Written by Aaron Guzikowski, “Prisoners” is a dark crime drama about revenge, sin and the pond-drop ripples of violence. It is also, thanks to cinematography giant Roger Deakins, one of the most evocatively shot films of 2013, and features the single shot that we deemed our favorite of 2013 — the "Tree Shot," for want of a more descriptive name, that tells us nothing at all and everything we need all at once.
On a cold Thanksgiving evening in Pennsylvania, two children are abducted right from under the eyes of their respective families. A suspect is apprehended, but then let go due to lack of evidence, and one of the fathers, Keller Dover, (Hugh Jackman) takes matters into his own hands, crossing a moral boundary from which he can never return, while Jake Gyllenhaal plays the detective who tries to solve the crime, in what is one of the riskiest, but most effective lead point-of-view baton passes of the year. But early on, all of this pivots around that single shot of a nearby tree (the meaning of which explained in our favorite shot piece), so when we got to talk to the film’s director, Denis Villeneuve recently, it was the focus of our conversation.
“They’re kind of like ghost characters,” director Denis Villeneuve said of the recurring motif of trees in the film; as we said earlier, like silent witnesses to the various violent crimes in the movie. “They’re always there, at least in the background. Each scene you can feel their presence. And they are linked with this idea of necessary violence.”
Villeneuve worried about the shot, nervous enough to spring it on the crew at the last minute, and his instincts were correct. “The producers came to me and said, ‘Denis, you have been shooting a tree for the last half an hour, there are five Hollywood stars in their trailer, we are a 200-person crew and you are having fun shooting a fucking tree,’ ” he laughed, recalling the moment. But apparently he got no such reaction from the great 10-time Oscar nominated Roger Deakins (‘The Assassination of Jesse James,’ "No Country for Old Men," "The Shawshank Redemption"). On the contrary, Villeneuve said the legendary cinematographer was fully game for the shot because, while not prepared in advance, it was already in the spirit of what they had planned.
“We were always trying to express things with as few shots and saying [on the surface] as little as possible,” the filmmaker said and Deakins “got” the intention of the shot immediately. "This shot was designed not to be understood, but to be felt,” Villeneuve explained. “It has a subconscious feeling that can vibrate in your soul. [It functions] like a dread, an omen. It’s like when you suddenly have a bad feeling but you don’t understand what it means, it’s linked with intuition.”
Once conceptualized, Villeneuve said Deakins led the charge of protecting the visual style of the movie which he described as a thematic “birth of bad weather.” “It was very important to Roger to create a kind of claustrophobic environment; to feel the pressure on the characters and to feel the stress of winter and nature,” he said. This meant always shooting in overcast lighting, never in sunlight and creating a flexible enough shooting schedule as to go indoors or out depending on the cooperation of the weather.
Other than Deakins and Villeneuve, most people thought “the tree shot” was precious, self-indulgent; something that wouldn’t end up in the movie. Months later, the film was finished and Villeneuve was at a barbecue hosted by one of the film’s same producers. As he’s flipping burgers, he called over the director: “’Do you know what the best shot is of ‘Prisoners’?’ He said, ‘the tree shot!’ It was such a big compliment coming from him because he was so pissed off on the day,” Villeneuve recounted with a laugh.
Describing his collaborator as precise and uncompromising, Villeneuve said he and Deakins were always in search of thematically appropriate, oppressive “silver light.” “There’s no coincidences on set with Roger,” he claimed. All the sets were meticulously planned and the director said his DP would insist stray or aberrant colors on walls, cars, or in any shot were either discarded or quickly painted over. “I loved working with Roger,” the filmmaker said so that we could practically hear him grinning down the phone, relishing his photographer’s resolute nature.
“Prisoners” is loaded with Roger Deakins-framed shots that are just burdened with thematic weight. One in particular employs a flying drone that quickly zooms over the surface of a river. Its acceleration is almost out of step with the movie, but its meant to communicate the urgency of the situation (the shot then cuts to Dover and the community on a citywide search for the girls).
"It’s meant to convey a feeling of vertigo," Villeneuve said. "In that specific moment you feel like the search [teams] are spread out everywhere but there is no result, so it builds the amplitude of the desperation."
Coming from the world of documentaries and smaller-budgeted films, Villeneuve said he had promised himself he would try to “keep the liberty of inspired ideas alive” on big film sets. “It’s important to keep that spontaneity because once it’s alive you can find those shots and those are my favorite moments as a filmmaker.”
“Prisoners” it out on Blu-Ray now. A few of our favorite shots from "Prisoners" below. For more from "Prisoners," check out our interview with Jake Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve from earlier in the year.