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Toronto: Why ‘Sicario’ Director Denis Villeneuve Plunged Back Into Darkness With a Female-Driven Crime Drama

Toronto: Why 'Sicario' Director Denis Villeneuve Plunged Back Into Darkness With a Female-Driven Crime Drama

READ MORE: Watch: 8-Minute Video Tribute To The Films Of Denis Villeneuve

French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve wasn’t looking for more darkness after wrapping the pitch black “Prisoners” last year, but it still found him. Coming off a rash of dramatic features — from “Prisoners” to the wrenching “Incendies” to the psychological mind-bend that is “Enemy” — Villeneuve didn’t seek out another heavy feature to continue his directing career, but Taylor Sheridan’s “Sicario” just couldn’t be denied.

The film does, however, mark a change for Villeneuve, with its star-studded cast (Emily Blunt leads the film, alongside Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro) and its female-driven storyline. It is still a natural continuation of Villeneuve’s talents — his own universe, really, and this one filmed by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who also lensed “Prisoners”  — and an exciting and genuinely terrifying new chapter in his book. In the Taylor Sheridan-penned feature, Blunt plays Kate Macer, a well-meaning and by-the-book FBI agent who suddenly gets pushed into an escalated (and engineered) battle between the American government and some of Mexico’s most notorious drug kingpins. It gets messy.

Villeneuve sat down with Indiewire during the film’s Toronto International Film Festival press junket, and he couldn’t contain his love for the script and why it may be the closest he’ll ever get to a superhero film.

This is Taylor Sheridan’s first script, how did you come across it?

It’s a script that was in the air for a while because, I received it from my agent — a very boring answer — but my agent, after “Prisoners” was asking me what I would like to do next and I described what I would like to do next. Then my agent phoned me and said, “I just read something, it’s exactly what you’re looking for,” and I read it on a plane and I remember feeling doomed because I felt, I deeply felt in love with it. What it was saying about the world of today, and he was describing a culture that he knew very well, a place in the world where he was coming from, south of the United States, and there was something very precise in the script. 

And at the same time, the writing was very fresh because I felt that as much, as it was very strong with characters and the culture he was describing, he was using a kind of strange and daring dramatic structure that was not common and that was a bit challenging for a director. There was something new and fresh in the way he was writing that I loved. And at the same time I was like [groans], “it’s so dark I don’t want to go back there” after doing “Prisoners,” but it’s a very powerful story, I fell in love with it, Taylor and I met together, and that was it.

When you told your agent what you wanted to do after “Prisoners,” what did you tell him?

It was just that they were saying to me, “what do you want to do?: When you make a movie — if I do a movie like “Prisoners” about kidnapping, then people will send me kidnapping stories and I say, “I’m not interested in that.” What I wanted to do was something more political. I was interested in something more like “Zero Dark Thirty” or something that was more about geopolitics, and I was also reading at that time about the Mexican border, and it’s a very meaningful place. It says a lot of things about the reality today, that kind of disparity of violence and security, poverty and rich people, the silence about all those murders. The omerta  in this part of the world, the power of gangs there, all democracy is dissolving, slowly dissolving, all the institutions are losing their power. 

I thought it was kind of a what “Mad Max” should be, it’s a place in the world that is very sad and I thought it was a good idea to make a movie in this part of the world and that was it.

Did you do a lot of research into Mexico after you signed on to the project?

I did, but at the same time, I must say, one of my main sources of information was Taylor because he knows everything about this part of the world. Every time I had a question I just had to talk to Taylor.  I did research. I met FBI agents, I met with CIA people, I went to do scouting a bit everywhere, a bit at the border and to see it with my own eyes, but you have to do research, when you do a movie you always do research. 

But this one was, in a way, the quickest project I did, because I fell in love with the screenplay. It went very fast, It was a fast process, it was not a movie I researched for ten years. So when you do that you have to surround yourself with people who do their homework. Like my production designer did massive research, I was in contact with Taylor all that time, Benicio del Toro is someone who knew a lot about that world that brought a lot to the project, was kind of a guardian angel of reality. He was part of the research for me, he was my muse, so I was well surrounded.

It’s interesting that after “Prisoners,” you were nervous about doing yet another movie that was so dark.

I did a movie about a school massacre, then I did a movie about the Middle East involving hezbollah type violence, a very dark movie called “Incendies,” then I made “Prisoners” and then “Sicario.” It’s a movie that explores cycles of violence, and moral ambiguity in the world. It’s part of the same family of movies I should say, and I realize when you explore a theme, cinema can dig in a very precise direction, but it’s not like a book. 

In the production notes, there was a note from from you about superheroes, and how we don’t really have superheroes and, when we do, their hands aren’t clean. That’s something we see very much in this movie.

Yeah, I’m really interested about talking about superheroes. Why in the American and western world, we have a huge need to have gods, to have people that can fly, kill the bad guys with their fists. There’s a need, specifically in America, for that kind of thinking, that half-gods can come and save us from evil. The audience is thirsty, a huge appetite. I think there’s a kind of comfort there because I think the world is becoming more a gray zone, more difficult to understand.

Where did the idea to cast Emily Blunt come from?

When you do casting in Hollywood, it’s always the same question, “who is available?” And Emily was not available, she had just given birth. And for me I was very disappointed, because I love what she did in “Young Victoria” and other works, but that’s the movie that stuck in my mind, because I felt vulnerability and strength at the same time. But to my great pleasure I learned that she was ready to come back to the screen, and she was the obvious choice.

She’s a super-strong actress that will be able to portray the character, it’s a very tough part because it’s a character that’s going through a disintegration process, the more the movie goes on, the more she’s vulnerable, in a fragile position, and she will slowly lose more and more of her power. I needed someone that will have a lot of strength and who will portray that with very few words, and also I need an actress who we will believe as a cop, because it’s a very physical part so I needed someone that would be able to bring that on the screen without losing their femininity. 

I didn’t want a woman who would act like a man, I wanted a strong female. You understand the nuance? I wanted her not to transform herself, to keep her femininity, and I think she did it beautifully.

There’s been a persistent rumor that you were pressured by the studio to change Emily’s character into a man, is that true?

Yes and no. It’s a confusion that came from an early press conference. The truth is that Taylor Sheridan, when he wrote the screenplay, it got a lot of interest, but people were approaching him saying, “it’s a great screenplay, but it’s a female character, can you make it a man?” Taylor had the guts to say “no, this is the story I want to tell, she’s a woman for specific reasons and I won’t change the screenplay.” 

When I met him, the first question he asked me was, “so what do you think?” and I said, “no, no, I like it the way it is,” and then he trusted me. So the pressure was on Taylor. And it’s true that he had a lot of pressure to change it, and most of the time there were people who said, “we will sign if you change it,” and he said no. Once I got on board, I heard a little bit about it at the beginning, but it was not a fight. People respected the screenplay as it was, and at Black Label they were totally supportive of this idea, and Lionsgate too. The people I work with were supportive of this idea, but I knew I would have less money. That’s the reality, to make a movie that the lead is a female. And that is very sad, but that will change with time, I hope.

Do you think that’s something that’s going to change, or it is in the process of changing?

I’m going to say something spontaneously, and it might be something stupid. But I think that at the beginning [of cinema], the women that were very famous were famous because of their sexual appeal or beauty, and I think that is changing. Now we respect actresses for their skills and for what they bring on screen. I think it’s evolved, but it’s still a very masculine world.

Cinema is a very rough society, on the screen and behind the camera, too. And it’s true that the woman’s condition is still a fight, and there’s still a lot of things that have improved in the past century. In some parts of the world, it’s getting worse. But in the western world it’s evolving in the right direction, but there’s a lot of battles to be fought by a woman, I think.

It’s just the way a woman has to deal with power and what a woman needs. I have friends, directors, women, that to get the same job it’s a different fight. I am aware of that. It’s very sad, but everything is evolving.

What’s happening with your “Blade Runner” sequel? 

I just finished the shoot of a movie this summer, so I can say that I’m in prep now for this project. It’s going to be a super long prep, a lot of thinking, a lot of dreaming. You need to dream a lot, so that’s where we are right now, we’re in the dreaming process.

And it will re-team you with Roger Deakins. 

Roger is a master. But I feel that we are two different animals, but there’s something about the language that we share, a way of seeing and approaching cinema that strangely it works, so I love working with him. For me it’s a privilege, because every shot I am learning. I just did a movie, Roger was not available this summer and I just did a movie with another cinematographer that I love, Bradford Young. Very strong. Very strong, brilliant DP. But every time I was doing a shot with Bradford, I was hearing Roger in my head saying, “don’t do that, go there, put the camera there, don’t do that movement, faster.” It was a massive privilege to make movies with him, and to do a third with him is a big gift.

“Sicario” is in theaters on October 2.

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