Safe House arrived in UK cinemas today billed as one of the newer brand of action thrillers. Ryan Reynolds plays Matt Weston, the lowly guard of a CIA safe house in Cape Town, whose normally mundane existence is turned upside down by the arrival of new prisoner Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), a devious ex-spy turned mercenary who is in possession of valuable information. When the safe house is compromised, Weston is forced to flee across the city with Frost in tow, with dangerous enemies in pursuit.
Safe House many of the grainy, handheld camera techniques of the Bourne films, and like them is also a tale of moral corruption at the head of the US secret service, revealing Weston’s employers (represented by the reliably terrific Brendan Gleeson) to be not all that they seem, beginning with an early scene in which Frost is waterboarded by US agents. With a series of spectacular chase sequences across Cape Town’s poorer neighbourhoods, it is a solid, enjoyable action romp, with Washington on charismatic form. Washington, and the film’s Swedish director Daniel Espinosa, who makes his Hollywood with Safe House, sat down in London recently to talk politics, fight sequences and the decision to shoot in the Southern Hemisphere.
Safe House makes a strong point about the line between heroes and villains in the war on terror being blurred, especially when your character is water boarded. What was your reaction to that?
Denzel Washington: What is it over here, MI5, MI6? Who knows what they do? We don’t know what they do; we know that we want to be protected. We claim we want them to be fair and don’t torture people. I think that on 9/11 everybody was for torture, or they wanted to get to the bottom of whoever it was [responsible]. I think everyone wants their country to play fair. I don’t think it would have made sense for President Obama to come on the air and say, ‘Oh by the way, next Tuesday we’re going to shoot Bin Laden’. They are going to do it, the way they’re going to do it. It’s a dirty business.
People involved in that line of work advised on the film didn’t they?
Daniel Espinosa: What moved me was not so much the practical expertise – I always like having these experts there because I want to direct my movie. What got to me was when we were shooting certain scenes I could see that he [the ‘interrogation consultant’] was emotionally moved. We talked a lot about how this work had affected his personal life and how it affects you as a human being. These people who go into that line of business go there for ethical reasons at the beginning, but what they’re forced to do for their country is sometimes a highly unethical act. How does that affect you as a human being – that’s nothing political; that’s something that’s human. How do we live with compromising our own ethics? For me, that’s the core of the movie.
Denzel, what was your reaction to the material?
DW: I just took it from the opposite angle; I just think that Tobin Frost was a sociopath. When I thought of ‘sociopath’ I thought of violence. I didn’t realise that they say 85 per cent of sociopaths aren’t violent, but they are manipulative; they’ll lie, they’ll use charm and wit, pity – you know, I’m not as good as you. As soon as you say, no you’re alright. You’re a nice guy; I’m starting to manipulate you. I think Tobin Frost had the skill set that the CIA appreciated, but they didn’t necessarily know he was a sociopath. I think his blood pressure goes down when there’s murder and mayhem. I think he was interested in winning; every day I wrote in my script or in my journal, how am I going to win today? What am I going to win? When the guys talk about ‘water boarding’ I said ‘You don’t even have the right towels. How stupid are you?’
You are also a producer on Safe House. How did that happen?
DW: I can’t do it any other way. When I saw Snabba Cash [Espinosa’s previous film], and I was fascinated by this young filmmaker. When I met Daniel we talked about his life, where he grew up, what his father did, I was in, as far as Daniel was concerned. I wasn’t in as far as the script was concerned – I didn’t think it was good enough. I’d been in the habit of helping develop material for a long time – I’ve been doing it for 20 years or more now – so my agent said hey, you’re doing all this work, you should get credit for it, so we’re going to get you a producer credit… I enjoy helping to develop material; it’s a way for me to get into the part. We’d sit in a room day after day and we’d work with two or three different writers for five months.
Why did you decide to set the film in South Africa?
DW: We had talked about the fact that not wanting to be too similar to Man On Fire, but Daniel went to South Africa, and he liked South Africa. And that was it. I think just practically, aside from the look and all that, for my character’s perspective, it was going to be easier for me to blend in in a Black country than in a Brown country.
You have been quoted as saying that you don’t see Safe House as an action film. That’s surprising given the physicality on show.
DW: I didn’t think this was an action movie. I’ve been hearing that but it didn’t read like one. I don’t even know what an action movie is. What does that mean? I think it’s a testament to Daniel’s vision. I think it’s intense – I just saw the finished product about a week or so ago, but it plays more intense than it read. One thing Daniel talked about from the start was how funky and dirty he wanted these fights. So I don’t know if that’s an action movie or it was a little uncomfortable as to how real it was.
DE: I don’t think you can direct a movie like an action movie – you can make a movie. I never saw it as fighting; I saw it as struggling. I think that’s how you should perceive something not a set piece but a scene. I think all scenes that are in the movie move the character, and if you perceive it as an action movie, maybe that’s a testament to thinking it’s intense. Then I’m happy.
Do you ever tire of more physical parts?
DW: I went through a phase where I was sick of acting. I was tired of it; I didn’t really want to do it anymore. I was bored with it. Then I tried directing a movie, and I was like shoot, I’ll get back over here. It made me appreciate acting more. When I turned 50 I looked in the mirror and I realised, hey, this ain’t the dress rehearsal; this is life. I don’t know how much more that I’m going to have, and even if I have 50 more years, I probably won’t remember the last 20 or 30 of them anyway. In the last three or four years, especially after doing this play on Broadway with the great Viola Davis [Fences]… I recommitted myself being thorough as an actor. I want to do good work. I want to do good work with people I want to work with – that’s why I mentioned the screenplay [for Safe House]; I wasn’t that impressed with the screenplay. If I hadn’t met Daniel I probably won’t have done this movie because it didn’t interest me that much. I didn’t think it was that good. But I liked Daniel and I liked the way his film was. So when you get the chance to work with people you like and people who are talented, that’s rare. I don’t know how many more movies I’m going to get the opportunity to make, and I don’t want to look back and go, man I just kind of floated through that one, or I just did that one for the money. I want to be able to say that I’ve worked as hard as I could and I did the best work that I could do.