"Don't Breathe" is the latest low-budget thriller to win over critics and audiences this year.
Made for just $10 million, the film grossed slightly more than $26 million in its opening weekend. That’s quite a coup for the director and co-writer, Fede Alvarez. He’s a native of Uruguay who assumed he would spend the rest of his life and career there. But as fate and the Internet would have it, he came to the attention of Hollywood producers, and he soon was asked to direct the reboot of the “Evil Dead” franchise.
“Don’t Breathe” is Alvarez's second feature. It’s about a trio of 20-somethings who are financing their dreams by breaking into rich people’s homes. But they get more than they bargain for when they pick on a blind military veteran who they believe has a huge amount of cash in his house.
The Frame’s Oscar Garza spoke with Fede Alvarez about the film’s success, making films in Uruguay, and how he likes watching his films with audiences on opening weekend.
On starting out as a filmmaker in Uruguay
I lived all my life in Uruguay and I've been shooting stuff with a camera since I was very young, since I was seven. My dad was always doing documentaries for television — nothing too fancy but he was always interested in film, so I had a chance to have a VHS camera at home. I was doing shorts all my life. That started when I was seven until I was twenty-something and I made one particular short called "Panic Attack!" It was about an alien invasion. I did it for three hundred bucks, that was the budget.
It had a lot of visual effects that I did myself. I finished it and put it online and uploaded it to YouTube. I went to bed. I woke up the next morning and I had 150 emails — all from Hollywood. Just like that. Every agency, every manager, every studio. People said, Spielberg saw your short and he loved it. Stuff like that.
How his short film went viral (hint: Kanye West)
There's many theories at this point, but they're all crazy. My favorite one, which I know is kind of true because I looked it up at that point, was that Kanye West did it. He used to have an influential blog seven years ago. It was all about visual effects, motion graphics and stuff that he's a fan of. Somebody told me at that point, Kanye West did that, and I was like, I have no idea who you're talking about. Recently, I ended up understanding who he is, but it was fantastic. It was spread around the town very fast and everybody was writing [about it].
On his filmmaking goals
I never had a goal of coming to Hollywood because I was smart enough not to have that goal in my mind. I think, statistically, that's never happened in the history of [Uruguay], that a director ends up working in Hollywood. It's the stuff where you don't even try. Maybe now it's changed because I am here and there are some young directors in Uruguay who aspire to that and it might make more sense. But when I was growing up that wasn't a possibility and that was something that would never be in my mind. I did want to make movies in Uruguay, that was my goal. Probably right at that time when "Panic Attack!" came out, I was ready to go to that step, but I never got the chance because I was literally dragged down [to Hollywood].
Watching "Don't Breathe" with an audience opening weekend
It was amazing. We did Friday at the [Cinerama] Dome at the Arclight, which I love. But the Dome is made up of film lovers usually. The normal audience is like, Why is the screen curved? They don't want those seats. But anyway, it was a great show. Then I went to the Americana in Glendale on Saturday night. It was a great experience because the audience was losing their minds during the whole movie. That's when I realized that's why the movie works. For cinephiles it works and for just the audience that doesn't necessarily know about films — they don't care they just want to have fun — it works great with them as well.
The importance of watching his film with an audience
I make these movies really thinking about the audience every step of the way. Setting up the camera on any day during the shoot of a film and I think about a theater with 600 people paying attention to what I'm about to do. "Evil Dead," to give you an example, 10 million people probably saw it [globally]. Probably with this one, it's going to be even more. So try to envision 10 million people standing right next to each other, paying attention to what you do.
It's insane, it's incredible, and that's the power of Hollywood. So usually I'm not looking at the screen, I'm looking over my shoulder looking at people's reactions. That's what it's all about. I mean, look, Hollywood is one of the very few businesses where if you go and see a movie like "Suicide Squad" that spent $150 million to make, you pay roughly ten bucks.
You get to see another movie that is maybe done with less or a comedy that is made with less than $10 million, you pay ten bucks and you don't complain. That's kind of bizarre because in any other business model, even on Broadway, [if] you go see a bigger show, you pay more money. You buy a car that is more expensive to make, you pay more money.
In Hollywood, strangely enough, it doesn't work that way. It doesn't matter because it's all about the emotions you get to feel. We pay those ten bucks to feel whatever the emotion is we're paying for.
If it's a comedy, we want to laugh and if it's a horror movie we want to be scared and we want the adrenaline pumping. That's what we pay for. The good news is [with] this movie, I get the answer right away in the theater if it's working or not. I look over my shoulder and if they're screaming or jumping, I get it.
Helping the local film community in Uruguay
I'm actually going to Uruguay two days from now. I did the same with "Evil Dead." As soon as I finish here, I go home and I do a premiere there for my family and friends. This time it's bigger because it's the second movie and it did great here.
So we go home to do more of a red carpet just for my mom to be able to go with my parents and everybody. But it is a big deal for South America because they don't have a lot of directors working in Hollywood. I actually asked Sony to separate some of the budget and I'm doing a contest where I'm just going to choose a young filmmaker in Uruguay and produce a short for them.
Just like Sam Raimi gave me a chance at some point when I was doing shorts, a lot of people in Uruguay — children in small towns that have great ideas but have no money to do anything — I'll just go choose one of those and help them to get that first short made.
Alvarez wants his next project to terrify him
I want a bigger challenge on some levels. I want to be terrified of what I’m going to do next. I don’t know what that is yet, but I want a project that when I think about it, I want to be really scared — meaning that it’s something I can’t imagine doing, but I’ll do it and I’ll do my best.
Something that Stephen Lang told me – the actor who plays the blind guy in [Don't Breathe"] – he said, “It’s only when something’s really scary that there’s room to display bravery.”