Words by Mr David Whitehouse
" I think it stems from the Cold War," says Mr Daniel Espinosa of his countrymen's knack of handling conspiratorial tales; as he sits back in his armchair in London's Mandarin Oriental hotel - like storytellers do. "Scandinavia was a social democracy; it was allied with neither Nato nor the Red Bloc. So they had a different point of view of that power struggle, and over 50 years that influenced not only the politicians but also the people and how we saw the world. We were trapped between two gigantic forces and had to be critical about what the truth was and what we were told."
I would be shooting a scene with Denzel and see Ryan off camera, watching this old master working his craft. It was almost as if their experience was the same off screen as on
His latest film, Safe House, reflects such a perspective on the big screen - and in muscular fashion. It is a taut, paranoid action thriller, riddled with bullets and endemic corruption in the CIA, which unfolds at a relentless pace. Like its popular Scandinavian stable mates, TV series The Killing and Borgen, and Mr Stieg Larsson's The Millennium trilogy, it fearlessly questions the dark forces at work all around us.
Safe House crisscrosses Cape Town, pitting former CIA man turned defector Tobin Frost (Mr Denzel Washington) against green-gilled CIA new boy Matt Weston (Mr Ryan Reynolds). They are the classic master and apprentice, testing each other, hating each other, admiring each other.
matters of composition
Mr Espinosa behind the camera on the set of Safe House, April 2011
The Stars and director
From left: Mr Denzel Washington, Mr Ryan Reynolds and Mr Espinosa at a Safe House photocall in Madrid, January 2012
From left: Mr Reynolds and Mr Espinosa on the set of Safe House, March 2011
Masters of their crafts
From left: Mr Washington and Mr Espinosa on the set of Safe House, March 2011
"I would be shooting a scene with Denzel and see Ryan off camera, watching this old master working his craft," says Mr Espinosa. "It was almost as if their experience was the same off screen as on." On screen, the young charge is saddled with the unenviable task of bringing Frost to justice when the high-security secret prison he is being held at is attacked by mysterious forces that want him dead. And they really want him dead.
So, Weston must protect a man he should despise, and in doing so comes to question who they are really running away from, that Frost might not be the bad guy after all, and whether the place they are headed - the supposedly sacrosanct CIA - can in fact be trusted. He begins the movie as an innocent man clinging to a moral code, but comes to realise that ideals can be corroded and that, as Mr Espinosa puts it, "A profession can somehow consume your soul." And isn't this what happens to young directors who go to Hollywood?
I have a good name in Scandinavia. Worst-case scenario, I'll go back and live happily ever after
"That's me, the outsider," he responds, smiling. "When I was shooting [Safe House] you have all these voices, because it's a big production. They all have opinions of the work that you're doing. In many ways I sometimes felt as if I was trying to hold on to my soul. Like Ryan in the film - my own ethics, when it comes to movie making, were at risk. How to not be corrupted by outside forces?"
Mr Washington is the movie's dominant turn. He is an oxymoronic mass - graceful yet violent, fearsome yet nurturing, devilish but saintly. The biggest idiosyncrasy of all, perhaps, is that Mr Washington is a film giant putting his performance in the hands of a Hollywood newcomer, but despite Mr Espinosa's age this is already his fourth feature film. He hasn't stopped moving.
Mr Espinosa's parents escaped General Pinochet's regime in Chile one month before his birth, choosing to raise him in a working-class suburb of Stockholm. From there they moved to Africa and then Denmark (he speaks six languages, including Portuguese and Guinean Creole). It was the quality of 2010's Easy Money (originally titled Snabba Cash) that convinced Mr Washington to place his stock with the director. Suddenly, Mr Espinosa found himself in the US at a meeting with a movie icon.
"I thought, if I can sit down with Denzel, then in the end he will be a human being, as will I," he says. "If I couldn't earn his respect at that point then I was not worthy of directing him. We got into lots of fights and arguments and talks... and managed to create a brotherhood so that when we went to war, we went to war together."
And so Mr Espinosa's Hollywood story has begun. Does he have a good ending in mind? "I have a good name in Scandinavia. Worst-case scenario, I'll go back and live happily ever after."
Told like a true master.
Safe House is out now in the UK, Australia and Hong Kong