IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Screenwriter David Guggenheim Talks 'Safe House' Blu-ray and DVD, 'Stolen,' 'Exit Strategy,' 'Puzzle Palace' and 'Narco Sub'

Monday, 04 June 2012 22:58 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Screenwriter David Guggenheim Talks 'Safe House' Blu-ray and DVD, 'Stolen,' 'Exit Strategy,' 'Puzzle Palace' and 'Narco Sub'

Screenwriter David Guggenheim is one very busy person!

Not only did he write the blockbuster hit Safe House, which will be available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning June 5th, as well as the upcoming film Stolen starring Nic Cage, and the recent pilot Exit Strategy with Ethan Hawke, but he also has two high profile projects in development with A-list directors McG and Tony Scott, respectively, attached to helm each project. This begs the question: when does the successful scribe find time to sleep?

Safe House stars two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost, one of the CIA’s most dangerous traitors, who resurfaces in South Africa after eluding capture for almost a decade. During his interrogation, the safe house is attacked by brutal mercenaries forcing rookie agent, Matt Watson (Ryan Reynolds) to take the infamous Frost on the run. As the masterful manipulator toys with his reluctant protégé, shaking the young operative’s morality and idealism, the unlikely allies must fight to stay alive enough to uncover who wants them dead.

I recently had a chance to speak with screenwriter David Guggenheim about his work on Safe House, as well as a few of his other upcoming projects. The writer discussed Safe House, the CIA, his favorite spy movies, creating Tobin Frost, watching Denzel Washington make the part his own, why he relates to the character of Matt, meeting Ryan Reynolds, scripting the film’s twists and turns, Cape Town, and his other projects including Stolen, Exit Strategy, Puzzle Palace, and Narco Sub.

Here is what the talented writer had to say:

IAR: To begin with, what kind of research did you have to do into the world of the CIA in order to write the screenplay for this film?

David Guggenheim: Not as much as you would think. I love spy movies in general so I soaked up all the espionage books, movies, magazine, and TV shows, to sort of create an encyclopedia in my head so I could write that version of it. Then of course they brought in an expert and I said, “Where did I get this right? And if I got something wrong, what’s the right version of what I’m trying to say?”  

What are some of the espionage or spy films that you love and that helped inspire your script?

Guggenheim: Well for me it’s every James Bond movie known to man. There are James Bond references throughout Safe House. They’re sprinkled in there like little Easter eggs.    

Can you give me an example?

Guggenheim: Like Vargas, the name of the assassin going after them, that’s named after the assassin from Thunderball. There are more in there, but that was kind of like my favorite. Then obviously Three Days of the Condor is huge. That whole core group of the 70’s paranoia movies, you know, Marathon Man, All The President’s Men, and The Conversation.

How about The Parallax View?

Guggenheim: Yes, absolutely! Parallax View and then Three Days of the Condor, those are just the bibles for me.

Can you talk about creating the character of Tobin Frost, which Denzel Washington brilliant plays in the film?

Guggenheim: It was great because I started with Matt Weston, this sort of naïve freshman character who’s very green. Then I wanted to give him the polar opposite and find the most hardened sociopathic, manipulative expert. Seeing as how he in so much of a submissive position throughout the whole movie, his weapon then had to be his mind. So that’s the fun, then you get to write a character, a sociopath like Hannibal Lecter, who’s messing with you because you can’t do anything else. He’s just screwing with your head the whole time. Then finally when he’s unleashed, he could then kill you with his bare hands.

The film presents their relationship as a cat and mouse game at first, but then they are ultimately forced to team up. Was it always your intention to show the two lead characters at odds in the beginning of the film and then eventually have them come together, or was that idea developed later in the script writing process?

Guggenheim: Yeah for sure, they were adversaries at first and they have a common enemy, which helps, but Frost is definitely trying to get away. Then over time it becomes more of a mentor protégé relationship in some ways and then they become close. The part where he does care about the other one to the point where Frost redeems himself and realizes who he once was through his relationship with Matt and decides he’s going to go back and try to save this kid. But he never would have done it if he never met Matt.

From a writer’s standpoint, can you talk about what an actor like Denzel Washington brings to a character like this, and how that character might actually change from what you originally imagined, but becomes even better in the end?

Guggenheim: It's amusing how much he can accomplish without saying a single word. You can't write that, I mean that’s a special power. He takes it from the page and the bare bones are there like the structure of the blue print of the characters there and then he just embodies it and brings it to life and finds colors in ways that you never could possibly imagine. So he finds humor in things that you didn’t think were funny and he makes little jokes and he finds like all these little nuances that even as I was writing it maybe a little more straight forward just so that I could get it across on the page that this guy’s a killer. And there’s lots of different ways of playing a killer. He wasn’t doing Training Day Denzel, he was just try to find a much more manipulative character. So I think that was fun for him.

Did you imagine Denzel when you were writing it or did you imagine a different actor playing the role?

Guggenheim: Oh no, not at all. For me, and I know that other people do and that it can be helpful, but for me it’s like if you don’t get that actor, then you’re screwed! So I try not to. I just try to write the best character I can and then say, “Okay, now who do we get?” You do think about casting in general, like I’m not going to write an action movie where the lead is a six-year-old kid, although that would be interesting. But for the most part you try to attack it that way as opposed to a specific actor. Then when they get the role, I’m trying to get an actor like Denzel in my head and more simply, what Denzel wants.

As far as the look of the character, having a grey Afro and goatee, were those elements that Denzel added to the character or did you write it that way in the script?

Guggenheim: No I didn’t write it that way. I pictured him refined certainly and methodical in that way, but in terms of whether he was going to wear the beard or not, that was his choice to make. I think it was a great choice because then when he actually does shave, he’s shaving it for real. He buzzed his head for sure, that was one take. Denzel comes up with that stuff. It’s funny because Matt dresses exactly like me on the other hand. It’s absolutely true. He must have gone into my wardrobe.

Did you get to meet Ryan Reynolds during the production? Do you think Ryan purposely copied the way you dress?

Guggenheim: I didn’t tell him that. I met him but didn’t get a chance to get in depth with him. I identified myself so much more with Matt because a) I’m not a sociopath, and b) I understood what it is like to have a job that you don’t really want. So I understood the whole idea of not being able to prove yourself and then when you have that chance. I always really felt a connection to that, and I modeled him after me.

Obviously in a spy thriller there are going to be double crosses and someone will ultimately end up being the bad guy but there are several red herrings placed in this movie to throw us off. I thought you did a really great job structuring all of those elements because I didn’t really see the ending coming, was that a difficult part of the script to get just right?

Guggenheim: It wasn’t so hard to structure because the spine of the movie is really simple. It’s really about two guys getting from point A to point B. When you have a very simple spine you can then easily weave in under storylines. So that wasn’t hard to balance, it was more about coming up with the best way to reveal that moment. In an earlier version of the script the reveal came to early and it didn’t really resonate, it didn’t really make much sense and now it plays really, really well. But even if you guess which character is the true villain, I think it’s shocking at how abrupt and violent the actual reveal is. I think Daniel (Espinosa) helped the twist pop even more.

Did you have an opportunity to visit the set in Cape Town, South Africa during filming?

Guggenheim: I did. Yeah I was down there in Cape Town for a couple days, which was cool. I was shooting a pilot that I wrote while we were doing Safe House, so I was on that set writing Safe House rewrites and sending those over to them. Then as I wrapped my TV show, I flew on the plane to Cape Town and spent a couple days there before I had to fly back. So I definitely got to hang out there and see Daniel at work.

Were there a lot of rewrites and how collaborative was Daniel with you during the production process?

Guggenheim: But the time we were ready to shoot, it was pretty much set. The rewrites we were doing were really more of clearing up some logic beats here and there, and making sure that these moments would really count. Then when you test the movie for the first time you see where the audience gets confused, that’s really where all the rewriting came in. So he pretty much followed what was really happening on the page.

You have another film coming up that you wrote called Stolen. Is that already in post-production?

Guggenheim: Yeah, that’s in post right now. I haven’t seen it. It’s crazy because it’s a script I wrote eight years ago that independent of Safe House got these producers to put the money together and get Nicolas Cage to star, and Simon West to director. They were actually filming while we were filming Safe House. They were both going on at the same time. But I didn’t get a chance to run over to that set.

So you were more involved with Safe House than Stolen, is that right?

Guggenheim: Yeah, unfortunately the timing worked out that we were about to sit down with Denzel and do all the rewrites, so unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to continue on with Stolen, but I wish them all the best and they were great.

Is Exit Strategy the pilot that you mentioned you were working on while they were shooting Safe House?

Guggenheim: Yes, that was the pilot. Unfortunately it didn’t get picked up, and more unfortunately no one’s going to get to see it because I think people would really dig it. It’s pretty cool. Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) directed it, and Ethan Hawk as a spy who officially has a team that jumps into situations where CIA operations goes horribly wrong. He jumps in there, cleans the whole thing up and makes it look like no one was ever there to begin with. It was a very, very cool intense action show for sure.

Did you work on that with Star Trek scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman?

Guggenheim: Yeah they produced it for us. They were amazing to work with. They’re my idols. I loved the opportunity to work with those guys.

You mentioned that the pilot didn’t get picked up, has there been any talk of releasing it by itself as a movie on Blu-ray and DVD?

Guggenheim: Yeah, I don’t really know how it works when the pilot doesn’t get picked up. You know, who owns the rights and how easily they can do it? We shot enough to make a movie out of it; that was partly part of the problem, we overshot. The pilot was only supposed to be 45 minutes and we shot so much within thirteen days. I don’t think there’s a chance but maybe it’ll pop up on Youtube one of these days and then taken down very quickly. It sucks because it was a really fun experiment.

Finally, what is the status on Puzzle Palace and Narco Sub? Are those films still in development?

Guggenheim: Puzzle Palace is over at Lionsgate. McG is directing that and we’re casting right now. It’s very cool and has elements of Die Hard. It’s about this young man who has to break into One Police Plaza, which is the NY police department headquarters, in order to find this evidence to exonerate his father who was framed by all the dirty cops and is trapped inside the building with those cops. So it’s very much like a cat and mouse game inside the most secure building in New York City. It’s very cool, like a jaded Die Hard but more No Way Out with some radical stuff. Lionsgate loved it and we’re moving forward on that one. Then with Narco Sub, which I wrote for Tony Scott to direct, we’re waiting to see if he’s going to make it his next movie or if he’s going to do something else. That’s the thing with getting a director like him, there are so many projects that he juggles, but we’re hoping, fingers crossed, that we’re going to be up high on his list. But he says that he wants to do it so we’ll see.  

 Safe House is available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning June 5th.

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