For screenwriter David Guggenheim, Hollywood success didn't come overnight. Instead, it chose a more circuitous path. The cinema was his side-profession; other than some work as a production assistant on the 1997 romantic comedy Addicted to Love, his day job as an editor for US Weekly actually paid the bills.
That is, until he developed a spec script for Safe House, an action-thriller centering around Matt Weston, a rookie CIA agent forced to go on the run with rogue operative Tobin Frost after shadowy assassins breach Weston's secure location - the "safe house" of the title - looking for Frost. The Safe House script generated a lot of interest throughout the Hollywood community, landing on the Black List (an annual ranking of Hollywood's most popular unproduced screenplays) and eventually starting a studio bidding war.
Flash-forward to early 2012, long after Universal Studios acquired Guggenheim's work. The end result stars Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds as, respectively, Frost and Weston, and the film has grossed over $200 million worldwide. It's an auspicious start for a former tabloid editor, who now has projects in development with such luminaries as Nicolas Cage, Ron Howard, and Tony Scott.
In the following interview, Guggenheim discusses how he developed his Safe House screenplay, the difficulties of balancing feature-film duties with his work on a television pilot, and which of Safe House's many action scenes he likes the best.
Note: At one point, Guggenheim and I discuss some specifics related to the climax of the film. That section has been bracketed with spoiler warnings for those who have not yet seen Safe House.
Screenwriter David Guggenheim
Talk about how the script originated.
This one developed around the concept of "safe house." I'm a huge spy fan, so I've always been aware of this idea, that the CIA has these secure locations all over the world, and someone's got to operate them. So, I thought, "That's an interesting character, [the person] who's around waiting all day in it."
Initially, it began as a 3 Days of the Condor version; a bunch of people came in, they all got killed, and our housekeeper was the only one left alive. He's [now] on the run, blamed for all the deaths.
I developed that for a little bit, but then it was much more interesting to pare that with another character. What if he wasn't on the run on his own? What if he had to protect the guy who was brought in? It becomes more of a "road movie" and a character-driven story, with these two guys who are polar opposites in their points of view, in their jobs, in their lives...It had that mentor-protege relationship, and it was so much more drama to mine with a concept like that.
How did your final draft differ from the final cut? Were there many changes?
Not that much. We went back and did a little bit of ADR work to tighten up the logic in some certain spots so the audience could really follow what was going on, and then we did a little work with the ending; we made it a little more ambiguous with what Matt was doing, whether or not he was betraying the CIA...For the most part, though, it was very close.
When Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds signed on, did you change much material to accommodate them?
At Universal Studios, Scott Stuber was the producer on [Safe House]...I started working with them, and they hired a director off the draft. We were ready to go, and they were casting off that first draft. By the time I was finally given some notes, Denzel was already involved. The director was involved, and we had to rush into production very quickly.
How much time did you spend on set? What kind of input did you have?
The weird part was, I was shooting a pilot at the exact same time. Literally, my schedule for the TV show was right on top of the Safe House schedule.
I did a pilot called Exit Strategy. Ethan Hawke was in it, and Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) directed it. It was this big, action show for Fox. It didn't get picked up, but we were shooting it literally on top [of Safe House]. On a TV show, the writer is king; you have to be there every single day. I'd be checked in while we were shooting Exit Strategy, writing some Safe House scenes, and the minute we wrapped, I jumped on a plane and went down to Cape Town for a couple days. Flew in, flew back, edited the pilot, and then went back to do some work in post.
From left to right: Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds in Safe House
[Begin major spoilers]
With regard to the ending, at any point, did you and [director] Daniel Espinosa discuss killing off Reynolds' character? Right now, it feels like the film could have been building to that point, given how badly he is wounded in the fight with Joel Kinnaman's character.
That didn't come up; it would have just been a bloodbath at the end. It would have been like The Departed where everyone is just dead. I think it was, Denzel's character had to die in order to redeem himself, and then if Matt died, he wouldn't have been able to act on any of the lessons that Frost taught him. We're doing our job, though, if it feels like he's going to die. That's great.
You really do take him right to the edge, especially the way Mr. Espinosa stages the fight scene; it's so raw, especially the damage inflicted on Matt.
That's my favorite fight scene in the movie. It's just a knockout...when they start, they just don't stop until one of them is dead. It's bare bones and gritty, and it's great because it's Ryan's first kill as his character. Matt hasn't killed anyone up to that moment. You really register that on his face when he's killing [Keller, Joel Kinnaman's character]; it's a very aggressive, very primal manner. Every single time I've seen it with an audience, there are multiple gasps every time when Keller is reaching for that glass shard and then stabs Matt with it.
On that note, what approach do you take when you're writing these action scenes? Do you go into a lot of detail, or do you leave it deliberately sparse so that the stunt men and fight choreographers get the freedom to create different possibilities?
Certainly, if there are any character moments that go down with the action, you have to make sure that's in the script. But for example, you don't necessarily write, "Block. Punch. Punch." You leave that for the choreography. You are writing the intensity of them going at it and then building to the moment with, say, Matt choking Keller to death. You just try to make the action incredibly tight to read. It's really just a blueprint for your second unit guys, who take over and come up with some pretty amazing stuff.