The Risk in Safe - In Conversation with Steven Thai
By: Darida Rose
Steven Thai is an Asian-American director, producer, and screenwriter based in Boulder, Colorado. Safe, a dark psychological thriller set in a local news room is his third short film. The film deals with themes of depression, revenge, abandonment, and gluttony as central players in the unfolding of a thrilling drama that brought to life by Thai in outstanding fashion, using the least amount of time possible.
Steven Thai grants Phoenix Journal a chance to explore his journey behind the making of Safe.
(PJ): Writing within the thriller genre in a short format seems to be an extremely challenging hurdle, a bit risky even. Would you agree with that? And how can were you able to build exposition and turn the heat up for the twist so smoothly in such a short amount of time?
Steven Thai (ST): Yes! Writing a thriller short film was incredibly hard. Safe was one of the most challenging shorts that I've worked on just solely because I knew that the timing had to be right. I wanted the viewer to be as blasé as William with his life in the first act, and slowly in the second act, when William's life is starting to get better, I wanted his life to spiral down to his breaking point. We are already aware that his life is terrible, and by the end of the film, I wanted the viewer to be invested in William's horrible life but it ends in a disturbed and unhinged way.
(PJ): Who are some of your inspirations when it comes to the dark, psychological thriller genre?
(ST): My inspirations for the dark psychological thriller genre really derive from the characters. I always love movies with characters that go through the difficulties of life and live with their decisions. Some of my inspirations were Uncut Gems, Joker, Black Swan, Gone Girl, and of course, I had to include Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver as my main inspiration for dark movies. Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver encapsulates a character that just gets dealt with the backhand of life, and my wish is to make a film as good as that film.
(PJ): Being a young filmmaker, besides the obvious financial challenges that so many independent filmmakers face, what would you say has been your biggest challenge and how were you able to overcome it?
(ST): My biggest challenge as a young filmmaker would have to be getting my name out in the industry as a respected filmmaker. I wouldn't say I overcame that challenge, but I'm savoring every moment and film before then.
(PJ): Can you expand on how you interacted and worked with the actors with respect to their character development and performance?
(ST): On set, I try to keep everyone's input in mind. If one of my actors believes a character should do something differently, I always try to get that take, so while I'm editing the film, there's more coverage. I get to see how the story plays out visually based on what the actors envision for the character.
(PJ): The title plays such a huge role in contextualizing many of the themes in the film. Can you expand on what the title means to you with respect to the subtext within?
(ST): The title of the film is Safe because of two reasons. One being that the character's life pretty much revolves around his safe and revolves around being safe. He keeps all his valuables in it, and throughout the film, he feels safe and secure with his life, but the reality of the film, William isn't truly safe. The one time we see William grab something but his valuables is when he grabs his gun in the end. And the second reasoning is that I wanted the viewer to also feel safe but yet expect that something isn't right with this guy.
(PJ): Was the doctor William trying to reach a psychologist/psychiatrist? It seems that he was going through something urgent and couldn’t wait a couple of days. Did you intend to keep that aspect a bit vague?
(ST): Initially, I kept the title of the doctor vague as I was writing this screenplay because I didn't feel that it wasn't necessary for the viewer to know but, when I was editing the film, the vagueness around the doctor's title greatly benefited the story by allowing the viewer to interpret what was so important that William needed to have Emily submit his papers for him. I wanted the main character, William, to be a little mysterious.
(PJ): Can you take us through your own personal journey when writing the script and coming up with the idea. What were some of the questions and concerns from the real world around you that led you to make this film?
(ST): In the beginning, I just knew that I needed to make a dark, psychological thriller about a character that gets hit with the struggles of life, and he is faced with a defining moment. But slowly, as I just kept thinking about this film, pieces of the film started coming together. One of my closest friends is actually a journalist, and I based the film's setting on her. But the film still felt a little shallow to me, and I started thinking about how this film would and should reflect on our society. I tried incorporating topics such as gun control, abandonment issues, betrayal, and capitalism. But it was definitely a struggle to incorporate all these topics without making them obvious and crossing any lines. For instance, with the topic of gun control, It never really started the stance of gun control that I myself take and William because I wanted the viewer to have their own idea on who William is. Even though this film was difficult to write, I enjoyed every moment of it, exploring William's life and bringing it to life visually. This will not be my last dark psychological thriller.