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SAFE HOUSE

About The Production
Finding Shelter: Safe House Begins

Producer Scott Stuber was intrigued by David Guggenheim's screenplay after only a few pages into the read. Recognizing the find, Stuber preemptively purchased the work months before it made a splash in the industry and landed on the infamous "Black List" of the best unproduced script in circulation. "In this job, you read a lot of material-articles, books and screenplays-and sometimes you see a nugget of an idea that you think could be a movie," offers Stuber. "What was great about David's screenplay for Safe House is that it read perfectly like a film from the first draft. I saw the movie and the characters, and we were lucky enough to get it."

In the past, Guggenheim had penned other spec scripts, but none had broken through for the writer. He shares: "I worked for Us Weekly for about 10 years, and I had been writing specs for about 12. I had come as close as humanly possible to selling scripts, and then every single time I thought something was going to sell, it ultimately didn't. Safe House was the first one that broke. I literally went from working at my job to working on the set of the film in a year."

The screenwriter was thrilled to find that Safe House had found a home. He recalls: "I tried to write a satisfying spy yarn, something that I would love to be able to see. Originally, I was just trying to get it written before my first baby was born, because I knew how hard that would be after she came. Then, luckily, we sold it around the first week in February and she was born February 24...right under the wire."

Guggenheim walks us through the setup: "You've heard a safe house mentioned in so many movies, but it's never been its own starting point. I started with the concept of 'let's examine someone who works in a safe house, a housekeeper,' and that grew into pairing up a green, idealistic housekeeper with a veteran cynic. In some ways, it's a road movie, because it's about these two guys trying to get from point A to point B, from one safe house to another. That's a clear spine along which you can play with these two butting heads. The characters have completely different points of view and are at different points in their careers."

Stuber found this dynamic a nuanced take on the genre. He recalls: "It read as a big action-thriller, but what I found interesting was the paradigm of these two characters: the veteran spy and the rookie. What we liked about Tobin Frost was that this character was multidimensional: He has many layers and a dark soul. He has given up his ideology, his country, and turned cynical because he believes the world to be cynical. He no longer plays by the rules.

"Then there's Matt Weston, who has the ideology that the world is a good, fair place," the producer continues. "Throughout this journey, Matt realizes that's not the case. As you get older, you see that whatever path you choose, there are politics and things that are not fair. But do you choose to keep your soul? Do you keep your credibility and your honor? The question of the movie is whether or not Matt will be able to go through this journey and still keep his integrity and humanity."

For Stuber, a character-driven spy thriller needed a director who could adeptly handle both the action and the nuances of the story. The producer had seen the acclaimed Snabba Cash (Easy Money), from Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa, and was excited by the work. Stuber says: "The kinetic nature of that film was so engaging. Daniel made it in Sweden on the budget that he did, and I was completely drawn in. It felt big and cinematic. When you meet Daniel, he's an infectious, smart individual who is well-traveled and speaks multiple languages. He talked character and mood, and he understands that story is king. He's a real student of film, and his actors love him."

Espinosa explains his draw to Safe House: "My background is more European art house. When I did Snabba Cash, it was a trial for me because I wanted to see how my interest for character and inner plot would contrast against a movie with a strong pace. In the process, I realized that it was complementary to my strengths, which I feel are acting and the inner story of a character. After that, I was looking for something that had an archetypical journey for characters and a strong pace. When I read Safe House, it felt, in many ways, like a reverse of Unforgiven: You have the old warrior who knows that the world is corrupt, and you have the young gunslinger who believes that, somehow, his romantic ideal of good will prevail."

The director explains that he appreciated the linear narrative of Guggenheim's story: "It begins with a single event, similar to having the most wanted criminal suddenly walk into a police station. The question is not how we got him; the question is what is outside of those walls that forced him to walk in. As these two characters are hunted, they slowly get to know each other and form a bond-not a friendship, but a mentor/protégé, prisoner/cop relationship."

While embracing the idea of helming the thriller, Espinosa was adamant that the film eschew formula and not confuse pace with story: "People can see this as an action piece or a spy genre, but I believe that those are not real storytelling formulas. In all good storytelling, it's about the characters' journey. Even if you have a fast-paced movie, you still have, at its most basic, an archetypical dilemma-Cain and Abel-and an audience can relate to that. If you call this an action-thriller, however, you would be right. But what I liked about this movie was that it also recognized that there is a loss for those who have held the world to a blueprint of their personally held ideals."

Espinosa further boils his motivation down to something quite simple. He reflects: "This film has given me the opportunity to meet with some of the greatest talents in this business and to get to work side by side with them. For a young guy from Sweden, that is quite extraordinary."

Not Your Only Enemy: Casting the Action-Thriller

When casting Safe House, Stuber and Espinosa placed importance on avoiding tired tropes. Stuber explains the rationale: "Action without character is boring. The script read well because everything moves at a quick pace. Then, when you sit and get to know these people, there's a real depth to them. We went after actors who could be in those moments and have the audience feel what these characters are feeling."

As the producer and the director discussed their dream cast, Denzel Washington was brought up as their ideal Tobin Frost, the CIA's most notorious traitor. The two invited Washington (then starring on Broadway in the play Fences) to discuss the proposition. Stuber recalls the meal: "At the end of lunch, Denzel stood up and said, 'All right, we're going to do this,' and walked out. I thought, 'What? Is he going to call his agent? Is it a done deal?' I wanted to make sure, so I called Denzel's agent and he said, 'I just got off the phone with him. He's doing the movie with you and Daniel.' It was one of those rare, great moments in this business."

Washington, who had a window in his schedule coinciding with preproduction, labored with the filmmakers to hone the project and the character of an operative who has spent the past nine years selling out the United States. The actor offers what attracted him to the role of a man wanted for espionage on four continents: "I got the chance to see Daniel's film Snabba Cash, and it had a unique style and was a very different film. That made me very interested in him as a filmmaker. Scott, Daniel, David and I wo

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