In "Safe House," a rookie agent named Matt Weston (played by Ryan Reynolds) is the "housekeeper," minding the store for an underutilized CIA safe house, when one day, a "house guest" finally arrives for interrogation. It's not just any house guest either -- it's former agent-gone-rogue Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), considered to be a master manipulator, a traitor, and one of the most dangerous men in the world. And as soon as Frost arrives, so do the men pursuing him, killing almost everyone but Weston and Frost, who escape. They might be considered a team if it weren't for Frost's attempts to manipulate, escape, and kill his captor, who is in way over his head. The stars of "Safe House," along with director Daniel Espinosa ("Snabba Cash"), were in New York recently to discuss the film's psychological basis, action sequences, and on-location shoot in Cape Town, South Africa.
Denzel Washington studied sociopaths to find his inner Hannibal Lector.
Washington found a similarity in "Safe House" to "Silence of the Lambs," in the "psychological jousting" and "mind games" between the housekeeper and his reluctant house guest, who wrestles for control despite being in custody, and who even becomes an unlikely mentor of sorts. "I'm getting in his head when he's trying to get in my head," Washington said.
Producer Scott Stuber gave the actor a book, "The Sociopath Next Door," which helped inform his understanding of what a sociopath actually is, versus how one might be portrayed in film or television dramas. "I thought most sociopaths were violent," Washington said. "In fact, they aren't. But almost all sociopaths want to win, no matter what."
Washington said that sociopaths love to create chaos and manipulate other people, whether by charm, pity, or finding some other advantage to dominate. "There was one sociopath who would steal things at the post office where he worked," he said. "And then he would go in there the next day, to watch the chaos he had created. I guess it was a feeling of power." As Washington went through the script, he found ways for his character "to win in every situation, no matter what."
"There's a scene at the soccer arena," he said. "My character is willing to act like a scared little girl, to get away. He turns around and kills a couple of people afterwards, but he'll do anything to win. Anything. And he has no remorse about it whatsoever."
Olivier Schneider -- who previously worked on "Taken," "Unknown" and "From Paris With Love" -- was the fight coordinator, and had a team of fighters to train Reynolds and Washington. "Those French guys, they're the most unassuming guys," Washington said. "We had the luxury of a good two or three months to train and choreograph before we even got to do the those fights."
"You don't need to choreograph pretty fights as much, but these are ugly and nasty, like knife fights in a phone booth," Reynolds said. "These are old fashioned fights, and we shot them with no trickery, so by the end, we were covered in cuts and scrapes and bruises."
Schneider's approach for his character, Reynolds said, had to be something inventive and new, because Weston was not a trained fighter. "It's raw and primal and there's something deeply screwed up about it," he said. "He's forced to fight when he doesn't want to, versus someone who is well-versed in those activities, so it's not like 'The Matrix' or even 'Bourne.' It's nothing polished."
Despite the difference in action style, Espinosa brought aboard 'Bourne' cinematographer Oliver Wood, to bring a "zoom-in and miss" look to the action sequences in "Safe House." "I think that the Paul Greengrass Bourne films brought a new documentary feel," Espinosa told The Playlist. "And I thought it was interesting, something casual about it. And I think the casualness of it -- that the camera is just present, and sees things from different angles -- was something that I was inspired by."
Where his style departed from his inspiration is that he has his own rhythm ("I like to build up more archetypal shots," he said), so "Safe House" moves from being more realistic to being more like a "cowboy movie," he said, "which they don't do in 'Bourne.' "
In one scene, Weston drives with Frost in the trunk of the car, to get away from some baddies shooting at them. In the middle of this car chase, Frost breaks free by kicking out the barrier between the trunk and the back seat and starts to choke Weston -- while still handcuffed. "I reach over, we're flying around in the car, and just as I was reaching forward, he was flying back," Washington said. "And then pow! He gave me a black eye."
Reynolds couldn't believe he'd hurt his co-star for real, and was worried he'd just done something unforgiveable. "I practically had to wear an adult diaper before this, before doing a fight scene with Denzel," he said. "I mean, I've seen 'Hurricane'! And now I've given him a black eye! That was my early retirement -- time to go home. That first look he gave me after it happened, it was definitely real, and my face was on fire."
"I tried to make him feel bad about it," Washington said. "I was like, 'What the ...!' I've never had a black eye in my life, but I can't say that anymore."
"I'm glad I was his first," Reynolds laughed. "If it was going to be anybody, at least it was an apologetic Canadian!"
Ryan Reynolds had a little help driving the car.
For the car chase sequences, Reynolds was behind the wheel, but professional driver Lee Millam actually controlled the car, from above. "I've never seen a rig like that for a car," the actor said. "The pilot guy was on top of the car, and he would have those cars on two wheels or whatnot."
"Imagine a go kart," Espinosa said. "And put it on top of the car. And then you rig the steering, brake system, acceleration, up into that go kart. And then you put a stuntman up on the roof. That means you can be inside the car with the cameraman and the principal actor, and have a stuntman driving the car at high velocity. The car is still small and can make tight turns, and you can do real hardcore stunts."
"We'd be heading into a brick wall, and I would hit the brake, and the guy on top would hit the gas!" Reynolds said. "That was a very strange, strange feeling. I've never been in a situation like that."
During one chase scene, Espinosa sat in the wheel well besides Reynolds, "giggling like a little schoolgirl," the actor recalled. "He would just be yelling, 'Faster! Faster! Faster!" Reynolds found out afterwards that Espinosa actually had never driven a car before, "so being in that position was crazy."
"We have a very advanced subway system in Sweden, and like in New York, you really don't need a driver's license," Espinosa explained. "And when I was starting out, when I was working as P.A., I realized if I had a driver's license, I would be driving stuff around, but if I didn't, they would have to put me on set. So it became acutely important not to have a driver's license!"
In the original script for "Safe House," the safe house in question was based in Rio. Espinosa -- who was born in Chile, lived in Africa, moved to Sweden, and went to film school in Denmark -- thought the city was flexible but had to be an international city with a wide variety of socio-economic levels in a short distance, so the characters could move through the rich and poor areas during their journey.
"That existed in Rio, that existed in Buenos Aires, and that existed in Capetown," the director said. "One thing was that Brazil was too dangerous. It would have cost too much money for insurance. And I grew up in parts of Africa, in Cape Town, in Mozambique, in Tanzania, so I had a close connection there, some roots in Africa, and I wanted to go back. Who doesn't?"
"Cape Town is like Santa Monica on steroids!" Washington said. "It's one of the most beautiful towns you've seen. But it's still set up the old way. You go ten miles inland where the townships are, and they're still there. It's an area where people were allowed to live, so they just decided to stay there. And they police themselves, because it's so big."
Washington hadn't actually shot in South Africa before -- his film "Cry Freedom" was shot in Zimbabwe, since he was getting "heavy death threats" at the time, and wasn't allowed to visit the country safely until 1995. This time, he made an effort to see as much of the country as possible -- and while there's been "a tremendous amount of change" since Apartheid, there's still plenty of racial hatred, he said.
"We saw these [white] men walking around this one [black] guy, and they had a big stick, and they were whipping him," he recalled. "I asked my driver, 'What are they doing?' And he said, 'They're putting him in his place.' I said, 'Whoa! What do you think he did?' 'Something related to the women. He may have messed with a young girl or something.' 'Well, why doesn't he run?' And he told me, 'They'll kill him. If he tries to run, they'll stone him.' So that still exists, you know?"
Despite this, the filmmakers got a lot of local support for the production in the Langa township. "That was something that impressed me," Espinosa said. "Normally when you shoot, people try to pass through the shoot, and they say, 'I got a job, I got to get to my job.' And you want to say, 'I got a job, too, man -- this is my job.' And when we were in Langa, we had a few thousand people standing around, and when we were shooting, they were silent. And afterwards, when I would say, 'Cut,' they would applaud, like we were doing a show for them. That was cool."
"Safe House" opens on February 10th.