Owen Wilson has made a name for himself in the comedy genre for years, but in 2001 he stepped into the action genre for a bit with the film Behind Enemy Lines. Now fourteen years later he is stepping into a different kind of action role with the intense survival flick No Escape. I had the chance to sit down with filmmaking team Drew and John Dowdle about bringing this film to life and bringing Wilson back into a different kind of action film.
Bobby: Where did the idea for No Escape come from?
John: My father and I went traveling in Southeast Asia and the first leg of the trip was Thailand. Right before we went there, there was a coup where the generals were taking over the country to overthrow the prime minister and we decided to go anyway. We went there two days after the coup and it was peaceful, but there was a lot of tension in the air and armed guards everywhere you went. There was just a heightened sense of anxiety and I started thinking what if you have little kids on this trip and it was bad and just came out of nowhere. I mean nobody sees it coming and you are there with a family and it just erupts. Once I got back from the trip, Drew and I sat down and started hashing it out from there.
Bobby: One of the interesting things about the film is that there is never really a specification of where it is at. Was that to allow it to let the viewer decide for themselves or not to cause issue with the country itself?
John: Initially we had it set in Cambodia and we were very specific about it in the first draft of the script. We realized that anyone that read the script said it was really intense, but then asked “Could this happen in Cambodia?” That was their first question. We didn’t want that to be the point of the movie. I started to think let’s take a dimension of the country and give it its own specificity that’s not specific to any one country. We created a language and did all sorts of things to give it its own national identity without making it a statement on Cambodia or a specific country that has the potential for this kind of event.
Drew: It was intended to be more allegoric with Cambodia being a good reference point because it seems safe to go there and it is, but most Americans don’t know much about that country so if something were to happen it would be unexpected and not totally impossible either. We kind of wanted to use that kind of country that was on the front edge of developing but it wasn’t totally important to where the country was, but we didn’t want to make it a fictitious country because it was about this family going there and that was more important to us.
Bobby: With these kinds of things actually happening in some of these countries, do you run into any kind of issues when trying to shoot a film like this there or do they even care what you are shooting?
John: They kind of do. The original title of the film was “The Coup” and Thailand had a couple of them before our movie was made. We left the country and they literally had a coup so the country was teetering on the edge of one at the time. In the scene where Owen’s character Jack is buying the newspaper and then riots break out in the streets. Two days after the general election in Thailand there was like three or four similar, not that violent, but protests erupting all over the country and the government came and shut them down because they were worried that if someone shot a video of police firing on protestors then it could spark a nationwide coup in the country. That being said, Thailand is an amazing place to shoot a movie.
Drew: That kind of stuff started happening after we had already started rolling cameras, but when we set the film up, there was no pending coup or anything going on at that time. Still there like John said there is a history of regular coup’s there and we wanted to do something with that and there were certain things we could not show. We could not show the Thai language, any image of the king or any royalty and things like that. We had to be very careful about that, but they were very supportive of the film.
Bobby: I remember Owen Wilson doing Behind Enemy Lines years ago, but he is obviously known more for his comedic roles. When casting this film did you specifically go after him or how did the casting process work?
John: We very much wanted somebody that is not known for action. We didn’t want the action hero and his family in this situation where you get to see this guy kick ass again. We wanted someone that was more like one of us or like a friend of yours. Someone without a special set of skills. It was more like, what would the average dad do to keep his kids safe. We kept thinking about that and once we cast Owen people kept asking us if we were going to give him a crew cut and get him all pumped and action looking? No, we want the Owen from Marley and Me in a terrible situation.
Drew: Yeah and Owen is still cool and feels like a friend of yours, but still very much a leading man quality doing something different. You mentioned he had done Behind Enemy Lines, but that was a long time ago and this is the older fatherly version of Owen and that was something really fresh to us.
Bobby: That is one thing that works so much better for the film. You didn’t take the Hollywood approach to have to turn him into an action hero by the end of the film. When he kills someone there is a perfect reaction that feels like someone that does not do that and is affected by it. Was that something written that way for the impact of the character or just something Owen brought to the performance?
John: I would say both. We kept saying internally we like thinking of this movie as not an action movie with some family stuff, but a family drama with action elements. We kept telling the actors that what happens is what is more important than what we feel about happens. He kills someone and that is a horrible thing, but the moment for me that I find really important is what does that mean to him in his life. His wife just saw him kill someone what does that mean to them and how will that affect their marriage and allow it to go along the exact same way it has. What does that mean to her in her life? There is that moment between the two of them that I thought they both were so moving after that killing when they lock eyes and there is a moment of just now what? It was written in there as something very intentional and important to us in the movie, but they really brought so much to that. It was such a gift to have such wonderful actors working on this film.
Drew: That was a key moment for us even before casting. When considering actors for Jack we figured that if it doesn’t shock the audience to see him beat someone to death with a lamp then it is not a good choice. That was always the moment we envisioned when casting the movie.
Bobby: Going into that violence, it is very extreme and necessary for the story you are telling, but did you ever run into speed bumps in production where people wanted you to tone it down.
John: Frankly, that was a real worry of ours. We didn’t have a distributor when we made the movie and where worried when it came time to sell it that they would be like “great now let’s make it PG-13 and cut half of the movie out.” So we were quite worried that we would be pushed to tone it way down, but to be honest our first internal cut was even more violent. We screened it for some friends and they were like “Holy S@&t! Tone it down!” So we took it down a notch early on, but just where it felt natural to us. Thankfully we weren’t asked to severely change it.
Bobby: I really like the film and appreciate you guys taking the time to speak with me and wish you luck in the future.
John: Thanks I appreciate it.
Drew: Thanks for taking the time.
Be sure to check out No Escape available now on Blu-ray and DVD.