“I hope I confused you even more” is an odd way for a subject to end a 15-minute junket interview, but it makes sense if you take into account the subject (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the movie he’s promoting (“Enemy”).
At its most basic, “Enemy” is about a man having an affair. Then again, nothing about “Enemy” should be described as “basic.” Denis Villeneuve’s film, which premiered last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a psychological thriller, a psychosexual dream, an exploration in duality, and an arachnophobic’s worst nightmare (that last one will make more sense once you actually see the movie). It’s about a man, Adam Bell (Gyllenhaal), who discovers he has a doppelganger living on the other side of town. Is it the same person? Is it his long lost twin? Is it a figment of his imagination? It all sounds a bit perplexing, but these are the questions the movie forces you to answer (here’s our review).
The strangest part, however, is that Gyllenhaal wants the film to confound you. Why? Because actors are used to hearing praise. To render a viewer speechless, while they attempt to make sense of the mystery and horror they just saw on screen, shows that the film has actually dug its nails into their side and refused to let go.
The Playlist sat down with Gyllenhaal to discuss the nuts and bolts of “Enemy,” why he prefers audiences to be shocked by his films, and why the relationship between he and Villeneuve (the two also worked together on 2013’s “Prisoners”) is so special.
I feel like this is one of those films that you need to see twice in order to piece together the entire narrative. For a movie that presents itself as a puzzle, do you find you have to read the script more in order to understand what’s going on?
To me it starts with a concept. And it correlated sort of perfectly with where I was in life at the time. I had moved cities and moved to a new place and was trying to figure out my life and what I wanted to do and how I wanted to approach my work. I think there were things in me that were definitely split in terms of where I had been, where I wanted to go.
So when Denis sent me the script, he told me what he wanted it to be about, which is about a man’s search for his identity, his place in the world, his commitment––romantically, personally––and the struggle with intimacy––emotionally, sexually. All of those things just really spoke to me, and he wanted to explore it in a very psychological way. And I liked that. Very simply put, it was a story about a guy who was able to commit to a relationship and eventually does. There are so many stories like that and it was told in a very abstract way. So he gave me a very solid place to start from and we always went back there, and then we got to play around in the unconscious world, if that makes any sense.
That does make sense, and I think that’s what sets the movie apart. It’s a simple idea at its core, but it moves the puzzle pieces around.
Yes. [The character] is having an affair, his wife is pregnant, they separate, he’s a professor but performing some idea of who he is, he’s living a different life in a different apartment, and then eventually realizes that it’s not who he really is and has to go through a number of stages to go back and commit and apologize and beg for forgiveness from the woman who he truly loves and wants to be with. And that to me is what the movie is about. It always was. Everything in between is just [pause] an experience. [smirk]
You’ve said that before, that the movie is more of an experience.
It is, and it was for me. It wasn’t like we were filming it going like, This is what the scene has to be. Denis would just roll the camera for 20 minutes and we would go and indulge ourselves in the moments that were happening and really try to explore something. Sometimes it didn’t work at all and then sometimes it did. That process lent itself to something really interesting.
I know you had a backstory for Detective Loki when you and Denis worked together on “Prisoners.” What kind of backstory did you have for Adam and Anthony?
Denis always wanted it to be two different people, and I always felt it more easy to play the people that we are in different contexts. Like you go to a party and you’re a different person when you come home. But who is that person at the party? What were you playing? Were you playing somebody? Were you aware of that? And I just think it’s a fascinating question. So to me it wasn’t about a backstory as much as observing in this case all the many kinds of parts of a personality that we meld into one––their feelings, their emotions, their interactions with people. Those are the personality things I was trying to ask myself. It was always subtle. It wasn’t like all of a sudden he’s wearing a blond wig.
You say it’s easier to play the people we are in different contexts, but I feel like it would be harder. Isn’t there more of a chance to mix up their personalities?
I found it to be like watercolors, where it would easily bleed into the other area. But if I was working in oils or something, you could define the lines a lot more clearly; when you make a statement it’s there. I would constantly ask Denis if he could feel the difference. I could feel the difference and I didn’t know if he could see it, so he would be like Woah, too much! So I don’t know about harder or easier, it was just different. It’s the same medium but you’re working with a different composite material.
The subtle differences are what make the film super unsettling.
Yeah, because you want to feel like these are two different people, and there are moments where the camera pans over to one and it comes back to the other and you go Who am I with right now? Denis describes it as vertigo, and that was the vertigo we wanted to create. Because we’re so desperate for a simple narrative and definitive things that he just wanted to play with it.
Another thing that’s very unsettling about this film is how few people there are walking around the streets of Toronto. I mean, this is a huge city!
Yeah! There are scenes that are these massive landscapes with nobody in them. We would do a lot of fun/weird stuff. There is this scene where I am walking down this ramp and I eventually get to a phone booth and I call my house. I don’t know it’s my house. And I remember walking down the ramp at a certain speed and I said to Denis “I have this feeling when I step down off this ramp into the parking lot area, it was as if I was stepping onto the moon, and I like all of a sudden slow down. Like I know this place but I don’t know this place.” And we have moments like that all the time, where you walk into a place and say “Wait, have I been here before?” If you asked a scientist, they would say it’s some sort of neurological situation. Or you ask an astrologist they will tell you something else. But ultimately we know something. And that was what we were trying to put there. I started walking slowly and Denis loved it.
You speak very fondly of Denis.
We have a very fun time. There’s also something fun about making movies that I think are interesting and entertaining. I think it’s, as it says [points to the “Enemy” movie poster behind me] a “Transfixing, fascinating and spellbinding experience.” So it’s nice when it can elicit that kind of feeling. We had a screening a few months ago, and you want people to walk out of a screening going “Oh wow that was so amazing.” But people were just sort of shocked. And it is such a great thing. I think convention would teach you that you want people to go “That was amazing!” That feels like a conventional response at this point. To me now, when people go What the fuck? I love that response. And this is a movie like that. As I get more experience in making movies, you get to see there are so many languages in which you can speak and communicate in and talk to audiences with, and this is one of them, and I am thrilled by it.
Yeah, I certainly didn’t have a conventional response when I first saw it. I wanted to kind of lay it out in my mind, and unravel the plot. In fact, I tried explaining the film’s story to my girlfriend, and instead of her just telling the basics, I just mumbled over my words. I couldn’t even explain it, because I wanted to explain everything to her.
[Laughs] So you now know what my job is today. That’s what is so fun about it. I am the type of person when you ask “What’s your favorite color?” it matters a lot to me. It’s like, Jake, just say red! Then I think Well, there are a lot of reasons for that. And I think this is a movie like that. There is a lot of questioning and asking yourself those things and I love that. I love movies that make you do that. It’s fun. This movie is not just red [laughs]. So you found yourself trying to be Well, it’s orange-y…I think. But there’s more yellow. And your girlfriend is probably just like Shut up.
It’s hard not to want to explain the entire thing.
You just have to experience it. That’s why I always say that this is an experience. It’s not a movie. Because you can’t really describe what it is, but you know there are things you connect to. It’s like that moment where I said the character walks down and all of a sudden thinks he’s on the moon. I think I know where this is but I am not sure where I am. That’s the movie.