In the action thriller Safe House, directed by Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa (Snabba Cash), Oscar winner Denzel Washington plays legendary spy Tobin Frost, the CIA’s most dangerous traitor who suddenly surfaces in South Africa after eluding capture for almost a decade. When the safe house to which he’s remanded is attacked by brutal mercenaries, rookie Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is forced to help him escape and the two men must stay alive long enough to uncover who wants them dead.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Daniel Espinosa talked about the appeal of applying his approach to character work to such a fast-paced story, his desire to work with talent that he could never work with in Europe, the importance of getting audiences to invest in both of the lead characters, feeling empathetic pain when Denzel Washington had to get water-boarded, and how nerve-wracking it is to make any movie, no matter the scale. He also talked about wanting to chill out for a bit before reading the stack of scripts he’s promised his agent and manager that he’d take a look at, never doing anything just for money, and what led him down the career path to director. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
DANIEL ESPINOSA: No, not at all. I had no interest and no perception that I would end up here. When you’re a Swedish filmmaker, you don’t see that as a possibility. I had lots of friends who went out [to L.A.] to act. The closest guy I knew that [went to America] was Tomas Alfredson, who made Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but that was really made in England. So, the idea of coming over to L.A. was too absurd of a question to even think about, at that time.
How did the script come your way, then?
ESPINOSA: I made this Swedish movie, called Snabba Cash, or Easy Money, and it was shown at the Berlin Film Festival. A lot of American studios, agents and people like that saw it there and liked it. I was hanging out in Sweden, at this time of year, and I had just released a Swedish movie and was in a bit of a rest and relaxation mode, after the movie. Suddenly, the phone just started ringing and there were American voices on the other side. By that time, I hadn’t really spoken that much English in a long time, so it was kind of awkward speaking, at the beginning. And then, they started sending scripts and one of those scripts was Safe House.
ESPINOSA: When they started asking if I wanted to make movies in the States, I had to define what I would gain from that. I have a strong career in Europe, so I wanted to figure out what I would give in an American production. So, I put down three things that I wanted. One was working with talent that I could never work with in Europe. And then, in my Swedish movie, I had started creating a stronger pace in my storytelling. That was changing my way of making movies. So, I thought it would be interesting to find something that had a really strong pace, in a way that only Americans can write, and seeing what would happen to my character work. It was almost like a collision between my more European need to work with actors, and the American pace. So, when I read [David] Guggenheim’s script, it had such a strong, almost frenetic pace to it. I thought it was an interesting challenge. Before I accepted the script, I told the producers that I thought the only guy who could make it was Denzel [Washington]. And then, I thought the movie would just go away. It was absurd, from my perspective. And then, suddenly, a week later, I had some tickets to New York and a booking at a restaurant where I was supposed to sit down and talk to one of the people that I’ve admired since I was 10 years old.
What was your first meeting with Denzel Washington like?
ESPINOSA: He was very nice. He’s a father of four, deep down inside, and I had just seen his play, Fences, on Broadway. So, we talked about his process and where he was at, as an actor, and why he had gone back to theater. I’m classically trained as a director, and he’s classically trained as an actor, so we discussed techniques and how to approach character, and also our family history and who we were. He was very open-minded and very curious about me, which is always nice, in a conversation that goes two ways. After half of the meeting, absurdly he told me, “I’ve seen your movie,” and I freaked out because you never know what people think. He took a beat, which was not very nice of him to do, and then he said, “I really like it and I would like to be a part of that universe and your movie-making.” I felt extremely flattered by that. It’s very odd when a person that you look up to regards your work as something they would be a part of. That was a very cool and good experience. That movie that I made in Sweden was a small budget movie where 90% of the cast were amateurs and real gangsters, so I came from a very different world.
ESPINOSA: The character, Matt [Weston], is a very silent character. He’s very much like the audience. He gets hit by a freight train, with the story, so I was looking for somebody who had that intensity between the lines. I met a lot of young actors, and then I saw Buried, by Rodrigo Cortés, and I really liked Ryan in it. I thought he made ir a very different person than something I had seen before. In his other work, he’s very cerebral and witty, and a lot of his acting is a bit like James Stewart, with his language and the way he handles lines. When I saw Buried, it was very interesting because it didn’t rely on that, at all. I always loved when James Stewart did roles that were not so dialogue-based, like Vertigo. In a way, it was an opportunity to continue the work that he and Rodrigo had started, in letting him play this very silent character who really just reacts physically to these situations. It was a new ride for both me and him.
Was it important to you to make sure that audiences never really know how Tobin Frost or Matt Weston will react in any of the situations that they’re in?
ESPINOSA: I think so. I wanted the camera to feel almost like we were a part of the people who were joining these characters. We were almost like passengers. So, the camera is very wide-lensed and close to the characters. The cameras were not very long-lensed and from afar. It’s more like we’re with them and, when you’re with people, you don’t know what they’re going to do. You don’t have the possibility to look inside their souls. You just have to keep guessing. I thought it would be interesting to have that, as a part of the quality of the movie. That’s something that is a bit more European than American. You don’t tell the story, so much. You have to invest or not invest in it.
When you have actors of this level doing so much of their own stunt work, did that take some convincing, on your part, or were they game to do whatever you threw at them?
ESPINOSA: I don’t believe in convincing, when it comes to dangerous stuff. I have severe claustrophobia and I panic if I’m more than six feet above ground. I don’t believe in convincing people to do stuff that they don’t feel they can do. I just told them what kind of shots I needed, and then I let them decide if they thought they could do it. Normally actors will do it, if it doesn’t conflict with a severe phobia that they have, and if they feel that what I’m trying to portray is something that is character based and not just showing off how they look when they do it. Otherwise, somebody else could do it.
ESPINOSA: Yeah, Ryan gave Denzel a black eye when they were fighting inside of the car during the chase. That was a bit scary. You never know how people are going to react in those kinds of pressured circumstances, but they were all really cool about it and very brotherly. We got over it and just kept on shooting.
Did you ever feel guilty about being the filmmaker who water-boarded Denzel Washington?
ESPINOSA: If I had asked him to do it, I would. I felt as water-boarded as he was, in a way. He actually made the decision to do that himself. I never would have asked him to do it. I felt empathetic pain. I almost couldn’t watch the monitor while we were doing it. It was a very cool moment because, suddenly, what we were doing felt very real, for all the participants. It gave me that sensation that you need to have when you do something like that. It’s not just a stunt. You really feel how horrible it would be to be involved in such a circumstance.
How different was taking on a blockbuster film of this size and scale from what you expected it to be?
ESPINOSA: It wasn’t that different, really. It’s a couple of cameras and some actors, and you try to make do with the time that you have. It’s nerve-wracking to make a movie. That’s horrible. That nearly kills you. But, I don’t lose more sleep making a bigger movie than a smaller movie. I lose a lot of sleep, just from the get-go. I’m equally terrified. Creating stuff is hard. But, if that terrifies you, you will just be numb, and you better just stay at home and watch TV and do something else. Move into the woods and live with the trees.
Do you have any idea what you’re going to do next?
ESPINOSA: No, I have no idea. I finished the movie three weeks ago, and I’m not really ready to read anything. When I make a movie, I completely dive into it and I can’t really take anything in at all, at that time. So, I have a stack of scripts on the side of my bed, back in Stockholm, which I’ve promised my agent and my manager that I’ll take a look at, but I need to go back home and hang out with my buddies. I have a lot of director buddies and they will give me shit about one thing or another, and that keeps me sane.
ESPINOSA: I get that question a lot, and I don’t quite understand why anybody would just want to be at one place. I think that it’s really tough to make a good movie, and if your heart is not into it, it’s just going to be too rough. You’ve gotta have an eternal fire, so you won’t quit, you won’t lay down, you won’t take no for an answer, and you’ll feel pride in it. You have to be able to walk straight every day, to the job. You stand there and 300 people are looking at you. I’m a young guy, and most of them are twice as old or older than I am, and you’re supposed to tell them what to do. If you don’t feel a true passion through work, you can’t do it. It’s not possible for me. I’ve never done TV. I’ve never done commercials. I’ve never done anything for money. I can’t do it. I wish I could. It would be easier. I know some guys, back in Sweden, who make a lot of money in commercials, and they have nice houses and nice boats. Who am I to say that I’m happier than they are? I just can’t do what they do. I would have no idea how to start doing something that doesn’t connect with me or my soul, somehow.
ESPINOSA: I was really shitty at everything, when I was younger. I was a horrible athlete. Chileans have this rumor that they’re great soccer players, but I stunk as a soccer player. I always had to hide my nationality when they were picking teams because, just by the look of me, they would think that I was a great soccer player. So, I always had a cigarette in my mouth, just to make sure that they knew that I suck. Academically, I was never that interested. I skipped classes. My biggest dream was to have a coffee shop, but I had no idea how to get the money to do that. So, I was trying to figure that out. And then, I met a guy whose father was Lasse Hallström, who directed What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and stuff like that. His son became my buddy, and I met Lasse and was fascinated just to meet somebody who was doing something that was so far from being a job, and who was just sitting down and imagining scenes or stories. I come from a very diverse childhood, so I always told a lot of stories. I thought, “If I can make a living out of this, that’s perfect. That would be great! I can just hang out with strong, creative people and try to figure out a way to tell a good story.” So, I just started with that. I had no back-up plan and I had nothing else going for me. I slowly found out that that was the only thing I was good at. I’m a great bum, and I’m a pretty good director.