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No One Will Save You filmmaker Brian Duffield has experienced many twists and turns throughout his 13-year career.
After making the Black List in 2010, he pulled off the same feat in 2011 with his Jane Got a Gun spec script, which went on to endure one of the most dramatic journeys to the big screen in recent memory. In 2013, Duffield was hired to write the dystopian sci-fi film Insurgent, the sequel to Divergent (2014), and that became one of the assignments that helped him realize that he was better suited for writing on spec. In 2014, Duffield made the Black List again for his spec The Babysitter, and his produced spec scripts now include Jane Got a Gun (2015), The Babysitter (2017), Underwater (2020), Love and Monsters (2020) and No One Will Save You (2023).
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The Pennsylvania native’s recent directorial career has been just as eventful as his screenwriting career. His critically acclaimed debut, Spontaneous, was hit hard by the one-two punch of a corporate shakeup and the Covid-19 pandemic, and then it was unceremoniously sent to VOD in October 2020. (Love and Monsters, a script Duffield sold in 2012, received the same type of release just two weeks later.) And now, his widely praised No One Will Save You is being released on Hulu without the promotion of its star and producer, Kaitlyn Dever, due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike.
No One Will Save You is a sci-fi thriller that hooks the audience with the high concept of an alien home invasion, but then it turns into a character study about self-forgiveness and compassion. What makes the film all the more impressive is that it manages to tell the story of Dever’s alienated character, Brynn Adams, with virtually no dialogue.
Duffield wrote the film in 2019, and then the pandemic again upended his plan of getting the ball rolling in 2020. In April 2021, 20th Century Studios bought Duffield’s original script with Dever attached, and production began a year later in Louisiana. But then a new concern entered the equation in the form of Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022), which, per its early marketing, appeared to also be an alien invasion thriller. So Duffield proceeded to keep tabs on the film during his own production.
“We were all very anxious about Nope and if it was going to do Greys [archetypal Grey aliens],” Duffield tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I was producing Cocaine Bear at the time, too, so we talked to people at Universal. And they were like, ‘We’re not going to tell you anything, but you don’t have to lose sleep.’ They’re very different movies, thankfully.”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Duffield also discusses some of his other unproduced screenplays, before detailing his frustration with Spontaneous’ pandemic release.
So you seem to thrive when writing on spec, and No One Will Save You is no exception. And I find that interesting because the high concept of an alien home invasion practically sells itself. Do you just prefer to throw a script on the table versus pitching ideas in the room?
Yeah, I’m probably way better at writing than pitching. Earlier in my career, I would say what my idea was for something, and the reaction would be pretty muted or uninterested. But then I would write it, and people would go, “Oh, I get it.” So that was a really good lesson for me. Now, my reps don’t know what I’m working on, and I don’t tell anybody. And when there’s a finished script, I’m like, “Here it is.” So I don’t get discouraged by doing it that way.
When you have a studio job, they usually want you to outline, because they want to approve all the different steps of the process, as they should. I’ve just always liked the trial and error of discovery and changing my mind, and that’s harder on an assignment. They’re paying you, and they want to agree with the choices that you’re making and know that they’re the right ones. On the spec side, you might not like the spec, but if you really like the spec, it’s all done.
To establish a timeline, you sold No One Will Save You at least 15 months before Nope came out, so you certainly weren’t inspired by that.
Yeah, it was a nightmare [situation].
But how much did the UFO-related headlines from the last few years factor into this?
They didn’t, really. I wrote No One Will Save You at the end of 2019, and then we started getting the groundwork together to go out with it at the start of 2020. And then everything happened in 2020, which put a big pause on that. And back in 2019, you had the Tom DeLonge [alien] stuff. It wasn’t quite as mainstream as it is now, and no one really knew about Nope at the time.
But then we were all very anxious about Nope and if it was going to do Greys [archetypal Grey aliens]. (Laughs.) They just had the poster with the cloud over the town for a while, and then we were shooting No One Will Save You when the trailer for Nope came out. And we were like, “This feels pretty different.” I was producing Cocaine Bear at the time, too, so we talked to people at Universal. And they were like, “We’re not going to tell you anything, but you don’t have to lose sleep.” They’re very different movies, thankfully.
As the years have progressed, it’s been fun to see all of this become a little bit more mainstream and weirdly accepted as fact. It felt like there was a moment in the last couple of years where everyone was just like, “Yeah, the government knows.” It went from Tom DeLonge is crazy to Tom DeLonge is correct, and he has been the champion of the truth all this time. It’s super cool that he’s our guy.
Oddly enough, I just watched Tom’s own alien movie recently.
I just found out about [Monsters of California] yesterday! I had no idea. I love when musicians direct movies. That’s a real specific niche that doesn’t happen all too often, so I’m very excited to watch that.
Kaitlyn Dever had just worked with 20th and Hulu on Rosaline prior to your movie, so did they first suggest her for Brynn?
No, when we showed the script to 20th [Century], Caitlyn was already attached. She was definitely attached to Rosaline at the time, but I can’t remember if she had shot it yet or was getting ready to go shoot it. But we cast Kaitlyn independent of 20th, and they were stoked that she was a part of it.
One of the most compelling aspects of the film is the lack of dialogue. I think Brynn only says seven words in the film. Did the studio have any hang-ups about that choice? Did they ever push for a bit of voiceover?
No, definitely never voiceover. What was exciting and fun about working with 20th was that the dialogue never came up. It was always about clarity. This is an ambitious movie that takes swings and plays with a fair amount of ambiguity. And so we had a lot of conversations about that fine line between being ambiguous versus unintentionally ambiguous versus annoying. It was making sure that the audience understood what we wanted them to know and what we wanted them to question.
But the actual dialogue of it all never came up beyond the studio kind of chuckling that they weren’t going to be able to ADR any band-aids on this one, although we did more ADR on this movie than people would assume. There’s a lot of ADR because even Kaitlyn’s breaths tell the story. And so we had had a couple of days of ADR with Kaitlyn where we really just fine tuned that delivery. There were also so many explosions and bangs that we just needed to do a lot of clean-up.
Perhaps you made up for the lack of dialogue with more action and parentheticals in the script, but how many pages did it end up being?
I’d have to look, but it was always in the nineties.
That’s pretty standard for you.
Exactly. It came from years of being a script reader and the nightmare of having to read a couple of scripts a night. You’d open the first one, and if it was 117 pages, you’d instantly hate it. The whole purpose of these scripts is for someone to buy them, and that’s a really bad starting place. And so it just wormed its way into my head that with 85-to-95 pages, a script reader is going to start off loving your script before they’ve even read a word.
But I feel the same way about watching movies. So the intention with this one was always 90 minutes. You’re in and you’re out. It’s relentless and aggressive, and if it was any longer than that, you’d just start getting tired in a bad way. When this movie ends, the goal is for the audience to have that exhale moment. At two hours, you’re really kind of pushing people to sustain that energy, so the goal is always that 90-minute sweet spot.
The first spec script that got the ball rolling for you was Your Bridesmaid Is a Bitch, and it’s one of the few scripts I’ve read in one sitting. Is there a zero-percent chance of it getting made at this point? Or near zero?
It’s zero because of me. (Laughs.) I haven’t read it in so long and I feel like it would be an awful experience to read something I wrote 14 or 15 years ago. I wrote it a couple years before anyone noticed it, too. So I feel like I would rip my face off reading it now. But if a cool filmmaker came to me about it, I’d be open to it, but it’s just never at the forefront of my mind. I worked on it for so long and then it didn’t happen. So I never dream about it anymore, and I have to wake up being like, “I’ve got to work on that.” I think I just grew up too much.
What tone did you imagine for it? More Sarah Marshall or more (500) Days of Summer?
Between the two, probably more 500 Days. Working with Skydance on it, I had a really wonderful experience with them, and it’s rare, for me, to have a good experience. (Laughs.) But it became more comedic because they were at the stage where they were trying to figure out what they wanted to do as a company. They bought Bridesmaid before True Grit even came out, so it was early days. I remember talking with [Skydance CEO] David Ellison during one of our script meetings about the paparazzi photos of Tom Cruise hanging off of the Burj Khalifa, so that’s how long ago it was now. But they want it to be a little bit more of a studio comedy, a Sarah Marshall comedy, which makes total sense. So it got a little bit funnier and bigger, but when I first started writing it, I thought it was going to be the size of the Duplass’ The Puffy Chair. But at the time, I couldn’t even afford to make it for $2K. So when a studio wanted to pay me for it, it really changed my life and gave me my career. So I was happy to abandon my directing aspirations if it meant getting out of credit card debt.
A lot of aspiring writer-directors go through this before they’re finally able to direct, but as you just touched on, did you have to sell a lot of your scripts for some brand name to direct?
Yeah, it was a mixture of things. I tried really hard to get certain movies made, and then they just never happened for a variety of reasons. So that was kind of happening, and then there were some scripts I wrote that were so huge that no one was ever going to green-light me to direct them. And then there were some that were a little bit smaller that I probably could have directed, but for whatever reason, I didn’t feel like I should have.
I also really wanted to have the experience of learning from directors. My first day on set was the first day on Jane Got a Gun, which is not great. (Laughs.) So I really wanted that experience of learning from directors, and bluntly, I learned a lot of what not to do. But I had a really great experience with Matt Shakman, who directed a pilot that I wrote for USA called Olive Forever. It sadly didn’t get picked up, but I learned a lot from Matt about everything. It was such a good experience that I now know what to emulate and strive for. And weirdly, just being the producer for Matt on that pilot, that was when I was just like, “Okay, it’s time to direct,” even though Matt is one of the few people that I would give up a script for him to direct.
You also originated Underwater (2020) and Love and Monsters (2020), both of which I enjoyed a great deal. Do you still feel plenty of ownership over those movies even though other writers and directors made them their own?
Not particularly. In some instances, it’s great, and in others, it’s not great. (Laughs.) Sometimes, it’s not bad at all that I don’t feel ownership, because I knew what I was signing up for and they paid me. And that’s part and parcel of being a working screenwriter. But I absolutely feel so much more ownership over No One Will Save You and Spontaneous just because both cases began and ended with me, for better and worse. And even on something like the Olive Forever pilot that Matt [Shakman] directed, I didn’t feel the same ownership, but I was still really excited to go to the concert with my friends. It was that kind of feeling. And now, as director, it feels like I’m the band, which is a little stressful.
Your directorial debut Spontaneous (2020) received near universal critical acclaim. Did the warm reception make its VOD release all the more frustrating?
Yeah, but it was such a hard process just getting it out the door. We were made by Awesomeness, and once we more or less finished shooting, they sold. So for a while, it became a real legal question of who owned us, and I never quite got confirmation of who owned us until the movie came out more or less. So it was scary and frustrating to be part of a movie where you’re like, “Are we ever going to finish?” There were huge months of time where I wasn’t able to work on the movie for a variety of reasons. So it was really frustrating to have a movie that was 90-percent edited, and then we’d have to go off and not know what was happening.
I got so frustrated that I paid for reshoots that happened in my garage. Hayley Law came over, and we shot things in my daughter’s room before she was born. It was absurd and very stupid, but I could never get an answer about what was going on. And then Covid hit, and that was very stressful. I was like, “Well, now what the hell is happening?”
As far as I know, no one at Paramount has ever watched the movie. I’ve never had that conversation with anybody. I got ghosted at my playbacks, and so that was very strange and bizarre, just in and of itself. So I didn’t really know how we were at Paramount to begin with, and then I never heard from anyone at Paramount, which, in hindsight is probably a good thing. They probably would’ve had notes.
And then mid-pandemic, we were told, “Oh, it’s coming out in a month,” and that was honestly a relief. Once it goes out, it’s on Pirate Bay forever. I know that is the last thing a filmmaker should say, but we hadn’t heard from anyone at Paramount. And then we were like, “Well, hopefully the release doesn’t inspire someone to watch the movie and then say, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t release this.’”
But then it came out, and people really liked it. Releasing a movie during Covid was already so weird and strange, and it’s a movie about kids exploding, so it’s a tough elevator pitch. The reviews certainly helped me feel like it wasn’t a bit of lunacy. They made me feel better. I didn’t have to feel like I spent five years killing myself and paying out of pocket for a movie that everyone hated. So I’m not resentful or bitter. My manager, by the time he figured out who he should yell at, they were fired. Paramount was going through so many changes and so much turnover, and we were this sub-$5 million acquisition.
Our crew also kept getting laid off in post. A couple of weeks before delivering the movie, our post coordinator got laid off. So it was just such a weird nightmare of what happens when a studio is going through massive changes or collapsing in the case of Awesomeness. So we were this leftover movie, but I’m glad that it’s out. I’m also glad that 20th liked it enough that they took a swing on me for No One Will Save You. As a filmmaker, all I want is for someone to like the last thing I did so they’ll give me another chance.
From a Covid release to a strike-impacted release, have you cursed the heavens at all?
(Laughs.) Releasing a movie in Covid and then releasing a movie where my actors can’t tweet about it, hopefully it’s not a trend. It’s such a bummer, too, because Kaitlyn is so wonderful in the movie. She’s also a producer on the movie, and it’s such a shame that she can’t be front and center. She deserves to be, and now people are stuck with me as the voice of the movie. She’s much better at this than I am.
Based on how well No One Will Save You turned out, did anyone try to make a last-minute push for theatrical?
It never really came up, and it was also never really something that I pushed for. We shot it knowing it would be on Hulu, and I think I always liked the idea of people getting to watch a home invasion movie in the dark of their home.
As you mentioned earlier, you were a producer on Cocaine Bear, which shot in Ireland. Did your ties to that country factor into you working on it? [Writer’s Note: Duffield’s family moved to Ireland when he was nine.]
It had zero percent to do with me and everything to do with tax breaks, but it was very funny that we wound up there. It subbed in for the south, where most movies shoot anyway.
Like Bridesmaid, I also read Vivien Hasn’t Been Herself Lately in one sitting. Could the potential success of the new Exorcist reignite that project somehow?
It’s always kicking around, but I think I need a break from housebound horror for at least another movie. That one always got close to going, but never managed to sneak into pre-production. I’d still like to do it someday.
I’m not trying to ask the “What really happened on Jane Got a Gun?” question, but if one of your projects was going to get the Mank or The Offer treatment, that one would be the most compelling narrative, right?
Nothing will ever come close to that insanity. I’ve had a few inquiries about writing a book, but I’m not masochistic enough to relive it yet. Maybe when I’m eighty.
No One Will Save You premieres Sept. 22 on Hulu. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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