This past week I got the opportunity to meet up with the filmmakers behind the action thriller NO ESCAPE. So apparently the Coens are not the only brother filmmaker team from Minnesota, and the Dowdles are truly one of the nicest filmmakers I ever had the pleasure to meet. The interview was about an hour late than scheduled, apparently there was a radio interview that ran longer than expected. I was the last of six interviewers scheduled to chat with them, and I had been a bit worried they’d be tired of talking by then.
But as soon as I entered the room of the Marquette Hotel, I was greeted with a big smile from both John Erick Dowdle (director/writer) and his brother Drew (writer). I immediately felt comfortable and at ease with them as I sat down and prepared my iPhone recorder. I’d think that for people who’ve been known for their horror films (Quarantine, Devil, As Above So Below), they’d be all dark and moody, but that’s not at all the case with as they’re all smiles and full of energy.
As soon as I started writing in my notes, John noticed that my Mona Lisa pen is from the Louvre Museum. He remarked that he used to live close to it when he was making As Above So Below in Paris that his then young boy named Henry became so obsessed with the place and started to spell his name H-e-n-r-i. I had to ask about the filming at Paris catacomb, so find that at the end of the interview.
Check out my spotlight & review of their film No Escape, as well as a short bio of both of them after they both graduated from St. Thomas Academy, an all-boys, military, Catholic high school near St. Paul, MN.
[SPOILER ALERT: Some of the questions might pertain to some plot details about the film. I’ll be sure to mark that in red to warn you]
Q: Can you elaborate more about how the idea of this story came about? You mentioned at the Q&A after the film that a coup happened whilst you were in Thailand?
JOHN: In 2006 my dad and I went to Thailand and we were traveling all around there. And right before we got there, a coup threw out the prime minister and the generals took over the country. There’s a new regime right as we got there and there had been no advanced warning or nothing like that. I started thinking, what if this… I mean, it went smoothly but I thought, what if it didn’t. What if this went very badly like Phnom Penh in 1975 (referring to the Cambodian genocide by the Cambodian Communist Forces Khmer Rouge). What if this went very badly and I had little kids with me. In my last trip to Thailand, we had two little kids with me like Lucy and Beeze, so basically these two girls (in the film) were based on our little sisters. We started building the story from there. As soon as we got back we started expanding on that. Drew and I returned to Cambodia and traveled around to gather little details to make it more authentic.
DREW: Yes our trip back to Asia was in 2008, that was for location scouting to pick up more details. But we didn’t start shooting until 2013.
Q: This question came when my husband and I were discussing the film after we saw it. The rebel group seems to have been building up for some time, like a time bomb that would explode at any moment. Now, the western corporation in the film where Owen Wilson’s character Jack Dwyer works for, they and the others seem to be caught off guard by this. Is that the case or did they know but they choose to ignore it and just left the Dwyers to fend for themselves? I’m just wondering if there’s something sinister behind that?
JOHN: No, I think so many times in these situations… there’s always someone who wants to manage the situation. When we were shooting in Thailand, there was a coup developing while we were there. The people we’re working with was like, ‘oh no, it’s gonna be fine, it’s gonna be fine.’ And literally, we left and two weeks later there was a coup in Thailand. And looking back I thought this must’ve been worse because our friends and family from the United States were like ‘Are you guys being safe over there?’ and we’re like ‘oh yeah, everyone’s fine, it’s not as big a deal as everyone’s making it…’ But I think it was. It’s just people in that situation tries to manage and deny what’s happening. We’re also guilty of that ourselves.
Q: It’s like you were in denial then? It’s like you just brushed it off, oh it’s not as bad as it looks even thought it is.
JOHN: Yeah, I mean if we have this billions of dollars at stake building this waterworks so there can’t be something that would overthrow us. So that would be the corporate mentality.
DREW: Yeah, our partners when we were shooting the movie, Time Warners, they were like ‘oh this was just newspapers, selling newspapers, it’s nothing to worry about and you believe that, you said ‘yeah ok I’ll buy it.’ In terms of the fictional situation in the movie, not only were they not aware of when this was going to happen nor that there’s this level of unrest but they didn’t take them [the rebels] seriously and what they’re capable of and what they’re capable to do.
Q: Now, switching gears a bit about the casting, because I’m always interested in that topic whenever I interview filmmakers. The casting of Owen Wilson here reminds me of the casting of Steve Carell in Foxcatcher as they’re both known for their comedic work. How about Lake Bell who’s also known for being a comedian?
JOHN: She’s amazing. I think comic actors can do anyting. If you can do comedy you can do anyting. For Owen and Lake, I mean when we cast Owen people were like, ‘are you going to give him a crew cut and make him really tough?’ and we’re like ‘no, we want Owen from Marley & Me in this movie.’ And Lake Bell was sort of the same thing. I mean you don’t usually imagine Lake crawling through the mud like she did in this movie. We like that when people don’t usually imagine an actor doing a certain thing. It took a while to convince their agents… and we’re like ‘no, it’s got to be Lake.’
Q: So you already had these two lead actors in mind for the movie?
DREW: Yes, Owen absolutely. We had been building the character around Owen for several years. Things kept falling apart but he kept saying, ‘hey I’m still with you.’ Lake’s casting came much later. But by the time we saw In A World, we’re like ‘oh it has to be her.’
She’s also a writer too, she wrote In A World…
JOHN: Yes she is and she’s brilliant.
DREW: And so is Owen. He’s a brilliant writer himself [he co-wrote three films with Wes Anderson including The Royal Tennenbaums] So to have two actors who knew how to write is such a huge asset for us.
So it’s like they’re allies in the filmmaking process as they can also give you input.
JOHN: Absolutely, there’s nothing greater for a director than having a smart actor. I mean those two kids were also very intelligent kids. It helps so much when they’re thoughtful about what they’re doing.
Q: Yes I noticed that the kids were very believable in the movie. Usually kids can look bored in scenes of peril, but here they looked like they’re genuinely scared and upset.
JOHN: Yeah, they were amazing. We read hundreds and hundreds of girls but luckily we picked the right ones. [Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare played the two young siblings in the film]
DREW: Working with Lake too, made these kids worked so much better. They knew exactly what we need and what we’re trying to avoid. In the moment it really helps get that from them.
JOHN: From the moment she was on set, she immediately adopted those two girls. She grabbed them, put them on her lap and said, ‘from now on you’re my little turkeys.‘
Q: What is the biggest challenge filming in a foreign land (in Chiang Mai, Thailand) and display such treacherous conditions on screen? Even that rainy scene towards the end look quite real.
JOHN: Oh we used a rain machine on that scene towards the end but it only had either off or torential downpour, they didn’t have sprinkles [laughs]
Q: Any memorable moment you’d like to share from filming?
DREW: The fire was perhaps the most memorable thing. It’s not so much about Thailand, there was an accidental fire that burned a building down. It was a pretty spectacular moment on the set.
JOHN: We were filming in this government office and when the tank shoots the wall, there was a beam that’s supposed to fall and it didn’t and it started on fire. I mean we’re able to get everyone out and thankfully everyone was safe.
DREW: It was the last take of the take and the actors loved being on set and we’re playing playbacks, I mean it was the end of the day anyway. But we’re supposed to shoot the next day and the whole building was up in flames. We’re like ‘oh no, is this gonna be the end of the movie?’
Q: But other than that, did everything else go as planned?
JOHN: Yeah we shoot the next day, we just picked a different location the show must go on, y’know. It actually was fun the next day as we had limited equipments, it’s like back to basic like in film school, like Gilligan’s Island where we have the coconuts, we’re just cobbling everything together [laughs]
DREW: We had like three cameras and one monitor that smells like barbeque. I mean we got everyone out [from the burning building] but we lost some equipments and we had to order a lot of new sound equipments from Bangkok, so it was a logistical challenge. But that was sort of our own doing.
In terms of the challenge of shooting, we’re really surprised how sophisticated the crew was, we had a Thai producing partner who had to deal with all the bureaucracy there which was significant so we didn’t have to deal much with it ourselves.
JOHN: It was a very smooth film.
Q: How long did it take you to shoot the film?
DREW: 39 days.
JOHN: 39 days of shooting. So it was like, in one day we’re like ‘we have THIS much to do?’ So there’s a lot of big things every day. But thank God that all the crew… I mean one the things I found interesting is that in America, all the crews was so unionized that ‘oh this guy can touch the light but he can’t touch the stand, etc.’ there are so many rules as to who can do what. Whilst in Thailand, everyone is there to help whoever needs help. It’s like there’s a symphony of motion where things happened so smoothly. I mean, there’s camera crew helping the art department when the art department needed help… I don’t know, it’s just a wonderful atmosphere to make a film. We had the time of our lives filming there.
DREW: It was so cooperative and everyone moved so fast. We got the feeling that, I mean this is such a wonderful thing for us, we got the feeling that everyone on the crew really wanted this to be a good movie. I mean there were other times when they’d do a good job but they don’t really care about the movie, they’re just punching the clock, they’re not invested in a kind of creative emotional way. Here it seems like everyone there wanted to have their creative fingerprints on this so it was nice that they really cared.
[spoiler] Q: When you’re watching the film, some people might make the generalization that it’s the natives, who’s being portrayed as evil, chasing this innocent family that happens to be from the West. But then there’s the conversation between Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan’s character that seem to offset the perceived prejudice against the enemies/villains of the film. So is that a deliberate thing you did or a natural flow of the story?
DREW: It was very deliberate.
JOHN: Yeah, we really wanted the rebels in the city to have a reason. I think so often when something horrible happened, the tendencies just chug it as ‘oh these people are evil, those people are good’ but we wanted to ask the question why. Why would somebody do this, why would somebody act this way. Not to say that violence is acceptable but these are people who are fighting for their families, their lives and their futures, too. They’re trying to get rid of the foreign influences that were hurting them so we wanted to give a rationale for them.
DREW: Yeah, to use John’s example with Phnom Penh in ’75, y’know, I mean you can’t really justify what the Khmer Rouge did in any kind of rational level, I mean they were really really violent and took a lot of lives. But there’s a reason they were doing what they were doing in terms of the foreign involvement in their country, they’ve suffered through a lot of bombings in a war they had nothing to do with. There’s reasons that caused it and again, I mean again you can’t justify their reaction to it but there’s a source to it, they didn’t just do it because they liked to kill people or that they’re just bloodthirsty. Now that’s an extreme example. In our movie, it isn’t just ALL about the natives versus the foreigners, it’s a certain subset of the natives that were in a war path to get rid of the foreigners. There were locals who helped the family and there were locals that also got killed by the rebels.
JOHN: So the Dwyers family is caught in a crossfire. I mean our focus is the Dwyers, just like in Titanic, the focus is on Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s characters but it doesn’t mean you don’t care about everyone else in the movie. But the film has to have a focal point and for us, having gone to Thailand, my focus has to be from the family.
I’m curious about the process of casting Pierce Brosnan and how he worked with the other cast?
JOHN: We love the idea of Pierce here. Pierce is the kind of guy who could say and do anything and you’d just love him more. He could say the worst, most horrible things and you just love him more. I mean there’s a couple lines in this movie where I think Pierce might be the only human being alive who could deliver those lines and make you like him more. We like turning that James Bond thing on its head, I mean make him an alcoholic with a beard and sort of scuzzy, so we had a lot of fun. Pierce found this documentary Beware of Mr Baker about the [Cream and Blind Faith rock band] drummer Ginger Baker who’s sort of this old surly Brit, so Pierce brought that to the character.
DREW: He’s got so much charm, we grew up loving Pierce Brosnan so to have him in our movie was like a dream.
JOHN: To meet him for the first time was like, ‘ok come on, stay calm.’
So you both were a bit starstruck then?
Oh yeah we were.
Ok last question, about your last film As Above So Below, how did you manage to get the permission from the French government to film in the Paris catacomb?
DREW: That was not easy. I mean we shot in five different parts of the catacombs and some were easier than others, but the main one that we wanted which was the roughest but the most interesting looking, we got the permission literally the night before we’re supposed to shoot. Their bureaucracy doesn’t move very quickly but thankfully we got a French producing partner but we were the first film to shoot inside the catacombs.
JOHN: And probably the last [laughs] We were down there shooting for five weeks, it was a long time to be underground.
DREW: It was cold and wet. It was a lot colder in there than we thought even thought it was in the middle of Summer. It was freezing down there.
Surrounded by skulls too.
JOHN: Yeah, it’s funny there are some parts in No Escape where we found this small space and we thought it was the perfect location and some people were saying, ‘no this is way too small, you can’t film here’ and we’re like ‘we filmed inside the catacomb, this is tons of space!’ I mean once you shoot there, you can shoot anywhere.
Thank you to John & Drew for taking the time to chat!
No Escape is in US theaters now and opens in the UK on Sept 4.
Thoughts on the interview and/or No Escape?