Stepping out of their known comfort zone, with “No Escape” the Brothers Dowdle deliver a high octane, heart pounding thriller starring Owen Wilson, Lake Bell and Pierce Brosnan. Directed by John Erick Dowdle and co-written with brother Drew, the boys seamlessly segue from the horror genre to that of action as they populate the film with edge of your seat nail biting tension courtesy of some of the most dynamic performances you have seen to date from Wilson and Bell.
Set in an unnamed country somewhere in Southeast Asia [but shot in Thailand], we meet Jack and Annie Dwyer and their two lovely little girls, Lucy and Beeze. Jack has just taken a job with a seemingly socially responsible company that designs clean water systems for “fourth world” countries, but then privatizes the water distribution system for profit. Along with the job, comes a relocation to Southeast Asia, putting the family at an uneasy disadvantage from the start. Thanks to the adorable Beeze though, during their flight over they meet a British ex-pat named Hammond, a frequent visitor to the country in search of women, wine and really bad karaoke, who gives them some tips on the lay of the land. Unbeknownst to the Dwyers and Hammond, however, while in mid-flight, a coup-de-tete has taken place on the ground and the country’s military ruler is assassinated by ruthless revolutionaries.
By morning, the Dwyers start to discover this isn’t the idyllic paradise represented in travel guides and Jack’s employment brochures. An angry mob assembles on the street below and then quickly takes over the control of the hotel and the city, executing all Westerners on sight. Seems they have a problem with Jack’s new employer and given welcome banners prominently displayed in the hotel lobby with Jack’s picture, they are gunning for Jack – literally and figuratively. And so the race for survival “behind enemy lines” is on with Jack trying to save not only himself, but his family.
Anyone familiar with the work of John Erick and Drew Dowdle knows right off the bat that “No Escape” is new territory for the brothers. Besides moving into the action genre, “No Escape” represents a personal step-up on the ladder for John and Drew as it not only stretched their abilities as filmmakers, but cemented their own confidence in those abilities. Sitting down for this exclusive interview, John recalls, “We first wrote this seven or eight years ago, and initially we wrote it and I remember having this like, “I don’t know if I can direct kids that well” moment. I remember we talked about maybe we sell this and we stay focused on other stuff. But over time, the scripts that were trickling down to us, by the time they got to us, it was stuff that we didn’t want to do. And we were like, ‘We could never get the job to direct this if we didn’t write it.’ So we said, let’s do this ourselves. We’re big fans of betting on ourselves. Let’s bet on ourselves.”
Expounding on his brother without missing a beat, Drew is quick to note that “After ‘Quarantine’, after we did our first multi-million dollar production, our first studio film, bigger film, we kind of believed we could just about anything like this. We really had a lot of confidence. It’s interesting when you make a film and you look at a scene and you go, ‘I have no idea how to do this’ and then you sit down with the people that do; your AD and your stunt coordinator and your VFX supervisor, and you start breaking down the pieces. We’re kind of psychotic preparers. We storyboard a lot.” Even to the lay person, with all of the moving parts of “No Escape”, there is no such thing as too much preparation.
But there’s an advantage to having eight years to bring a project to life to which both brothers agree. “[T]hankfully the one benefit of having it fall apart so many times is we had an enormous amount of time to prepare.”, a comment at which John heartily chuckles, “Storyboarding and storyboarding and storyboarding again.” The seemingly more pragmatic brother, Drew readily admits, “I don’t think it would have been as good of a movie if we made it in 2008. We wouldn’t have had Owen [Wilson]. It wouldn’t have been the same movie.”
The time from script to screen also allowed the boys to gain more experience as filmmakers and appreciate “the little lessons you learn along the way.” Like, casting. For Drew, “Casting warm, relatable people is one thing that we learned over the years. . . And across the board, all five of our principal cast on this are very accessible warm people. I think that’s something we learned over the years that we might not have done if we did this in 2008.” To speak with the Dowdles, themselves jovial, candid and embracing, one would expect nothing less.
Two things, or people, on which the brothers never waver is when it comes to their cinematographer Leo Hinstin and editor Elliott Greenberg. Greenberg did some “clean-up work” on “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” and has been with the Dowdles on every film since. “No Escape” marks their fifth outing together. The visual tonal bandwidth in “No Escape” is beautifully executed and beautifully designed, not only due to Hinstin’s impressive lensing, but also thanks to sharp, crisp, spot on editing giving neither the characters on screen or the audience time to breathe. When the family on screen finally stops for a moment under a wet boat in a pouring rain storm to take a breath, the immersed audience does the same; a feat which requires plenty of calibration to hit those emotional beats and maintain tension.
As John tells it, “[Elliott] does a rough pass and then he and Drew and I are like these grumpy old men arguing [laughing]. We all have our things. Drew’s always watching the hands and feet. I get upset. There’s certain vanity stuff.” Finishing his brother’s thought, Drew hurriedly pipes in noting, “We knew on this film we didn’t have the luxury of even one day of additional photography. That was not going to happen on this movie. Elliott we kept right behind us and in terms of our shooting schedule, we had a hotel room right down from our office. We’d go in there two or three times a week and just look at every sequence. Do we have it? Do we have it? And he’d say, ‘We need a POV of the gun man. You didn’t get it.’ And we would find a way to get that within the body of the film.”
Clearly a fully collaborative effort, John continues raving about Greenberg citing to some scene specifics. “When they’re on the moped and they go through the city and they start to see [everything] – that was an Elliott idea. He was like, ‘This is your chance to show scale and scope and you missed it. Can you just drive for awhile and we can use some music?’” And that was an Elliott idea.” Piggybacking John, Drew picks up the story. “ But it was basically them leaving on the moped and then they got to the parade – to your point about calibrating the tension – Elliott felt like it was just too stacked. “You have a city to drive through and it’s been destroyed. Why aren’t you showing that?” It was a brilliant idea. And we got this nice long score moment where they’re taking in the city and that didn’t really exist in the script because there’s no action or dialogue.”
And then there’s Hinstin. According to Drew, “Leo is just a supremely confident DP and we had worked with him in Paris. I’ll let John take it too, but I just want to say one quick thing about Leo. We really wanted to shoot three cameras everywhere. We wanted the actors to be able to move in the space and not slow them down with too many marks. Leo was so onboard to do that. Some DP’s that have been around for decades are much more rigid in what they’ll do, what they’re willing to do. Leo kind of said, ‘I’ll make it look beautiful. You do what you want, but I’ll tell you if it’s not okay. If it doesn’t suit me, I will let you know. Until that point, let’s just run amok.’” A DIY kind of guy, Hinstin understands the benefits of post-production and color correction which means, as Drew notes, “He’s willing to let us push the edge a little bit. We don’t anything to get through to the final cut that’s not beautiful. But he trusts us and we trust him. On the riot scene, the government was there to shut us down because they were a little afraid that something might spark, Leo just grabbed the camera and said, ‘One more take!’, and he just went right into the middle of the clash. So many of the shots that we have in the final cut are from Leo in the middle of it.”
Key to Hinstin’s shooting style, especially given the action in “No Escape”, was the decision to shoot according to the physical logistics such as stairwells and rooftops and city streets filled with vendors. “A camera hand held. B camera was always steadi. We had the most amazing steadicam operator who could segue around [and] steer with his knees and he could go 30mph. He was like a cyborg. He was amazing.” Elaborating, John gives the crew credit where credit is due. “We had three different styles. There was Richie on A camera whose sort of the run-and-gun guy. Then B camera is that guy who’s like a cyborg. And then C camera was a guy named Art who would always sit so you’d never even notice him in the room but he was always just there clicking off really interesting details and stuff.” Adding to the overall visual experience was a Phantom camera brought in from Paris which provided some lush slo-motion shots.
For Drew, Art was a key component of the emotional beat and familial sensibility of the film. “We told Art if the girls are doing anything interesting, you’re on them all the time. He just had all these great artistic shots from a little bit of a distance. Between the three we had such a great selection in editorial.”
Notable is that the Dowdles were shooting day-for-day and night-for night using the Red camera by night and the Alexa by day. This decision allowed the brothers to stay true to their mantra of “No CG. No green screen.” With virtually no stage work in the entire movie but for the Dwyer family in an airplane winging their way to Jack’s new job in Southeast Asia, as John relates, “People kept saying just build a roof top on a stage and put green screen up. And were just, ‘It never feels right.’ We shot a real hotel rooftop with the real view around it. You can feel that it’s real.”
Of course, despite all the planning and preparation, there is always bound to be one or two little hiccups; in this case, the brothers accidentally burned down a building – and not from the pyrotechnics in the film. As Drew tells it, “It was just a fuse that shorted out in a special effect. . . It actually wasn’t too terrible but thankfully the building wasn’t very valuable.”
With “No Escape” finally released and John and Drew given the luxury to sit back and catch their own individual and collective breaths, one must ask what they each learned about themselves as filmmakers, and perhaps more importantly, as brothers.
For John, “I’d say this is the most personal thing we’ve done. The little girls are based on our sisters. There’s a lot of little travel stories of our own family embedded in this. This was going back to our roots. . .[T]here’s no studio, there’s no one else there, it’s just us. It was like back in the days where we had no money and we were just doing it all ourselves. . ..I remember when I was first going to film school. I’d go to film school and I’d come back and work for an ad agency or something, but it’s like little by little – and I think for both us – every step is ‘Okay. I’m comfortable here. Now I’ve going to start aiming at that next thing.’ I feel like this has given us courage to reach further than we through possible before.,”
And for Drew? “But to do that in Thailand was a big deal. We had never worked with a cast on this level before, too. It was a little scary going into your first kind of movie star movie, not that I ever questioned our ability to do it. But looking at John as the director, one day in rehearsals we were like, ‘We got this. We’ve got great actors that trust us and we can take this step and we’re ready and ready to do it in Thailand without any oversight and we’re gonna deliver a film that we’re confident in.’ So, I think our confidence level grew quite a bit. We can shoot in challenging situations under tight constraints. John as a director is really good at understanding where the constraints are and keeping us within them. That’s very helpful because with a lot of directors, the budget is someone else’s problem and it’s all about the shot. And John’s all about the shot but knows exactly where we can’t go because we don’t have extra time or extra money. That’s good to know.”
Reflective, Drew has the last word. “[A]t one point [our agents] were flooding us with scripts and wanting us to do something bigger, more studio, more franchisee thing, and we resisted it because it just didn’t feel like our voice. They have the right intentions. They want our careers to evolve and grow but after everyone saw the first cut of “No Escape”, our agents and our reps all said, ‘Forget all that. Keep doing your own thing. Keep doing what you want to do.’ That was this great validation. We’re on the right path, let’s not worry about all the stuff that’s out there and all the super hero stuff and let’s just stick to our guns.”