Lucky for director Denis Villeneuve that Clint Eastwood’s “A Star is Born” remake with Beyonce Knowles fell through, allowing him to work with Eastwood’s long-time editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach on the riveting child kidnapping thriller, “Prisoners,” which took the top spot at last weekend’s box office. It meant that Villeneuve (“Incendies”) was in good hands editorially on his first Hollywood movie, a parable about anger, obsession, and vulnerability that gets under your skin like “Silence of the Lambs” or “Zodiac.”
Then again, “Prisoners” is similar to Eastwood’s best movies in the way it’s performance-driven and classically structured, but with a greater fondness for long takes. Villeneuve certainly likes to linger on Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. And Cox and Roach were primed for distilling primal moments of truth.
The editors can’t say enough good things about working with Villeneuve. He knew exactly what he wanted and delivered what they fully expected and then gave them the freedom to shape it in sync with his vision. For his part, when it was over Villeneuve told them that for the first time he made the movie that he pictured in his head. There was no recutting on his own, as he’d previously done. And the editors believe that “Prisoners” will have an important cultural impact: From now on, when parents lose sight of their children, it will send them into an instant panic attack.
“It’s a very emotional film,” Roach underscores. “He shoots things in long takes and wanted to see the film he’s holding and not a lot of edits. He said he didn’t wanted to make a Hollywood film, but as we went along, he wanted to see what we thought, so we cut things the way we [thought] they should be, and, in a few instances, we held shots a little longer because he wanted to linger on the moment, like the pushing in on the tree, where it shifted to this emotional ride.”
The crucial thing was maintaining a balancing act between Jackman’s enraged father and Gyllenhaal’s aloof cop, both of whom have demons to confront during the horrific ordeal. In fact, Gyllenhaal came up with a whole backstory about being an orphan and a social misfit that create a sense of mystery about his character.
“We had a tough job being that the film was three-and-a-half hours long on the first cut,” Cox adds, “so to take an hour out we were still able to keep the story intact with those moments that were very necessary to make this film work.”
What did they cut? There were additional story points involving the older kids (in one version, they discover that prime suspect Paul Dano has been abducted by Jackman). And there was an intense scene with Viola Davis, who insists on killing Dano and burning down Jackman’s apartment so there’s no evidence linking her and her husband (Terrence Howard).
Yet “Prisoners” doesn’t lag at all at 153 minutes. “It is a slower-paced film than a lot of young people want to see,” Cox continues. “But this is the type of film I tell students all the time: You could not do this in a chop, chop, chop, beat to the music way. Or this film would be nothing. The whole film is about the reality of what these people are thinking or feeling. And I think the picture ended up being just that.”
However, the toughest scene for Roach was the torture of Dano. And they went back and forth from two to three punches, and actually locked picture with two punches, when the director decided to go with three the following day.
But because they were in the digital world and in the hands of master cinematographer and 10-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins, Villeneuve could reset on one take four or five times until he got the exact performance and the right emotional look. That’s not to say he didn’t allow room for improvisation. For instance, Jackman amped up the rage in blowing up at Gyllenhaal when his daughter is first kidnapped, and later beats the dashboard when in the car with his co-star.
For Cox, the car ride was the most challenging scene, but made technically easier by shooting with a camera outside each of the two windows. “The great thing about the car scene [in which Jackman conceals a crucial plot point from Gyllenhaal] is that they have this discussion about life,” Cox explains. “It’s pretty much the way I cut it the first time — they were riveted by the intensity of those two actors and why Jackman has a bottle and all that.”
The way the two editors work is totally in tandem, where they stay close to camera and will even split a long scene in two (of which there were obviously many on “Prisoners”). Then they’ll put it together with only slight adjustment based on notes because their styles are so similar. Cox has worked with Eastwood for 35 years (winning an Oscar for “Unforgiven”) and Roach rose to co-editor on “Letters from Iwo Jima.”
“We play it so we learn what the actors learn and today you’re seeing films where the audience sees it before the characters do and you just can’t do that,” Roach insists. “I get annoyed with filmmaking like that.”
Roach says it helps being a people watcher because then when he observes the performances he can formulate them into the memories he has of particular emotions. “You have to live those characters’ lives.”
It’s the greatest lesson they’ve learned from Eastwood, who’s all about capturing the actor’s moment of discovery. “With Clint being an actor first, his goal is to get you that first time when your body language is not sure where you’re going and you’re vulnerable to something. And he says that is magic,” Cox observes.
Meanwhile, Cox and Roach have resumed working with the 83-year-old Eastwood on “Jersey Boys,” the adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical about the rise and fall of The Four Seasons for release next year. They’re not only “rhythming the dialogue” but also the songs to achieve Eastwood’s sought after spontaneity.