Is the mid-budget action film a dying genre? Nowadays cities are leveled into pixel-happy rubble. Men no longer mere men but super fight others by the dozen. What of the smaller pleasures in life? An intimate hand-to-hand fight scene between just two; a car crash that doesn’t involve a freeway’s worth of collisions; an explosion that wasn’t created in a computer… No Escape, a retro action thriller, harkens back to these simpler times.
Owen Wilson and Lake Bell star as an American couple who make the move with their two small daughters to an unnamed Southeast Asian country. Of course the day they move just so happens to coincide with an anti-Western coup in the unnamed country. It’s not long before the desperate family is outrunning an armed militia, jumping off rooftops, hiding amidst rubble and fighting off angry citizens. The action beats are simpler here – buildings fall (but not cities), cars crash (but only a handful), fists are drawn (but in close quarters)… Oh, the simple things!
In speaking with genre filmmakers Drew & John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine), the duo reveal the long eight-year process to get No Escape into theaters, why it took so long and how the development process changed the film. For the full interview, read below.
COLLIDER: I really liked the movie; it’s a lot of fun. I particularly like the opening sequence – the coup/assassination scene. It almost functions a bit as its own [short film]. How did that opening sequence come about?
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: We wanted to start with a sense of dramatic irony where you know that the Dwyers (Owen Wilson & Lake Bell) are headed into something crazy. We really wanted to show the origin of the coup. We originally had written [the sequence] to take place on a boat, like a presidential yacht. It turns out in Thailand that they don’t have any boats; so we ended up scouting and we found this amazing building that looked so much like a palace. I spent the weekend there with my wife just walking around looking for the best path to go through… We felt like it was a nice, strong, interesting way to start the movie and to tell you this isn’t your typical American movie, this is going to be something different.
DREW DOWDLE: And the idea of setting the stage to it, with not only a Prime Minister assassination, but also what was he doing at that moment. He was having a meeting with this Western businessman and there was a deal that basically got him killed. Then to see the Dwyer family enter the city, and to see big billboards of this Prime Minister that we’ve already seen be assassinated, it gives this impending feeling of doom.
Well – the movie had me at that opening sequence. What type of films did you look to when you writing this as a precedent?
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: The touchstone we kept going back to was the Costa-Gavras’s movie Missing with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. It had this sense of dread and it was so scary but it was rooted in humanity. We kept saying we’re doing a family drama with action elements, not an action movie starring a family. We really wanted to make sure we were always rooted in what the players were going through every step of the way. Missing, that movie does that so beautifully. You’re with Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon the whole time, only what they know. You’re experiencing this world kind of from the outside as they are. Missing was really, that was the one we really loved for this as a reference.
I’m interested, what was the first draft of the script versus what inevitably ended up on screen?
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: It was an eight-year process. We almost wrote in a circle. We started off with our initial impulse, we wrote it back then, and then we ended up getting a [deal] up at Lionsgate but they had certain things that they thought strongly would make [the script] better. In the process with them, we tweaked a couple of things, and then that fell apart. Over the course of time there was a point at which Drew and I…the project kept falling apart over and over, and at one point Drew was like ‘let’s go back to where we started’ and we read through a bunch of the different drafts we had done and said ‘let’s go back to the start, let’s go back there.’ Really the script we ended up shooting was very close to that starting place. We did a location scout to Cambodia to gather some details and were able to add some authenticity to the initial impulse script.
DREW DOWDLE: Our first location scout, we were on a couple of location scouts on this one, but the one we went on to Chiang Mai, where we ultimately shot, informed the draft. The primary change from that early, early draft that we affected after location scouting was the trail end of the movie, the third act of the movie. We extended the longer, slower build tension scenes versus having more set pieces. Our initial draft continued with the big set piece[s]. [But] we thought there might be a little fatigue… [So we thought] let’s stay in one place and build a scene, have a moment when we’re not running and really build a scene slow and steady and go more in that direction. That was really a major change from our initial draft and all of the development we did in between kind of just fell off.
What is the process of writing between you two? How do you split up writers’ duties, or do you work together on the script?
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: I’m typically more hands-on-the-keyboard, but Drew, I think, is more focused. I just sort of write all over the place and Drew really helps shape it more intelligently than I would on my own. We talk about everything. We work together on the writing; we work together on the directing, in post-production… We’re joined at the hip the whole time. Every frame of editorial, we’re right there. I’d say there’s literally not a detail or line of dialogue that we haven’t at least discussed together.
DREW DOWDLE: It changes a little bit on every project, but our backgrounds are very different. John has a trained writing background and went to film school, and I went to business school and worked on the producing side. As we go, we tend to write more and more together; but I trust John more as a writer than I trust myself. John’s very prolific and can really turn out a lot in a very short amount of time. John says that he kind of writes all over the place. It’s more focused than he lets on. Once there’s a draft in play though, then we do a lot of back and forth after that.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: Collectively neither of us cares whose idea makes it. We just both want the best thing possible. When Drew’s like we should go back to scratch and rewrite this whole thing, that’s sometimes hard but it always comes from the right motivation. We push each other pretty hard but it’s always in the best interest of the movie and I think that means a lot.
Given that you know that you’re directing and producing the movie, how does that affect the writing process?
DREW DOWDLE: We have an idea, depending on the project that we’re writing, what the parameters may be in terms of the budget or location or whatnot. We try to write realistically for what we think we can accomplish producorially or directorially. You try to write something that is ready to go into pre-production. I think we really…John as the director and me as the producer, we make a good team, we really gravitate towards grounded performances and performances that we can really believe — that really affects the type of dialogue we write and the type of motivations that the characters have and whatnot.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: Even when we’re working on something that we didn’t write, it’s always helpful to work with writers who also direct, who have been through the editorial and post-production process. It really informs the way you write. You know over the course of time, having been through editorial over and over, that this is the scene we end up cutting because it doesn’t connect to the main plot exactly. This is un-shootable. You’ll never be able to shoot this scene the way it’s written. You’re able to write to what you believe will work on film. At the same time, we try very hard not to limit ourselves too much, not to say ‘I have no idea how to shoot this, let’s not write it.’ The roof throw, where they throw the kids off the roof, we had no idea how we’re ever going to pull that off. We’ll have to figure it out, and that’s kind of fun too, to write yourself into trouble a little bit.
DREW DOWDLE: We’ve gotten a little bit better over time on which scenes we probably will end up cutting in editorial, that might be just a little bit of a B-story that doesn’t further the movie. It’s never a perfect vibe, but we’ve gotten better over time at that.
You mentioned that financing this movie was difficult. Why do you think that was? Is it more difficult to get mid-budget action movies made nowadays? Is that a factor?
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: I think that’s true. Part of it is we didn’t want to cast it…you know usually the foreign film model is you get one of the three action stars that everyone knows will open a movie like this. We believed very strongly that we didn’t want to cast who most people would think to. We loved the idea of Owen Wilson right from the start. We really wanted him for this and thought that that would make the most interesting version for this movie. People sometimes weren’t sure about that and having a little kid, people weren’t sure about that — if we would know how to direct those kids, or you cast the wrong kids and they’re terrible, then the movie doesn’t work.
DREW DOWDLE: Financiers just by nature detests risk. This movie had an unusual, atypical casting choice, it had children, it had a foreign location… There were so many elements of risk in this movie that were really execution dependent. Financiers — that’s just the way they are. They want something that they’ve seen work before and the closer it is to that it’s something they can point to and say ‘that worked, this will work too’. That’s kind of the game that we’re in, and we have to find the perfect partner for a movie like this. Unfortunately, we found several partners that weren’t perfect and nothing against them — it just didn’t work for them at the end of the day. It took seven years to find that perfect partner, and once we did, then everything went amazingly smoothly, and they believed in the risky choices that we were making. That just changed everything.
You guys had mentioned editorial before. What was the first cut of this movie versus what’s being released?
DREW DOWDLE: Very close.
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE: Very close. There are a couple of little scenes still at the hotel before the riots that we trimmed. There’s no real section of the movie that we cut out or trimmed. Most of the work we did in editorial was just making sure the shape and sequences…we really wanted everything to be grounded in the Dwyers’ experience. A lot of what we did was like when they shoot the man in front of the hotel, we really that moment to be not about that, but about Jack seeing that, and what it means to him and what it means to his family. A lot of what we did in editorial was making sure that everything was rooted in the Dwyers’ experience. It didn’t really change dramatically. Thankfully, we did a couple test screenings and people really liked it. We changed the title and I think that was the biggest thing.
No Escape (which used to be titled The Coup) opens in theaters Wednesday