After doing Canada proud by earning a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination for his 2010 thriller “Incendies,” Quebequois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve returns to the Toronto International Film Festival with not one but two new features, both starring his new muse and bud, Jake Gyllenhaal.
In the higher profile of the pair, “Prisoners” (getting a wide release via Warner Bros. on September 20th), Gyllenhaal plays a detective trying his damnedest to find two missing girls (Hugh Jackman, Mario Bello, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard play the parents). The hard-hitting film, lensed by the legendary Roger Deakins, drew raves at Telluride before screening in Toronto (go here for Indiewire’s glowing review), proving Villeneuve can make a studio thriller like the best of them.
“Enemy,” a Canadian production shot prior to “Prisoners,” is a smaller scale effort, but no less provocative and dark. Based on José Saramago’s “The Double,” “Enemy” features Gyllenhaal doing double duty as a paranoid teacher who discovers he has a doppelganger. Almost defiantly strange and boasting a surprise ending sure to divide audiences, “Enemy” plays like Villeneuve’s nod to the David Cronenberg’s films of yore.
Indiewire sat down with a visibly tired Villeneuve (can you blame him?) to discuss his two films, watching “Enemies” for the first time at the festival, and getting Hugh Jackman to go berserk.
This marks quite the Canadian homecoming for you. What’s it like having two films at the festival?
I’m used to coming here to do press and to see good films. Now I’m just doing press, press, press and press. It’s an endless tunnel of interviews. I didn’t prepare myself. 10 days ago I was still with Roger Deakins supervising the last prints of “Prisoners.” I might have finished maybe two weeks ago. So I was just running. I am not complaining at all. It’s like a positive sign.
According to what you said at the premiere of “Enemy,” last night marked the first time you saw the finished film. That ain’t common.
The truth is it’s the first time in my life that it happened, because I was doing two movies as the same time which means I had to supervise both. I did the final mix, so I supervised all of the sound and then I supervised all the visuals in total, but I’ve never see them both together. They gave me a screener. They said you could watch it on Blu-ray, but I said nope. It’s going to be a fantastic experience to see it finished for the first time. “Enemy” is just such an experimental film that I thought it just fit the idea too — this movie was based on taking a risk.
Was last night nerve-racking?
I won’t do that again, of course [laughs]. Yesterday I felt naked, I felt too nervous.
Well, thanks to “Enemy,” you can’t be accused of selling out with your first Hollywood effort, “Prisoners.”
Both movies were greenlit at the same time. Going from “Incendies” to “Prisoners” was too much of a big step and I needed to do something in English. I needed to explore acting before doing “Prisoners” in a more playful way. I needed to spend time with actors. “Prisoners” is my biggest movie so far, and in the same time I should say “Prisoners” is much closer to my previous work than “Enemy.”
The performances you elicit in “Prisoners” are extraordinary. I’ve never seen Hugh Jackman so vulnerable on screen.
I never went to school for directing. I studied theater with a director. I followed plays to see how a director would talk to the actors. I tried to make my own school. But I felt after “Incendies” that I was always running and running with actors, going to different locations, not having time to spend with the actor to explore — you know, build a relationship. I have a relationship with the cinematographer, the production designer, but with actors they are just like guest stars coming in and getting out.
I spent a month with Jake Gyllenhaal; drinking, eating, all that time together having fun talking about life, women, cinema, art, politics, and about about acting, acting and acting. It was just very inspiring for me, and what I learned on “Enemy” applied to “Prisoners.” It’s just a matter of relationships. Hugh Jackman is one of the nicest human beings on earth and he trusted me. It was so easy to direct him. He’s such a great actor, so easy to work with, so precise.
Watching “Prisoners,” I was not just fearful for the characters, but for the actors as well. The one-take scene where Hugh Jackman threatens Paul Dano’s character with a hammer was especially tough to watch. How do you go about creating a safe environment for the actors on set?
It was a scene that was not in the screenplay. It is a scene that I asked Aaron Guzikowski [the screenwriter] to add. Our work on torture with Hugh was a lot about showing different modes of his vulnerability and his inner moral conflict. He goes berserk, but he’s still a human being and he’s still struggling. He’s not a sadistic man. He just wants to find his daughter, and that’s what I love about this scene. You feel just how helpless he is, he just wants to find her, but there is a limit that he can’t cross.
To answer your question — first off, the sink was fake. It was designed to be broken without being dangerous. Secondly, Hugh is a very precise actor. The thing about safety is you need to work with someone who is in total control of their gestures. He’s a dancer, he’s someone who is in total control of his body. Paul trusted him and everyone trusted Hugh. I know the first two takes were not what I wanted. I think if we had 15 sinks, Hugh would have made 14 not good takes. Not that they were bad, they were just not what I was looking for. I was looking for him to lose control. I will remember all my life when he came to me and said “Did you get it?” I said, “Yeah it was great, but it’s not what I want.” Then when he did another take there was a massive silence on set. One of the producers shouted “Touchdown!”
Are you yourself a father?
Were you therefore initially wary of taking “Prisoners” on?
Yes, I was deeply scared of the material at first. When I read it, as Maria Bello said a few days ago, when you make such a film you don’t necessarily think about your own kids because you will go away from it so violently.
But I was just out of “Incendies” when I read the script and I said “No, it is too much.” I felt that it was too much darkness, too much violence, and I was looking for something different. But it was coming back, coming back, coming back — sometimes you are doomed.
The thing is about filmmaking is that you follow your inspiration. You don’t do what you want. You do what you can do.
I was very afraid of going through the process of shooting. I was very anxious about a lot of scenes and there were a lot of scenes I was afraid of. I kept saying to myself all of the time, “We cannot fall into that cliche.” We were walking a fine line and I was so lucky to work with Roger because he helped me so much staying on the edge of the cliff. We were just walking on the edge all the time.