This interview with the writer/directors of No Escape includes some spoilers for the movie, but many of them have already been given away in the advertising. It’s a shame that some of the ads have shown Owen Wilson throwing his daughters off a roof, because it comes at such a desperate time in the movie, but since it’s out there I’m sure everyone wants to hear about throwing children off the roof.
John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle are brothers who’ve previously made the films As Above, So Below; Devil and Quarantine together. They’ve been trying to make No Escape for eight years, and it was originally called The Coup. Wilson stars as Jack Dwyer, a businessman who moved his family to a foreign country for work. The day after they arrive, they are running for their lives after a coup upheaves the country. No Escape is now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital.
John Erick Dowdle: Yeah.
Drew Dowdle: I did, kind of.
John Erick Dowdle: It’s funny, being a parent, there’s just those moments as a parent where, my son needed stitches and I had to hold him down while they put stitches in his face. There’s those moments where you’re sort of being a horrible person but it’s because you love your kid so much that you’re able and willing to do that. I guess it’s not being a horrible person. It’s being the most loving you can be, or holding them while a doctor’s giving them a shot, things like that.
Drew Dowdle: Just imagining being in a hotel in a foreign country, if something is outside, that would feel like a very safe haven still in your hotel. What if the hotel did get invaded and one thing led to another? Okay, you get up to the roof. Where do you go form there? Just thinking of the logistics of an escape from a hotel like that seemed to be a really interesting set piece.
Nerd Report: The cinematography is designed to look random and frantic, but was it actually carefully designed?
John Erick Dowdle: It was. We had eight years to develop this thing so we probably had ten different storyboard artists at different points. We storyboarded almost the entire thing but then there was some chance with it. For the little girls we made a rule that, when talking to different cinematographers, we’re not going to set marks ever for anyone. Usually everyone has to hit their mark and it’s all perfect. We said on this one we want those kids to be free range and do whatever feels right to them in the moment. The camera has to find them and stay with them.
Drew Dowdle: We had three cameras going the whole show, completely. Even the free range idea for the kids, we really wanted that for most of the actors. When they’re on the rooftop and they’re all trying to figure out what’s going on, we just had three cameras circling everybody and we wanted them to really feel free to act like they would in that situation. If certain takes caught a camera in the background, we’ll just cut around it and we’ll figure it out, but we really wanted the performances to be more important than the marks.
John Erick Dowdle: With the actors too, we didn’t want to shoot 100 takes of everything, like okay, let’s do 10 takes just for the Beeze and 10 takes just for Owen. We would design it so one camera is on Owen, one is on the Beeze, one is on a moped. We designed it like that so we could minimize the number of times they would have to do the same thing. It allowed us to cut between those things in post and it would still match. Even if one take, the Beeze is over there and the next take she’s over here, we’d still have some coverage that could match.
Nerd Report: Did the helicopter crash have to be CGI?
Drew Dowdle: It was a combination.
John Erick Dowdle: From day one, we’ve always been like no CG, no green screens. When they’re up on the hotel rooftop, we were on a real hotel rooftop. That’s the real view there. The helicopter, as it’s flying around shooting the AK, that’s a real helicopter. It’s a real AK.
Drew Dowdle: When the helicopter starts to spin out of control, that’s real. We went out to a field and shot it against the sky starting to spin out of control.
John Erick Dowdle: Drew almost actually got killed.
Drew Dowdle: Yeah, that was a very scary moment actually. We used to have a scene where he dumps the gunman out of the helicopter which we did have but it ended up being one thing too many so we didn’t use it. We were doing that stunt as we were filming it shoot out of control, the stuntman fell and the pilot came a little close for comfort.
John Erick Dowdle: Drew has a camera phone video of the helicopter coming right over.
Drew Dowdle: All of us, there’s RED cameras and our VFX stoop. It was a little frightening. But that was real and then we took a carcass we had the art department build, took a real helicopter body with no rotors or anything and we put it up on wires and we slammed it into the ground on top of the hotel several times. So there’s a little CGI augmentation where we had the rotor, those things that are hitting as it’s coming down are CG but the body itself is real. It’s almost entirely real.
Nerd Report: As it’s pulling the roof of the hotel down with it, Owen and Lake are pretty close.
Drew Dowdle: That sign that’s coming down, that was CGI. That’s one thing we had to do CG.
John Erick Dowdle: The crumbling was. The sign itself was real.
Drew Dowdle: The sign itself was real but the crumbling was CG. That was just going to be too hard to do and too close to the actors.
Nerd Report: When the kids are in midair, that must be some sort of visual effect, right?
John Erick Dowdle: Those are the real kids. They were on a cable that went up to a crane. We were on the fourth floor of a building and they were being thrown. The Beeze, there’s one time they were letting out the rope too fast, so she’s literally free falling. That shot where her upper body’s lower than her legs, we were all like, “Oh God.” Those girls were troopers but I did the jump myself once on a rig and it’s scary.
Drew Dowdle: For the jumps and the throws we weren’t 12 stories in the air. We were four stories in the air. We built a replica roof and landing roof with green in the middle so it was still high up and it was a perfect replica of the two roofs, but yeah, we weren’t throwing them from the 12th floor.
Nerd Report: I don’t think you’re allowed to throw kids on flat ground, so I’m still impressed you were able to cable them up.
John Erick Dowdle: Yeah, we threw my kid first. My son was the first one we threw. In Quarantine there’s a moment they threw a girl five, six feet on the hard ground. I was like, “I don’t think this is okay.” They’re like, “No, let’s build up to it and see if it’s okay. She was fine with it.
Drew Dowdle: She was obviously fully padded and everything.
John Erick Dowdle: Never got hurt. Knock on wood, no one’s ever gotten hurt on one of our sets. We’re very conscious about that stuff.
Drew Dowdle: One thing Thailand is known for is just the quality of the stunt teams. The stunt teams are just fantastic in Thailand.
John Erick Dowdle: They’re amazing. Their rigging and their stunts are just out of this world.
Nerd Report: An easier scene, but when we go into the hotel bar, is Pierce Brosnan singing Huey Lewis and the News during the whole take even when the camera’s not on him?
Drew Dowdle: Yes, yes, our editor hated us for that.
John Erick Dowdle: Plus they shot it in some way that it didn’t sync up with the actual song. It was running at a slightly different speed so it was a nightmare for the editor. He had to spend a week just listening to that over and over, Pierce just butchering that song which is kind of fun.
Nerd Report: What is it like to direct a tank?
Drew Dowdle: The tank was fun.
John Erick Dowdle: Well, it was kind of funny. We couldn’t afford a real tank. It was a shell on top of a pickup truck and the turret moves.
Drew Dowdle: But it didn’t have the treads so it looked really funny sitting on top of a pickup truck with no treads on the side, so we actually had to CG the treads, but it moved and it pointed. That’s all we needed it to do.
Nerd Report: It took you eight years to get this made, and then when it was finally ready to come out, the studio came with alternate titles. Were there others and what was your discussion about landing on No Escape?
John Erick Dowdle: I feel like we spent a year discussing alternate titles. It was originally called The Coup but we realized even in the first test screening, we showed up and everyone was calling it, even the people who worked for the recruiting company were like, “Would you like to see the coop?” Everyone was calling it The Coop with Owen Wilson. The image that was evoking was Owen’s in a chicken coop comedy. We realized it was hard for them to recruit an audience because people didn’t understand what this was. With Owen in the lead, you have to go very clear, “This is not a comedy. This is something different than what you’re used to seeing Owen do.” No Escape has that kind of ‘70s throwback vibe to it.
Drew Dowdle: The movie has that vibe. It’s like okay, if Americans that are running the testing process are not getting the title right, it’s going to be a problem.
Nerd Report: I understand Americans not being able to pronounce The Coup, even if they understand what a coup is. Do you remember some of the other alternates?
John Erick Dowdle: I don’t know that we want to go through those.
Drew Dowdle: There was a lot. We discussed a lot of titles. It was a lively debate. It’s hard for us to imagine those other alternate titles now so I think it’s probably best to leave them out. I will say that a lot of people do know what the word coup means obviously, but we realized the title The Coup in the first season, among the people that knew what the word was, evoked a very political thriller, a very political movie and it’s not really that. We felt the problems are twofold: not enough people know what the word means and maybe it’s suggesting a different movie. We really want this to be about a family’s plight to get out of this country and that’s really the point.
Nerd Report: Right, the coup is not actually what it’s about.
John Erick Dowdle: You don’t really actually learn that much about the coup’s machinations, but No Escape, we wanted to title it more for the family. It’s about them trying to get out of here.
Nerd Report: The pace of the film is tremendous. Did you keep the pace up on the set, or how much came together in the edit?
Drew Dowdle: It was a fast moving shoot. It really was.
John Erick Dowdle: We were shooting six day weeks.
Drew Dowdle: We’d look at the schedule every week and be like, “Oh my God, we’ve got the riot and the parade this week?” The next week would be like, “We’ve got the rooftop and…” There’s very few quiet days.
John Erick Dowdle: There was never a dull day. The pace on set, we were literally sprinting to and from the monitors. Sprint from the monitors to talk to the actors, sprint back. Every day the shoot was a crazy pace. I think that really helped give a sense of urgency to the movie where if we had 100 days to shoot the thing, I don’t know that it would’ve helped us.
Drew Dowdle: We shot 39 days and we crammed as much movie as possible in 39 days and we wrapped right before Christmas where we were going to have to send actors home. So if anything happened and we went long, we couldn’t have afforded to send people home and bring them back. So we knew we had to be done on that day. There was no ifs, ands or buts about it.
Nerd Report: You don’t save Jack and Annie from having to make tough choices, do you? Some Hollywood movies might bail them out.
John Erick Dowdle: That’s one of the nice things about doing this independently. We kept saying, we’re not going to win the Michael Bay game. We can’t out Michael Bay Michael Bay on this movie and we don’t want to. This one, we can go edgier, we can push things a little further than a big studio movie could. We may not have the same number of days or the same budget, but we can give a more unique experience. That’s what we strove for on this.
Drew Dowdle: The perspective of this movie is all about how is this affecting the family. John, you like to say that the American getting executed out front of the hotel isn’t what’s interesting. What’s interesting is how that plays on Jack’s face and how he views that moment. That allows us to keep it a much more intimate portrayal of a big event.
Nerd Report: He has to kill someone at one point.
Drew Dowdle: And that’s a huge moment in the movie.
John Erick Dowdle: But I would say the killing matters less than the moment where he and Annie look at each other afterwards and consider what this means to them and their future lives. That’s the moment. You think the moment is him killing the guy. It’s not. It’s the moment between he and his wife after.
Drew Dowdle: It’s the fact she witnessed it and what does that mean.