Back in 2009, Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez posted a short film on YouTube called Panic Attack! that featured a small battalion of robots taking over a human city. It was just under five minutes long and cost a few hundred dollars to make, but it got the attention of American genre king Sam Raimi, who was impressed enough by what he saw to hand over the keys to his iconic Evil Dead property. And now, three years after Alvarez got his big break with the same movie that kick-started Raimi’s career, the director and producer have paired up again for Don’t Breathe, which tells the tale of a trio of Detroit petty thieves who happen to pick the wrong damn mark for their final job. Much like Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe is already stacking up strong reviews, cementing Alvarez as one of the most exciting and dependable voices in horror cinema today. We talked to the director about what he’s willing to sacrifice for an audience, the theatrical bargain of horror films, and the trouble with directing a Marvel movie. For someone who brought a blood monsoon to the big screen, he seems like an awfully nice guy.
Evil Dead has its roots in Michigan, and Don’t Breathe takes place in Detroit. Why did that city feel appropriate for this kind of story?
It’s all based on this thing that writers say, which is that you should write about the things you know. The strange thing for me is that I’m making movies in Hollywood and I grew up in Uruguay — in the third world — until quite recently when I moved here to Los Angeles. So how do I write about characters in a city and situations that I don’t really know of when I have to write about American characters in American movies?
I spent a few days in Detroit realized right away that there is a generation that has grown up with the idea that the best times are behind, that it doesn’t matter what the new generation does. It’s never going to reach the peak that Detroit reached in the past. And Uruguay is very similar in that way. I grew up hearing that, and I always hated that idea. That’s why I kind of connect with that city a lot. There is a spirit in Detroit that is a little bit third world. In that aspect I feel like I know it a bit more.
There were the rumors you were circling a Marvel property at one time, which clearly didn’t happen, because here we are and Dr. Strange comes out in a few months. What’s the value for you at this point in your career in staying on smaller projects?
I think if you have the chance to play in a field where you will get more notice, it’s better to be there than to play in a bigger field where you’re going to disappear and vanish. Marvel movies are impersonal on many levels. I’m a film lover and connoisseur and it’s very hard for me to explain the different style between Joss Whedon or Jon Favreau or the Russo brothers. The movies are all great. That much I can tell. They are great filmmakers. But who they are and their style is so hard to know based on those movies, because the voice of the movie is the movie itself.
The days I go see a movie I anticipated the most is when there’s a new Fincher movie, or Spielberg is going to do a movie. I think those are the careers that I aspire to, that I look up to. My agents and managers always have a hard time taking those meetings, because [they know] if I don’t love it I won’t make a good movie.
And more money doesn’t necessarily translate to more emotional impact.
I believe you can make a great movie for less money that works fantastically. That’s what I’m looking for, that kind of challenge. But if I have a story that needs a bigger budget and I love it, then I’ll do it. But I try to stay in control of my ideas. I try to stay in creative control.
How did Jane Levy come on board, and what was her reception to being trapped by you in a basement again?
She said yes right away when I invited her to be part of the film, and I think when she got on set she started getting memories of what Evil Dead was for her and how tough making these movies is. Where Evil Dead was just physically exhausting for her, I think this one was more emotionally exhausting, because of the themes and ideas and some of the scenes. I think it really took a toll on her, but we know each other pretty well and sometimes because of those relationships you don’t have to talk too much. I don’t have to over-direct her to get what I need from her. Some days are better than others and we’re kind of like an old married couple on set. But I want her to be a great performer and that’s what she is. She gives 200 percent every shot and you see that in the movie.
That sounds like a pretty intense environment to film in.
When we yell cut there’s no jokes and laughter on set. I run my sets a little bit like a serious film, because I believe that if everyone is laughing behind the camera you get that tone in the movie, and I don’t want that. I laugh harder than anyone while I’m watching my movies, but when I’m making them I keep a different tone. So that makes things tense and sometimes exhausting for her, but I think that pays off. I always say, and I really believe it, making the movie should never be about us having a great time behind the camera or the actors having a blast. It should be about the audience having a blast when they see it. We should be making whatever sacrifice we have to make to go the extra mile. We’re not going to sleep for a few days? Well, if that’s what happens, so be it, because the audience doesn’t take excuses. You can’t go into the theater and tell them, “Oh, that didn’t work because that day I was tired.” That doesn’t fly, and I am aware of that, and that’s why I always try to push everybody as hard as I can, and myself more than anyone.
I thought you affected an impressive amount of empathy for the antagonist in Don’t Breathe, who does some pretty horrendous things to make you hate him.
At the end of the day it’s about an antagonist having truly strong reasons. That’s when they are scary. When they don’t have reasons or they just want to be villains or they just want to destroy the world, it’s so hard to understand that emotion. Like, who wants to destroy the world? That doesn’t make sense emotionally, so they’re not so scary. But when they want the things that he wants in this movie — none of us will do what he does, but still — you kind of understand the emotion of loneliness and despair, and that’s why you know he will go to the last consequence to get what he wants.
Do you think about making movies back in Uruguay that are embedded with the particulars of your language and cultural experiences?
I definitely want to at some point. [Growing up I thought,] “One day I’ll make a movie,” and when I was envisioning that movie it was always in Uruguay, because I never thought in a million years I was going to end up working in Hollywood. But I do really believe in that saying, “Paint your village and you paint the world.” So I think if I really find a story that makes sense there, hopefully it will reach the world as well.
Why, at this juncture, does horror appeal to you as a filmmaker?
I discovered what I love about it the day I premiered Evil Dead and showed it to an audience for the first time. I was sitting next to Sam Raimi, and he looked at me and he saw my face and I said, “Oh, my God!” All these people were clapping and screaming, and he told me in a very serious voice, “Now you’re going to live for this audience.” It’s kind of addictive. You do it once and you want to do it again, and I make movies with an audience in mind all the time. Every shot I establish, every turn that I make in the story, I always imagine the audience in the theater and how they’re gonna react and what they’re gonna do and what they think is going to happen, and I play with that all the time. So that I think is one of the things I enjoy the most about the genre. There’s a great thrill when you sit with an audience watching this kind of movie. When everyone is screaming and jumping and laughing and covering their faces, there’s something very visceral about it that I think only good comedies and good horror are able to do. And you really get a kick out of that.