Daniel Espinoza on Safe House

The director of Denzel Washington’s latest action film tells us about making his first American movie.

Blair Marnellby Blair Marnell

It’s probably a safe assumption that most American movie-goers aren’t that familiar with the work of Sweedish director, Daniel Espinoza. But that might change after his first U.S. film, Safe House had a strong showing at the box office this weekend with good word of mouth.

Safe House stars the unlikely pair of Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds as a rogue operative and a CIA agent, respectively who are forced to go on the run from some extremely dangerous individuals.  Prior to the film’s opening, we spoke to Espinoza about making Safe House and if there may be any sequels in the future.

What attracted you to Safe House?

In my previous film, Snabba Cash [Easy Money], I switched the tempo, the rhythm, and the cadence of my filmmaking. So when I came to America, what fascinated me was that I could see that my work changed, with the rhythm of it. So I wanted to find something that had an even stronger pace, and see if I could maintain the character within that pace. So when I read Safe House, it was a pure page-turner, and I could see some classical archetypes within it, but also there were possibilities to do some character work inside of that strong-paced action movie.

What are some of the differences between making a film for Sweden and a Hollywood production like this one?

I don’t think there’s too much of a difference. You have a camera, you have some actors, and you try to make do with the time that you have somehow. So I don’t feel a big difference, except that the team is much, much bigger. The base camp is ginormous, for example.

How did you settle upon Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds for their respective roles?

When I read the script, I thought that Denzel was the man on this planet to do this part, and when I had been writing it and working on it for David Guggenheim, that was the person that I always saw doing it. So it wasn’t so much that I settled, it was more that I asked him if he would be inclined to do a movie with me, and he said yes. [Laughs] And with Ryan, I met many of the young actors of his generation. Great actors, great people. But me and Ryan, we formed a bond, and I sensed that we could bring something to that, through that character. I think Ryan has a natural charisma.

For those who aren’t that familiar with Safe House, can you describe Tobin Frost and Matt Weston?

I think Matt is the young guy, younger agent, who believes in right and wrong, he believe he can somehow combine his ethics with his work. And Tobin is an old [man] whose work and the deeds he has done for the CIA has corrupted his soul. And I believe he starts seeing something within this man, which reminds him of who he used to be.

I can’t remember that many times when Denzel Washington has been the anti-hero or the villain, aside from Training Day and Man on Fire. It’s kind of a departure for him, but he does it well. Tell us how you and he crafted that persona.

Well, I mean, that was in the script all along. That was what attracted both me and Denzel, doing this together and going down that alley. Because it was a new inspiration for both me and him.

Was Safe House inspired by any real events?

Not to my knowledge.

Does the CIA have safe houses around the world like that?

All the assumptions within the movie are based on some kind of reality. We have a guy who used to run a safe house. So he gave us how it really goes down.

Tell us about shooting in South Africa, which is actually where most of the film is set.

When we made the decision to go to South Africa, I was searching different parts of the world to find a city which has the socio-economic structure where you could find great richness, and big poor areas within the same area, so I could take the characters moving through those areas. And Capetown has exactly that kind of social structure, and it has great colors and vibrance that is unrevealed for any audience.

Was that a real shanty town you guys shot that action sequence in?

It’s real.

[Laughs] It looked like youcaused quite a bit of damage there.

Yeah, what we did was, we went to [that location] and then I found an area, like a football field, that was empty. And they would build our copies of their houses in that area, and then we shot that scene. We didn’t really use people’s real houses, of course.

Do you favor practical effects over CGI? Because of lot of the stuff in that movie looked like it was real.

Yeah, everything in this movie is real. There’s practically, almost no CGI in the movie. I, myself, I don’t like to shoot on green screen, in studios. I think that being in a real environment influences the actors, and also influences the lighting and my direction. So I prefer to be in real locations.

By any chance were you inspired by John Frankenheimer? Because some of the car chases reminded me of his work.

Yes, that’s very cool that you say that. I really, really appreciate that. Yeah, I mean many of the inspirations of the movie came from movies from the seventies, you know? We wanted to have a French Connection kind of vibe to it.

The early car chase sequence, between the people chasing Tobin and Matt…

Vargas is the guy chasing Matt.

Yeah, Vargas. That was one of the biggest crowd-pleasing moments of the film for the screening I saw. That went over pretty well.

I liked that there was a slide there. You know, an old BMW slide. Classic, seventies-style car-sliding. So yeah, we were very inspired by the seventies…

Would you be up for ever revisiting the Tobin Frost character on-screen? Because he’s the franchise as far as I’m concerned.

[Thinks] Yeah, I don’t know. I do one movie at a time. I don’t do TV series. But revisiting Tobin Frost? Yes. Revisiting working with Denzel Washington? Any time of the week.

And of course, would you be up for a Safe House sequel featuring Matt Weston, aka Ryan Reynolds?

You know, I don’t know if I’d be up to a sequel with anybody from the film. I never thought of that idea. I would love to work with Ryan again, and I would love to work with Denzel [again], but the sequel? I don’t know. I never thought about it.

I definitely think that Tobin Frost can carry a franchise. He’s that great of a character. What’s next for you? Do you have your next project lined up?

No, no. Right now I’m trying to relax and just breathe a little. I just finished the movie one-and-a-half weeks ago, and I don’t think there’s many directors who can handle one movie a year, except Woody Allen. So, I’m not Woody. I need to take sort of a break and read some scripts and find what my heart tells me to do.

You mentioned before that you were inspired by some of the '70s films, which films in particular?

Three Days of the Condor, The French Connection, The Ipcress File, All the President’s Men. I like the coldness they have.

For our last question, do you have any closing thoughts for people who are interested in seeing Safe House?

I’m not very good at [the] pitch. It’s a good, strong movie with nice character work and I think Denzel is beautiful in this and so is Ryan.