When John Erick Dowdle and his younger brother Drew Dowdle sat down at the premiere of their movie “No Escape” last week, it was the realization of a dream eight years in the making — one that had been diverted several times.
“There were four times, maybe five, this movie almost got made,” says John, who directed and co-wrote the film with Drew, who produced. He explains the movie lost financing several times over the years. “One time we were literally about to get on a flight to Thailand to start filming and it imploded.”
So you can forgive the brothers for being more nervous than usual about their big premiere. “I had anxiety dreams every night this week about things going terribly wrong,” Drew says with a laugh. “I dreamt it was cancelled, they gave our tickets away. … I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around the fact this was really happening.”
Audiences will be able to see the tense, roller-coaster ride that is “No Escape” when it opens in theaters on Wednesday, but the story behind the making of the movie has its own twists and turns worthy of a Hollywood thriller. The film stars Owen Wilson as Jack Dwyer, a husband and father whose work takes him to an unnamed Asian country right as a coup breaks out. An ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances, Jack fights to get his family to safety with help from a mysterious stranger played by Pierce Brosnan.
If casting Wilson as an action hero seems unique, that was by design. “We really wanted someone you don’t think of like this,” Drew said. “We like to joke we cast Pierce and Owen in opposite roles. Owen is playing the Pierce role and Pierce is playing the Owen role. It was fun to try and push an actor away from what you’d typically think of them doing.”
John first struck upon the idea in 2006, when he was visiting Thailand with his father. “The day before we got there, a coup happened and they threw out the prime minister and generals took over the country,” John recalls. “When we got to the hotel, there was military everywhere, and people were searching under cars for bombs.”
John couldn’t help but be unnerved by the amped-up energy in the area, and began wondering what it would be like if someone had brought their family. “It really developed from there.”
In 2010 Lionsgate announced it was financing the film, and the brothers thought they were on their way; instead they learned a very valuable lesson. “Never throw a goodbye dinner,” John says with a laugh. “Because you run into people and they say, ‘What are you doing here, I thought you were shooting your movie!’ It’s so painful.”
After years of stops and starts, the brothers were able to get the budget down and find financing through Bold Films. But even when they finally shot the film in 2013, there were problems. “At one point, a special effect went wrong and we burned down a building by accident,” Drew reveals. “It was on ‘Good Morning America’ and we were like, ‘What if Pierce reads this and says he’s not coming?’ But everyone came through.”
There was also a time filming was shut down because there were uprisings in the area and, while filming a riot scene, officials were worried people would think it was real. “They were afraid us staging something would create the real thing,” Drew notes. In addition, Wilson would sometimes go to Bangkok on the weekends and the brothers feared the airports would be shut down and he’d be unable to return.
They made it just under the gun — two weeks after shooting was completed, a coup broke out in Thailand — at which point their luck changed dramatically. They showed 12 minutes of footage at the 2014 Cannes Market, sparking a bidding war, with the film ending up at the Weinstein Company.
“There was actually another company that made a bigger offer, but Weinstein really felt like the right home,” says Drew. “There’s nobody better at opening a movie.” Agrees John, “Everything broke in our favor. It went from a cursed project to a blessed project.”
The brothers have nothing but praise for their distributor and he man at the head, Harvey Weinstein. “He introduced the movie at our premiere last night,” John notes. “And to have Harvey Weinstein saying these great things about you and your film makes you look pretty cool in front of your friends and family.”
“No Escape” marks the brothers’ sixth feature together, a collaboration that began when they were growing up in St. Paul, Minn. — the same town the Coen brothers were from. “We shared a room into high school and were kind of an immovable unit,” says John, who adds that their mutual trust has served them well. “Now, in the film industry, there’s moments where you really need to show up with someone.”
Though John was the dreamer and Drew was the mathematician, they were inspired by the Coens, and John found an article detailing how the other brothers had mapped their careers. “Joel went to NYU film school and Ethan went to Princeton and got into business. And I was like, ‘This is how we’ll do it!’” says John. “And we did. I transferred to NYU in college and Drew went to business school and got a finance degree and worked on Wall Street.”
John jokes, “I was this dirt poor older brother living in a hovel in L.A. while he was in a penthouse in New York. And I’d say, ‘Come join me. The film business is going to be amazing!’” Drew finally relented and together they made their first feature, 2005’s “The Dry Spell,” with Drew producing and John writing and directing. Made for around $30,000, the comedy got into the Slamdance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the grand jury prize.
Other screenings weren’t as successful. The film was shown at an independent film fest in San Francisco on a slide projector, which promptly broke down. John had to rewire it in a room full of people, and then the film had to start over from the beginning. The Variety review was not kind, noting: “While resourcefulness is more evident than talent, something about pic’s frantic eagerness to please suggests the sibs will be around for a while.” Undeterred, the pair used a pull quote on their posters reading “The Dowdle Brothers … will be around for a while!”
The pair planned on following up with another comedy, and even discussed getting Owen or Luke Wilson to star. “But for guys coming off a $30,000 comedy, getting Owen Wilson was like getting Elvis,” says Drew. They also realized there were very few breakout indie comedies. While lunching with John’s brother-in-law Steven Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”), John threw out an idea: “What if we did a faux documentary on a serial killer’s home movies?” Though they had never considered the horror genre before, both Chbosky and Drew loved the idea and urged John to pursue it.
The resulting film, “The Poughkeepsie Tapes,” was shot in 15 days (with two additional days in post-production) on a $450,000 budget. It premiered at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival to a rapturous audience response. A week later, the pair signed at CAA, took their first meeting on the film that would become “Quarantine,” and got an offer from MGM to release “Tapes.”
And yet, to this day, “Tapes” has never been released, despite being announced and even having trailers play in front of movies like “I Am Legend.” The Dowdles say the film is still at MGM and every once in a while they get a call about a possible release. Still, it was on the strength of the film that they got the gig on “Quarantine” — a remake of the Spanish horror film “Rec” — which the pair adapted, with John directing and Drew producing.
The brothers are determined to see the bright side. “The fact it got buried really made it intriguing. And in a weird way, that might have been better for us at that stage in our career,” says Drew. “People that seek out that movie and know what they’re looking for and love it. People who stumble in front of it, maybe not as much.” In an interesting connection, it was bought for MGM by Erik Lomis, who is now the head of distribution at Weinstein Company and was intimately involved in the purchase of “No Escape.”
Up next, the brothers are busy writing four things at once — two features and two TV projects, though they can’t share details yet. “For the first time in our careers, we have a real choice over things,” Drew says.