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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

“Always Give Exposition While Running From a Bear”: Drew and John Erick Dowdle on No Escape

No Escape

For the past few years I’ve been bemoaning the decline of the mid-range genre film, the action movie or horror flick that is neither a contained micro-budget opus straining against its resources nor an oppressive studio behemoth in which all sense of character, theme, and nuance is suffocated under the weight of its own scale and CGI. That mid-range has always been the source of many of America’s best, most enduring films; it’s the arena where masters like Don Siegel, Nicholas Ray, and Anthony Mann plied their trade under the classical studio system, and in more recent decades auteurs like John Carpenter and Walter Hill kept the tradition alive. As the economics of the film industry have moved everything to one extreme or the other — movies shot for a few grand or a few hundred million – the modest but profound pleasures of Hill and Carpenter’s best work have all but vanished from American movie screens.

Or have they? One of the best films I saw this summer – in fact, one of the best films I’ve seen all year – was Drew and John Erick Dowdle’s No Escape, a smart, stylish, razor-sharp thriller with scale that never loses sight of the human element. The story of a family (two young daughters and parents Owen Wilson and Lake Bell) that finds itself trapped in an unnamed third world country during a coup, No Escape is essentially one long, unrelenting chase. Yet it’s energizing and moving rather than exhausting, and the action has the emotional heft that comes from filmmakers who are using violence to express character and theme, not as a substitute for it. As in the best of Hill and Siegel, the characters are defined by how they respond under pressure, and the Dowdle brothers increase that pressure steadily from one scene to the next with a masterful calibration of tension and release. Though Drew is credited as producer and John Erick is the director of record, the screenplay is signed by both brothers and their duties tend to overlap here, as they have on previous thrillers including Devil, Quarantine, and As Above, So Below. I sat down to talk with them about the making of No Escape in anticipation of the film’s November 24 Blu-ray and DVD release.   

Filmmaker: I want to start with a general question that applies to both writing and directing. One thing that impressed me in No Escape was the relentless escalation of suspense, and I’m curious how you achieve that. Is it all there in the script, or is it more about the execution on set, or in the editing room? What’s the most important area?

John Erick Dowdle: We put a lot of time in editorial into looking at pacing, but it’s there in the script too. We’re always thinking about how each piece fits with the next, and when we have exposition our philosophy is: “Always give exposition while running from a bear.” In other words, do it while there’s something else to keep your attention so that you don’t have those pockets where the movie just stops.

Drew Dowdle: The idea of the movie consisting almost entirely of a great escape gave it such a natural momentum that the challenge was actually the opposite of creating constant action. It was figuring out when to build in the quiet moments: when to let the air out and where the moments were to take a breath while still keeping the tension level high. We really spent a lot of time asking, “Where do we need to add a little breath? Where do we need to tighten it up?” And we’re really kind of hyper-obsessive in editorial.

John Erick Dowdle: We like to joke that if we had a director’s cut, it would be ten minutes shorter. We’d just put the screws to things. What I would add about the suspense is that if you care about the people you’re watching, I think that’s a big part of it. It’s taking enough time to care about them as human beings.

Filmmaker: To that end, I thought the casting of Owen Wilson was really brilliant. You cast the guy who would ordinarily be the comic sidekick as the action hero, and then you cast the guy who’s usually the hero, Pierce Brosnan, in the role of comic sidekick.

John Erick Dowdle: Our litmus test for the lead was, “Does he seem like he’d be a great father? Like a warm father? And would it be really shocking to see him beat someone to death?” And with Owen, he obviously passes that test with flying colors. People kept asking us, “Are you going to give him a crew cut and tough him up?” We said, “No no no. We want the Owen Wilson from Marley and Me.”

Drew Dowdle: We wanted the action to feel a little sloppy – with Owen, you don’t feel like he’s going to bust out some Navy SEAL skills or something. He was our top, top choice, and anyone else we thought about was in that same vein: people known more for comedy or light drama. Owen’s done action before, but it’s been a while so it’s not fresh for people.

Filmmaker: Did you guys run up against any kind of resistance to that idea in the financing?

John Erick Dowdle: Absolutely. This took us eight years to get this made. I think we had Owen attached for three years. And we were told, “You can have this budget, but you have to cast one of these five guys.” The same five guys who are always in these kinds of movies. We wanted to do something a little more interesting. But because Owen was unproven in that kind of role, there was some apprehension, and there was also apprehension with having little kids in the movie. That combination made it really hard to get it made.

Drew Dowdle: It did, but interestingly, when we finally connected with Bold Films, who did finance it, that was the main reason they wanted to finance it.

John Erick Dowdle: And the main reason Harvey Weinstein wanted to buy it.

Drew Dowdle: Once we had a couple scenes to show people, they’d say, “Oh my god, Owen’s amazing.” Harvey Weinstein ended up buying the film based on 12 minutes of footage. And it created a bidding war – all the people who wouldn’t finance it to begin with suddenly wanted to buy it. So we felt vindicated at that moment.

Filmmaker: The stuff with the kids leads to another question I wanted to ask. How did you find the girls, and what kinds of conversations did you have with them? It’s pretty dark material. How aware were they of the kind of movie they were in?

Drew Dowdle: They were very aware.

John Erick Dowdle: We made sure they understood everything very clearly. We would tell them, “Being movie scared is one thing, being actually scared is a totally different thing. If you ever feel truly scared, you talk to me and we’ll fix it. There are a hundred ways to shoot anything.” As far as the darkness, they were fine with it. I think kids like being in the know about stuff like that.

Drew Dowdle: That’s right, because as a kid it’s almost like being allowed to do something you’re not supposed to be able to do. I think they loved that element. And when you have the other actors being Owen, and Lake, and Pierce, they’re such funny people that between takes there’s always a really light, funny vibe. It never really sank into the darkness that you see in the movie. None of the actors are that method; they just snap back to themselves between takes and that helps a lot. But it took us forever to find those kids. We read hundreds of girls and we really looked for kids that felt real and not like the trained child actors who shake hands and have their story that they practiced with their mom all planned out.

John Erick Dowdle: The girl who plays the Beeze sat down and immediately started fidgeting with stuff. She couldn’t sit still. And we thought, “That’s a real kid. This kid isn’t trained.” In a good way.

Drew Dowdle: We cast a wide net, but we eventually found the two girls here in LA. Originally we wanted to cast sisters, and we tried, but we never really found the right pair of sisters. We spent a lot of time with the kids beforehand and then when we got to Thailand, Owen and Lake and Sterling and Claire spent a lot of time together. And John had a good idea to put the initial airplane scene at the very end of the schedule, so the family would really know each other. They’d been working together for two months at that point, so the first time our audience sees the family, they’re the most comfortable with each other. And that kind of informs the whole rest of the movie.

Filmmaker: For me, the most suspenseful moments in the movie were the parts where the kids were just acting like kids, being bratty and saying, “I don’t want to go. I don’t want to do this,” when they’re like running from people with machetes and guns. On the one hand the movie is a wonderful, loving portrait of a family and on the other hand, it makes you never want to have kids!

John Erick Dowdle: They’re going to slow you down. [laughs] We kept saying it’s a microcosm or a metaphor for raising kids. You say, “I’ve got to get to work,” and the three year old won’t get in the car, and you’re like, “Just get in the car seat.”

Filmmaker: How did Thailand get chosen as the place where you would shoot the movie?

Drew Dowdle: We wanted to mimic a bit of a Cambodian look. Thailand’s actually more first world than the look we wanted. But it’s very hard to shoot in Cambodia, whereas Thailand has great crews, great locations – and they have great accommodations for movie stars. There’s no tax-incentive in Thailand but it’s still cheap, and the crews are just fantastic. There’s a production services company in Thailand run by an American ex-pat that’s just phenomenal.

Filmmaker: How many people did you bring over from the States?

John Erick Dowdle: Maybe five or six non-cast, I’d say.

Drew Dowdle: Yeah, non-cast? Maybe a few more. Probably eight.

John Erick Dowdle: From the States it might only have been four or five, including us. Then we brought one from Canada, one from France, a couple from Australia.

Drew Dowdle: Basically, our main departments each had a head from outside of Thailand, and everyone else was Thai.

Filmmaker: And how long was your shooting schedule?

Drew Dowdle: 39 days.

Filmmaker: That’s not a huge amount of time for a movie that’s wall-to-wall action. How much pre-planning did the set pieces require?

John Erick Dowdle: We storyboarded most of the movie. We rarely look at the storyboards when we’re shooting, but it’s actually surprising how close we stick to them. There are guys like M. Night Shyamalan who shoot the boards, but we like to have a little bit more flow to it. A little bit more. We show up with the sequence boarded, but then we allow ourselves to be guided by discoveries. And we never wanted to set marks for the little girls, we made that part of the deal with the cinematographer. We swore they would never have to hit a mark. So there were times when the girls would wander somewhere and we’d track them. And we’d shoot a lot of their stuff documentary-style.

Drew Dowdle: And we had three cameras the whole show, so even though it was boarded we had cameras everywhere and were able to allow for things that just happen. Especially when we’re doing action, we try to do a few takes where we’re sticking to the boards, then we kind of let loose a little bit.

Filmmaker: Do you remember any specific things that happened that you didn’t expect that made it into the movie?

John Erick Dowdle: The one thing I kept telling the kids was, “You’re the expert on being a nine year old girl. I don’t remember what it was like to be that age. If you feel something, just do it.” And they did. There’s a moment where they’re on the boat near the end and the Beeze, the little one, reaches up and grabs onto her sister and hugs her. And that was totally them, being in character and in the moment. So there are lots of little things like that.

Our A camera was sort of doing what we had boarded, then we had a B camera operator who would ride a Segway with his knees and he could fly thirty miles an hour while shooting a Steadicam. The third guy’s name was Art, and you wouldn’t even know he was there. He would just be hiding in the bushes somewhere with a long lens, often trained on the girls. Or if a wild dog ran across the street, he’d capture that.

Drew Dowdle: I was thinking of one moment that was a little unexpected. When we shot the scene where the family first gets back to the hotel after the flight, it took us a little longer than we had intended to light, and these kids were eating a bunch of sugar. It’s one of the first night shoots and they were just bouncing off the walls. Originally the scene was intended for them to be a more tired, but we thought, “Okay, let’s use this. This is kind of how kids would be after a long flight.” It’s kind of a burst of energy when the parents are tired and want to just go to bed. So everything the kids are doing in that scene was basically improv, and we were just using the energy level that they happened to have at that moment. We had to get it quick because when they were going to crash, they were going to crash hard.

John Erick Dowdle: And then there was the fire.

Drew Dowdle: Oh, yeah. That was unintended.

John Erick Dowdle: There was one day that this building caught on fire and we all had to rush out. Thank god no one was hurt or anything; we just lost a lot of equipment. And the camera operators were outside and they shot it – they got on mopeds and rode past a burning building that had been our set minutes before.

Drew Dowdle: Production value!

Filmmaker: Let’s jump back a little and talk about the origins of the script. Where’d you guys come up with the idea?

John Erick Dowdle: My dad and I went to Thailand and a coup actually overthrew the government. The generals had taken over the country right before we got there. There was all this tension in the air. And I started thinking, “What if this went badly and we were here? And what if you had kids with you?” Drew and I had previously traveled to Thailand with my dad and step-mom and our two little sisters who were roughly the ages of the girls in the movie. And just sort of remembering what they were like in that situation…it took the movie so long to get made that I ended up having two kids of my own by the time we shot it, and that informed some of it too.

Drew Dowdle: We did our first location scout on this movie in 2008, a long time ago. Just kind of out-of-pocket, we said, “If this is going to feel real, we have to go and see it.” We went to Cambodia for a week and Thailand for ten days. And that trip informed a lot of details, not so much structurally, but more in terms of detail work, creating an authentic location and making it feel authentic. Even though we weren’t going to name a country in the movie, we were going to keep it allegorical.

Filmmaker: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit too about how your approach changes when you do a movie like this versus a found-footage movie like As Above, So Below. What are the pros and cons of each form of storytelling?

John Erick Dowdle: Doing a “normal” movie is easier than found footage, frankly. It’s easier if you have coverage and score and the other basic tools of filmmaking. With Quarantine, we had something like fifty minutes that was all supposed to look like one long unbroken take. We sort of broke our brain a number of times trying to fix some issues on that one.

Drew Dowdle: Making a horror movie with no score is incredibly hard. We tried to score it with sound effects and create the benefit of score without there being any actual music, but…

John Erick Dowdle: Having all those tools on a more traditional film is delightful. Then again, the visceral nature and the feeling of immediacy you get with something shot in a documentary style is really cool. It feels very real.

Drew Dowdle: I feel like our found-footage background was great training in that people really try to sniff out something that doesn’t feel real in that format. More than they do in a more traditional narrative film. And the blocking was influenced by that found-footage approach as well; we tried to design our set pieces as long sequences that would allow the actors to feel like they’re in the moment and not in the middle of a bunch of broken-up pieces.

Filmmaker: Yeah, the action sequence that culminates in the kids getting thrown from one rooftop to another has a lot of momentum in that way. Also, it looks really realistic – if there was CGI or anything, I couldn’t tell. How did you make it look like you were really throwing the kids off a roof?

John Erick Dowdle: We really threw them off the roof. [laughs] We wanted to set the distance within the realm of possibility. So I took my four-year old son and I ran to the side of a pool and I threw him as far as I could. And we figured out that I could dead throw him something like ten feet. And then I was watching videos of Thai stunt people doing a sample roof throw off a rig and my son said, “I want to do that.” Drew came up with the idea of inviting the child actresses and their mothers to come out on a weekend and see me throw my son to Drew. And so, we threw my son off a four-story roof to a three-story roof. I threw him to Drew and he got up and said, “I want to do that again.” The girls saw that and were like, “I’m next. I’m next.” It became this thing that they all wanted to do.

We were originally going to throw the girls facing away from the camera, figuring they’d have to be stunt kids or something. Once we realized it would be the real girls, we re-did the rigs so that they’d be facing up, which is really terrifying. I did the jump myself once, it’s scary. They were on a harness attached to a crane, but you can see the way the first girl’s falling, like her body’s lower than her feet, she’s in a free fall. They let her free fall for most of that way. It was scary, and everyone on set went, “Oh god.” But you know, that’s the take you want.

Filmmaker: So in terms of all the other stunts and effects and everything, did you basically try to do everything practical? Was there any CG?

John Erick Dowdle: Almost zero. Mostly just removing harness wires and stuff. We kept getting pressure to shoot the hotel rooftop on a stage with a green screen, but I really feel like anytime you pull a green screen, it makes everyone just a little orange-y. And I hate that. It drives me crazy.

Drew Dowdle: The plane is really the only stage build. Everything else was a practical location. The one CG thing we had to do was the embassy explosion. The building we accidentally burned down was right across the street from the location we were going to use. And once that happened, the location for the embassy said, “Nope, you guys are done.”

Filmmaker: Aside from the way it looks, I also think shooting practically is better for the actors. Even if you’ve got the world’s greatest actors, they’re going to be even better if they’re actually reacting to something that’s there.

Drew Dowdle: Totally. You get a lot of pressure to use CG because it’s so much cheaper and simple, but I think subconsciously you can tell the difference if an actor is really doing the action versus faking it.

John Erick Dowdle: We even took that with Owen, when he goes out to get a newspaper and the riot happens. We had it set up so that we tell him, “Okay, walk to the end of the path. When you get to the end of the path, take a left, into the market. Walk through the market.” And so as he’s walking, we’re walking with him, shooting him. But he’s seeing everything for the first time. He didn’t walk through it five times to make sure he has it all, that he’s getting it right. He just got to react to the environment. The same with the riot: we hid all 500 of those extras until he was in position and then we had them come out and really start their scene the way they do in the movie. When he’s seeing that for the first time, we didn’t walk him through it ahead of time. We said, “When you run, try not to get in the middle of it.”

Drew Dowdle: We had rehearsed the collision between the riot police and the rebels. The first thirty guys on either side were stunt guys, and they just beat the crap out of each other. And it was really impressive. That’s when we had the idea, let’s not let Owen see this rehearsal or anything, even the guys in wardrobe. Let’s let him see this for the first time while cameras are rolling. And I think it really worked for him. After the first take, he said, “Holy shit. That felt really real.”

Filmmaker: So the last thing I want to talk about is the editing. Did the movie change in ways you didn’t expect?

John Erick Dowdle: This movie had fallen apart and then while we were rebuilding it, As Above, So Below went. So we were essentially making both movies at the same time. And once we were in post on As Above, we were doing the found-footage kind of jump cuts, which we had never really done before. We had always done long one-ers, but the world of found-footage had changed and people were used to these documentary-style jumps. When we got back into No Escape, we thought, “Could we bring that style to a non-found-footage movie?” So throughout this movie, there are a whole bunch of scenes where we’re following someone from the front or back and we do a series of jump cuts. That was really fun, to try and bring some of that found-footage vocabulary to something that’s not.

Drew Dowdle: Another thing in editorial, just on a performance level, is the kids…we really liked the kids feeling scared and thought that really enhanced the tension. But we realized pretty early in editorial that there is a line between kids being scared and feeling maybe a little too whiny. It was interesting in the first few cuts of the movie how we had to take their scared level down a little bit here and there, so the audience doesn’t turn on them.

John Erick Dowdle: Another thing we noticed early on was that a lot of the action beats or moments of violence were falling a little flat. Then we realized that the violence isn’t what matters. What matters is the characters seeing it and reacting to it, and how that plays into who they are. Jack kills a guy, and that’s one thing. That’s horrible. But really, the scene is Jack and his wife looking at each other and figuring out what that means to them. How does that change who they are and their relationship? Over and over, that became a real touchstone for us. When he sees someone executed in front of the hotel, that’s not as important as him processing, “Oh my god, my family’s in here. And this is happening. What the hell am I going to do?”

Filmmaker: I’m curious, why did the title change from The Coup to No Escape?

John Erick Dowdle: Well, first of all, no one knew what a coup was. [laughs]

Drew Dowdle: Yeah, when we tested it we got a lot of people calling it the “coop.”

John Erick Dowdle: And “The Coop with Owen Wilson” sounds like he’s a chicken farmer. We felt like the messaging of the movie had to be clear – this isn’t Owen in a comedy. And really, the movie’s not about the coup as much as it is about the family. So it’s really that combination of things.

Drew Dowdle: I think that for the people that do know the word, it elicits a political film, and we really tried hard not to make the film political. It’s much more about a family in crisis. We wanted to have just enough politics for people to understand why this is happening in this country and why there’s a civil war and it’s not everybody in this country hunting everybody from outside this country. It’s much more grey than that. But we didn’t want to make a political statement. That wasn’t the point.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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