Denis Villenueve talks about directing “Prisoners”

If you’re familiar with director Denis Villenueve’s name it’s probably for his Academy Award and BAFTA nominated film, “Incendies.” The film also earned him two Genie Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars) for best screenplay and director as well as taking home the award as the Best Picture of 2011. I mention this because, trust me, once his new film, “Prisoners,” opens EVERYONE is going to know his name.
On Friday, September 20, the Canadian-born filmmaker unveils his first Hollywood film, the crime-thriller “Prisoners,” starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. To call it the best film of its kind in a decade is…well, it’s pretty damn accurate. While promoting his new film Mr. Villenueve took the time to talk to Media Mikes about his new film, the power of Jake Gyllenhaal and his upcoming plans to relax.

Mike Smith: What attracted you to “Prisoners?”
Denis Villenueve: I think if you asked all the actors and producers the same question they would give you my answer. It was an incredibly strong screenplay. It has a strong, dramatic structure that was really compelling and entertaining from a thriller point of view. It said so many sad, yet accurate, things about our society and I felt those topics…the violence…the torture…I was inspired by them. It told about things that I felt were meaningful. I hope that as a director I was able to bring about a film to be inspired by.

MS: Both Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal reveal a dark side that we, as an audience, have never really seen them expose before. Hugh’s been “Wolverine-angry” but NEVER like this. How were you able to get them to dig so deep for these performances?
DV: First of all, it all starts with the actors. I think Hugh agreed to do the part because ….sometimes artists find that they are confined to a bubble. Everyone either thinks you’re a nice guy or the Wolverine! (laughs) He was confined to this bubble but I felt he was a very powerful actor. An actor that is often underused…that doesn’t get to reach his full potential. And I felt that he was ready to get out of that bubble. He really wanted to explore the really dark spectrum of his art. And he was willing to go there. I didn’t have to push him there. He was very committed. He read the screenplay and knew where he needed to go. He trusted me to take him there. Hugh was very easy to direct. I felt he needed a friend to work with him in that darkness and that’s how I felt.

MS: You earned an Oscar and a BAFTA nomination for your film “Incendies.” I’m sure it was a proud moment for you, personally but was it made even better because your film had been the one chosen to represent your country?
DV: I really tried to not let that effect me. What I try to keep in mind is my relationship to the cinema. As a filmmaker I try to concentrate on what I learned on my last project and what I will learn on my next project. I took the Academy Awards as a very nice compliment. It was a very nice experience but I knew that the next day I had to return to my humility and return both feet to the ground.

MS: You first worked with Jake Gyllenhaal on the film “Enemy,” which will open later this year. Was the rapport you built with him on this film one of the reasons you cast him in “Prisoners?”
DV: “Enemy” was an art-house experiment that allowed me to spend a lot of time with an actor. I wanted to build a relationship with an actor. I had built creative relationships with cinematographers…with production designers and screenwriters…but I had never felt like I was sharing cinema with an actor. The actors I had worked with before were like comets. They were like shooting stars that came in front of the camera and then went away just as quickly. I never really had the chance to explore…to spend time with an actor. I felt that the story of “Enemy”…about a man seeing himself…was perfect. I wanted to explore some things about reality. It was the perfect opportunity to have this experience with an actor. Jake agreed to come on board for that experience and we spent months working together…sharing cinema together. We became very close friends. As I was doing “Enemy” I was casting “Prisoners” and I told Jake that I would like to work with him again and I thought he would be perfect for the cop. He knew about the script and immediately said yes. That’s the one thing I love about cinema…the relationships. The creative relationships that you can build over time. It’s a big privilege for me to have built that relationship with Jake.

MS: It’s obvious that he trusts you as a director. I’m an admirer of his but I NEVER expected a performance like this out of Jake Gyllenhaal.
DV: Jake is a strong actor. He was born in cinema. He began as a kid…then a teenager and now he’s a man. And I think as a man…as an adult…he is going to surprise us in the upcoming years. I think his best performances are in front of him. I was deeply inspired by Jake.

MS: Are you working on anything new?
DV: (laughs) I made two movies in a row. I have not been home in eighteen months. I need to go back to Montreal…I need to be with my family for a few weeks. I have two movies on the table right now and I have to choose which one I want to do first. But first I need to sleep for a week! (laughs)

Film Review “Prisoners”

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano
Directed by: Denis Villenueve
Rated: R
Running time: 2 hours 23 mins
Warner Brothers

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

Keller Dover (Jackman) is a hard working family man. He does his best to provide for his family: wife Grace (Maria Bello), son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich). He does his best to protect his family as any father would. This Thanksgiving they are visiting their neighbors, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), and their children. Anna and little Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons) ask if they can go to the Dover home. Keller tells them to make sure they take one of the older kids with them. Lesson one, kids: always listen to your parents.

Directed with the skill of a master, “Prisoners” is the best thriller to come down the pike in a decade. The credit here is three way. First, an almost flawless first time original screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski, whose only other writing credit was for his adaptation of the Icelandic film that became the Mark Wahlberg hit “Contraband.” Second, the outstanding direction of Canadian filmmaker Villenueve. Villenueve, an Academy Award and BAFTA nominee for his 2011 film “Incendies,” delivers one of the greatest Hollywood debuts I can remember in recent history. Thirdly, a cast of past Oscar nominees and winners that deliver some of the best work of their careers.

Jackman, an Oscar nominee last year for “Les Miserables,” digs deep into the darkest portion of his soul in order to give Keller both the rage that you fear and compassion that you admire. When the police arrest, and then release, a man they suspect of the crime (Paul Dano), Keller and Franklin abduct him and keep him prisoner, beating the hell out of him in the hopes that he’ll tell them where the girls are. On the side of law and order is detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), a man with obvious demons of his own. His neck covered in a tattoo that resembles a badge and his face a non-stop series of tics, Gyllenhaal gives the performance of a career here. He and Jackman are matched by Dano (“There Will Be Blood”) as a quiet kid that may or may not know the girls whereabouts. As the neighbors who are also mourning the disappearance of a child, former Oscar nominees Howard and Davis display a quiet dignity that you would expect from a couple under those circumstances. As the hunt for the girls continue Keller becomes less and less patient with his captive, doing whatever he feels is necessary to get the answers he requires.

Villenueve crafts and molds the story into a thing of beauty. His pacing is brilliant, giving the audience just enough clues to keep them guessing at every twist and turn. Is Dano the man responsible? Or is he just the type of misunderstood, quiet young man whose very reluctance to speak paints him with the brush of guilt? You’ll have to see the movie and learn those answers for yourself?


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