Life is pretty swell for Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. In 2010, he earned worldwide recognition for scoring a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award nomination for "Incendies." Five years later, he’s at the Cannes Film Festival with "Sicario," his first film to play in the main competition, and about to start work on a new "Blade Runner" movie starring Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling.
Like his last two films "Prisoners" and "Enemy," "Sicario" is taut, tense and bleak. It centers on a young female FBI agent (Emily Blunt), who teams with the CIA to take down a Mexican cartel boss.
Indiewire sat down with Villeneuve in Cannes to discuss the portrayal of violence in his work, re-teaming with his "Prisoners" and "Sicario" DP Roger Deakins for the "Blade Runner" sequel, and why he’s drawn to grim subject matter.
You excel at these bleak character studies, and yet from what I’ve seen at Cannes and in Toronto when you premiered "Prisoners" and "Enemy," you’re a really funny guy. During the "Sicario" press conference, Emily Blunt spoke of how upbeat the set was, despite the subject matter of the film. Can you speak to that?
To bring the joie de vivre on set? I don’t know about that. Because filmmaking is a rough process. When you are on set, for me, I am always very apprehensive. It’s exhausting, it’s very demanding, it’s frightening. There’s a bit of pain doing a movie — so when there is a good spirit and a good sense of humor among the crew, at least you’ve got that friendship, you know. You put 300 people in the mud at four o’clock in the morning under harsh circumstances; it’s cold, it’s uncomfortable. So in order to keep my mental sanity, I need a sense of humor. It’s too intense sometimes. And specifically when we deal with dark matter.
Which you do often.
It’s nice to have something that relieves a bit, otherwise it gets too intense.
What is it about the dark stuff that appeals to you so much as a filmmaker? From "Incendies" to this, it’s clear that you gravitate towards dark material.
The world is a dark place. I think life is beautiful, but we humans make it not an easy place. Cinema is a powerful tool to explore shadows. Because I’m a spoiled kid, I’m coming from a spoiled country. We are a rich country. I can afford to talk about darkness. If I was raised in Africa, maybe I would need to talk more about light.
Both "Sicario" and "Prisoners" are violent and deal with ramifications of violent acts. What are your thoughts on violence in film?
Violence is part of our reality. I’m trying to depict the violence in all its ugliness and feel its impact. Not to make a show out of it, not to make a spectacle out of it. My goal is to really make the audience feel the strength of the impact of violence.
How are you going to bring that approach to violence to the "Blade Runner" franchise?
When you think about the first "Blade Runner," the violence was approached in a very human way. The violence was very maturely realized.
I’m so psyched you’re re-teaming with Roger Deakins for the film.
Yeah, I know. It’s something that I knew about [for] a while obviously, and I was looking forward [to when] it would be announced. For me, it’s so exciting. Roger and I have been dreaming to make a sci-fi movie since the first day we met. He is really, really excited about the project. For me, he is my biggest ally, and honestly I know doing it with him the movie will look astonishing. It is very exciting to do that with him.
Why does sci-fi excite the two of you so much?
I think Roger needs the idea to go explore different genres, a different sphere. It’s kind of a challenge. A master needs challenge to be happy, or else he has a tendency to repeat himself. Sci-fi will give him the opportunity to explore new ways of doing cinema.
For me sci-fi, since a kid i’ve loved sci-fi. I’m a big sci-fi fan. There’s not that much good sci-fi movies. It’s a very tough genre. It’s just because it can be so poetic and strong when it’s well done. It allows you to approach very deep and strong, and dark, sometimes, themes with a distance. Because you have that distance on science fiction that allows you to do very close things that otherwise would be unbearable for a regular movie. It’s linked with the idea of dream. To dream about something that could happen. I love it.
When you work with Roger, do you put all your trust in him or is it a wholly collaborative process?
It’s a collaborative process. First, I storyboard the movie with him and without him in the process; I like to make him part of the process as much as possible. But there were a lot of moments where I was storyboarding along with my artist, and once the storyboard is done, we find together the visual alphabet of the movie. What kind of lens we will use, what kind of texture, what kind of camera, what kind of framing — all of the aesthetic decisions are made together. We make research, visual research, we try to stimulate each other with images; anything… paint, photojournalism. And once we define that visual world, we storyboard, as I think everybody does. Once we are on set, we allow ourselves always the space to improvise when needed. Sometimes things that are happening are stronger than what we thought. It’s really tense between him and I to find the shots together, it’s a very collaborative process.
But the answer to your question, yes I deeply trust him. And yes, he has strong ideas. Yes, to work with DP is like playing tennis. It’s like throwing ideas. Roger, very often, I get a smash in my face [laughs]. I love to work with people who are stronger than me. I love to work with people who are much better than me, you know? It allows me to get better.
It’s amazing to consider the ride you’ve been on since "Incendies" really put you on the map a few yeas ago. Looking back, did you ever think that and "Polytechnique" would lead you to where you are now, with a film in the Cannes competition and a "Blade Runner" movie in the works?
If you were telling me that I would be asked to do the sequel of "Blade Runner," I would laugh out loud in your face and maybe insult you [laughs]. I’m working a lot, so I don’t have the time to see. But, it’s a bit of a dream right now.
How do you stay grounded? How are you handling this progression?
I’m really down to earth. First of all, I must take care of my three kids. I stay focused on work, a lot. I’m working a lot, I don’t have the time to think anything else but the movie that I’m making.