Safe House director Daniel Espinosa is a pretty awesome guy. So awesome, in fact, that when I got the chance to see him talk a second time, I jumped at it, and I got a bro-hug in the process. That Q&A, plus a blurry pterodactyl of the man himself, will be going up tomorrow sometime, as will our review of the film.
Unfortunately, Espinosa has an accent that makes him sometimes difficult to understand, especially in an after-the-fact recording on non-professional equipment. So there are some places where the ends of sentences were cut off or I had to shift words, for grammatical reasons or otherwise. So it is not a perfect transcription. That being said, the majority of these words are his, and I apologize for the few that are not.
I’m not going to lie: I don’t think this session is quite as interesting as the one that will be posted tomorrow, but that is more about the quality of what he said at the second meeting rather than a knock on the first. This is more than worth your time. Daniel Espinosa is a seriously cool guy.
Can you talk about getting on board with the project with Denzel and Ryan?
I got involved about a year before we started shooting. I worked on the script for a year, and the first time I read the script I thought that nobody else on the planet could do it except Denzel Washington. They thought it was a bit absurd for me to ask that, but I went and saw Fences [a Broadway show which starred Denzel], a beautiful play, beautiful performance. We sat down afterwards. We spoke for hours, and he dug me, so that was cool, and I was very happy, and then he got on board.
Then I met Ryan down in New Orleans, and we spoke about his past and where he comes from, and he has a lot of things in his time that I have no idea about, and I felt that I didn’t know his perspective. He surprised me with his strength and his inner qualities, and when I sat there and thought, in a strange way that he was like a young Robert Redford. He has that kind of natural charisma, and I thought that if you don’t play into it, like Robert in his earlier movies, he never played into his charisma or his charm or his comedy that he has, he just played the scenes, and let that charisma just expire out of him, and I thought that was an opportunity for me as a filmmaker to add something to Ryan’s character.
Then we worked on the script for two months, me and Denzel, and that was nice, so I got the whole star part of it out of it, so we became humans, which is always pleasant when you work with somebody, and then we shot the movie.
Before you settled on Ryan, virtually every young actor was trying for that part. What were those meetings like, and how did you come to the point where you knew it was Ryan, because it seemed like there were a ton of other actors you were considering?
Yeah… I met them, and that was nice. You know, they’re nice people. I appreciated them taking their time to meet me, but for me it was that meeting in New Orleans, that connection and bond we created, because I believe that a director should never choose an actor. The actor and director have to choose each other, so for me, I’m in an interview, and if the person wants the job, I see him and me, because in order to do good work, it’s a comradeship. To be brothers in arms or sisters and brothers, and if you don’t have that bond, it’s never gonna work out, and we had a close connection, so that’s why we worked together.
Where did you bring up the expertise to make this film?
I’m educated in Denmark, at the Danish Film School. Our base is characters and acting, and I believe that if you get your characters right and get their motivation and understand what they want and need, then your job when you set that up right, the actors will play out the scenes, and you will not have to lead. You will follow. Because a movie kind of creates its own pace, and you have to be there to seize the moments. It’s like, someone once said that art is portraying a single moment through a temperament of the artist, and when that moment happens, it has to happen naturally and you see what perspective and where you stand in the room when you see that moment. When you see a bank robbery that’s happening on the street, where do you go? Some people will back off and see it from afar. Some people will move closer. If you just follow that rhythm as a filmmaker, what you portray will have your influence.
Your film seems to have an influence of the Wikileaks releases, and there were Wikileaks issues in your country [Sweden]. I was wondering what the influence was.
Yeah, we have that tradition in Scandinavia. We like to reveal government secrets. No, I thought it was interesting when they claim everything is open, and we know everything and we say to each other, “We’ve know the truth, right?” But we don’t, and I think that’s an interesting aspect of it. We need to start understanding that just because we have ten different opinions about what happened in some certain area, that doesn’t mean you know what the truth is. So that’s a more serious undercurrent in this movie.
I was wondering why you changed the location from Brazil to South Africa.
For several different reasons: one thing was the practicality. You know, it was just too dangerous, cost too much money, insurance, stuff like that, but I grew up in different parts of Africa. I grew up in Mozambique and Tanzania, so I have a close connection, and I was looking for a city that had socio-economical differences within short distances, so I could let the characters go from a rich area down to a poor area, and I believe that’s something that exists in Rio. It exists in Buenos Aires. It exists in Cape Town. And since I have some roots there, I wanted to go back.
The passing of the note to his girlfriend, what was the thought process behind that, because it was a somewhat tender moment after a lot of corruption, violence, and everything.
I don’t know. I like secrets. I think that I want to make it clear that we somehow want to make a choice. I think, when you watch it, you get an opinion about what it means. If he stays, if he goes, and I think it’s in the eye of the beholder, so I can’t answer that question.
I was wondering about the casting of Vera Farmiga. The production notes say it was originally a gender-neutral character. Did you meet with male and female actors? How did that work?
With Vera, I was just looking for a strong actor or actress. I met a lot of people, and when I met Vera, she has such a natural rhythm to herself of how she handles language, and I think that, you know, when you work with these kinds of movies, there’s so much technicality and bullshit, so you want somebody who can put some kind of emotion, and Vera’s one of the strongest actors on the planet, so it was more me begging for her to come than the other way around.
What do you think the writer [David Guggenheim] thought when he found out the character was being played by a girl?
I think he was happy. I don’t care. I’m making the movie. I think he’s happy, and he should be. He watched the movie a few days ago, and he was really happy, which makes me really happy.
What did you learn as a filmmaker from each of the countries that you visited?
I don’t know. For me, I’m from Chile, and I have worked with refugees, and then we went back to Sweden, and as I said I grew up in many parts of Africa, and I studied in Denmark, and I was in Paris for a while, so travelling for me is natural. It’s just how I am. I’m a nomad, so I learned a lot, but not particularly from the countries. It wasn’t my first time in South Africa. I’d been there many times before, so for me it was more like coming home and being around people you feel good around.
I mean, when we were in Langa, the happiness and support and respect for our work. That was something that impressed me, because normally when you shoot, people try to pass through the shooting, and they say, “You know, I’ve got a job. I’ve gotta get to my job,” and you wanna say, “I’ve got a job too, man. This is my job.” But when we were in Langa, when we were doing the shooting, we had around 2,000 people standing around watching. They were silent. Watching what we were doing, and after I’d say cut, they’d applaud. I appreciate that, because there was respect for work. They understand that we are making a living, and I thought that was cool.
I know your background is more European Art House, so I was wondering how you brought that into this movie.
You know, I just wanted to do something that I could be proud of. I’ve done now 3 features, and when you go to Blockbuster, and you see your movies there on the shelf, if you can’t stand tall and proud, it really fucking hurts. So any compromise I do I’m just pay for it with night sleep, and I can’t do that. So with the Art House part of it, I tried to stay as true as I could, but the decisions I made I thought were to make a better movie. And I made something that I can say, “Yeah, I did that, and I’m proud of that.”