When people readabout what it actually is they say, 'Oh, that's nothing. You lay down, they put a wet towel over your face and then they pour water over it,' but the sensation is horrific. YouTube it! Most people couldn't handle a second."
Chilean-Swedish director Daniel Espinosa is cheerfully describing the mechanics of waterboarding. It seems as apt a topic of discussion as any for a director described by Ryan Reynolds, the star of his new film, as an "intuitive, intellectual thug". But this isn't just sadistic small talk. Espinosa's latest, Safe House, contains a prominent waterboarding scene, with Denzel Washington as the victim, and Espinosa is at pains to stress that the film's portrayal was as accurate as possible. "I wanted it to be truthful … it was important to show people how horrific it truly is."
Following the likes of Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn and actor Alexander Skarsgård (Straw Dogs, True Blood), Daniel Espinosa is Hollywood's latest Scandinavian import. The director, whose parents settled in a working-class neighbourhood in Stockholm after escaping the Pinochet regime in Chile in 1976, had previously restricted his film-making to Sweden and Denmark. After a pair of largely overlooked arthouse flicks, Babylonsjukan and Outside Love, 34-year-old Espinosa, scored with the layered Stockholm noir Easy Money. The film was a critical and commercial success in Sweden, topping the box office and attracting the attention of uber-producer Harvey Weinstein, who purchased it for US release. Almost inevitably, a remake is in pre-production, with Zac Efron touted as lead. Espinosa seems sanguine about the prospect.
"I see it as someone doing a cover of you," he says. "For example, Bono must have been ecstatic when Johnny Cash did one of his songs [U2's One] and turned it into his own vibe."
"If it's a lousy director then it's also OK," he adds, chuckling. "I'm a movie buff, and so, like all movie buffs, you always have to claim that you like the original better!"
For now, Espinosa has more pressing concerns. Safe House is a proper multiplex-botherer with attendant star names: joining Washington and Reynolds are the likes of Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga. For someone who thought that Easy Money's $3m budget was a "huge deal", it's a big transition, but Espinosa seems alert to the dangers.
"Think about Medusa, with the snakes," he says, waving his hands above his head. "If you shoot a movie in Europe, the financiers are three snakes and they all have opinions. In Hollywood there are, like, 20 snakes. When I had my first meeting in America, I knew that there were three other excellent American action directors [being considered] and I told them, 'If that's what you guys wanna make, you should go with them. But if you like the quality or sensibility of my movies, then you should go with me, but then you also have to allow me to do what I do.'"
This forthright attitude informs Safe House. Superficially a "fun, fast action movie" about a callow CIA recruit (Reynolds) tasked with protecting a duplicitous rogue agent (Washington) from contract killers, the film, set in the bustling streets of South Africa's Cape Town, is shot through with a gritty, morally ambiguous tone reminiscent of the Bourne trilogy and the director's own Easy Money. Espinosa hired Olivier Schneider, stunt co-ordinator from Jacques Audiard's visceral French prison drama A Prophet, to avoid the stylised triumphalism of American action movies and instead insert a desperate, punch-drunk quality into the film's fight scenes. The results are striking.
"Almost always when we have fights in movies, they're done in these strange rooms where nothing gets broken," Espinosa explains. "It's almost like they're in padded cells." Instead he would rather see people "struggling for their lives".
Perhaps the most memorable of the film's many "struggles" is a scene that sees Washington and Reynolds grappling furiously in the driver's seat of a moving car, while other vehicles whizz past. Espinosa, unwilling to use a green screen, filmed the scene on location, hiring more than 40 stunt drivers to man the passing cars. Much to the delight of gossip headline hunters, the filming of the scene resulted in Reynolds accidentally giving Washington a black eye. "It hit me when we were shooting that it was actually lethal; you're not supposed to do this," Espinosa says, grinning sheepishly. "You can't fake that gravity, though. When you have the car slide, people will roll to their left, and it will affect their faces and the fear in their eyes."
Safe House sees Denzel Washington once again revelling in the role of charismatic degenerate, this time as CIA agent-turned-super criminal Tobin Frost. Espinosa sees Frost as corrupted by his time spent working for the government. "Years of committing horrific acts in the name of justice, of [questioning] what's 'good' and what's 'right', it eats away at a person's soul," he explains. By contrast, Reynolds's character, Matt Weston, is a boy scout, blithely unaware of atrocities committed in the name of freedom. Espinosa sees Weston as a "new kind of character" for Reynolds, drawing similarities with Robert Redford's portrayal of a naive CIA operative in the classic 70s thriller Three Days Of The Condor.
Central to the relationship between Frost and Weston is the question of whether Weston, like Frost, is gradually losing his humanity. For Espinosa, it's a conflict that haunts us all. "We've all done actions in our lives where we compromise what we believe in," he suggests. "And if we keep doing it there's no way back, no pride to hold on to."
At times Espinosa comes across as distinctly cynical. He professes a deep contempt for authority, and is openly sceptical about personal freedoms in the internet age. Yet there's also something of the thwarted idealist at work here. "When we think back at our youth we always remember the feeling of freedom … that you actually believe in the world," he remarks ruefully. "Even if it goes well for you in life, you can never attain that freedom in your imagination of what you think life could be. We are tainted."
For Espinosa the act of directing seems to involve a lot of self-flagellation. He maintains that he struggles to sleep or eat while making a film, and professes doubts over the validity of his work. "What I struggle with every day is: am I compromising my integrity?" he says. "Can I stand tall with this movie? I feel that I can, but I know that to have the strength to not compromise, you have to beat yourself over the head every day." Despite receiving some "beautiful" scripts, he's is in no rush to embark on another feature, believing that most directors should work "every second or third year".
"We have to have the lust," he adds. "I have a perfect life at home. I have a wife I love. I don't need anything. My wife is a doctor. We could just survive on her salary. I want to make something that has an impact on me, because if it does that then maybe it has an impact on everyone else."
Safe House is out on Friday
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