‘Prisoners’: Bright Hopes for Jackman, Gyllenhaal’s Dark Thriller

Director, writer, stars share the story of how the uncompromising movie ultimately came together

Prisoners Director Stars Open Up Jake
Patrick James Miller

Prisoners,” an ambitious drama about two kidnapped children, could be a surprise entry at this year’s Oscars. Although the film isn’t a lock for major nominations (“12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” are considered the frontrunners), it’s a darkhorse with a passionate following among audiences and some Academy members.

Shortly after the Warner Bros. thriller was released in September, Harvey Weinstein showed uncharacteristic generosity toward a competitor by calling “Prisoners” his favorite film of the year. Director Andrew Stanton and multihyphenate James Franco are also fans of the movie, having championed it on social media.

The film’s stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Melissa Leo, along with French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski, attended a recent Variety roundtable about the making of the film. Hugh Jackman, recuperating from a minor medical procedure to remove a basal cell carcinoma, joined later for a phone interview.

The R-rated “Prisoners,” like “Captain Phillips” and “Gravity,” fits into the fall trend of complicated movies targeted to adults that are thriving at the box office. The dark thriller, made for not much more than $40 million, has so far grossed $115 million worldwide despite being a tough sell with a tangled premise: When two girls go missing on Thanksgiving Day, one girl’s dad (Jackman) seeks revenge on the neighborhood creep (Paul Dano) who lives with his aunt (Leo). A young detective (Gyllenhaal) is determined to crack the case.

Guzikowski, who had yet to sell a screenplay when he started writing the story, worked in the mornings before he went off to his day job at a New York advertising firm, and in the evenings after he came home.

“I was working in the bottom of advertising, basically (designing) the American Express envelopes you get in the mail,” Guzikowski says.

“Can I send them all back to you?” Leo quipped.

Even after it landed on the Black List, the movie couldn’t get off the ground, with Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio attached in various incarnations. When Villeneuve finally got his hands on the script shortly after his 2011 Oscar nomination for foreign-language film (“Incendies”), it had been through several other directors.

“To do a movie, it’s all about momentum,” Villeneuve says. “You have to have the right screenplay, director and cast at the right period of time. To find all the right people at the same time, it’s just a matter of chance.”

“Prisoners” got its break when it secured Jackman as leading man.

“I thought it was an incredible mix of classic thriller in some ways, but also a great drama,” Jackman says, who calls the role “a kind of challenge I’m rarely offered.” The thesp, who has appeared in seven “X-Men” installments at 20th Century Fox since 2000, concedes that producers don’t always think of him for more dramatic roles. “I became famous mainly in this country for ‘Wolverine,’ ” he says.

Gyllenhaal believes “Prisoners” couldn’t have been made without Jackman’s star power, and Jackman says he did more homework to play the role of Keller Dover than he has done on any of his previous projects. “I did research into real crime. I did research into sleep deprivation. I did research into torture techniques,” he says. “I’m sure I’m on some watch list somewhere.”

The ensemble is a close-knit clan that cracks inside jokes like family. But neither Gyllenhaal nor Leo was initially convinced they wanted to be in the film. Each had different concerns.

Gyllenhaal questioned how his character fit into the framework of the story. He was ultimately persuaded by Villeneuve, with whom he had recently wrapped another film, “Enemy,” which comes out next year.

“We had just finished making a movie together where it was almost like we were … conjoined twins,” Gyllenhaal says. “Every choice, our minds melded. That’s why I said I really want to do this … from our friendship. I have realized that this business is really about relationships. It’s legitimately about that type of trust.”

Leo’s worries about the film at first centered on the darkness of the material: “Do you want to make an entertainment, which a thriller is by its definition, about little children being abducted?” she asked herself. And there was another personal qualm. “Again and again and again, I keep getting asked to play somebody who is 20 years older than me,” says the 53-year-old actress. “From where I sit, there are a lot of really fine actresses who are in fact 20 years older than me. I don’t want to take work from somebody that (the role) might be more appropriate for.”

She faced a similar situation a couple of years ago when she was cast in “The Fighter” alongside Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, in a role for which she ultimately won the supporting actress Oscar in 2011.

“I said, ‘Those boys are 8 or 10 years younger than me,’ ” Leo recalls. “ ‘How am I going to be their mother?’ It’s crazy. It’s a casting thing they do with women. They won’t let a fiftysomething-year-old woman be a fiftysomething-year-old woman.”

Leo was finally able to find her enigmatic “Prisoners” character through the help of the wardrobe department, which constructed a gray wig for her, and a foam derriere that slipped under her elastic-band jeans.

“I was allowed this foam-rubber bottom … that makes her walk slower and shuffly,” Leo says. “The slower I walked, the lower my voice got.”

For Gyllenhaal’s character of Det. Loki, he and Villeneuve focused on the minute details of his backstory. Gyllenhaal gave the character a nervous twitch, which became the fabric of his performance (and befuddled Leo on her first day of shooting).

Gyllenhaal credits Alcon Entertainment, which produced the film, for nurturing the story and trusting the dark material. “They pushed when they needed to push and they allowed when they needed to allow,” he says. “It was a wonderful balance.” Villeneuve was asked by the producers to shoot a less ambiguous ending, but just as insurance. He was ultimately able to keep the version written in the script.

“This end is pure cinema,” Villeneuve says. “We all loved it so much.”

(Pictured: Writer Aaron Guzikowski, top left, stars Melissa Leo and Jake Gyllenhaal, and director Denis Villeneuve share a laugh.)