John Erick and Drew Dowdle Explore Everyman as Family Hero in Survival Allegory No Escape
What does it mean to be truly tested? Perhaps what scares you may be the only way to find out, a familiar theme for filmmakers John Erick and Drew Dowdle, the successful brother act who have delivered an impressive slate of horror pictures including 2010’s M. Night Shyamalan-produced Devil and last year’s high-bar, stylishly creepy As Above, So Below. Their latest picture, the paranoid thriller No Escape, was a seven-year labor of love that saw multiple financiers—and one studio—come and go before the tense political thriller got off the ground.
Cannily and with great craft, No Escape charts the harrowing survival story of an American family trapped in Southeast Asia during a deadly rebel uprising. It is a movie with a few things on its mind, and one that works on multiple levels—indictment of corporate greed, cautionary thriller about terrorist factions, slam-bang collection of action set pieces and most effectively, believable story of family reunification through crisis.
A hot button panic machine in which an ordinary father and husband must not only redeem himself in the eyes of his disillusioned family but save their lives in the process, No Escape’s epic nightmare finds Owen Wilson as a failed career man who schleps his family, including wife Lake Bell and the pair’s young daughters, to an unnamed Asian locale with the promise of a new beginning. That is, until a deadly revolt intervenes.
Currents of a family in crisis and Costa Gavras tensions combined with an affectionate nod to energetic action fare churned out by The Cannon Group circa 1985, when Americans abroad and in peril fought their way out and home (think Delta Force), No Escape goes one better—and darker—by suggesting provocative correlations between hunters and hunted.
I caught up with John Erick and Drew Dowdle recently to discuss their filmmaking dynamic, No Escape’s real-life impetus and importantly, the film’s message of parental love and protection in a story about the strength it takes to fight not only against forces of harm, but more importantly, to fight for your loved ones.
Let’s start with the idea for No Escape. I understand you were in Thailand.
JED: Yes. The idea first came when my father and I were in Thailand. Right before we got there, a coup came out of nowhere and overthrew the prime minister. Generals took over the country. So we showed up in Thailand and it was very tense. There were armed guards everywhere, and as we pulled into the hotel they searched our car for a bomb. There was a real nervousness there. Previously we had gone to Thailand with our two sisters, and I started thinking, ‘What if I had kids and they were my sisters’ ages, and things went badly?’ So once I got home, Drew and I just started breaking it down. And what’s interesting was that the setting of the movie changed a bit as a result of what was happening in the world. It was important to us to set it in a place where this could really happen. We’ve always been interested in the history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, which does still exist. They are still living in the hills; that element still exists in Cambodia.
And they are not seen much in Western film, or any for that matter.
JED: Yeah! Are they at all. We originally set the film in Cambodia. And then 2008 happened, with the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Cairo, and we realized this was happening all over the world and we did not need to spend so much energy convincing the audience that this was possible. We thought we could make it an allegory and not have to define the country.
Thus giving our national parks and uptick in attendance this year (laughter).
DD: We don’t want to this to turn into an anti-travel message! We really don’t! We love travel. I’m terrified of avalanches, but when I see footage of them, it doesn’t make me less likely to go skiing somewhere. It’s kind of like that in my mind. We took out the specificity of which country because the event itself was suddenly very believable based on what is happening in the world.
And as the picture progresses, it isn’t really about that catalyst, but about something else.
JED: It’s about the family coming together in crisis and trying to work through something. For us, we wanted to maintain that is the focus.
It is also a study of kids seeing parents in crisis, and how they handle that. There are several scenes in this movie where both daughters observe their mother and father making terribly stressful decisions. For example, how Lake Bell tries to keep it together when their hotel room is under siege.
JED: It is! How must you act around your kids while you are in crisis or when your kids are in crisis? My son fell and gashed his head open on the table of a South Korean airport. I felt like, ‘What do I do now? I am terrified! And I have this kid who is looking up at me to be the cool one.’ I picked him up and we found a hospital in South Korea to get him stitched up. At the time, my wife was taking our other kid to this airport playground and our cell phones were not working because we were on a layover and had not set them up to work. So I had to ask someone at the airport lounge: ‘You know what my wife looks like? Help me find her!’
Owen Wilson is an everyman in this film, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and not equipped. It could have been a different casting approach, with a more physical actor.
JED: Yeah, it could have been. But that was not the version we wanted. We didn’t want something that felt like a big Hollywood action movie, as much as I love the Schwarzenegger movies.
DD: And the Bourne movies are fun.
JED: We wanted it to be a family drama masquerading as an action movie, rather than an action movie with some family people in it.
DD: Jack could be you or me. He is not a guy with amnesia who has special training. He’s a regular guy.
And there’s no emphasis on the physique. It’s more about what he’s capable of doing with the mind and body that he has, and its limitations also.
DD: We love that.
JED: He thinks quickly and he takes action. They say and a lot people who survive crises are the first people to take action. If your boat is sinking, and you wait for someone else to figure it out, you’re not going to be one of the survivors. You have to be the guy who is getting on the lifeboat and getting out of there. Also, he is not an ex-CIA or Navy SEAL. His family isn’t even quite sure about him, and this comes up over and over. We said he had to fight a ‘two front’ war. He has to figure out what to do for safety and then also convince his family. I find that really realistic.
One example is the scene where he throws the daughters off the roof, which is a split-second, precarious decision. Let’s talk a bit about constructing that scene.
JED: On the technical side, we actually threw those girls. They were tethered to a crane, but we were actually four stories up and we really did throw them off the roof. I did the jump myself and it was really scary! I was shooting in on a camera phone and I was going to run and jump off at so I could show the girls what it looked like.
That’s a job for a Go-Pro.
JED: Yes exactly! I fell off the edge of the building because I didn’t see it. And I was screaming. It was my least manly moment ever. But those girls really did it.
DD: We love the thematic idea of that unbelievably difficult decision. Lake Bell’s character has a moment when faced with that alternative to either make that jump or stay there, and she is more inclined to stay. She would be more apt to say ‘Let’s talk our way out of this.’ Jack is so certain of what is going to happen that he is willing to force this crazy, crazy thing to happen. I think that is a real crisis moment.
JED: And I like the moment just before that which shows the parents’ different mentalities. One of the girls asks, ‘Are these people trying to kill us?’ And being a good mother, she says ‘No.’ And the father says, ‘We need to tell them what is happening.’ I like that dichotomy because as parents you are often on the opposite sides of what you believe you should tell the kids. How much do you or don’t you tell them?
Yes, it’s like educating your children about predators or anything dangerous. In order to get them to understand the seriousness, you have to take away their innocence by telling them what might happen.
JED: It’s true! It’s a hard one to figure out. I need my children to be afraid to get into a stranger’s car, but not so afraid that they feel like there are strangers lurking on every corner trying to scoop them up.
Or even just chatting with them online.
JED: That is really scary. It’s a new world.
The movie subtly addresses their differences in the opening scene on the plane, which is simple and effective. If we didn’t identify with them then, we would not go with them through this movie or be this engaged.
JED: Absolutely. They are a family down on their luck. They talk briefly about this and about his company falling apart, and how this is now their best option. And that they are going to this foreign land and it is not the life that any of them dreamed about. There are just these moments in life where, personally in my own life, I’ve had all sorts of complaints about things that are not going right and then something really bad happens and you realize that those were not problems. There is life and death, family and real things. Not the little things are not important, but they really aren’t when you’re faced with a real crisis. And we like the idea of people who thought their lives had gone wrong, and then they realize that they actually have everything they need.
DD: I never love seeing bickering couples. It’s never fun to spend time with people like that.
Unless it’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (laughter).
JED: Love that and it’s great! But we wanted people to feel like this was a good couple, and you could understand why they got married and are good together, but then still understand why they are strained. To see the scene where she is in the bathroom, suffering in silence, and he’s catching her and she is kind of hoping he will tell her it is all right…
What does she say? Something about ‘I can’t…
DD: ‘I can’t comfort you right now.’ He is so dejected at the moment. But you understand what she’s saying. She has her own pain. It can’t be about what he is looking for in that moment. I think in that one scene captures exactly where this couple is in their marriage.
And Lake Bell delivers that scene with real weariness. She elevates it—no offense—by what she doesn’t say. It must be extremely gratifying to watch something you have written come to life and be brought to the next plane.
JED: It’s magnificent. I had a writing professor in film school that said that as a writer, the greatest gift you will ever get is to have a great actor who can elevate what you have written. Drew and I have talked a lot about this, but all five of our leads, including the kids, have all elevated everything they touched. It was really thrilling. There wasn’t a weak link. Usually there is someone you’re cutting around!
DD: Usually not the one you expect.
Is that an open secret on a set, when someone is not delivering?
JED: It’s funny. Sometime who you think will be the weak link isn’t. At the table read you think you’ve identified that person, but because you’re so focused on that you realize later that the weak link was someone else.
DD: Sometimes what is really good on set doesn’t translate when you are in postproduction. We had one lady who could do no wrong, and then we had to trim one of our leads to the nub on one movie.
JED: There have been times when we have reshaped an actress’ performance literally syllable by syllable through an entire movie.
DD: Sometimes it’s not the quality of the performance, but people are finding it to morose. The character is too much of a downer. And we change the tone of the performance.
Do you shoot individual lines or let the scene unfold?
JED: We let it unfold. We try to shoot long—like the scene on the roof in this movie. We shot all of that as one thing, and it was a nightmare. We try as much as we can to shoot things like a play. There are moments, like the riot, where we hid the entire thing from Owen. So he came to set and he had seen none of the riot or rebels. We had 500 people we were hiding. And then once he was in his place, we called them right out. He wasn’t having breakfast with them; he was there by himself, and then we brought them in.
DD: Same thing with the parade scene and the moped. We didn’t have any of the actors know what they were getting into.
Recently I asked Liv Ullmann about why she doesn’t work as an actress today, and she said that young directors do not let a scene unfold naturally. They shoot a line, cut, shoot another line, cut. She said it is an unsatisfying process and as an actor, you are sometimes unable to acclimate to it if you have come from a different era in movies.
JED: What she describes runs totally counter to… Actually when interviewing cinematographers, we tell them we don’t want to completely set. In this movie, we wanted the kids to be able to change their blocking without thought. A lot of cinematographers would pass on that. In The Poughkeepsie Tapes and Quarantine we would shoot seven, eight or nine one-minute one-shots. And then we would use combination takes. But we would shoot all these highly choreographed one-shots that we brought to this movie. Even the hotel room scene here when the lights and the phone are not working, we said we were going to do the whole scene over and over with three cameras and then cut around the visible cameras if you could see them in the shots, so the actors felt like they were acting. Especially when she is in the hotel room and the rebels are trying to get in. We blocked that and we had about ten cues that we would call out. Cue one, was a crash and she would look at that. We had this whole collection of things that all played out as one big thing. She goes through the door, looks to the people and hears them crash into the next-door neighbor’s place. And there was an actor playing that scene live in the next room.
What do you love about Kenny Rogers’ Sixpack?
JED: He comes in and he’s like the ultimate father figure!
And Rogers actually includes the ‘s’ in that one.
JED: That was our production designer!
DD: Are then they showed up with the truck, but with no ‘s’ anywhere!