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)