Nobody expected much from Safe House, the high concept action thriller from director Daniel Espinoza that nevertheless turned into one of 2012's first big hits. Ryan Reynolds stars as a CIA agent with the boring job of maintaining a "safe house" in Cape Town, South Africa. A year goes by without incident, until suddenly Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), one of the most dangerous men in the world, is taken prisoner. The safe house is assaulted, forcing the inexperienced agent to take the experienced criminal on the run, leading to a deadly game of wits. Safe House was the brain child of screenwriter David Guggenheim, also responsible for the upcoming Nicolas Cage/Simon West thriller The Medallion, about a thief whose daughter is kidnapped, and Tony Scott's upcoming Narco Sub.
Guggenheim was kind enough to give me a 20-minute interview in advance of Safe House's June 5th Blu-ray release date to describe the process of writing the thriller, explain why the 90s had all the best high concept action movies, and give some hard-earned screenwriting advice.
CraveOnline: Safe House is your first theatrically released screenplay that’s been produced. How many screenplays total had you written before that?
David Guggenheim: I had written about eight specs. I think seven of eight went out over the course of like twelve years. It was a lot of knocking at the door.
A lot of dedication there. What was the initial impetus for Safe House? What was the first idea that came in your head, if you remember?
I’m a huge [spy movie] fan […] But you know, no one tried to do the concept of a “safe house.” It’s kind of a cool, freaky title for something, right at the starting off point. Really, though, it was kind of looking at Three Days of the Condor. I thought it was just this great framework for a movie. The idea of this lonely guy, kind of low on the totem pole, who goes to lunch, comes back, everyone’s dead, and now they think he’s the guy, and he’s on the run. It’s a great structure, and it’s a great engine. So I thought, “why don’t we try marrying these two” and it took awhile for me to go, “well, no, this needs to be more of an export movie. Let’s do the movie about the naïve, green freshman paired up with, you know, the vet who doesn’t want to be there anymore, and how, by the end of the movie, they’ll kind of cross arcs. They’ll go on this journey together. It’s a very organic concept that way.
When I’m writing my screenplays that no one gives a crap about, whenever I come up with an idea, I come up with certain scenes if I come up with a good concept. What scenes and moments in Safe House were you thinking of that made it into the film where it was like, “This is where I have a movie?”
It’s honestly very linear in the way I think for myself, like I need to kind of just know how it begins. So concept itself has that set piece in it, I know the set piece is going to be a concept is going to be the safe house being attacked. So I had that, and then I thought, “Well, what kind of fun can I have with these two characters?” And then I started coming up with ideas – which didn’t make it in – what if Frost is trying to convince him, like just mindf*ck him the whole movie, and convince him that, “Hey, maybe this whole thing was a drill. This isn’t really happening.” Really just trying to screw with his head as much as possible. And I thought, okay, this is great, because a spy is very, very simple. You can have those moments play out really, really well. That was really just a safe house attack scene, and I knew I wanted to end it at a safe house. But then along the way, it sort of… like I didn’t have the stadium, for example, to see it before I wrote it.
How do you write a character like Tobin Frost who is a master manipulator? Who is really, really, really intelligent? Do you study psychology?
Yeah, you kind of look into sociopaths. That’s really what it is, a guy who just wants to win at any cost. If you can boil it down to that, then you go, okay, well, how can you write it from that point of view? But really you just need to know that, underneath it, he has a whole other plan. And that’s what’s interesting. Then when he finally says something that’s truthful, it really resonates. And it’s easier when your other character is so naïve for the other guy to look so smart. It’s not like he’s matching wits. Like Hannibal Lecter can really school Clarice, because Clarice has never been in this situation, but it’s much more of a chess game between Lecter and Will Graham, for example.
Safe House, in theory, could have taken place anywhere, and you ended up deciding on Cape Town. Was that a decision based on what locations you could get, or was that originally in the script?
No, it was a whole process. It was originally [in] Rio, and I kept in the shout-outs to Rio in the movie, where Denzel says that’s where his first house was. So the original place was Rio. But yeah, I wanted a cool, South American, gritty feel to it, to set it apart from, say… You’ve seen Prague before, you’ve seen Berlin, you’ve seen the cobblestone street movies like that. It’s a spy movie, so you might want to make it a little more pretty and a little more dangerous, so I thought, okay, South America is gonna look really pretty and really cool, and I haven’t seen that that often. But ironically that was the reason we couldn’t shoot there, because it was so dangerous. I’m pretty sure also Fast Five was shooting down there as well, and hey were running into issues with production.
So I think Universal was like, “let’s change it up,” and I was doing sort of two different possibilities, which was Buenos Aires or Cape Town. Those were the two they were looking at. Both of them could work, but I thought Cape Town worked best, because I hadn’t seen that before, really, I hadn’t seen a movie set in Cape Town. And we didn’t have to change anything, it was like, literally… it was just having to replace the name of the stadium. It didn’t really change anything in the story. But Cape Town became a real character, especially in the way that Daniel [Espinoza] shot it.
When you write a screenplay, do you imagine actors or people you know in the roles?
No. I know some people do. I’ve never done that. Unless you’re trying to be very, very specific, and then it’s like, “Oh yeah, we got them,” then it’s like, okay, I gotta gear this towards Denzel a little more. But luckily Denzel is there to tell you how to do that. Again, for the most part I don’t, because I feel like if you write it for a specific actor, and you don’t get that actor, where does that leave you? But if you’re writing, and it’s helping you do it, and helping you get a good character out of it, then absolutely. Other people can play that, so really whatever your process is that works for you, keep doing it.
One of the things that’s interesting about this movie is, it reminded me very much of a 1990s script, in the way that it treated the CIA as this massive conspiracy waiting to happen. Do you feel like we’re moving back into that a bit more, culturally? Because there was a time when that might have been a little, post-9/11, not cool.
Yeah, it’s definitely that. The tricky thing with all these movies for me is who the villain is. Because it’s not the ‘90s anymore, where you can have the Russians be the bad guy. It’s very tricky with movies set in, like, the Middle East as well. So the danger comes from within, then. And for me, it was actually more, and this got a little lost in the movie, but for me it was gonna be, I didn’t want to make the CIA evil, because I’d seen that. I wanted to make it… like a police department that had a bunch of dirty cops in it. The whole police department isn’t evil, just these dirty cops are. That’s kind of how I look at the CIA. They’re fine, the institution is good, but there are some rotten apples in there.
Well Brendan Gleeson has a monologue in it that I thought justified that, which is, “You live long enough, you work long enough, you’re gonna do things that you’re not proud of.”
Yeah, especially in that world. I mean, it’s not a black and white progression. So [he] is living in the grey area for his entire life, and Matt hasn’t had that experience yet. Matt went in just going, all right, everything is black and white, and when you grow up you know it’s not at all, and it was pretty naïve to think that.
This is just trivia, I’m just curious: had you seen the Patrick Stewart movie Safe House at all?
No! I saw it… it’s on a lot on cable, so I’ll flip the channels all of a sudden there’s a [listing] for Safe House, what the hell’s that? And then I see, “Oh, look, it’s Patrick Stewart.” So I watched it for like ten minutes. I think in the beginning your heart jumps, you’re thinking like, “My God, is there another Safe House movie that’s just like it?” But thankfully no.
Yeah, I hate it when that happens. What can you tell me about Stolen [now titled Medallion]. That’s been shot already, right?
Yeah, they shot it. It’s funny because it was a script that I wrote eight years ago, something like that. Way before Safe House. Almost independently of Safe House, and it got set up with Nicolas Cage and Simon West. So while we were off doing Safe House, they were off doing Medallion. […] But that’s pretty much all I really know about it.
I’m curious what the impetus was for that one, because that sounds like… all I have here is, really, a log line about it.
Generally I like trying to think of, when I’m trying to come up with ideas for scripts, I think the ‘90s had the best action high concept movies. And I think you go take the best high concept action movies of the ‘90s and then go, how would you direct it in the ’70s? That’s how I look at it. You take Speed, and you go, how would you do Speed in the ‘70s? […] That’s how I look at Safe House, and Medallion was much more like… I mean, I’m a New Yorker, I live here, and I wanted to do a very New York, ironically the movies doesn’t take place there anymore, but a very New York-centric movie. And I was like, well, what if someone took someone’s daughter and put her in a Taxicab? then literally, it’s a needle in a haystack movie, where your main character is surrounded by possibilities for the entire movie. There’s four or five cabs up the street and my daughter could be in any one of them. So that was really the impetus. Then we changed it and set it in New Orleans, and it became more of a heist movie than anything else. But Cage is great, and Simon West is a really, really great guy.
Have you got anything else set up right now that you’re really excited about?
Sure, we’re casting, or in the process of trying to cast a movie called Puzzle Palace that McG is directing over at Lionsgate right now. And a movie called Narco Sub with Tony Scott directing. We’re hoping it’s going to be his next one.
You’re doing very well right now.
Oh, thank you. It’s been a good run, yeah. I’m taking a break now, but it’s definitely been a crazy last two years, for sure.
Do you have any of those eight screenplays of yours that’s like, “This is the one that no one’s done yet. This is going to be huge.”
No, honestly, I hate going back. They’re not as well written, for sure. Conceptually, a lot of them are just bad timing, I’ve noticed that too. Like, I wrote a script, and it didn’t sell, but not [because of] the way it was written. […] Like three years ago, it would have had a shot, as opposed to six years ago. When a movie comes out, it changes the whole landscape. I think Taken came out, and it changed the action landscape in a big way. There was an example of, “Yes, we can do a 60 million dollar action movie, not based on existing material, and have it be a success.” Because the action I grew up on used to be summer blockbusters, like Speed was a summer blockbuster. Speed I don’t think gets released in the summer anymore. That’s Avengers territory. So it’s like, what happened to those movies. You have to do a 60 million dollar version of them. Contraband is a good example, too.
Are you interested in doing sort of a big, epic summer blockbuster, maybe an adaptation? Is that where your interests lie?
Yes and no. I haven’t taken one yet. I’ve been offered – I mean, not something like The Avengers, but I’ve been offered stuff that has potential to be a huge, big movie. Part of me does like just generating my own original material. There’s something fun about the idea of taking a big title and thinking, “What’s my take on this, and what can I do with it?” and never say never, but right now I’m enjoying writing Narco Sub on spec, was really fun. And Puzzle Palace on my own was really fun. Getting people excited to make something that was original. That’s always yours.
Okay, I’m going to depart on this last question. You’re a prolific screenwriter. If you had to give some advice that’s just sort of general, just a really highly specific screenwriting tips…
Advice to an aspiring screenwriter?
Well, no, because when you give advice to aspiring screenwriters, I find that usually ends up being something sort of general. I’m talking about nuts and bolts, “I’m stuck on this exact scene…” Have you developed any tricks of yours like that?
I think a lot of it is, know your strengths and limitations. Every time you take a job, you want to be able to know when you can nail it. I feel like specs is really your chance to experiment. I’ve never written a romantic comedy before. I wouldn’t take a romantic comedy assignment. If I wanted to try one, I would write it on the side, because I don’t want to close the door to that studio, or take their money and then not deliver. You always try to deliver on the promise of you, and the promise of your take on the movie. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but you’re always trying to make an effort. If you can’t write a romantic comedy, don’t take a romantic comedy assignment. I haven’t written a lot of science fiction ever, so if someone offered me Prometheus 2, I’m gonna be like, “As cool a title as that is, and wow, I would love to be associated with that, and that movie is probably going to get made, I don’t think I can do that project, so I’m gonna simply pass.”
Well, that’s impressive. It’s hard to say no to something like that when an opportunity comes along.
I’m more worried about saying yes and then not being able to deliver on it, and then they’ll never come back to me again. But at the same time, it is important to push yourself, because you never know what you can and can’t do, so you try it, right? I think that’s what’s good about being a writer too, is it affords you the opportunity to experiment on your own, and then you write the best romantic comedy spec you can, it sells, and then all of a sudden you’re a romantic comedy writer as well. Now you’re getting offered those types of movies.