“Always Give Exposition While Running From a Bear”: Drew and John Erick Dowdle on No Escape

For the past few years I’ve been bemoaning the decline of the mid-range genre film, the action movie or horror flick that is neither a contained micro-budget opus straining against its resources nor an oppressive studio behemoth in which all sense of character, theme, and nuance is suffocated under the weight of its own scale and CGI. That mid-range has always been the source of many of America’s best, most enduring films; it’s the arena where masters like Don Siegel, Nicholas Ray, and Anthony Mann plied their trade under the classical studio system, and in more recent decades auteurs like John Carpenter and Walter Hill kept the tradition alive. As the economics of the film industry have moved everything to one extreme or the other — movies shot for a few grand or a few hundred million – the modest but profound pleasures of Hill and Carpenter’s best work have all but vanished from American movie screens.

Or have they? One of the best films I saw this summer – in fact, one of the best films I’ve seen all year – was Drew and John Erick Dowdle’s No Escape, a smart, stylish, razor-sharp thriller with scale that never loses sight of the human element. The story of a family (two young daughters and parents Owen Wilson and Lake Bell) that finds itself trapped in an unnamed third world country during a coup, No Escape is essentially one long, unrelenting chase. Yet it’s energizing and moving rather than exhausting, and the action has the emotional heft that comes from filmmakers who are using violence to express character and theme, not as a substitute for it. As in the best of Hill and Siegel, the characters are defined by how they respond under pressure, and the Dowdle brothers increase that pressure steadily from one scene to the next with a masterful calibration of tension and release. Though Drew is credited as producer and John Erick is the director of record, the screenplay is signed by both brothers and their duties tend to overlap here, as they have on previous thrillers including Devil, Quarantine, and As Above, So Below. I sat down to talk with them about the making of No Escape in anticipation of the film’s November 24 Blu-ray and DVD release.

Filmmaker: I want to start with a general question that applies to both writing and directing. One thing that impressed me in No Escape was the relentless escalation of suspense, and I’m curious how you achieve that. Is it all there in the script, or is it more about the execution on set, or in the editing room? What’s the most important area?

John Erick Dowdle: We put a lot of time in editorial into looking at pacing, but it’s there in the script too. We’re always thinking about how each piece fits with the next, and when we have exposition our philosophy is: “Always give exposition while running from a bear.” In other words, do it while there’s something else to keep your attention so that you don’t have those pockets where the movie just stops…

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