Swedish helmer created ‘Safe’ haven

Euro sensibilities protected crew when pic encountered hurdles

If director Daniel Espinosa had his way, Hollywood’s studio culture would embrace a kinder, gentler approach to filmmaking.

Universal’s “Safe House,” the Swedish helmer’s first American feature, which took in $40 million domestically over the weekend, had its share of bumps and snags during production, but Espinosa resisted pressure to address the problems by getting rid of people.

“I saw that a lot of Americans’ first knee-jerk reaction to conflict is to fire somebody,” he said. “I don’t do that. I don’t fire people, and I don’t allow people to get fired on my sets.”

Espinosa comes from the European school, where most pics burn through far less coin than the reported $80 million spent on “Safe House,” with its roster of name actors, led by Denzel Washington.

“In Sweden, if we fired somebody we wouldn’t have the money to hire anybody else,” says the Chilean-born director. “When you work on smaller budgets, you have to get along. I try to create more of a family structure (on the set). Firing people causes a very anxious workplace, which isn’t good for creativity.”

By protecting his crew, Espinosa said he was able to build the kind of loyalty that saw “Safe House” through some pretty rough patches.

“It’s nice when you’re shooting and the producer says we need to shut down now because we don’t have any more money for this day, and your d.p. and your crew say, ‘We’ll do it for free.’ Then you know you’ve won them over.”

Safe House” underwent drastic changes before shooting. The film, in which the capture of a rogue agent (Washington) sets off a chain of internecine destruction within the CIA, is set and was shot in Cape Town — but was originally scripted for Rio de Janeiro.

“Four months before we were going to start shooting in Rio, they had uprisings and riots in the favelas,” said Espinosa. It was the fall of 2010 and “we didn’t know how much security we’d need so we couldn’t go there.” The helmer and his team scouted several other locations, including Hong Kong and Australia. They needed a place “with the same socioeconomic structure as Rio, with very poor communities living next door to the middle and upper classes, a city that can be a character in the movie.”

Shooting on a soundstage or using greenscreen was not an option, Espinosa said. “I told them if we can’t find (shantytowns like the) favelas, I don’t want to shoot there. I wanted the city to affect my characters, and that can’t happen if you’re in a studio.”

Cape Town, with its teeming townships, proved the ideal location. They used 35mm film for the 75-day shoot.

Espinosa hopes to make more U.S. studio pictures, but he also intends to continue protecting his crews from the whims of producers. “I’ll get fired before anybody else,” he said. “I do this because I love the work and the people I work with. Worst-case scenario: I’ll go back to Sweden and hang out with my buddies.”

Bookings & Signings

WME signed d.p. Guillaume Schiffman (“The Artist”), co-repping him with Salite Cymbler of France’s Cinelite agency. WME also hired agent Holly Jeter, who brings on board d.p. John Bailey (“Big Miracle”), production designer Lilly Kilvert (“Gray Man”) and producer Ginger Sledge (“Bernie”).

Montana Artists signed first AD Dan “Laz” Lazarovit s (“The Frozen Ground”), production designer Alan Bainee (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), d.p. Cameron Duncan (“Southland”) and costume designer Kim Wilcox (“Nobody Walks”). Agency booked co-producer Darren Demetre on Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring,” UPM Buddy Enright on Mikael Hafstrom’s “The Tomb,” d.p. John Rutland on Eduardo Sanchez’s “Exists,” production designer Ricky Eyres on Kazuaki Kiriya’s “The Last Knight,” and editors Michelle Tesoro on HBO’s “Luck” and Jonathan Schwartz on Showtime’s “The Big C.”

Want to comment or suggest a column topic? Email peter.caranicas@variety.com

More Voices

  • America Ferrera'Superstore' TV show photocall, Comic

    America Ferrera Blasts 'Send Her Back' Chant: 'Embarrassing and Shameful'

    America Ferrera has been a longtime political activist who has focused a large part of her work on immigrant rights. She’s now speaking out about the chant of “send her back” targeting Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar that was shouted at a President Donald Trump rally earlier this week. “It’s devastating and shocking and embarrassing and [...]

  • Game of Thrones

    HBO's Return to Emmy Nomination Dominance May Be Short-Lived (Column)

    As Hollywood braces for the coming streaming wars, HBO’s huge Emmy nomination haul this week sent a new salvo Netflix’s way: The streamer may have the volume, but HBO still has the goods. At least this year. HBO’s record-breaking 137 nominations came on the strength of just 23 programs — led, of course, by “Game [...]

  • Deadwood HBO

    Netflix, HBO Get Ready to Rumble as Emmy Nominations and Phase 2 of Voting Loom

    Last year, Netflix ended HBO’s 17-year Emmy-nomination domination, posting 112 nods overall (to HBO’s 108), continuing the service’s miraculous rise. Now comes the next goal, which may be in reach this year: Surpassing HBO’s all-time record. HBO earned 126 nominations in 2015, its all-time best and a number that Netflix could hit this year. It’s [...]

  • Ellen Sitcom Original TV Show

    GLAAD Chief: Hollywood Needs to Continue Playing a Role in LGBTQ Progress

    This Pride Month is not only about celebrating — it’s also about reflecting how far LGBTQ acceptance has come since the Stonewall riots catalyzed the LGBTQ movement 50 years ago, and about honoring the trailblazers and leaders who propelled LGBTQ visibility and issues forward in what many social justice experts describe as relatively lightning speed.   [...]

  • Matthew Shepard MOth Judy LGBT Activist

    Matthew Shepard's Mother: Why Hate Crime Is Only Conquered When We Speak Up

    In January, “Empire” star Jussie Smollett reported a violent attack at the hands of two men outside his Chicago apartment building. Local police and prosecutors said Smollett fabricated the event, which the actor still vehemently denies. More than a dozen criminal charges, including falsifying a police report, were filed and later dropped by state attorneys. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content