David Guggenheim broke into the business in February 2010 by selling the spec script Safe House which was produced and has grossed $208M worldwide. Since that time, Guggenheim has sold two more spec scripts: “Black Box” to Universal and “Narco Sub” to 20th Century Fox, as well as the pitch “Puzzle Palace”. With several other projects in development and having made the Black List twice (2010, 2012), it’s safe to say Guggenheim is one of the hottest action-thriller screenwriters in Hollywood today.
I recently spoke with David about his background, some of his writing projects and the screenwriting craft. Today in Part 2, David talks about the inspiration for Safe House, the movie’s two central characters Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) and Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), and the film’s huge success at the box office:
Scott: Let’s talk about Safe House. Is it true you wrote it in three months because you set a deadline to get it done before your wife gave birth to a baby?
David: Yeah, what happened was I had written this script before Safe House that was terrible. It was just a really, just bad spec. I didn’t send it out…I wrote it, and I liked pieces of it. I liked thematically what it was about, and I liked the tone of it, but it was just awful. Meanwhile, my wife’s about to give birth, and I had this full time job and I knew if I had a full time job, with a full time baby I wouldn’t get any writing done. So I was like all right, this is my…I wouldn’t say my last shot, but my last best chance to have the time to write something, but there was only this three month window, so I just cranked Safe House out and luckily, the screenplay gods were smiling on me.
Scott: No kidding! It was a big spec deal and ended up placing toward the top of the 2010 Black List. Here’s a logline from the movie.
“A young CIA agent is tasked with looking after a fugitive in a safe house, but when the safe house is attacked, he finds himself on the run with his charge.”
How did you come up with that story concept?
David: I love spy movies, and that’s my favorite genre to work in. And what I like doing, is taking a piece of a movie, that’s usually isn’t the focal of the movie, and blowing that up, and saying let’s do the movie from that point of view. I’d seen safe houses before in movies…you see them all the time. But I thought, “Well this would be interesting, if we just did the movie about the guy who’s sitting there…who’s sitting there doing nothing, and make that character, who’s usually in the movie about one scene…let’s make him the star of his own movie.” Once you have that idea, you go…OK, what’s the most interesting dynamic that you can come up with, and I love the veteran, freshman dynamic…I love The Color of Money dynamic.
And once I had that dynamic, I could then craft the story around that and I knew I wanted something with a clean set-up — like Three Days of the Condor — and to pair it with an anti-buddy movie, where your hero is in the same car as the villain.
Scott: You mention Three Days of the Condor. Two others came to mind for me, The Parallax View and Marathon Man. Did they influence you when you wrote Safe House?
David: For sure. I definitely owe anyone who has ever written a 70’s paranoia thriller a check: Condor, Parallax, Marathon Man, All the Presidents Men. Great points of view, great atmosphere, and really clean setups and concepts that, because they were done in the 70’s, were really character driven– and that’s why I try to do, strip down a high concept idea, and make it gritty and realistic.
Scott: Let’s dig into those characters. Denzel Washington plays Tobin Frost, this brilliant, shrewd, rogue spy wanted for being a traitor. Ryan Reynolds plays Matt Weston, a young, green CIA operative stuck manning a safe house in South Africa where literally nothing has happened for 12 months. You mentioned buddy story. You’ve got an intriguing dynamic, these two disparate characters who intersect. On the one hand, Matt goes from an innocence to experience journey. He wanted action in the beginning, and by God he sure gets it, but in the process he’s forced to confront some very dark aspects of his line of work and his own psyche.
David: Exactly, and it’s the reverse for Tobin. That’s what I really liked about it. You have two characters on opposite ends of the spectrum ideologically, professionally. And throughout the movie they’re going to switch roles a little bit so by the end of the movie, like you said, Ryan had gone through the transformation where he has seen the dark underbelly of his profession and ends up leaving the job that he always wanted. Meanwhile you have Frost who decides, “You know what? I’m not going to go out and be rogue on my own. I’m going to go back and try to save this kid who has reminded me why I was an agent in the very first place 20 years earlier.” I like that they got to flip on each other. Ultimately that’s what made it fun for me.
Scott: I thought that was a terrific contrast in characters, that Tobin goes from this cynic, to rediscovering his humanity, influenced by his relationship with Matt. That end part, where Tobin agrees to go back and help Matt is a really seminal point…
Scott: …which concretizes his re‑connection to humanity.
David: Absolutely, and he actually sacrifices his humanity, literally, for him.
David: He discovers it, and then he gives it to Matt. Then he dies, and he passes off the knowledge and the chips to Matt, and says, “You go off and be better that me.”
Scott: Tobin is essentially a mentor or wisdom figure. In fact, he even has a line where he tells Matt about the CIA: “They’ll say, ‘We’ll take it from here.’ That’s when you’re screwed.” Literally that’s a callback later on.
David: Yeah, for sure. That was actually a reshoot.
Scott: Is that right?
David: Yeah, you’ll notice that Ryan’s hair’s a little longer.
Scott: Tobin’s almost got a bit of Hannibal Lecter in him, doesn’t he? The ability to read people…
Scott: A preternatural sense of calm, even in stressful situation. He can get inside people’s heads. Were you inspired by Lecter when you were thinking of Tobin?
David: I was, but I’ve got to say Denzel brought that out even more, than it was originally. Certainly, with this guy…he’s been handcuffed in the back of a car the whole movie…you’re taking away his physical abilities to do harm, so the only thing he can do is play mental games. Which is much worse…and who’s the best mental game player, than Lecter and Frost is gonna do and say whatever he can do to get underneath this kids skin, to manipulate him into doing whatever he wants.
Scott: Denzel was an executive producer on the project. How did he get involved?
David: He had read the spec and signed on soon after.
Scott: Ryan was in Green Lantern which your brother wrote.
David: I know. Of all the actors in all the world. I think Lantern might have done a day of reshoots or pickup shots, while we were doing Safe House, so there’s a possibility Ryan was doing dialogue from both our scripts on the same day. I
Scott: How terrific to have those two actors in your movie. Must have been so exciting.
David: Oh my God, it’s beyond. And I mean, the first actor I ever met was Denzel and he was so, unbelievable cool…I mean for real, just incredibly smart, and just very respectful of the script, and the words, and then coming up with some really great ideas of things that he would want to explore, and encouraging all of us to get in there, and make the script better. And Ryan I thought was so beyond perfect. I can’t imagine anyone else doing it.
Scott: I was going to say playing that role of Matt was really challenging because you already knew that Tobin had this capability of doing what he does, but for Matt, he has to go on this journey, innocence to experience, really tapping into some dark places, and you see that emerge. That was a difficult role.
David: Absolutely. On top of that, you have to also believe that this person who is a novice, who is this guy who doesn’t have any experience, is still physically capable enough that you buy that he could keep a gun on Denzel Washington. That Denzel Washington’s not going to take the gun away from him and make him eat it. Which is…there’s definitely, I think, a consideration to be made when you’re casting that role, so physically Ryan’s totally up to par, but then he can just get to those emotional places, and he’s your “in” to the movie, you’re seeing the movie through his eyes so you want to make sure that you’re emotionally invested in his journey, and then through Denzel as well.
Scott: There are two key moments at the end of Act Three, one of which you talked about where Tobin comes back and in effect saves Matt’s life. How soon in the story development process did you hit on that?
David: That was always there from the beginning, that Frost was going to abandon Matt at the safe house, and he was going to have a change of heart and come back, for sure.
Scott: How about with Matt, when he’s doing that debriefing with Harlan Whitford played by Sam Sheppard where two or three times, Whitford ‘s asking Matt information about Tobin, that he was carrying something. Matt denies it each time. How soon did you land on that choice that he was going to basically go and spring this information, and leave the CIA?
David: That changed a lot after filming, in post. There was a lot of discussions about how to come up with the most satisfying way to end the movie. We tried a lot of different ways. The original script always ended with him quitting, but in the end, we looked, again, to Three Days of the Condor, for inspiration, where Redford has the information about Cliff Robertson, and he decides to release it,
Scott: Of course that great line in Three Days of the Condor: “But how do you know they’ll print it?”
David: Exactly, it’s unbelievable. It’s such a chilling, perfect ending. The trick with ours was to come up with just as satisfying a conclusion to the Whitford plot, and to Matt’s relationship with the CIA.
Scott: You leave the door wide open for a sequel, but within that story universe, he’s now gotten this information released, which is going to presumably piss off a bunch of covert people around the world whose identities have been revealed…
David: Exactly. That’s certainly part of the jumping off point.
Scott: For the sequel?
David: Yeah, it’s definitely one of the elements of it.
Scott: Safe House makes 200 million dollars worldwide. Did you have any idea it was going to be that big?
David: No, no clue…The Thursday night when it opened, the first midnight showing, I went to one in New York, and it was sold out. I just thought that was so bizarre. figured it was midnight on a Thursday…I was just going to sneak it, and it was sold out. I go, this is really cool…this may actually do well. Then when it got to 40 on opening weekend, it was like oh my God, this is ridiculous. Then people just seemed to really, really respond to it in a great way. I just couldn’t believe it…I really couldn’t believe it…still can’t.
Tomorrow in Part 3, David shares his insights into writing the spec script “Black Box.”
For Part 1, go here.
Please stop by comments to thank David and ask any questions you may have.
David is repped by Paradigm and Madhouse Entertainment.