20th Century Studio’s suspense/thriller No Exit tells the story of Darby Thorne, a young woman enroute to a family emergency who is stranded by a blizzard and forced to find shelter at a highway rest area with a group of strangers. When she stumbles across an abducted girl in a van in the parking lot, it sets her on a terrifying life-or-death struggle to discover who among them is the kidnapper.
Based on a 2017 novel by Taylor Adams, the book is a nail-biting mystery thriller filled with a tale no one would ever want to experience; filled with plot twists readers never saw coming, adapting and finding the emotions left unsaid between the pages is no easy feat to adapt.
Australian director Damien Power (Killer Ground) wasn’t familiar with Taylor Adams’ 2017 novel No Exit, when, one weekend, his agent sent him the script based on the book. It immediately drew him in, and that same day, Power read the novel, and was determined to direct the film.
To learn more about Hulu’s adaptation, the studio held a press conference with director Damien Power, and the cast of Dennis Haysbert, Danny Ramirez, David Rysdahl, and Havana Rosa Lui.
“The script I read was already quite faithful to the novel. There are a few elements I thought we could take from the novel though. As a novel, it had a great character-driven plot, it’s got high stakes, it’s got these surprising twists and turns, this incredible, hostile setting, and this great ticking clock with the girl in the van. And all that was already in the script I read. I can see why people read the novel and thought this would make a great movie. So did I.
“I knew what to do with it,” he recalls. No Exit has an incredibly tight plot. Its character driven. It’s contained. It’s suspenseful and intense. It has this amazing hostile setting. I thought it was the perfect thriller.” Power drew on various influences in developing a visual approach to the film, including Alfred Hitchcock, in terms of the master’s construction of suspense, as well as recent films like Green Room and Prisoners, which take the high concept thriller genre and give it a sense of realism.
“I also took inspiration from thrillers set in the snow,” Power continues, “like Fargo or A Simple Plan, where the white canvas provides a stark relief against which to see this human morality play out. I think thrillers require a particular intense concentration from the audience. It’s a genre we can have a very visceral experience with, but at the same time, a thriller can be about things people care about, and characters you can relate to. You could call them ‘domestic thrillers’, as distinct from international spy mystery stories. These are stories about people whose shoes I could easily imagine stepping into.”
Darby is a recovering addict, who we first meet in a court-assigned rehab center. Still in her early twenties, Darby has already made a lifetime of bad choices, precipitated by a tumultuous upbringing. She’s estranged from her mother and her sister, and as the film opens, Darby learns that her mother has had a brain aneurysm and is in the hospital, not expected to recover. So, she takes off to visit her mom, only to be stuck at a rest stop without any phone service when the roads are closed due to a blizzard.
Power sees Darby as “an unlikely hero in many respects, tough but flawed, which for me makes her much more interesting as a hero. She’s someone who the audience might not be sure is going to get out of this situation unscathed.”
“When I saw Havana’s audition, I knew it had to be her,” recalls Power. Liu says, “What’s especially interesting about Darby is that the things about her that society deems as faults end up being extreme strengths in her situation. She has very specific talents that aid her journey – breaking into cars, using drugs as a utility in a moment of need, her resilience in experiences with pain and with being alone, and her ability to withstand violence. She’s never encountered a locked door that she doesn’t want to open or push through, so there is this sense of determination and spirit that I think audiences will really empathize with.”
“The audience experiences with her a very intense pivotal moment in her life,” Liu continues, “so who Darby is in the beginning of the film is entirely different to who she is at the end. Still the same backbone, still the same resilience and sass, but her perspective on the world and her humanity has shifted acutely throughout the course of the film.”
“Honestly, I just fell in love with Darby right away. I use The 36 Questions To Fall In Love in order to find character every time. I’m untrained, so generally, I’m throwing pasta at the wall and seeing what sticks [but with Darby, I barely even had to think. It just felt like it was flowing right from me. I find her to be gritty, and bold, charming, tortured, and also very vulnerable in a way that I don’t think we always see heroic characters holding on to throughout the course of the film. For me, it was the best, most complex, nuanced character I could have asked to play, given that so many of her faults really are her strengths, and vice versa. Playing around with that duality was something that made me feel so alive every day.”
Portraying Ash is Danny Ramirez, recently seen in Marvel’s “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” Describing his character, Ramirez says, “Ash stays a step ahead of everyone. He is always trying to figure out the power dynamics in a room. I found that fascinating, and I was intrigued by what makes someone want to establish that as their entry point to any situation.”
In No Exit, Danny gets to unleash a new side of acting, coming in as charming. There’s also a dark side revealed throughout the movie that only adds to the uncertainty of how it ends.
“A big portion of [Ash’s duality] affected so much of the two weeks that we all had in quarantine in New Zealand. For two weeks, all the source material Damien had sent me, and everything we had talked about was basically ruminating in my stomach cooking up. So then by the time we went to film, it all came out. There are some scenes with Dennis [where] we got really playful. Honestly [it] just felt like a pressure cooker [and we] felt safe to be our best and our worst selves, which [is what the] film definitely required. [We wanted to] find ways to empathize with people you normally would write off right away.”
“I was a little bit scared sitting in that room for two weeks, and then having to go be a person but also an actor in the space. In the movie, you’re able to see everyone, and the beautiful work they did to make [it] nuanced, and you get to understand where the characters are coming from. It was just a lot of fun to throw down.”
A strong and silent type, Ed is portrayed by veteran actor Dennis Haysbert, who most recently starred as God on the series Lucifer, Ed is a US Marines veteran, who met Sandi, then a nurse, while being treated in a Veteran’s Administration Hospital. Trapped during a snowstorm, Ed seems like the ideal person to rely on.
David and Danny had to establish a relationship and dynamic for their characters that evolves as it reveals itself throughout the film and off-screen during quarantine. ‘It was about four days into quarantine, and I was like, “We should find these people’s numbers so we can [work on this.] It was a three-hour FaceTime, and we really into it. We started talking about our own families and finding the personal things in them. It’s really important how Damien’s approaching it, and how the other actors approached it. [My approach wasn’t] to judge these characters. We’re really trying to play them truthfully and by doing so we had to trust and support each other.”
Havana agreed, “So much of what happened between characters was so trust based, that we spent a lot of time actively prepping a lot of those scenes. The stunts and really the physicality of the movie is sort of at the heart of where a lot of the trust comes between all the characters.”
“Every day, we’d go into that snow globe of hell, which I’ve used a couple times, and it was like going into battle every day. [As we got used to filming and being in those characters, I was like, ‘I don’t have to act anymore.’ I’m just like, ‘I already feel it just walking into this place. The whole crew felt that too, because we were all in it together watching the movie unfold in front of us. We definitely created the groundwork in quarantine, but we all would go out and have dinners. I got very close to all these people. I love all these people. If you’re going to do something this dark, I think you want there to be nuance to it,” said Dennis.
As Ed, David brings a confidence that adds a different presence to his character, who then becomes intimidating in his own ways, just because of what he’s capable of even when he’s not showing the audience. “I have played a lot of military characters over the years and the one thing I’ve noticed about all the military characters is no two soldiers are alike. So, every time I play a soldier, he’s not the same guy. Ed is looking for an opportunity to show who he is. I incorporated some PTSD with him and some other traumas he’s got to deal with and when it comes up, he gets that chance.”
Haysbert adds, “The way No Exit was shot allowed us all to ask the question ‘What’s next, okay what happens next? What happens next?’ I love that build, and you can only get that in a play or when you’re shooting a film in sequence. It was an absolutely brilliant feeling.”
The challenge of keeping the audience interested and entertained within a single location film was offset in part by the dynamism of the sequences. “It starts with a mystery – who put the kid in the van and the tension of Darby trying to figure that out like a detective, followed by a cat and mouse game as the motives of various players are revealed. It has a siege, it has a chase, it has crazy mayhem at the end. Within the one setting, No Exit unleashes an incredible variety of action.
“I can imagine the chemistry between these characters, and between Havana’s Darby and Dennis and Dale. You always have to roll the dice. You never know how everyone’s going to be until you’re in that situation. I felt really lucky and blessed to be able to work with this wonderful bunch of people,” said Damien.
No Exit will debut February 25th exclusively as a Hulu Original in the U.S. and internationally as an Original on Disney+ under the Star banner and Star+ in Latin America.