Director's Cut: Denis Villeneuve ('Prisoners')


Canadian directors, though they often try, rarely make it big stateside. For Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, however, that seems likely to change: his latest film, the sleek crime procedural “Prisoners”, is currently drumming up raves in Venice, Telluride, and now the Toronto International Film Festival, and if the buzz of prognosticators is to be believe it’ll be an awards-magnet come Oscar season. And for good reason: “Prisoners” is one of the strongest mainstream movies of its kind in years, recalling the kind of muscular adult dramas we haven’t seen much of since the 90s. With stellar turns from Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano, the film is bound to be a hit.

We sat down with Villeneuve during TIFF, in the lead up to the film’s release in late September, to talk about windows, dream collaborations, and how the project came together.

CALUM MARSH: I think it’s a gorgeously shot film. I wanted to ask you about working with cinematographer Roger Deakins and what that relationship was like.

DENIS VILLENEUVE: First of all, of course, for any filmmaker on this planet, it’s a privilege to work with such a cinematographer. He’s a strong poet. He has such sensitivity for light. There’s no coincidences with Roger. Everything is planned, everything is controlled, everything is tough. Every shot is the result of a logical and poetic process. There’s no coincidences. To work with him, for me, was like going back to film school. It was a very beautiful experience and, in a way, sometimes a very tough one, because I’m used to working with cinematographers that are -- how can I say it -- as good as me.

CM: I imagine that changes the relationship.

DV: Yes. I’ve worked with brilliant cinematographers, like Andre Turpin, Nicolas Bolduc, Pierre Gill. These people are very strong, but working with them was like playing tennis. I was able to look for a shot in a room and fight to try to be better than my friend. It was like a relationship with a brother. With Roger, it’s totally different. Roger is someone that I think is a total genius. He was able to see things in an obvious and natural way that I was not able to compete with. At one point I had to let myself put my ego aside and say, “Okay, okay, okay.” The thing is that, while we were working, I was working with the actors and I was describing to him what the meaning of the scene was, what I wanted to achieve, the way that I wanted to see it, what kind of camera movement, try to do it as I would with a regular cinematographer. But then, as I was working with the actor, I just had to look where Roger was sitting and I knew where the camera would be, what kind of lens he will use. Just the way he looks in the camera, the movement he was doing with his hands -- I knew I could spend three days trying to find a better idea, but it won’t be possible. I learned so much. I think that the strength and the beauty of the movie comes from his work.

CM: How did he get involved?

DV: I said to the producers from the start that I really needed a strong cinematographer. I said to them, “You know, we’re going to make a tough movie in an ugly suburban landscape, a dreary, realistic landscape, in harsh, sad weather. We need someone that’s a strong artist, that will bring poetry and life to this.” What I love about Roger, as well, is that he makes no concessions. When we decided that there would be no sun in the movie, there was no sun. We planned all the schedules and the studio so that we were able to go inside as soon as the sun was coming out. The schedule was constructed around this idea of having a never-ending Thanksgiving look to the movie. We stuck with this. It’s fantastic to work with someone that everybody deeply respects. If Roger says something, everybody does it. I love it so much.

CM: One nice visual motif is the use of dirty windows. Tell me about that.

DV: I love when life stinks. Life smells. Life is dirty. I like that. That is something I insisted from the start. With the production designer I said, “I want the movie to be as realistic as possible.” We had a fantastic art department on the movie that was doing a lot of everything. All the dirt was planned, prepared. Every piece of dirt was put there deliberately. It’s all art department work. I said to everybody, “If I see someone cleaning a window on set, I’ll shoot. I won’t say it twice.” Everybody respected the idea that the movie had to look as realistic as possible and they worked very hard to find the right balance. Honestly, it’s all a construction. I’m happy you noticed it because I was saying to myself, “Half the movie is shot behind a windshield.” There’s so much windshield in it, but I love this idea. It’s like being a witness, in some ways, peering through windows and windshields. It was part of the look of the film.

CM: It has an obvious metaphorical dimension, too.

DV: Yeah.

CM: You mentioned realism, and I agree that the film has a very authentic feel. And yet what’s interesting is that the story itself is very much larger-than-life.

DV: But the thing is, I kept saying to everybody, the more we go in, it was like this even in the sound department with the sound at the end. I said, “That has to sound as realistic as possible. It has to be down to earth, real.” Because, the more the movie will look ordinary, the more powerful the violence will be. The idea was to portray violence in its ugliness and it’s banality. There’s nothing spectacular about it, in a way. It’s very simple. I think, if you punch me, or if I punch you, it’s quite spectacular in our daily lives. I wanted to have that same impact and same meaning on the screen.

CM: I ran into Terrence Howard earlier, and he told me that, though he’s used to getting his way with directors, he couldn’t with you. Do you keep your productions under tight control?

DV: It depends. I mean, I love Terrence, but I had to keep him under control. [laughs] Terrence is a wildcat! I always call him the wildcat. That’s why I had to put the wildcat under surveillance. I mean, I love him so much. The thing is, directing a movie is a fine equilibrium between listening to other people and control. You have to be a dictator, but at the same time, you have to give freedom to the people that are better than you. I’m not saying Terrence isn’t, he’s a fantastic actor, it’s just that I feel the sum of all the skills together is better. Very often, what excites me doing cinema is working with people when I feel that, for other people, the movie is as important for them as it is for me. For Roger Deakins, it was the most important thing in his life to do Prisoners. There was no concession. Sometimes I felt it was more important for Roger than me. That level of commitment, when people are totally committed, they love the project and respect it. If they love it, they give the better of themselves. Very often with actors and artists around me, I feel they are giving things to the project that I didn’t think of. Great ideas that make the movie better. I had to put my ego aside and say, “This is the right idea.”

CM: Tell me about how you brought together so many talented people.

DV: It was layered. At the beginning, we needed someone who would green light the movie. That’s what I realized -- it’s all about momentum. We made Prisoners because Hugh Jackman and then, after that, Jake Gyllenhal, said yes, with the right timing. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here today. It means that I started with Hugh, “I was able to convince you.” It was a dream to work with Jake again and we brought Jake on board. Then, there was the dream to work with Viola Davis. All the little dreams that are coming together, one after the other, that was in my mind from the start. Terrence Howard came on board quickly. I realized at one point the amazing chance I had to work with such a cast. I said, “Whoa!” It was just layers coming together. I’m someone that only actually believes what I’m making once I’m behind a camera. Before that, you never know what can happen. If an actor broke his leg, pshhh, it’s over. And it was a big dream to work with someone like Roger Deakins.

CM: The score is by Jóhann Jóhannsson, who I love. Did you seek him out personally?

DV: I was the one who decided to work with him. I had the chance to listen to tons of scores, great artists, but I was looking for something specific. I was looking for music that would edit the movie in a sacred way. The music had to have a link with religion -- not religion, but a sacred quality, like Arvo Pärt. Also, I wanted the movie’s music to be like snow, something very delicate, something that will take care of the audience instead of trying to create suspense or tension. I wanted the music to be very delicate and Jóhann is a very strong composer. As we were editing, at one point, we started to put music on. There was an Arvo Pärt piece that I deeply loved. I said to Jóhann, “Man, I don’t know what to say to you. It’s going to be Arvo Pärt.” Jóhann composed the first fantastic score, but there was something. He said, “Give me one week,” and he went deep into Iceland somewhere in a cabin and he wrote for days. He came back and I listened to the music and it was pure poetry. He’s a very strong composer. He was able to beat Arvo Pärt.

"Prisoners" will open in theaters on September 20th.