Not bad for a director whose resumé consisted mainly of commercial special effects – like the ones he used to stage an alien attack on Montevideo while on a limited budget. When Evil Dead made almost $100 million Alvarez received an offer to direct one of Marvel Studio’s mega blockbusters - and turned it down. Instead, Uruguay’s most famous contemporary filmmaker decided to follow his own path by co-writing and directing Don’t Breathe, a tense thriller about three criminals who try to rob the house of a blind man… not knowing he’s got a trick or two up his sleeve. When we brought up Alfred Hitchcock in our recent conversation for goldenglobes.com, a smile came to Fede’s face. The master of thrillers has always been his idol and he grew up watching his films.  And now, like Hitch, Álvarez has a major box office hit in his hands.

Robert Rodríguez kicked off his career with a $7,000 movie that managed to get Hollywood’s attention. You did the same with $300, even though your movie was longer than his. To what extent was Robert a point of reference for you? 

I think what he did for filmmakers of my generation was to prove that you didn’t need a lot of money to make something good  (that) above all it’s a matter of attitude. I think he’s the embodiment of an independent filmmaker’s way of thinking. If you need someone to give you money then you’re no longer independent, you’re dependent. I think you should handle things on your own, do things with very few resources, learn to do multiple things like I did when it came to filming and making special effects. When filmmakers have to wait around for someone to give them the green light to make a movie, allowing them or authorizing them by somehow giving them money, that's when they end up waiting around for the rest of their lives. In Uruguay I grew up listening to people tell me that “it’s impossible, it’s too expensive of an art, you need a lot of money and you can’t find that here.” I think it was (Rodríguez’s) story that really sparked the fire, at least for me. I think it was his “it can be done” mentality. So it’s always a pleasure to see him. We met on Evil Dead; after that I worked with him on the television show From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series, which he’s producing and airing on his network (El Rey). We became friends and when I went to Austin I called him to see if he wanted to come and present the movie and we did a Q&A after. He presented the movie by telling a story, about how one day I came and told him how I read his entire book on making independent movies. I think there’s a mutual admiration between us because we share the same vision when it comes to movie making.

I imagine that your conversations with him helped you to not get lost when you first came to Hollywood and all of the doors opened all of a sudden....

I talked to him after I finished Evil Dead. One of the things he told me at the time and which heavily influenced this project was that his way of taking things on: finding out what the current trend was, what it was that everyone was doing, and get as far away from that as possible. That was the only way to make original films. That was kind of what we did because after Evil Dead, most of the offers I received were either part of the current trend, sequels, or things that were generally working at the time. If I was sent a script it was the same kind of thing mostly, on the safe side, with little risk involved. I didn't want to do that, I wanted to really make something that would separate me from what everyone else was doing and Don’t Breathe was exactly that.

Director Fede Alvarez and actor Stephen Lang on the set of the movie Don't Breathe

With Stephen Lang on the set of Don't Breathe.

Sony Pictures

 

Yet Hitchcock made fortunes in the 1950s making exactly those types of films…

Exactly! I think fresh doesn't mean new, it means different. You return to the roots of certain things and that's a bit of what we do now, probably with a touch of modern film and a lot of changes to the genre itself. But yeah, without a doubt, our main source of inspiration was those films. When my dad showed me a horror movie for the first time, he didn’t talk about how it would scare me, it was always about suspense. That’s why I grew up watching these movies and I learned a lot from this type of film. That’s what I tried to replicate in this movie.

Does Don’t Breathe have certain calculated structure designed to alternately scare the audience and let them relax at certain points in the film?

Yeah, there is. It has to be designed a certain way. If you’re going to improvise along the way, or if you write a script that’s just mechanical and nothing more, you’re going to miss details. You’re going to have created questions that you won't have answers to later on. In Don’t Breathe everything you see in the first 20 minutes has some correlation with the rest of the story. I think the first 20 minutes of a good story is like a kitchen recipe because it shows you all the ingredients. When the movie starts, you already know that everything occurring in the story is already there or is bound to happen sooner or later. Those are the best stories because the audience doesn’t feel cheated. Good stories need to be honest, they show you everything that’s going to be part of the story, the kind of language that’s going to be used, and present you each of the characters and who they really are. As a result there should eventually come a point where you can just push that first domino and let everything else come together. If the story is well done and the path of those dominos is well set, then everything should just fall into place until the very end. That’s perfect for the thriller genre. It’s a mechanism that works well because according to Hitchcock's definition of a thriller, a thriller is the idea of constant tension. In this movie, once the tension starts it doesn't let up until the last scene. That for me was a challenge. Can you keep a movie tense from start to finish? Well for that, you need a good plan.

 

 

What would’ve happened to your life without that short, without that miracle?

I don’t really call it a miracle because it's something you see everyday. A miracle is something that no one can really explain. And honestly with Ataque de pánico, knowing the industry as well as I do now, I know that it’s not really a miracle, but it’s still exceptional to have young directors just come out of nowhere while having the ability to tell a short story with special effects and little to no money. What also happened was that at the time the world was just getting to know YouTube’s new HD capabilities. A month before Ataque de pánico, YouTube had very poor image quality. It had just changed to HD and opened the world’s eyes. Suddenly film festivals weren't the only places to find filmmakers. I uploaded the short to the Internet and woke up to 150 emails from every studio and agency. That wasn’t a coincidence; clearly the short had something about it that was powerful and effective.

Did your heart stop when you said no to Marvel?

No, not at all! On the contrary, my heart would’ve stopped if I had said yes! It’s not like they’re calling me every five minutes begging me to come work for them and I refuse. It’s not as glamorous as that. After your film opens you get a wave of invitations to get together with people who want to talk to you about a particular project. So you get a call from someone saying “the people at Marvel want to talk to you about something” or they ask if you’d be interested in working on something with them. Maybe it’s also that Latin American ego. A director, where we come from, writes his/her movie, makes his/her movie, and tells the story. Most of the directors write their own stories because it’s not like there's a system that delivers available scripts, or studios that hire someone to shoot and nothing more…My idea of a director is someone who decides what story he or she wants to tell. If I ask someone to describe the style of Jon Favreau, who directed Iron Man or Russo with Captain America, they can’t give me an answer based on those movies because they’re exactly the same. The humor, style, color, music, is all the same. The director goes unnoticed in those films even though they work like crazy.I don’t want that - at least at the moment.