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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

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