Interview with Denis Villeneuve for PRISONERS

We talk to the Oscar nominated director about his latest film

In 2010, Denis Villeneuve’s film INCENDIES was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Although the film ultimately lost out to Susanne Bier’s IN A BETTER WORLD, being nominated changed the direction of Villeneuves career. This week, PRISONERS hits Irish cinemas and we caught up with the director to talk dark stories, Oscar nominations and getting drunk with Jake Gyllenhaal.

PRISONERS was in development for a number of years – Leonardo DiCaprio was reportedly attached at one point – how did the project come to you?
Denis Villeneuve: That happens very often in Hollywood. It’s all about windows of opportunity. They have a certain amount of money to spend in a year and they need a director, screenplay and stars all available in the same time frame. The projects are always a bit fragile. I think it’s quite spectacular with PRISONERS because when the screenplay was released it was very popular and it attracted strong stars from the start. For some reason that I don’t know, the project was always on turnaround. When I arrived on board there was nobody attached, I was the one who went to see Hugh Jackman to try to convince him to be part of this adventure. Hugh trusted me all the way. Once Hugh got on board, it was quite a quick process.

You seem to be drawn to dark stories and dark subject matter, was it this that drew you to PRISONERS?
DV: [sighs] Madame Inspiration! I cannot fight against inspiration! I wish I was attracted to cheerful, nice little comedies [laughs]. I will one day! Cinema can be a way of exploring our fears and when I read PRISONERS, I loved the script right away. I was very impressed by the script, but I said to myself ‘I cannot believe I will try to do this’ so I put the script aside and tried to forget about it. I really tried; for weeks, for months, but it was coming back to me all the time, haunting me. I was doomed. It is such a strong, powerful story, but at the same time, it is not a comedy. It’s a dark journey.

Did the Oscar nomination for INCENDIES change your career? Did it give you the freedom to do what you wanted to do?
DV: Yes in some ways. The fact that the movie went to the Academy Awards… They are the biggest spotlight you can put on a movie, so it allowed the movie to be seen by a lot of people. It helped me to make contacts, and the way awards work sometimes, they bring credibility. It’s not that I agree with it, but it gave me a bit more freedom, which is very good.

Did you know what you wanted to do after INCENDIES? Were you drawn to doing a comedy?
DV: The thing is that as I was doing INCENDIES, I asked a friend of mine, Javier Gullón, to make an adaptation of a novel that I love; THE DOUBLE by José Saramago. This movie is dark, but a bit lighter. It’s kind of a dark thriller, but it doesn’t take itself seriously. I knew that I would do that project. I was hoping I would do that project, and then I fell in love with PRISONERS. You will never know when a screenplay will be done. Sometimes you like a screenplay and the movie will be financed in five years. I was very calm about it, but the problem was that both movies were greenlit a week apart. I received a phone call from Jake Gyllenhaal saying that he wanted to be part of ENEMY on the Friday, and I think the next Saturday I received a phone call from Hugh Jackman saying he would get on board with PRISONERS. So within a week I realised I would have to do both movies at the same time. That was quite intense. So in the past 18 months I have worked non-stop, trying to make those two movies back to back. They have just been finished so in October I am going home, and I will sleep for a week. [laughs]

How did you go about casting PRISONERS?
DV: I had just finished ENEMY with Jake [Gyllenhaal], and we had so much fun together, we felt so inspired, we felt that we had created a nice relationship while working on ENEMY that I felt it would be a fantastic idea to bring Jake onto PRISONERS. I needed his creativity. I needed his imagination to invade the part of the detective. I felt the detective, on paper, was lacking a bit of substance, and I needed someone who would be able to bring substance to the screen, and Jake agreed. After that it went quite quickly. Once Hugh and Jake were on board, the rest of the cast was not that difficult because, as I said, the screenplay was very strong, so all the actors were quite inspired by it. They felt it was a challenge.

You had the legendary Roger Deakins doing your cinematography, what was it like to work with him?
DV: A privilege. It was the first time in my life that I had the opportunity to work with a master; someone who is in control of his art, and someone who had the generosity to share it with me. I felt, all the time, that Roger wanted to serve my vision and to protect my identity as a filmmaker. That really touched me. He was a strong ally on set, and what he brought on PRISONERS was very important. I was deeply influenced by him. It was really the most beautiful cinematic experience of my life because I had this fantastic cast in front of the camera, and because Roger Deakins was behind the camera. It was an experience that I will remember all my life.

The absence of hope is very noticeable in the film, did this influence your choice of locations?
DV: I think this is something that I brought to the movie, the screenplay was a little different. I wanted the movie to be set in an environment where there is no social link between people, it is just the TV and internet that is linking people. It is more of a suburban environment, where houses are linked together by highways, which is sadly what America looks like. I felt that the movie would be more frightening and more violent, set in that environment.

Can you talk about the conflict between religion and morality in the film?
DV: The religion aspect was already in the screenplay, and I felt it was a nice thing but it was not appropriate for what I wanted to do. I wanted to be closer to Keller’s [Hugh Jackman’s character] inner moral conflict, I wanted to be in touch with his vulnerability; it would be a nice idea to hear him pray. When a human being is praying, it is a very intimate moment. I liked the idea of being able to see the evolution of his prayers as the movie moves forward. I asked Hugh to add layers to the character. The idea was not just religion, it is more to see how someone can use religion as a strength, to justify and be comfortable with their actions. I thought this was an interesting idea.

The characters always remain relatable, was this something you worked on?
DV: That is the strength of Hugh Jackman; he is such a powerful actor. The fact that we stay in contact with his humanity, I think Hugh really did a fantastic job. That was the main focus of my job with this character; to really stay in contact with the moral conflict. I knew that the producers were afraid that the main character would not be likeable. I kept saying to them ‘It is not about loving him, it is about understanding why he’s doing this. It’s about staying close to his inner conflict, his vulnerability and his fears, and then the audience will not agree necessarily, with what he is doing, but understand why he is doing what he is doing, and that will make the movie more powerful’.

What do you hope audiences will take from the film?
DV: There are two things; first of all, the movie is like a puzzle. When the audience will see the movie, I think it will be a challenge; it is really like a puzzle and the audience has to put the pieces together to see the whole picture. That is quite playful. I think that’s the nice thing about cinema. But more importantly, it is about the questions that are raised. I have heard from friends of mine that last week in North America, people were gathering outside the theatres and they were talking together about the moral issues in the movie. That, I think, is the beauty of cinema; it is a tool to explore reality, to approach our fears, to question reality.

You mentioned ENEMY, which also stars Jake Gyllenhaal and is released next year. I read somewhere that the film came about after you and Mr Gyllenhaal got drunk together. Is that true?
DV: No! I have been misquoted! [laughs] It is true that we get drunk together very often [laughs] No seriously, the movie was written for two years, so it is not an improvised idea. It’s adapted from Jose Saramago’s novel, so it was a long process of writing. That night I was not there to find the idea, I was there to convince Jake Gyllenhaal [laughs]. It’s true that we got drunk together – we drank just one bottle of wine, we were very tired – but it was not about finding ideas, it was about whether we wanted to work together or not. It was the birth of a beautiful relationship though.

After you go home and sleep for a week, what’s next?
DV: I have two or three projects on the table, and I have to decide soon, which one I will do first, but I am very attracted by sci-fi at the moment.

PRISONERS is released in Irish cinemas on September 27th

Words: Brogen Hayes