Don’t Breathe 2 is shaping up to be the most topical Horror film of the year. “To no surprise, less than half of the actual plot has been given away,” but that hasn’t stopped moviegoers from sharing their two cents, and they have every right to as the promotional material for the film speaks for itself. But filmmakers Fede Álvarez and Rodo Sayagues have a knack for stirring up controversy and challenging storytelling norms. Their past collaborations, from the 2013 Sam Raimi-approved Evil Dead remake to the first Don’t Breathe, have all struck a high, twisted chord with fans, and their latest feature is no different.
Unlike their past films, where the duo shared writing credit and Fede Álvarez took on directing duties, Don’t Breathe 2 sees the two trading places, marking Rodo Sayagues’ first time in the director’s chair. The sequel takes place years later when the monstrous Blind Man (Stephen Lang) has started over with a new pseudo-daughter (Madelyn Grace), who has mysterious ties to the original film. Falling completely in line with their signature tone and style, everything is obviously not what it seems, and shit quickly takes a turn for the absolute worst. When the Blind Man is finally forced to confront his own demons, Don’t Breathe 2 turns into “one of the most unpredictable rides of the year.”
Following our previous conversation with Fede Álvarez on his AppleTV series Calls, we were lucky enough to have him back for another exclusive interview, this time accompanied by Rodo Sayagues! We dive into the controversial nature of their sequel and how they would rather take the toughest route and subvert all expectations than just replicate the magic of the first. The Don’t Breathe duology is their shared brainchild, and they hold nothing back when discussing their motives and reactions from fans online.
So glad to have you on again Fede after our conversation earlier this year on Calls. And Rodo, you wrote one of the standout episodes of that show! Now moving on to Don’t Breathe 2, the film is full of surprises, to say the least. I think people had a different preconception for what this sequel was going to be, given some of the online debates. Going off that, when did you two agree to continue this story in this very specific direction?
Fede Álvarez: From the very beginning, I think we’d never entertain any other idea than this one, mostly because we always try to stay away from the one that most people could think of. I’ll give you 30 seconds and you can pitch me the sequel you have in your head from beginning to end, like Rocky [Jane Levy] gets home, she’s trying to move on with her life in California and suddenly there’s a noise outside – you know exactly how that goes. We’re the ones getting paid! We want to make sure that we do a better job than most people. So we were really trying to push ourselves into tougher corners story-wise.
Conceptually, we know the first movie is about this guy that is completely in the dark about who he truly is. The original title was “The Man in the Dark,” that’s what it said on the slate. And actually, when we call him “The Blind Man,” we aren’t really referring to his sight, we’re referring to his morals. He’s just completely blind about who he truly is and the things he’s done. The whole first movie is about him saying all the things he did, he sees himself as a hero in the first story for sure. He’s completely blind to the reality of the atrocities that he’s committed.
So we were interested in telling the second chapter about this character, and that means the story has to move on in order to mean something – the character has to evolve, otherwise, it will just be uneventful. We thought the next step for a character like this will be to put him on a journey to stop lying to himself and, hopefully, come to terms with who he truly is, and face what he fears the most, which is himself. So in order to do that, we needed to put him in more of a driving seat for the story at the forefront. Otherwise, he’s just the antagonist in the back again.
When you put both films side by side, they really hit like a one-two punch. Can you talk about switching roles compared to last time, with you Rodo going from writer to director? Most Horror sequels lose their unique flavor from the original when a different director takes over, but you two seem to be pretty much in tune.
Fede Álvarez: Flavor-wise, we knew there was an aura to the story and this specific world. Also, it’s just us coming up with resources. Not every time, but a lot of the sequels you’re talking about sometimes have like a million different writers that come and go when developing it. And, you know, this is still just the two of us. So I think that’s why even if we didn’t want to end up restricted to our world, because it’s a narrow space where our ideas live, maybe with our shared creativity – even if we strove to get out – we would just end up in the same space, so the movies feel similar.
I hope that is a good thing here. Like if you watch Evil Dead or Don’t Breathe, it all lives in a very similar environment. They might look different here and there, but the characters and the morals usually just tend to come from who we are. So that kind of works itself out, the tone and the style. We tend to work with the same people. The same cinematographer for the first Don’t Breathe is the same DP here, which keeps it in the family.
But then tone-wise, it was always going to be more Rodo. Just to give you a sense, Rodo was the one that pitched the tongue slice on Evil Dead and I’m the one that you have to reel back in that goes, “Wait, that might be one step too far” (laughs). So Don’t Breathe 2 was me just letting go. “You know what? It’s your movie, just go crazy!” So that’s why it’s a bit more violent and has more gore in it. It changed in that respect. When I see it, I see a lot more of Rodo in the movie because he’s the director.
Rodo Sayagues: Part of the nature of this story is that it needs to be unexpected. It needs to be not predictable, needs to challenge your preconceptions and moral compass. The first one did that, so the second one needed to have that as well. Going the path of the obvious would mean a failure in those regards, it’s not faithful to the nature, the essence of this movie. So we needed to go a completely unexpected route, right?
At the end of the first movie, the bad guy gets away with it. We thought that was a cool thread to follow. What is the life of this guy going to look like in the future, after he got away with it? Is his past going to catch up to him? Is he going to have to pay? Is he going to understand what he did? That’s a lot more interesting to explore than just going on the path of, “Okay, it’s the same thing again.” It’s more challenging, it’s more difficult, and then people go like, “Oh wow, we never thought of going that way.” But I guarantee that they’re going to appreciate that a million times more.
So out of curiosity, because you just mentioned it, was there any point in this movie where you felt like you were crossing the line with violence? No spoilers, but the film starts to feel like it’s pushing a few barriers here and there…
Fede Álvarez: We probably cut out some frames just to pass the ratings. Our movies always get like an NC-17 conceptually right away, and we try to push them so they can just barely fall in the R rating. But, actually, there was something in the third act! We can’t spoil, but we always wanted this to have what the first movie had in the sense of there’s no way even the smartest person in the audience can guess what the third act is going to bring.
What the Blind Man tried to do in the third act of Don’t Breathe, there’s no way anyone guessed, “Yeah, he’s probably going to try to inseminate someone.” So it’s the same here. There’s that twist in the third act, there’s just no way you can put it together. I doubt that someone can. We really wanted to go a bit more pulpy to pull that off. There were some pretty brutal, crazy ideas that didn’t make the cut though. Some were even less violent but conceptually darker, all related to the third act.
Rodo Sayagues: When shooting the movie, I never thought that it was that violent (Fede laughs). For me, it felt like we were shooting drama.
Fede Álvarez: When we write movies sometimes, we feel like we’re writing comedy. If you see us write these stories, we’re always having a laugh. The darker it gets, the more we laugh about it. Hopefully, this movie is doing the best version of that. Yes, people get terrified, but every time I watch one of our movies in a theater and I turn around, you can see two people sitting together: one of them is covering their face in fear like, “Oh my God” and the other one is eating popcorn eyes wide open.
That’s the beauty of diversity and taste, you know? Some people see it as horrific and sink in their seats and some people get a blast because they’ve managed to laugh at the things they fear the most. That’s the best way to conquer those fears, sometimes to just let it go and see it on the screen, have a laugh with your buddies, and watch madness take over the theater. That’s what we try to do.
More so in this film, the Blind Man has a sort of Jason Vorhees-esque vibe to him, where he feels more like a brute force of nature. Seeing as this concept is your shared brainchild, can you talk about the direction you took the Blind Man?
Fede Álvarez: As you said, he’s a shadow character. Just like Jason, you’re not seeing him go, “Okay, I’m going to hide behind the door and wait.” He doesn’t reveal his plans to you most of the time. On Don’t Breathe 2, a lot of people are like, “Oh, he’s the protagonist!” But you don’t really get to be with him while he’s planning anything. We do get to share a moment like in the midpoint and have a bit more intimacy, but most of the time you’re with Phoenix, the young girl. She’s the protagonist of the story.
But here’s the thing, even when we put him in more of a protagonist place, we never want to kill the mystery about him. So he never reveals too much about his plans, what he thinks, or his feelings most of the time. I think it’s great to keep the mystery around characters like this, it just makes them way more interesting.
Rodo Sayagues: And in this movie, he shows a lot more ability in terms of engaging in action and combat because the challenge is bigger. Now he’s fighting these guys who are way tougher, deadlier, and even more determined to hurt him. So he has to rise up to the occasion, and he does. The story demands that he up his game, so that’s why he comes into that nature for the role.
Finally, I have to ask, you guys like to joke around and say that you like to “fuck with the audience” in your films. But all jokes aside, do you think in the current state of the horror genre, that it’s absolutely necessary to have some stories that push the barriers or push people’s buttons?
Rodo Sayagues: I do believe 100%. As we were discussing earlier, this villain got away with a crime. We put our focus on this guy to see how he lives his life after that. He’s still a human being, is he going to remain oblivious to what he did? Is he going to have a hard time going to bed every night after the events that we saw? We very much know what he did, how is life going to catch up to him? Is he ever going to pay or not? And most important, at least for me, is he going to ever understand the pain that he caused? So in showing that story and putting an eye on that, I think it’s necessary. Let’s look at this human being, what’s wrong with him? Is he going to ever understand what he did? That’s the question that this movie raises, and when people watch it, they’ll find an answer. Hopefully, they’re going to decide how to perceive this guy.
Fede Álvarez: But also to your question, in more general about film and if they should push the boundaries of it, go back 100 years and look through the trends of Hollywood and when you read about film, particularly mainstream cinema, it always goes through the trend of like, it starts really wide with all these sorts of stories, and then based on success, box office and reviews, people start narrowing down to try and make exactly the same movie over and over because they know this works. Then what happens is that it becomes dull, boring, and it starts to fail. The films get bigger and bigger, and then there’s a generation of filmmakers that show up and open it up again. That happened in the 60s with Easy Rider and all these films that went to places that a lot of people thought were really wrong. People judged those movies really harshly because of the characters that were portrayed and the way America was portrayed. And so the very conservative side really went after those filmmakers.
But then what happened… those movies were the ones everybody wanted to see! They showed that people needed more variety and different points of view in cinema. So it opened up, but the same cycle happened again and died sometime in the mid-80s. Cinema was, again, really narrow to certain morals and certain heroes and it fit perfectly into one place. Then it opened up once more in the 90s. You know, when Tarantino did Pulp Fiction, like none of us had seen drug dealers and criminals at that level joking around and shooting people. Particularly, with young kids as drug dealers and showing them getting murdered! So it opened up again, people were exposed to something new. But lately, it’s been narrowing down. So it’s always good to do new things. Now, I’m not saying that we’re the guys to open it up at all, I’m just saying that we always have to try to not just follow the herd of what we think everybody wants.
Certainly, mainstream cinema and mainstream media, in general, just like to focus on “This is what people want. You should walk out of this because it’s morally wrong,” it’s trying to avoid those fears. All that does is kill cinema, it just starts to narrow it down again. And the audience won’t like those movies anymore because they’ll get bored. They won’t show up once you narrow it back to that “perfect” thing that everybody agrees on. That’s not diverse, you need diversity with ideas as well.
Rodo Sayagues: I think it ends up being not a faithful reflection of reality. It’s so narrow that it doesn’t represent what’s actually out there and how we human beings are at this certain point in time. You know, everybody has a dark side. So this kind of movie works as some sort of metaphor to point that out. Yes, there’s the lighter side and there’s a darker side – can you come to terms with that?
Can you admit that to yourself? We all do wrong things, but of course this movie amplifies that as it’s fantasy and fiction, you got to be more absurd and crazy, right? But we all do things that we’re not proud of. It’s just about coming to terms with not everything being black and white. We all have shades of gray, so I think portraying that in the movie is just and fair, and it needs to be done.
Fede Álvarez: The more fucked up the characters are, the more interesting it is to follow them. Should we show them compassion even in the darkest moments, or should we just spit on their graves? That’s what’s interesting for us.