While it’s been favorably (and superficially) compared to David Fincher’s “Se7en,” and “Zodiac,” Warner Bros.’ dark drama, “Prisoners” is such a different kind of beast that those assessments don’t really capture the essence of this harrowing kidnapping and family drama. Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Academy Award-nominated Foreign Language filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”), perhaps the most apt correlation is the fact that “Prisoners” is the darkest mainstream studio film since Fincher’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.” And arguably, it’s much more emotionally bruising as it taps into some extremely haunting primal fears.
Jackman stars as a father and survivalist in the suburbs of Pennsylvania whose daughter suddenly goes missing. When police pursue multiple leads and the pressure mounts, the desperate father takes matters into his own hands. His opposite, ally, and adversary, is Loki, an brooding, intense and rigorous police detective on the case, played by Gyllenhaal.
Co-starring a terrific all-star cast that includes Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo and Paul Dano, “Prisoners” is a gruelling piece of cinema with weighty themes about sin, faith, redemption and how far we’ll go to protect our loved ones (you can read our review from the Telluride Film Festival here). Interestingly enough, “Prisoners” is the second collaboration in a row between Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal. The pair worked on the psychological doppelganger film, “Enemy” before shooting the crime flick (it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, read our review here), but it’s “Prisoners” that will be assaulting audiences first when it arrives in theaters tomorrow. Perhaps most fascinating is the backstory Gyllenhaal created for the character that you don’t actually see onscreen, but can intuit via the character’s visage and rich internal life.
Right before TIFF we had a chance to talk to Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve about both pictures (our “Enemy” conversation can be found here), how the two found one another and how they connected and bonded enough to make two inspired films in a row. From the sounds of it, these films won’t be their last team-ups either.
How did this collaboration come about? How did you guys first meet?
Denis Villeneuve: I sent the script to Jake because I had a strong will to work with him and then we met in New York. The birth of our collaboration is in New York, We sat together and drank too much wine and we were drunk and realized that—no seriously—it was the birth of the collaboration and our friendship.
Jake Gyllenhaal: We didn’t really have too much wine, we just got drunk off that one bottle of wine. It was strange for both of us. We had like two glasses each and we were like, “Are we drunk?” It was a big surprise.
Villeneuve: It was the birth of a beautiful collaboration for me.
Which film came first “Prisoners” or “Enemy”?
Villeneuve: “Enemy.” I approached Jake to play the role. My goal was to find a very, very strong actor to share and create this kind of laboratory for myself and the actor to dig and explore things about acting and improvisation. I think that Jake was attracted by this idea.
What was the moment when you guys sort of realized that you made great collaborators?
Villeneuve: Sometimes when you meet someone you are sharing a lot of similar thoughts, we were seeing the world in the same way. I was comfortable right from the start. And as we were working on prep for “Prisoners” it was more than a collaboration, it was the extension of a friendship, meaning that with all the beauty and the strength, there was also the problems that it raised because we are very straight forward, and it’s more like brothers which means it’s a love and hate relationship, meaning that we are bound. We know each other a lot and we can read each other a lot and sometimes it’s fantastic.
Gyllenhaal: Actors in particular need a sort of ego stroke a lot because they’re so sensitive. What I find to be really comforting is a sort of brutal honesty. When I met Denis… he’s so loving but also paternal in this way that is appropriate and will listen and hear you out because we have great respect for each other as artists. At the same time he’s not afraid to tell you when something’s off or wrong. It’s an open conversation, one where I’ve never felt afraid to be my best self and my worst self.
So did you guys shoot this and “Prisoners” back to back?
Villeneuve: As I was working on “Enemy” I was beginning to do the casting on the “Prisoners” and the producers already knew that I had a very strong relationship with Jake and loved his work. So we came to the same conclusion that Jake was my first choice and he agreed to be part of this new adventure.
It had a different scope going from an indie movie to a Hollywood project, which was exciting to also do with Jake. What was also interesting: the character on paper was not totally there for what we needed. Jake was required to invent the character from the ground up. And I always love to start that [process] with an actor. Jake to me is an author, he has a vision, he has a lot of things to say about our world today and it was so exciting to create the character, and I did it for “Enemy” and afterward we did it on “Prisoners.” After several bottles of wine he agreed.
I read the “Prisoners” script ages ago and you’re absolutely right, the character you have on screen there is completely different from the character on the page. It seems like you guys really fleshed that out.
Gyllenhaal: One of the coolest aspects was because we had already explored the darker side of things in “Enemy” and discussed it so much, Denis was really open to the idea of this history of a character that we would never explain. So we talked a lot about [my character Loki’s] history so when these scenes come where he has to shut his mouth and listen and gather clues—which is what Loki does—both Denis and I knew exactly how he would respond and he allowed me to improvise because we had done so much improv already on “Enemy” and he trusted me.
Creating the character was this weird evolution from the very beginning. Denis was so patient with me. This process was an internal investigation and exploration of who the character was and then it started to evolve outward—how you feel like the character should look like and so on. I don’t think we decided even total wardrobe or hair or exactly how he looked until after the first day of shooting. We shot the first day and we covered me up in every possible way and we were still exploring and the second or third day we found it. He was so unflinchingly patient.
I subconsciously felt all that, but could never really verbalize it, but yes, the inner life of Loki—there’s a lot going on there…
Gyllenhaal: He’s always covering up.
Villeneuve: This is the beauty of cinema when you feel something and you get the whole world and feel the pressure and dimension of that world and that’s why I love to work with Jake because he’s able to bring that world to life just by understanding those things exist beneath the surface.
Gyllenhaal: I think Denis and I also both deeply believe in the unconscious and the power of the unconscious and we live in the cinematic world, at least in popular cinema where everything needs to be supposedly explained or brought to the surface structurally and consciously so that people understand what’s happening. But I think we long for that as an audience, that unconscious connection and the choices we make suddenly and his attention to detail.
Denis has taught me a deeply important thing—he’s helped me discover the unconscious connection between the director and the audience. And he allowed me to explore these ideas because we both understood and respect that idea and you could see that in his work directing “Prisoners.” That attention to detail, particularly in places where only a handful of people could be able to masterfully guide that story and keep that tension, I think that’s because we were working in a kind of elevated harmony. Without a doubt that added to this experience.
You guys unleashed these two intense movies on the public during Toronto. How can you possibly follow this up? Maybe you’ll have to do a comedy together.
Gyllenhaal: A musical, that’s our next project.
Villeneuve: I think it’s going to be a dark violent film about the unconscious again.
“Prisoners” opens in wide release on Friday, September 20th. Check out a new featurette below