From writer/director Jacob Estes, the Blumhouse Productions film Don’t Let Go is a supernatural thriller that is also a unique exploration of how far we’ll go for those that we love and how the bond of family will teach us what we’re capable of. When LAPD detective Jack Radcliff (David Oyelowo, who is also a producer on the film) gets a shocking phone call from his recently murdered niece Ashley (Storm Reid), they must work together across time to solve her murder and try to save her life.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor David Oyelowo talked about the reaction he had to this script, why he also wanted to get involved as a producer and have a hand in the final product, the changes that were made along the way, what most impresses him about the Blumhouse model for filmmaking, why Storm Reid was the perfect co-star, and playing the emotional truth of every moment instead of getting tangled up in the time travel of it all. He also talked about his directorial debut The Water Man, how he connected to that story, and his creative relationship with Oprah Winfrey, who’s producing the film, as well as why he’s looking forward to working with George Clooney on Good Morning, Midnight.
Collider: This is a really interesting and unusual story, in the way that it’s told. When you first read this script, what were the aspects that most appealed to you and most stuck out for you?
DAVID OYELOWO: Yeah, exactly what you just said was how I felt. In a world of prequels, sequels, remakes, and all of that stuff, it felt like a genuinely new and fresh story. And I felt that me, plus that story, was also gonna be fresh and new, to be able to look at this uncle and niece relationship through the lens of an African-American family. Actually, when the script first came to me, it was set on a farm in Ohio with a white protagonist, but I felt that, if they’re coming to me, there’s a way that we can make this more specific and even more juicy, but without tying it to race. And so, all of those things really interested me. And then, also the very universal theme of, how far would anyone be prepared to go, for those they love?, was something that really resonated with me, as a father myself and someone who has a wife he loves. It was just something that really spoke to me, on so many levels.
How did this film evolve, from the first script that you read to the final cut that we now get to see? Were there major changes that were made, prior to or during the shoot?
OYELOWO: Yeah, there really were. When I came on board, we decided to transpose the narrative from Ohio to Los Angeles. We knew that there needed to be a world in which gunshots fired would not immediately be responded to by the police. That’s why it was on a farm in Ohio, in the middle of nowhere. But if we’re gonna put that in a more urban setting, where would that be? We decided to put in South Central Los Angeles, so that then opens up the casting opportunities, as well. And then, there was the time travel element. Anyone who’s developed or written a time travel movie will tell you that it’s a notoriously difficult thing to make work, not only on the page, but as a film, so we continued to work on that. After we shot the film, and even after we went to Sundance with the film, we learned some things. In fact, after Sundance, we went in and changed the ending. We changed several aspects of the movie because we learned some things from the audiences there. It’s one of those scripts that just kept on being developed, and I now feel we’ve truly arrived at its best version.
And it’s really cool that you get to be a part of it, in that sense. As an actor, you do your work and then you’re done, and the finished product is in someone else’s hands. But as a producer, as well, you get more of a say in that.
OYELOWO: Well, with films that I really care about, I can’t help myself. I love the development process. (Writer/director) Jacob Estes and I got on really well, creatively, early on. We just started working, and I didn’t even realize it, but I was working in the capacity of a producer. And Jason Blum recognized that and asked me to come on board as a producer, as a result. Like I said, the ones I really love, it’s not just about shooting the film and moving on. I want to see them have their best chance in the marketplace. Post-production, the marketing and the release, itself, are all things that I want to pay attention to. I have a real eye on representation being something that is reflected in the work that I do, and for that to continue, success has to be a part of the narrative. So, I just try to do everything that I can to afford the projects I do that possibility.
As a producer yourself, what most impresses you about what Blumhouse does with their film projects?
OYELOWO: I’m impressed with the latitude they give the creative people that they are working with. There are very few financiers and production companies that will allow you to go back into the edit, after a film has premiered at Sundance. But they have this model whereby you make the film for not much money, but they give you complete creative latitude and they give the director final cut. That means what you lack in budget, you have in creative control and creative support. So, the Blumhouse film you see will be what the filmmakers intended. And I think that level of empowerment, being something that you very seldom get elsewhere, means that people love working with them, and it makes a better film because, when you have empowered creatives, they get to do things they know they can’t do elsewhere and they work all the more harder because of that opportunity that is afforded them.
And it’s cool that they’re willing to take chances and do different things, too. Even though it all falls under the same model, everything under that, seems to really be its own thing.
OYELOWO: It does because the individual creative voices are not being forced do something that’s middle of the road. The truth of the matter is, in the studio system, you have a bunch of executives who are consistently trying to force something into whatever they perceive to be something that will succeed. That inherently means that you go into this sausage maker type of thing, as opposed to things feeling distinct and specific. I truly believe that the universal is found in the specific, so someone like Jordan Peele, or Jacob Estes, or Leigh Whannell gets to really go in there and have a distinct auteur voice. But the great thing about Blumhouse is that their distribution goes through a giant studio, the likes of Universal, so you have an indie creative process with a studio release. It’s a perfect model for someone like me, who’s looking to paint outside the lines.
There really is such an interesting relationship at the core of this story. We don’t get to see a relationship like this too often, and then you add that dynamic of mostly having a relationship over the phone, and it’s all such an interesting, complex, layered dynamic. What made Storm Reid the right person to play that with? What were the qualities in her that made her right for this?
OYELOWO: The most major quality was someone who had a talent beyond her years. She spends a lot of the film on her own. She’s not necessarily playing opposite me, in close proximity, geographically. We’re on the phone to each other. Actually, while we were filming, we were always on set together, but she has to hold the screen on her own. That is not something every 14-year-old, which is how old she was, at the time, is going to be able to do. I first met her on the set of A Wrinkle in Time. I went to visit my friend Ava DuVernay, as she shooting that film, and saw Storm in action and just thought, “Whoa, this is someone who has a maturity and an emotional intelligence that is way beyond her years, and that’s exactly what we’re gonna need for Don’t Let Go.” I always felt we needed someone the likes of Natalie Portman in The Professional, in order for this film to work. So, Storm came in and read opposite me, and it was pretty instantaneous, that we knew we had someone special.