Yet there was another potential title that Estes couldn’t shake. Two years ago, when he was penning the movie’s script, the filmmaker found himself in a state of delirium during a trip to rural Mexico. A cocktail of dengue fever and typhus had saddled him with liver failure and internal bleeding. But the crippling ailment came with one other symptom: a moving mantra that embedded itself in his brain.
“As I was being transported from this dirt road where I collapsed to this hospital, I kept thinking about my 6-year-old son and how he was too young to lose his father,” Estes says. “I just kept saying, ‘Don’t let go. Don’t let yourself go.’ ”
Estes was hospitalized for two weeks, ultimately completing his recovery at a facility in San Diego. While his body recuperated, his mind kept a firm grasp on those words he told himself in Mexico.
“That thought sort of permeated,” he says, “and made its way into the final draft of the script, the edit and, finally, the title.”
Backed by Blumhouse Productions, Estes’ film hits theaters Friday under the moniker “Don’t Let Go.” The movie stars David Oyelowo as Jack Radcliff, an LAPD detective mourning the violent deaths of his brother, his sister-in-law and his young niece, Ashley (Storm Reid). Pinned on Ashley’s ex-con father (Brian Tyree Henry), the grisly act is questionably deemed a murder-suicide.
But Jack’s grief is complicated when he starts fielding disorienting calls from Ashley. Soon, he comes to realize she’s communicating with him from two weeks in the past. As Jack processes the reality-altering nature of these conversations, he works behind the backs of his concerned partner (Mykelti Williamson) and boss (Alfred Molina) to solve the deaths — and help Ashley stop them from ever happening.
“The title of the movie, ‘Don’t Let Go,’ speaks to this big theme of people needing and wanting to hold on to their family,” Estes says. “But [it’s] also about a young woman who is 12, 13 years old, realizing that she is the agent of her own change.”
Estes, 46, wrote and directed the film after plucking the high-concept conceit from an otherwise unrelated horror script by author Drew Daywalt, who received a story credit on “Don’t Let Go.” The plotting is twisty, as parallel timelines and alternate realities converge. But when Estes outlined the genre-splicing police procedural, he worked to ensure that each story beat was driven by the character arcs.
From there, he reverse-engineered the narrative so that the premise served the story, and not the other way around. Along the way, Estes seeded his treatise on loss with emotions drawn from his own near-death experience.
“The supernatural is sort of a vehicle for wish fulfillment,” Estes says. “At the core, it’s just about exploring a fundamental human emotional idea — in this case, grief and wanting someone back.”