By ROCCO T. THOMPSON
Creative collaborators since their early days making short films in Uruguay, writer/director Fede Álvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues became household names to horror fans with their ultra-violent and surprisingly excellent remake of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead in 2013. When the duo’s follow-up, Don’t Breathe his cinemas in 2016, it became a high-grossing sleeper hit and is widely regarded as one of the best horror efforts of the decade. Now, with Sayagues in the director’s chair for the first time, Don’t Breathe 2 continues the story of “The Blind Man” aka Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang) who, picking up years after the first film, is caring for a girl named Phoenix (Madelyn Grace) when a band of mysterious intruders brings violence again to his doorstep. Rue Morgue sat down with Sayagues and Álvarez to discuss their creative partnership, how they sought to build upon the first film, and what they make of the social media uproar surrounding the impending release.
Rodo, you and Fede’s collaboration goes back a long time. What made this the right project to make the jump to director?
RS: What makes it the right project? Everything about it. First of all, it’s a story that we created together. It’s a script that we wrote together. I’ve been immersed in this world of Don’t Breathe for the past six, seven, or eight years, right? So, at this point, it feels very familiar to me. That is a huge advantage, [because] it’s a material that I really know. On top of that, we made sure that we brought [much] of the team that worked in the first movie to work in this one, especially Pedro Luque, the cinematographer. So again, all people that I already had a relationship with, [including] Stephen Lang. And when we started shooting, I felt in a very familiar environment, so that was an immense help. Other than that, [I faced] the usual challenges that you face as a filmmaker, especially as a first-time filmmaker. But having all of that [familiarity] was great.
Fede, when did you know it was sort of time to hand the reins over on this one?
FA: I think at some point, we had the script and I just felt that Rodo had a really strong vision for it and that he was going to go into this world with an energy and excitement that, usually when you’ve been there before, it’s not the same. I was afraid that if I [did] it myself, I was going to end up repeating myself and doing the exact same things. I thought, for the audience, it was going to be different and more exciting if it had a new director in it. So I felt like Rodo had the passion and the energy for it. And also, in a way, it was something we wanted to do for a while. Rodo was saying he wanted to direct. As a writing team, he has more [of] that unhinged part of the creativity, so it was like it would be interesting to let Rodo go wild in one of these and see what happens.
Did you two always know where the story would go or has it sort of evolved over time?
RS: I think we knew right after the first movie came out. We never thought that the first movie was going to have a sequel because we like to not think too much ahead. So after the movie came out, we realized that Norman’s story didn’t have any closure. It’s a character, a villain that got away with the crime. And we thought that it was interesting to follow that story, to follow that character to see how his life is going to be after the events of the first one. Is he going to be able to be at peace with himself and sleep at night? Is justice going to catch up to him? Is he going to eventually become aware of who he truly is? All of those questions we thought were worth asking and worth exploring and that was the idea, that was what propelled us into writing the story.
Is it frustrating for you to see that some critics and viewers have been rushing to judge the film and where it goes based on the trailer alone?
FA: I mean, we’re kind of used to it in a way. We were born in Uruguay. We were born in a dictatorship where my father wanted to be a director and he could have never done it because it was completely censored by everybody. So, when we finally made it through some miracle here to the States and we were allowed to suddenly tell stories, we really tried really hard not to fit in, to really bring our own identity and our ideas of what stories can be told and how to tell them. And that usually doesn’t sit well with some people. In all fairness, we all are entitled to our own opinions with those things, but I think when it comes to censorship we don’t take it so well. But it’s part of the game. No one forced us to make movies, just like we don’t force anybody to go see our movies. If anybody doesn’t like it they can just stay at home and not watch it. We don’t make movies with taxpayer money, right? So that’s the beauty of it. You can just come up with all the things.
I mean, you’ve seen the movie, you know [what] the trailer does not show, although it might show some parts of it, but definitely not even close. You have no clue what this movie’s about. It’s also fun to just see the early reactions and being confident that they don’t know what the story’s about. That’s why I think, hopefully, when they see the movie, they understand that there’s more to it, that I don’t think we make anybody a hero. Like Rodo said, for the first movie, he’s the antagonist. He’s a villain that gets away with it. We thought we should tell that story to see if justice catches up and if he’s ever going to come to terms with who he truly is; you have to make him the protagonist in order to do that. Or at least not make him just the antagonist. The protagonist is Phoenix. She’s the one you truly root for. You don’t have to root for him. But the problem is like in order to root for her, you might need him. Which is the complexity of the story, right?
The films do feel very seamlessly part of the same world, despite having two different directors at the helm. How do you go about respecting the first film’s style while also making this one your own, Rodo?
RS: Apart from being a writer of the first one, I’m also a fan and I wanted to see that world in this movie as well. So, we very carefully made sure that we were not destroying that. Fede did a great job creating that world in terms of how it looks and how it feels. We wanted to recreate that and then build on top of it and build a new story and further develop the character of Norman Nordstrom. So in those regards, I feel, for me as a director, it was great because it’s part of the job that was already done. I borrow that from the first movie and just built on top of it.
You’re both obviously horror fans, and the first film had some pretty clear nods to other horror classics. What films did you sort of look to for reference or inspiration for DON’T BREATHE 2?
FA: We’ve been saying Commando all day. [Laughs] And sometimes, it’s just movies that are not even part of the genre. Everybody thinks we’re joking that one of the main influences for the first movie is Home Alone [but] if you look at the structure of those movies, [they] are very similar at many levels. The fun and games of those movies, the rules of those movies. But they’re nothing alike, right? So sometimes, the inspiration comes from the most unlikely places [but] we really try to stay away from references. I mean, obviously, the first movie is a big reference but we really tried to make sure we craft a story that when you walk out, you go, “Whoa, that story was never told to me ever.” And that’s rare. A lot of movies, they just go, “Wow, that was exactly like that other one. They’re the same.” Unless someone proves us wrong and maybe there’s one we have not seen, but as far as we know there’s nothing, there’s no story like this.
Tell us a bit about casting Madelyn Grace. Child actors can really grate on audiences, especially horror fans, but she’s fantastic in the movie and you manage to avoid any of the problems or small annoyances that come with casting kids.
RS: Yeah, she is! I didn’t know her. She just happened to show up at the auditions, and we right away knew it was going to be her. She’s amazing, she’s very, very talented, ultra-smart, and she’s been acting since she was five. So she showed us she knows her stuff, and she knew the script better than anyone else, better than me, better than any of the other actors. She knew everyone’s line in the story, she has an amazing memory. She was also having a lot of fun doing the movie. There’s these very intense moments in the story and for her character, but we made sure that we created an environment where it felt like a game and that she was playing and that’s what she was doing every day on set. So much so that she never wanted the day to be over. She wanted to keep going and going. And she’s a kid that has so much energy, it’s unbelievable. It is unbelievable, it’s crazy. I think we were just blessed that she showed up. It was the key role in the movie. There was a big concern before we started the process of making the movie, “are we ever going to find the right person to play Phoenix?” And we did. So we got really, really lucky with her.
What do you both hope that audiences take away from the movie?
FA: Just have a great time. That’s what I want when I go to the movies. We just always want to entertain. That was something that Sam Raimi kind of taught us from the very beginning of our career here. Like, “The biggest sin,” he said, “Was to bore the audience.” We took that very seriously. Our movies tend to be really short and kind of roller-coastery and intense. We don’t want it to get boring, not a second. But at the same time, [you] hopefully walk out of there with that feeling of excitement when you see something new, [that] you saw something different. That sense of fresh air, of like, “Wow. This story. What a fucking weird thing.” [Laughs]
DON’T BREATHE 2 is in theaters August 13th, 2021 from Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Entertainment.