Interview: Director Denis Villeneuve Takes No Prisoners


Anyone looking for the next great American filmmaker might have to spread their search to the Northern part of North America where a number of French-Canadian filmmakers have started to get attention and being brought “South of the Border” to make their English language debuts.

One of those filmmakers is Denis Villeneuve, whose Canadian films Maelstrom and Polytechnique were able to find an arthouse crowd in the States before his third movie Incendies was nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar.

Interest in the latter film led to Villeneuve taking on his first studio film with Prisoners, a moody crime-thriller based around the disappearance of two young girls with an impressive ensemble cast filled with Oscar-nominated actors including Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Melissa Leo, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard. On the surface, it may seem like the type of high concept thriller we see a lot from Hollywood, but the film’s intricate storytelling and heavily dramatic moments makes it something more in the vein of David Fincher’s Zodiac or Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River and a movie that keeps you guessing every step of the way as you never know what’s going to happen next. had a chance to sit down with the filmmaker in Toronto where Villeneuve had two films premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, Prisoners and a more experimental film called Enemy, also starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The script for “Prisoners” has been around for a while with a lot of people attached to it, both filmmakers and actors. They’ve been trying to make this movie for a long time, maybe five or six years, so how did it eventually get to you?
Denis Villeneuve:
First of all, it’s important to say that it’s something that happens a lot. “Unforgiven” was a script that Clint Eastwood found on Francis Ford Coppola’s desk and he’d kept it in his drawer for 17 years. It’s the thing that happens, that a script sometimes needs momentum and from what I understood, in the studio system, it’s all about momentum. You have to find the right cast with the right director at the right moment and if something doesn’t work, it collapses. There’s a window of opportunity and if I wasn’t able to convince Hugh Jackman at the right moment, I wouldn’t be here today. What happened in the past was that there was at one point actors attached to it and it either didn’t have a director or there were issues with the budget or they find the director and no actors.

CS: I know. I’ve heard about all the different stories and permutations over the course of the last few years.
But again, everyone was mesmerized by the quality of the script and I think also that sometimes it didn’t work because the script was dealing with dark subject matters, very strong violence and a lot of actors were attracted to it, but afraid of it. A lot of them thought it was very sensitive and for an actor to play a part where you’re depicted as… the beauty of “Prisoners” is that it’s all about the grey zone. It’s complex, it’s ambiguous, it’s unclear. There’s a lot of questions, so you have to have actors that will have the generosity–like Hugh Jackman did–to go all the way into darkness, knowing that they wouldn’t be seen as the good guy. That is something that a lot of stars in Hollywood have difficulty to do.

CS: At this point, after “Incendies,” were you being approached a lot by studios to direct things?
I was approached after “Polytechnique.” From “Polytechnique” I started to get scripts and after “Incendies” of course it exploded. In a way, the truth is that I was dreaming to do a movie in the United States just because as a filmmaker, I always loved the idea of trying to make movies in a different culture, in a different way. It’s always interesting to make a movie abroad. All movies so far, most of them had a relationship with the outside. I was saying to myself that I would love to try it once, just one time, to know what it’s like to make a movie in Hollywood. I was so curious, because most of my favorite directors were there. There’s a history, there’s a way of working. It’s a fantastic to work in a system and with people with so much history and to feel the experience and to have access to masters. I worked with cinematographers and editors and surrounded myself with people that were over-talented, and that is very attractive. To make a movie with Roger Deakins, I was ready to swim across the Atlantic Ocean, you know?

CS: I totally understand that because Roger Deakins doesn’t shoot a lot of movies, so besides getting Hugh and the cast, getting him as the DP is huge, so was he attracted to the script and that’s what got him on board?
The truth? I met Roger at the Academy Awards and Roger loved “Incendies.” He loved it, and then I know when he saw that he wanted to see my other movies. He was looking for something to do and he said that when he read “Prisoners” he said, “I want to work with that director,” which is honestly the biggest compliment I’ve ever received. It was a dream for me to work with such a master. I never thought in my life or dared to dream that I’d make a movie with Roger Deakins one day. I think he was available at that period of time and he loved the script and he loved “Incendies” and we met and that was it. It was a very beautiful cinematic experience for me–I learned so much.

CS: I also love that movie and it’s one of the reasons I was so excited about this movie and that was even before I learned that you had Roger Deakins shooting it.
Yeah, yeah, I really worked with a strong, strong crew, and the producer and everyone protected me. I felt the most moving thing about this project for me was that I felt that my identity was protected by everybody. I didn’t feel like a director for hire or something. I felt like they wanted me to make my own film with my own imprint, my own soul, and that was the biggest gift for me.

CS: It definitely feels like it. It doesn’t feel like a studio thriller. First of all, a studio wouldn’t allow a movie like this to be two-and-a-half hours normally.
A two-and-a-half hour movie with that kind of tension, violence, darkness, a questionable ending, Roger Deakins kept saying on set, “It’s unbelievable. They don’t make movies like this anymore.” The crew was very excited by the way. There was attention and happiness on the crew because everybody felt like we were doing a movie that was meaningful and the work was quite cinematic, and Roger can create poetry out of ugliness. It was a very great experience.

CS: You made another movie with Jake Gyllenhaal called “Enemy” right before this, so did you see that as a transitional film?
That was the way that I was able to convince the studio to let me work on the movie just before. They were freaking out a bit. “You are making a small indie movie before the big one?” They felt it was a bit dangerous, but I convinced them that it was the best idea because I needed to warm up and I needed to go back behind the camera and to work in English for the first time. I needed to experiment with one actor, I felt that after “Polytechnic” and “Incendies” there were things about acting that I needed to explore before going to the upper level, and that was the best idea because “Enemy” is a movie that’s more of an experiment, an exploration, and it was very important for me to do it before “Prisoners.” Everybody benefits from that idea I think.

CS: I’m sure a lot of people will ask you about the backstory of the characters because they obviously had a life before this incident and it’s shown in interesting ways like Jake’s tattoos and his eye blinking.
Yeah, that’s the thing. I love in movies when you feel and you understand the past of the character without it being said or having a flashback or something that explains. I think in “Prisoners” we need to understand that Loki’s character’s past was not first class. He was not the first in his class. He was not born in love and he was a young man who had a strange relationship with his father or didn’t have a father. He has a problem with authority and with a fatherhood figure, someone who has a past… I met cops who are like this who come from a criminal side and then they decide to become cops. That means that they have a specific relationship with anger. I wanted the character to be part of the same idea of the cycle of violence but without talking about it, just making it a suggestion. I must give a lot of credit to Jake’s work because it was an idea in the direction we worked and he brought a lot of meat to the bone.

CS: Also there are interesting things about Hugh’s character that are even more subtle like when you go down to his basement and see that he’s stocked up on supplies. He’s obviously preparing for something.
He doesn’t trust life. He doesn’t trust other people, he doesn’t trust society. He’s an individualist–I don’t know how you can say that in English–someone who just believes in individuality, doesn’t believe in society. It’s someone who doesn’t trust other institutions.

CS: There’s a lot of different words for that in English actually, everything from “anti-social” to “sociopath”…
What I love about this film is that I think it says a lot of things about North America today.

CS: From the beginning, the film sets up its religious overtones as we hear Hugh saying the Lord’s Prayer and the music is almost like the organ we might hear behind a hymnal. You don’t hit the viewer over the head with the religious but it’s always present.
Yeah, yeah, the thing is that the choice of music was from the start. When I read the script for the first time I said to myself, it’s a powerful part of the movie. It’s a movie that should have sacred music, music that will have a relationship with spirituality. When I approached Johann Johannsson, I gave him examples of that kind of music and we worked in that direction. It links to spirituality.

CS: Were a lot of Keller’s connections to religion and spirituality in the original script?
There was the birth of the idea. The origins were present but I must say that I put a bit of an emphasis on it by adding prayers that were not in the script. In fact, if my memory is good, in the script, the character was just listening to tapes in his car of the bible, but that was it. I thought it would be pretty moving and interesting to see and to hear Keller’s prayers and to be in contact with his spirituality because by doing so, it will allow us to have a little window into Keller’s intimacy, his relationship to the world. Praying is very intimate and the thing is that I needed to be close to Keller, to open a window to his intimacy and his vulnerability. I didn’t want the character to be just black or white, I wanted him to be a whole human being with his contradictions, his fears, his struggling morale. That’s the thing that Hugh and I worked a lot on which is the moral conflict inside Keller, the fact that he’s always asking himself if he’s doing something right or good. He’s doing it for love, but what he’s doing is ugly and that tension inside him was very interesting for me and we worked on that a lot.

CS: The moral questions, there are so many different layers about why people do different things, but there are so many twists, you never know what’s going to happen. How hard is it and how important was it to keep those things a secret?
You know what? The script was fantastic. Aaron Guzikowski wrote a fantastic script, so all the mystery and the thriller elements were there. To be honest, as a director, I just had to follow the footprints. My job was more to explore the moral conflict inside the characters and to dig into the drama aspects of the script. I put a lot of emphasis on the dramatic elements–that’s what deeply attracted me to the script, and that’s why I wanted to do that script. There’s a lot of thrillers in this world, but thrillers that raise those questions… the thriller is just a tool to create a story that allows me to explore some moral conflict inside characters and to depict how violence is spreading inside those families and inside their intimacies, and that’s what deeply interested me in “Prisoners.”

CS: Now that you’ve done your studio movie, do you feel like you want to go back and do something smaller in Canada?
The problem in cinema is that you can never predict what will happen. I’m just looking. I have projects that I would like to write. I have projects that I’m attached to, but I’m just looking for what will inspire me, if it’s in Canada or the United States. I must say, to my great surprise and pleasure, I deeply loved making movies in the United States, because of all the opportunities it gave me to work with people that I admire as artists. I would love to do it again, but I don’t know when. We’ll see.

Prisoners opens nationwide on Friday, September 20. You can watch video interviews with the film’s stars Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal by clicking here.