Interview: Actor Stephen Lang, Director Fede Alvarez Advise You to ‘Don’t Breathe’

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CHICAGO – The horror genre in film is always looking for a shot in the old fear factor, and the new release “Don’t Breathe” delivers that injection (heh-heh). The second film by director Fede Alvarez (“Evil Dead”) features character actor favorite Stephen Lang – he prefers “Slang.” The film opens nationwide on August 26th.

Director Alvarez – he also co-wrote the story with Rodo Sayagues – creates an atmosphere of dread by pitting three twentysomething burglars (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto) against a blind war veteran (Slang) on an abandoned street in Detroit. You would have thought that the threesome would remember that a vet would know how to robbery-proof a home, but no! There are more twists and turns than a pretzel, and the film is a satisfying scare fest.

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Stephen Lang Brushes by Dylan Minnette in ‘Don’t Breathe,’ Directed by Fede Alvarez
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Releasing

Stephen Lang is a total actor, with a long resume on stage, screen and TV. Born in New York City, he graduated from Swathmore College with a degree in English Literature. He trod the boards in Off-Broadway and Broadway plays, until moving his portrayal of Happy from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway to a TV version starring Dustin Hoffman in 1985. His most well-known film role is as Col. Miles Quaritch in “Avatar” (2009), but he also appeared in “Gettysburg” (1993), “Public Enemies” (2009) and “Conan the Barbarian” (2011). On TV, he’s had prominent roles in “Crime Story” (1986), “Terra Nova” (2011) and “Salem” (2014). – represented by Editorial Coordinator Patrick McDonald and new contributor Jon Espino – sat down with Alvarez and Slang in a roundtable press interview, along with Pamela Powell of The Daily Journal. They spoke of the film and other career highlights. Slang, your character is blind in the film. Blindness is a condition that sighted people can only temporarily experience, without being within it permanently. What preparation as a performer allowed you to empathize most with being blind?

Stephen Lang: There are also many conditions in which that statement would be true. [laughs] From the side door I think you’re talking about acting. Yes, blindness is a particular condition, and the first way I wanted to approach it was with complete respect, because that is indicative of the times we live in.

When you want to learn about something, what is the first thing you do…you go to the internet. What I found – and what surprised me about it, even though it makes perfect sense – there were many instances of blind people doing extraordinary things they, things that we would think they couldn’t do. They were jumping out of airplanes, skiing and conducting cooking shows. These people had worked through what sighted people ‘look at’ with despair. It was aggressive, positive and a good thing for me to immediately understand in developing the character. What other characteristics were you trying to understand in his particular blindness?

Slang: Well, for one thing he was once a sighted man, knew what it was like to see and is now deprived of it. There is no question that he went through the bleakest despair, and with the other factors in his life he’s like the biblical character of Job. But, in terms of the blindness, sometimes you have a choice – he was either going to jump into the abyss, or learn to live again. His choice was resiliency, and to be all he could be. He is strong.

So how did I think about living his life? First, I defined the parameters of his kingdom, and he became experienced within those walls. He operated with economy, efficiency and total confidence. Because he did this he achieved two major goals – he projected a mastery over his circumstances and became the boss of the situation. I was also able to sell the blindness easier. He moved in straight lines with confidence. It actually began to feel like the character was hyper-sighted, in a way. You did wear contact lenses, did the difficulty ‘seeing’ through the lenses help in creating that blindness?

Slang: They do eliminate a good amount of your vision, acting as that ‘red string’ around your finger to remind you. ‘Don’t forget to be blind.’ [laughs] And we also worked in low light conditions, so I would say that 50 to 70% of my sight was eliminated. It then became the leap of faith to eliminate the rest.

The Daily Journal: Fede, how do you go from your background in stop-motion film to the horror genre?

Fede Alvarez: That was 20 years ago, when I was a kid and teenager, but it was was part of being in film. Then I grew up and found out they paid you for it. [laughs] It was never a career goal, but I liked telling stories with the camera. I don’t know how I get to the place I go, I just do the things I like to do and someday I look around and, ‘I’m doing a horror movie.’ I don’t think it’s a straightforward horror movie, it’s 50/50 with being a thriller.

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Fede Alvarez Directs a Scene in ‘Don’t Breathe’
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Releasing The early days of the horror genre focused on the psychology of fear, rather than the overt showing of what those fears could perpetuate. Fede, do you think you could have worked under those conditions and would ‘Don’t Breathe’ would have been different?

Alvarez: If you ask someone what they thought was the scariest part of the film, they probably would focus on what they thought was going to happen, rather than what did happen. There were many psychological scenes, like the one part in a dark cellar. Nothing really happens there, except what you fear is going to happen. I like to create a hope in the audience that nothing will happen, and then get them terrified when something they didn’t expect happens.

What some of the early horror genre masters knew, and what I know, is that the audience are perverts, but in the best possible way. [laughs] The trailer for the film shows people suffering and dying. That is what gets them to the theater in the first place. If nobody ends up dying, they’d want their money back. That is the perversion, there is something in the mind that wants to witness these atrocities. There is part of the brain that is stimulated by the whole thing, in terrible ways, but human beings are complex. I try to deliver on the promises that the film makes. Silence and darkness were two of the main ways you established atmosphere. What were the difficulties in cinematography and sound design to establish that environment?

Alvarez: The challenge was we had a script with very little dialogue, it was a movie that even if you don’t speak the language, and there were no subtitles, you would still know what was going on. So that left a lot of room for the sound design, the music and the camera work. When the actors do not talk, the sound and camera ‘speaks’ for them. Because I also co-wrote it, I created it so I would have room to play. It was a challenge, but if it works out it gives the audience something more than a typical weekend movie.

The Daily Journal: So you filmed in Hungary, why there and not on location in Detroit?

Alvarez: It became a budget issue. Also they have great crews and a great tradition in cinema. The business goes where the dollars can be stretched, and that translates into a better film at times. If we filmed in Los Angeles, for example, we probably would have had to cut our filming days in half. We were also able to build the house from scratch, to fit the story we were telling. That was on a soundstage, which are the same everywhere. We did shoot all our exteriors in Detroit, so all the cityscape you see is authentic. Fede, your first film was a pre-existing franchise, ‘Evil Dead,’ which was a unique opportunity for a first time director. How do you think that shaped your career? Did it help or hurt it?

Alvarez: It helped it, of course. The first was well received, even as it was polarizing. But I like to be polarizing, if I do something that I think everyone would like then I feel like I’m playing it too down the middle. It was a particular experience…I came from Uruguay, where there wasn’t particularly a movie industry, and suddenly I had this huge project. And with the new internet feedback, before I wrote a single word people were already saying it was going to be horrible. I would get a alert on my phone quoting something about how bad it would be, and I hadn’t really even started writing it.

That was actually exciting, because I used it as motivation, and I worked twice as hard to prove them wrong. It also was my first opportunity to make a movie using better resources and atmosphere for filmmaking, and plus it would eventually be released all over the world. The happiness that I had just getting the opportunity was better than any feeling about doing a remake.

The only comparison I will make with ‘Don’t Breathe,’ is that with the previous film it always was an ‘Evil Dead’ movie, so I couldn’t do exactly what I wanted to do. With ‘Don’t Breathe,’ it could be whatever I wanted it to be, and has more in it as to what my obsessions are.

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Stephen Lang & Fede Alvarez in Chicago
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

The Daily Journal: Slang, since this was such a physically and mentally demanding role, with many nuances, do you think you could have done it twenty years ago as a younger actor?

Slang: I don’t think there is a role that I did twenty years ago that I couldn’t do better now. What has emerged as I’ve gotten older is simplifying the characters I play, unless the role calls for something that is arcane or ornate. I’ve arrived at a place where as a human being I can lend myself to this part. I’ve become more empathetic, and my capacity to understand and be patient – to give people a break – has enlarged over the years. In conclusion, I’m glad I did play this role now, and not twenty years ago.

Alvarez: Even though we were working with a youthful cast, for my money Stephen was the youngest one on the set. We were both in the spirit of ‘let’s play, this is going to be great’ and he would try different things. With the younger actors, they are more conflicted. They’ve only made a few films, and ‘this one better work.’ They’re in a place where they sound like old people, bitter and fearing failure. This was the first film that I have made with an actor that was older than 25 years old, and Stephen made the most movies of anyone, but he felt like the youngest and freshest on the set, just in the spirit of ‘let’s go for it.’ Slang, what do you think your good friend Arthur Miller contributed to the American culture, as far as holding a mirror up to it?

Slang: Arthur built on a tradition that he got from Clifford Odets, and I think – along with Tennessee Williams – that he changed American theater. To look at ‘Death of a Salesman’ is to see Arthur at his very best, and it is the greatest American play, in my opinion. It’s radical, and breaks time up as a fragmentation of Willy Loman’s personality. The original title of the play was ‘Inside His Head.’

Nobody was doing that, and he brought a new psychological realism to theater, and combined it with a remarkable poetic streak. The poetry of Arthur Miller is based on the streets of New York where I grew up – it’s real and it’s incredibly artistic. Every generation brings new and wonderful playwrights, and some of them may be breaking new ground now, but it’s difficult to locate one that can do what Arthur did. You were in one of his last plays, ‘Finishing the Picture,’ in Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, correct?

Slang: Yes, It was a complicated play, and I don’t think even the cast completely understood it. Since I portrayed the Lee Strasberg role in it, I didn’t come onto the stage until the second act, so I was able to observe the first act every night. It finally dawned on me that Arthur had written an existential farce. I wanted to run out one night and say, ‘everyone, I know what this play is supposed to be! We need to go back into rehearsals. It’s dark, but it’s supposed to be funny!’ [laughs] So he was still channeling new ideas, even as he was older.

”Don’t Breathe” opens everywhere on August 26th. Featuring Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette and Daniel Zovatto. Written by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues. Directed by Fede Alvarez. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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