A cinematic puzzle that dives deep into the realm of the subconscious, Denis Villeneuve‘s “Enemy” blurs reality with absurdity, surreality and sometimes, straight up WTF excursions into the strange. But his film is not coy provocation, nor does it simply circumvent traditional narrative routes as a parlor trick. Instead, across 90 tight, captivating minutes, Villeneuve takes viewers into a crumbling relationship, and the portrait of a man torn between two women, weighing responsibility against desire.
In what would be their first collaboration, quickly followed by last fall’s “Prisoners,” Jake Gyllenhaal takes the two lead roles in the film, playing Adam and Anthony, one a mild mannered and lonely professor, the other a working actor with a baby on the way. And when their worlds collide, the Rubik’s cube like film turns around and around, until a finale that will have you talking long after the lights have gone up in the cinema. So you might imagine that when we got on the phone with Denis Villeneuve last week, we had a lot to talk about.
And the thoughtful director provided detailed feedback on his movie, from turning Toronto into a smog filled otherworld, to pushing Gyllenhaal to the limit and what he’s got coming up next.
I have never seen Toronto look like this in a film. What was your approach, and what did you want to accomplish in shooting the city with this film?
The city in the book and the movie is an very important character. In the book it was described as a megalopolis, a never ending city, with millions of souls. I was looking for a specific landscape, an urban landscape that feels like it is spreading forever. There are not a lot of cities in the world that can offer that. I was looking for one that is in English, an Anglophone city because I wanted the movie to be in English and I wanted it to be set in a poetic landscape, but a realistic landscape, at the same time.
Now in North America there’s not a lot of cities that can offer that landscape. The ones, most of the ones that offer it have been overshot in the movies or have too strong of a personality. Like New York for example, or Chicago. The beauty of Toronto is that it has not been shot a lot in movies, for itself at least. I mean, most of the time Toronto is shot to portray something else. [David] Cronenberg used it a little bit, but not that much. [Atom] Egoyan, maybe one or two times, but there’s not a lot of movies where you see Toronto as Toronto. There’s a sense of virginity there. I felt that the place was… it didn’t have any relationship with images coming from other movies. In my mind I was totally free, like it was a virgin landscape. But the thing is I wanted the city to feel that fear, that paranoia… a claustrophobic feeling. I wanted to add a smoggy effect, bringing that kind of yellow color. It was the color that I felt when I read the book. In the book it was set in an unknown city that was a bit like it was from the Latin world. So with the cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, we tried to find that feeling of the pressure and the character coming from the heat. Basically we tried to shoot in a more funky way. I had a budget to bring in smog through CGI, but we were so lucky because when we arrived, every time we’re outside there was smog all over the place, all of the time. So we didn’t have to add any CGI effects, it was there, it was totally natural and when we showed the movie to the financiers, they asked us, “Hey guys you went a bit hard on the smog, you should remove some.” We said, “Unfortunately we can’t, it’s real.”
It was like one of the first times I was scouting, and I found locations that were exactly what I dreamed. Toronto was very generous, it was really exciting there, because from an architecture point of view, we found everything we were looking for. It was very exciting to shoot in.
How did you work with Jake Gyllenhaal and the actors on bringing the script to life?
I worked on the screenplay with Javier Gullón for a long time, but the idea was that as much the structure and the ideas were very precise, I felt that I wanted to inspire myself from the actors, for the characters. I wanted the actors to invade their part, and inspired myself from the sensibility of the actors. For instance there’s a lot of Melanie Laurent in the character of Marie. There’s a lot of Sarah Gadon in Helen. There’s a lot of Jake Gyllenhaal and Adam and Anthony. The movie’s about subconsciousness, and I thought that it would be quite playful to try to go inside the actors more like a vampire. [laughs]
Now, with Jake what I said to him was I wanted to develop a relationship with an actor. For the past, I was always running with actors, bringing them in front of the camera and then going to another actor, because my movies had a very tight schedule and I never had the chance to build a real relationship. And for that I needed time. Jake, I think, loved the idea. I think he was needing a chance to express more creativity. So we spent a lot of time together talking about movies, about filmmaking, about art. About life in general, about what it is to be an actor, what it is to be a director, a man in this world. Relationships with women, engagement, commitment, kids, family, all of this, and to me it was a profound encounter. And what I promised him is that my idea was really to create a laboratory where we will take risks in front of the camera… Because we had very few locations, most of them in studio, it allowed us to try a lot of things and even to explore with the idea of improvisation like I never did before.
When there’s no technical problems, if you did the right casting and the scene is well written, the actor will give you a strong performance with his intuition right from the start. But with Jake we wanted to try something different, which was based on repetition. So he would go through repetition, lose control and create chaos in front of the camera. Going to a very specific state of mind like a mantra, where he will go deeper and deeper into his intuition and create sometimes things that were silly and sometimes fantastic. When it was fantastic it was like the best acting I’ve ever had before in my life. So there was this idea of trying and pushing the envelope all the time. It’s like if Jake was a Ferrari and asked me to go at 300 miles an hour. It was really, really a fantastic creative experience.
How difficult was it to tell a story that blurs the line between what’s real and what’s imagined?
For me the big challenge was that very quickly I discovered with the actors, because we were dealing with those kinds of controlled improvisations—it was real improvisation but at the same time it was within boundaries, because the screenplay was very precise. It was very exciting, but very fragile because sometimes the way an actor would say the dialogue would change the meaning of the scene. In each scene we are dealing on two levels, the narrative levels, which is like reality and like a subconscious level where it’s like dealing with the part of the subconscious of the character. It was very amazing to see how fragile that boundaries was. And for me that was a big challenge. I really keep in mind both levels and it gave me a lot of headaches but it was very exciting at the same time. Sometimes I was seeing Jake going from one to the other in the same scene and trying to deal with both, it was very exciting.
I’m curious about the status of two projects that you’re developing: one with Jessica Chastain, and the sci-fi “Stories of Your Life.”
The first one with Jessica Chastain is an adaptation of the Russell Banks book “The Darling.” [It’s a] very strong story but it’s in development right now, we are working on the screenplay and it won’t be my next project. “The Story of Your Life” is a sci-fi movie that is based on a short story written by Ted Chiang, which deals with the poetry of words and the strength of language and how language contains your perception of the world. It’s really about a university linguist that is hired by the US government to try to translate the language of extra terrestrials that just landed on Earth. It’s very poetic, and a strong take on an alien landing on Earth. It’s very original, very fresh and very inspiring. I’m very excited about that project. I’m supposed to shoot it at the beginning of 2015.
“Enemy” is now playing in New York City and expands this weekend. Click here for dates and cities.