Willem Dafoe Breaks Out in Art-Heist Survival Thriller ‘Inside’

To set a 100-minute drama entirely inside the confines of a single apartment — and to have just a solitary character performing for the camera — might not seem like the most obvious template for an edge-of-your-seat thriller.

But when that character is played by a versatile actor with the range of multi-Oscar-nominated Willem Dafoe, there’s no telling what will emerge. That’s the case with “Inside,” which premieres Feb. 20 in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival. Focus Features is releasing the film theatrically in the U.S. on March 17.

Dafoe stars as an art thief who enters a collector’s high-tech penthouse hunting for valuable works of art, only to be trapped inside when the security system locks the apartment down. When help fails to arrive, the thief — surrounded by so many of the art works he covets and admires — must use all of his cunning and invention to survive, even as supplies dwindle and his body is pushed toward ever-more-demanding extremes.

Dafoe, who described the month-long shoot as a “rigorous” endeavor, said he was handed a script by director Vasilis Katsoupis that functioned mainly as a “blueprint” for the character of Nemo.

“I entered this thing not really knowing who this character is, and not really interested in developing backstory,” he said. “This is so stripped down and so elemental, that it addresses something beyond a psychology. It really is about: Lock yourself in a room. What do you need? What do you think? What do you reflect on? What do you miss? What do you want? It was all those things.”

“Inside” was filmed at Cologne’s MMC TV & Film Studios, where production designer Thorsten Sabel constructed a set that measured 26-ft. high and spanned more than 8,000 sq. ft. Exteriors of the New York City skyline were recreated using virtual production facilities at the German studio.

The film’s sequences were shot in chronological order, an unconventional choice born out of necessity, as the set replicating the luxurious Manhattan apartment gradually degraded as production wore on.

“When you’re shooting in chronological order, you’re not thinking so much about the past. You’re not thinking about the future,” said Dafoe. “It allows you to be present in a different way. We were really dealing with the reality of having this adventure, of being locked in this place. And then taking on the challenges that this house started to present to us.”

Katsoupis, who makes his narrative feature debut with “Inside,” said he “wanted to take the Robinson Crusoe story and put it in a very dense and overpopulated city” — a situation that only deepens the irony of Dafoe’s predicament: trapped inside a towering apartment block with hundreds of other tenants, hopes of rescue are both so close and yet tantalizingly out of reach.

With little dialogue and no other actors to serve as his foil, Dafoe had free reign to experiment. “There was so much improvisation. I gave him so much freedom to react and perform new things and explore new ideas as we were shooting. It was an amazing process,” said Katsoupis. “Willem is a genius. He was the perfect match for this film. His face and his body are a work of art. You can put him in a museum.”

Written by Ben Hopkins, “Inside” is produced by Heretic’s Giorgos Karnavas, German-born producer Marcos Kantis and Dries Phlypo, a producer and managing director of A Private View, Lemming Film Belgium and Mockingbird Productions. Bankside is handling international sales and Square One Entertainment will distribute in German-speaking territories.

Karnavas, who co-founded the Athens-based production and sales outfit with Konstantinos Kontovrakis in 2013, sees the film as a game-changer for the Greek film industry, both as a local production made on an international scale and one of the biggest virtual productions to shoot in Europe in recent years.

“It needed a huge leap of faith from Heretic, but also from all the financiers around the film to support it and make it happen,” the producer told Variety. He also stressed the importance of financing “Inside” within the European co-production system. “We truly hope it paves the way for similar projects that will be coming out from ‘smaller’ audiovisual countries like Greece, but are designed for the global stage.”

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