According to Ryan Reynolds, “Daniel’s a guy you want to buy stock in,” and after seeing Safe House, I’d have to agree. Safe House is director Daniel Espinosa’s fourth feature, but his very first American film.
It stars Reynolds as Matt Weston, a young CIA agent assigned to a Cape Town safe house, which basically equates to a glorified babysitting job. He reports to his post, listens to some music, throws a ball against a wall and goes home. Sounds like a relaxing day, but not for a guy who’s itching to become a CIA case agent. No experience? No case agent gig. Matt’s luck changes, for better or worse, when the infamous CIA traitor Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) walks through his door. As if it weren’t enough pressure having Frost as his houseguest, Matt’s safe house is ambushed and he becomes the only person left that can bring Frost safely into custody.
After the release of Snabba Cash (Easy Money), scripts began to roll right in for Espinosa. While he knew Safe House was the one for him, it still needed about a year’s worth of work, however, soon enough, that load wasn’t entirely on him, as Washington and Reynolds boarded the project. Not a bad leading duo for your first American feature, huh?
With the February 10th release of Safe House right around the corner, Espinosa came to New York City for a press conference and dished on the details of the entire process from locking his leads, to working in Cape Town and more. Check it all out in the interview below.
Can you talk about first joining the project and how Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds came into the picture?
Daniel Espinosa: I got involved like a year before we started shooting and 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 of me asking that, but I thought, you know, it’s the perfect script for him. And then I went to New York and I saw Fences. Beautiful play, beautiful performance and we sat down afterwards. We spoke for four hours and he dug me, so that was cool, I was very happy and then he got on board. I then met Ryan down in New Orleans and we spoke and we spoke about his past and where he comes from. He has a lot of things in his family that I had no idea of and I felt the depth in him that wasn’t in my perspective of him. He surprised me with his strength and his inner qualities. When I sat there, I thought that in a strange way, he’s 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 the comedy that he has. He just played the scenes and let the charisma expire out of that and I thought that 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. 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 and that was great.
A lot of young actors in Hollywood auditioned for Ryan’s role. What made you go with Ryan?
It was that meeting in New Orleans, that connection, that bond we created. I believe that a director should never choose an actor, the actor and the director have to choose each other. So, for me, I’m in an interview, even if a person wants a job, I see him interviewing me as much as I’m interviewing him because to be able to do good work, it’s a comradeship. You have to be brothers in arms, or sisters and brothers, and if you don’t have that bond, it’s never going to work out and we had a close connection so that’s why we worked together.
Where’d you acquire the expertise to bring this story to fruition?
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 create a strong motivation and understand what their want and need is, then your job when you set that up right, the actors will play out the scenes and you will not have to lead, but you will follow. The movie is going to create its own pace and you just have to be there to seize the moments. A person said once that art is portraying a single moment through the temperament of the artist and when those moments happen, you just have to be natural and see what perspective and where you stand in a room when you see that moment. When you see a bank robbery that’s happening on the street, where do you go? Someone people will back off and see it from afar, so people will go closer and if you just follow that rhythm as a filmmaker, what you portray will have your influence.
The film brings up the issue that what we think is the truth, might not be what’s actually going on. Can you tell us about that?
We have that tradition in Scandinavia that we like to reveal government secrets. [Laughs] No, yeah, I thought that was interesting. I think we live in a world where we claim everything’s open and we know everything and we say to each other, ‘We’ve got the Internet, so we know the truth, right?’ But we don’t and I think that’s always an interesting aspect of it, that we need to start understand that just because we have ten different opinions on what happened in some certain area, that doesn’t mean we know the truth. So that’s the more serious undercurrent in this movie, but I’m not sure everyone’s going to latch onto that.
Why’d you choose to set the film in Cape Town?
One thing was the practicality. Brazil was just too dangerous; cost too much money to insure. I grew up in different parts of Africa, so I have a close connection. I was looking for a city that had socioeconomic differences within a short distance so I could let the characters go through a rich area down to a middle class area down to a poorer area and then come out into something that was almost like a cowboy area and I believe that existed in Rio, that existed in Buenos Aires and that existed in Cape Town and since I have some roots in Africa, I wanted to go back, you know? Who doesn’t?
Can you tell us about casting Vera Farmiga? I read that in the original script, that character was gender neutral.
With Vera, I was just looking for a strong actor or actress. I met a lot of people and when I met Vera, she just has such a natural rhythm to herself of how she handles language and I think that when you work with these kinds of movies there’s so much technicality and bull shit I have to say, so you want somebody who can invest 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.
How’d the writer, David Guggenheim, feel about that decision?
I think he was happy. I don’t care, you know? [Laughs] I’m making the movie and that’s that. But I think he’s happy. He should be. He watched the movie three days ago and he was really happy and that makes me really happy.
Did you learn anything as a filmmaker through the traveling?
I’m from Chile, and we’re political refugees and we went back to Sweden and as I said, I grew up in many parts of Africa and I studied in Denmark and I lived in Paris for a while, so traveling for me is natural. It’s just how I am. I’m a nomad. I learned a lot, but not particularly from the countries in that respect. It wasn’t my first time in South Africa; I’d been there many times before. For me it was more like coming home and feeling the security of being around people that you feel good around. When we were in Langa, the happiness and support and respect for our work, that was something that impressed me. Normally when you shoot, people try to pass through the shooting and they say, ‘I’ve got a job! I’ve gotta get to my job,’ and you want to 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 two dozen people standing around, they were watching. When we were shooting, they would be silent and look at what we were doing and after I said thank you and they say cut, they would applaud like we were doing a show for them and I appreciate that because that was a respect for our work. They understand we’re making a living and they respect that and I dug that.
Your background is in art house films, so how did you work that into making Safe House?
I just wanted to do something that I could feel proud of. Now I’ve done three features and when you go to Blockbuster and see your moving standing there on the shelf, if you can’t stand tall and proud, it really f***ing hurts you. I just know that any compromise I do, I’m just gonna pay for it with not sleeping and I can’t do that. So with the art house part of it, yeah, I tried to stay as true as I could and take the decisions I thought would fit the movie as something that later on I could say, ‘Yeah, I did that and I’m proud of that.’