The new thriller No Escape, starring Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, and Pierce Brosnan is a harrowing picture about a family (played by Wilson, Bell, and two cute movie kids, played by Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare) who get stuck in a Southeastern Asian country in the midst of a bloody coup led by a rebel faction who are hunting them down. The film marks a decided departure for the writing / directing team known as The Brothers Dowdle – that’s director John Erick Dowdle and screenwriter Drew Dowdle – who are best known for incredibly intense horror films such as Quarantine (2008), Devil (2010), and 2014’s scariest film As Above, So Below, which really amped up the found footage formula.
The Dowdles have crafted yet another masterpiece of suspense with No Escape, and here they discuss their work on the film with The Action Elite.
You guys are all smiles. Is that the secret to writing such dark material?
Drew: I think so.
John: It’s the comedy guys who are dark. It’s true. The horror guys are the nicest guys. Not that this is horror, but it’s true.
No Escape might not be what your fans would expect after the horror films you’ve done. It’s a complete success creatively for both of you.
John and Drew: Thank you!
The story came from an experience you, John, had when you were travelling with your father in Thailand. Is that right?
John: My dad and I went to Thailand right after a coup had happened. We felt the military presence. There was a tension in the air. There was no warning. It was scary. I started thinking, What if I brought kids here? What if it wasn’t this peaceful and well organized? Drew and I are the two oldest of six kids, and so when we were young, when our family travelled, we had two little sisters. We modeled the two girls in the film from our little sisters.
Drew: Thankfully, John’s personal experience wasn’t anything close to being as scary as it is in the movie, but it got us thinking. We started structuring the script, and things started happening all over the world. We wanted the movie to feel very real. There was a horrific attack in Mumbai at the Taj Mahal hotel. We studied moments where there’s tension and something flips and things become life threatening. That turning point is a really interesting moment for us.
John: Or things like you’re in a hotel room. You feel safe in a hotel room. What happens when that place is no longer safe? The Taj Mahal hotel incident – there are images of this gunman shooting in the lobby. We saw that and it was the scariest thing I’d ever seen. To see or hear gunshots reverberating off the walls …
Drew: They just walked into the hotel room and started shooting. To see that is so chilling. That was the whole point of this movie, was to put the audience in their experience and to ask yourself, “Would I do that?”
Have you guys seen The Raid?
Drew: Loved The Raid.
No Escape feels like The Raid, but it takes it to the streets and into the city. Obviously, Owen Wilson isn’t doing Silat martial arts in the movie, but you definitely tapped into the same vein as The Raid with this movie.
Drew: We really love The Raid. We wanted Jack and his wife to be completely unprepared. This isn’t Liam Neeson in Taken. He doesn’t have skills like that.
John: We kept saying, “We want a guy with no special set of skills!”
Drew: We mean that in the best possible way.
John: Owen feels like a friend. He hasn’t done Bond.
Drew: If we had picked an action guy, it would have allowed this movie to be made sooner. Studios like to do things they’ve seen before because it worked in the past. This was a different kind of casting choice. It allowed us to make it for a small amount of money and to make it independently. We felt strongly about that choice. It was worth waiting for.
Even casting Pierce Brosnan in a sort of comic relief role turns things sideways from what you expect at first. How did you stick to your guns throughout the casting process?
John: It helps to have two of us. There’s a time where I will go, “Okay, we’ll do anything! Just make our movie!” Drew will be like, “Dude, come on. Have some spine!”
Who has more spine?
John: Depends on the day!
Drew: Depends on the day, that’s true. This movie tested us. We wondered if we should consider … we even did a draft where we wrote one of the kids as a boy. Same age. Just to see how it felt. We didn’t show it to anyone, though. We liked the girl version so much better because we understood who those girls were. They were our sisters. It made sense. We’ll listen to ideas and try things. This one required us to be creative over the years. The nice thing is that at the end of the day, there were a lot of ideas thrown at us. We undeveloped all those voices and went back to the original screenplay. We went back to the pure original idea.
You start the movie with the coup instead of starting the movie on the plane with the family. I’m curious why you did that. Why didn’t you start the movie on the plane and show the coup later?
John: We wanted to give a little something to give you the sense that … you have to know what movie you’re showing up to. We kick it off with a bang. It’s the only time we aren’t showing things from the family’s perspective. We wanted to get that out of the way. From that point forward you’re with them. There’re no subtitles; if they don’t understand the language, you don’t understand either. We wanted to keep you rooted in their experience from that point on.
Drew: From the moment you first meet the family, we never cut away from them. That was important to us. If we started with the family and cut away from them, you would expect to see other things in the city and have more information, but we never do that.
Was there ever any danger for you to be shooting the film on location?
John: There was actually a coup brewing right after we left. We filmed our riot scene two days after the general elections, which was a mistake. They shut us down. The government shut us down because there were five uprisings not too far away. We were filming these people clashing, with protestors. They were worried that someone would film us with a camera phone from a second story window and spark a real thing. They showed up – the governor showed up – and shut us down.
Drew: There were some things brewing in Bangkok, but while we were shooting in Chiang Mai, it was like a whole different world.
John: Just don’t go to Bangkok – it’s dangerous! (Laughing.) We kept getting things from back home like “Are you guys safe?”
Drew: We trusted our local production services and line producer. They were very tuned in to what might be dangerous. The country was intended to be allegorical and could be anywhere in the world. We did think for a minute of setting the film in other countries – South America, Africa, the Middle East. If you think about any of those places, it means something very different.
John: If you put it in the Middle East, it means a totally different thing.
Drew: It could mean a Muslim thing. In Africa, it could be more of a race thing. In South America, it could maybe feel too familiar. But Southeast Asia, for Americans it’s very foreign. You can’t read the language, you can’t totally understand the tonality. You can’t read facial expressions real well. It’s so different. Thailand really wanted the movie there. We worked very closely with the film board and the government. We made sure it wasn’t set “in Thailand.” We didn’t have any Thai signage, you never hear Thai, we never showed the king … it’s a combination of languages we used. The signage was a made-up language. The spoken language is a combination of Laotian, Khmer, and Karen. As long as we mixed the language, the Thai people were happy.
As Above, So Below was the scariest movie of 2014. You were able to create a real sense of dread all throughout that movie. As I was watching No Escape, I got the same feeling, and it never let up until the movie was over. I’ve been to Thailand, and I have a young son, so I was definitely scared throughout the whole movie. How are you guys able to sustain that strong sense of dread in your films?
John: Thank you! I’d say a lot of it’s editing and trying to calibrate the flow of timing and energy. We work for months on these movies. We discuss every second of these movies with our editor. We go second by second and frame-by-frame sometimes. We just try to get the balance right.
Drew: …and still try to find those moments to breathe. If it’s tense from wall to wall, it can kind of get a little muted in a way. It’s about dialing it up and peeling back a little bit. We pay a lot of attention to escalating tension.
First Blood is a great movie
It would be really interesting to see you guys do a full-bore action film. No Escape still feels like a horror film, but it’s definitely a step in the thriller / action direction. Does action interest you guys? What kinds of movies do you guys watch?
John: As long as it’s rooted in emotion … when Jack in No Escape comes back and sees the guy being executed, that doesn’t mean anything. What means something is Jack’s reaction to that. When he kills someone, it’s a good moment, but what’s really good is afterwards he and his wife lock eyes over his killing someone. To us, that’s the moment. We kept saying that this is a family drama with action elements, not an action movie with a family in it. I love action movies.
Drew: If the character is great, and if the motivation is great. Taken really worked because you could get behind what he’s doing because his daughter was taken. First Blood is a great movie …
John: That’s one of my favorites.
Drew: It’s one of my favorites too. The character is so solid. Big, loud action movies that are just big, loud set-piece movies … are not very interesting to us.
Well, you had a big set piece with the crashing helicopter in No Escape.
Drew: Yes, we did!
John: We’ll do it if it serves the movie. Over and over, we’re like, “Oh, they’re safe now,” and then, “Oh, no they’re not.” Something you didn’t expect happens and it’s no longer a place they can take refuge. Big set pieces are fun. Throwing the girls off the roof …
Drew: We like intense action as long as it’s … as long as you can connect to it. It makes a big difference.
With As Above, the main character is literally going on a journey. And we go along with her. Same thing with No Escape. It’s the kind of journey you don’t want to go on. It’s harrowing. The tagline for As Above is “The only way out is down.” No Escape’s tagline could be “To get out, they must go further!” I’m not going to say that these movies are similar, but say something about the journey aspect of these films.
Drew: I like that. I’ve never heard the connection between the two.
John: It’s true. It’s funny. We did a whole bunch of contained thrillers where you’re stuck in a spot. It’s been nice being able to move around more. There is something about being on a journey with characters where everything is constantly changing. There’s something really interesting and exciting about that.
Drew: This one was an interesting structural challenge. When we do the roof jump, we’re at the mid-point of the film. We’re at the tail-end of a really intense 25-minute sequence. We had a lot of movie left to go after that, but we wanted the movie to maintain that tension. The idea was that now we had to go into the city and get out. A lot of scenes at that point were slower build. The idea was that we just ended this intense sequence and we’ve got 45 minutes to go. That really was a fun challenge.
I read that you guys were working on an exorcism movie …
Drew: We wrote a movie called Exorcism on Crooked Lake that was optioned. We were going to be executive producers on it. It was going with another director, and it unraveled. We have it back now. We’re taking another look at it to see if it’s something we’d like to play with.
Any other genres you’d like to try directing?
Drew: We’d like to try everything.
John: Early on, we were like, “Alan Parker is the perfect type of director because he’s done everything.” He’s done so many types of genres.
I love Angel Heart.
Drew: Angel Heart is one of our favorite movies! That’s one of our touchstone films.
John: It’s one of our touchstones. That and Jacob’s Ladder and The Shining were the three movies that are the real touchstones for us. But with Alan Parker, you’ve got Midnight Express, you’ve got Fame …
The Road to Wellville …
John: (Laughing.) Nice! Evita …
The Commitments was one of the last things he did.
Drew: The Commitments was great! We’re looking at a movie about musicians.
John: Like a biopic. We’d like to do drama. I think the thing we gravitate towards is intensity. Even emotionally intense material would be really interesting to us. I see us trying a little bit of everything.
Drew: I don’t think we’ll ever do a romantic comedy.
When I saw trailers for No Escape, I thought, I should take my mom to see this movie. She likes Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan, and it looked like a fun thriller. As I’m watching the movie, I’m thinking, There is no way I’m taking my mom to see this movie! There’s no way! I wouldn’t even take my wife to see this movie. It’s so intense.
John and Drew: (Laughing.)
Drew: I’m sitting next to my mom at the premier tomorrow, so we’ll see how she does. She’s going to be in pain!