Directors on Their Teams: Denis Villeneuve Talks ‘Prisoners’

Denis Villeneuve Variety Screening Series
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve said “Prisoners,” his Hollywood directing debut, made him very positive about the future: “It gave me a lot of hope about movies. I found people who were there to make cinema, to make movies, and not just to make business.” In a conversation with Variety, Villeneuve praised the film’s writer, stars and below-the-line workers, as well as Warner Bros. and Alcon. “Alcon and the producers were there to support me, not to control me, and that makes all the difference,” the director said.

Writer Aaron Guzikowski

It always starts with the script. Aaron did a fantastic job with suspense, but I was attracted to the script because those characters were struggling with inner moral conflicts. When the script came to me, I loved it, but I was in the middle of “Incendies” and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into that darkness again. To make a movie with such dark subject matter, it takes energy out of you. I was impressed by how much Aaron was able to adapt. I wanted some changes but didn’t want to make them myself. I wanted to be as faithful to him as possible. And I like to be inspired by the actors as much as possible. I wanted to keep Aaron in the loop, through the end of editing. Up through the last moment of filming, I asked questions, and he was always open to my approach, willing to work and to give strong support.

Actors Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal

The first person we had to cast was the father. Andrew Kosove and Kira Davis had just seen Hugh in a play and asked, “Have you thought about Hugh Jackman?” As much as I thought he was a great actor, it was not typical casting for him. He had been attached to the script a few years before but I knew he was sensitive to the subject. I really wanted him, and he had the generosity to read it again and meet with me.

Jake Gyllenhaal is also a very creative actor. In the screenplay, all the characters are well defined, but the cop was a little bit of a device. I needed someone with sensitivity and intelligence to bring the character to life, to create a real human being. I needed Jake’s skills.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins

He is a master, and it was a privilege to work with him. He’s always at the service of the film, always trying to respect my style.

We spent a lot of time in prep, trying to define the vocabulary of the movie. We were inspired by photographs we each found and brainstormed for many hours. We wanted it to look quite natural in daytime and, at night, to use light sources that would fight against the darkness. We wanted to shoot with very slow camera movement; we wanted simplicity in the pacing of the camera.

Roger likes to be very prepared, and we storyboarded, but we didn’t overdo it: There was a place for spontaneity. When you are prepared enough, you can then listen to the actors and to life during the filming.

(Fairly early in the film, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character approaches the suspicious van, near a gas station in the rain.) The scene was supposed to take place at a rest stop, but Roger wanted a source of light, so that’s where the gas station came in. I said I don’t want those ‘blue nights’ you see in movies; I want darkness, with lights coming from cars, so that light is fighting against darkness all the time. And I wanted to have rain, to have the feeling that nature is falling apart, and to create a film noir atmosphere.

Every source of light in that scene is controlled by Roger. Everything is prepped in advance; it has to be very precise. He’s a very humble man, with a lot of discipline. The movie owes him a lot. I learned so much working with him.

Editors Joel Cox, Gary Roach

They were the most efficient editors I’ve ever worked with. The time frame for the editing was quite short, so I needed two, and Joel and Gary have worked together for something like 17 years, working as a great team. The editing period was very brief but I never felt rushed because they were so efficient and precise.

Joel is old-school: He was raised with 35mm and still works that way. New editors who are raised with computers, they will try 20 different cuts to find the right one. Joel doesn’t do that. He is not trying out many fast cuts, he is making the best cut. He’s like a samurai. It’s about skill and thinking. The two edit with their hearts. They listen to the characters. I love that approach, it’s about thinking and making the right choice. I wanted to create an emotional track inside the film that is strong. Action for action’s sake is often boring. It’s a suspense movie, but when editing scenes, Joel and Gary made sure the tension came from inside the actors, not from the action.

Composer Johan Johannsson

The beauty of doing a movie in Hollywood is that you have access to a lot of people. I had 50 CDs on my desk; a lot of composers were interested in the project. Once I listened to his music, I loved it. It is subtly poetic, with strength, sadness and melancholy. I didn’t want “trailer” music, I wanted sacred music to link to the spirituality, and a melancholy to link with the weather.

Production designer Patrice Vermette

I love his approach. He’s a maniac for details. We both come from the world of documentaries. Patrice has an approach that is almost disturbing to actors because it’s so real; actors are amazed. There are a lot of sets in “Prisoners,” plus a lot of studio work, but our goal was to make it look as sad and accurate as possible. We wanted to work in small houses that would be representative of those characters; I wanted to avoid big American houses. This made it complicated for the crew, so we modified the interiors of the homes, to remove the walls inside some of those houses. Patrice preps a lot. He is a workaholic. It’s all about details and massive visual research.

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