If you've seen French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve's "Prisoners," a 2013 crime drama about a missing girl, you know the director's penchant for moody, heightened tension. If you also had the chance to see his Middle East family war drama "Incendies" (which has one of the most brilliant twists in years), you can also expect an unsettling sense of darkness from him. His latest, "Sicario," brings all that and more.
Wrapped up in the bleak and anxiety-ridden atmosphere of "Sicario" is Emily Blunt's Kate Macer, a dedicated-to-the-job FBI agent. After a mission gone wrong, Kate volunteers to join a task force led by Josh Brolin's government operative Matt with the help of former prosecutor Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). While shaking up the Mexican cartel to find a perilous drug trafficker in Juárez is the basic setup for "Sicario," the film is really about the sexist schemes Kate becomes victim to.
After the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Huffington Post sat down with Villeneuve to talk about the desolate themes and aesthetics that attract him to a project. Villeneuve told us about why he hates seeing violence for the sake of violence, working with cinematographer Roger Deakins again and what he plans to bring to their upcoming "Blade Runner" sequel.
All of your films are very dark, but I’d say this is probably the bleakest.
Oh yeah, you think so? It is quite dark.
What appeals to you most in a script when it comes to the bleak atmosphere?
I think cinema is a tool to explore our shadows. I remember when I read the screenplay [for "Sicario"] it was a mixed feeling, because I read it and it was like reading Heart of Darkness. You finish the screenplay and you are like, "Whoa." So powerful, so dark. I felt doomed. I remember feeling something tired inside of me. "Do I really want to go there again, after 'Incendies' and 'Prisoners'?" It’s really demanding to go in that kind of a space. I made a deal with myself. I said, "OK, I will chose another movie that has a total different kind of light." "Story of Your Life," the movie I just directed this summer, is very positive. So it was a way to find equilibrium. I was able to go into "Sicario's" darkness because I just directed something that was more uplifting in a way. It’s very demanding.
When you find a script like that, what do you want to bring to it as a director?
Authenticity. I wanted to find something that I felt it was talking about some aspect of our human condition. There was something in the screenplay that was very authentic. Taylor Sheridan, the screenwriter, did his homework. He had done massive research about the border. He’s from Texas, he knows what he was talking about, the tension there, the contradictions, the strong contrasts on both sides of the borders, and he knows about the culture of the Delta Force, the military culture and CIA culture. It was really filled with this kind of feeling of authenticity, the vocabulary, the rhythm. There was, in a strange way, a lot of love for that universe in the screenplay. I just tried to take care of it, to embrace that culture and to keep that authenticity alive as much as possible. It was the same with the Mexican culture. I think that’s what I brought, to try to love Mexico as much as possible, even if we see the country [at] its worst angle. I was trying to love the Mexican territory as much as I was trying to give love to the U.S. side.
The film also focuses on the victim’s point of view.
Yeah. It’s a thing that I try to [emphasize] as a director, to stay on one side of the gun as much as possible.
Why is that?
Because I hate violence, and I think that violence is meaningful if you see the impact of violence on victims. I’m interested on the impact, I’m not interested in the show. I don’t want to make a show of violence. I mean, I’ve been in contact with people who suffered from the trauma of war. [...] When I use violence in a movie it’s just to express the power, the impact of it. Do you understand what I'm saying?
Yeah, definitely. But there is a lot of violence in this, as well. Were you conscious of how you were portraying it while filming?
Yeah. The idea is always to, when you show it, not being afraid to go all the way to feel the impact. But those moments are very small. The rest is trying to show as little as possible. Suggestion is always more powerful.
The film also relies a lot on a growing tension. How do you create tension in a way that doesn’t turn the film into a typical action-thriller, since “Sicario” is far from that?
It’s a good question. It’s very instinctive. [...] Tension, I love the fact that it’s coming from stillness and silence, expectations and fear. How to create tension? That’s a thing I would be able to answer in 25 years. I will say, for this movie, I was inspired by Kurosawa's “Seven Samurai,” which is one of my favorite movies. There’s a scene I was so impressed [by] when I saw this movie the first time. A young samurai and an old samurai, they are in the woods and they are waiting together and talking together. And suddenly the young one says, "The thieves are coming." [...] You know violence is coming and there’s nothing happening. When the thieves are coming, it’s a very powerful shot, very quick, of the old samurai rising and killing them. But it was so tense, and nothing was happening. I was always amazed how he was able to bring such a level of tension with stillness. That was a big lesson for me and that was a big inspiration for “Sicario,” that sequence.
Is that something you’d also bring into your “Blade Runner” sequel?
It’s something I like to explore a lot, to be simple and try to express an action sequence in more simple ways. That’s the thing I love about Roger Deakins; he’s a master at trying to find the most powerful angle, and you explore that angle as much as possible. We always shoot with one camera, and “Sicario” was shot with one camera. It was really trying to find the strongest approach from one perspective.
You’ve done so much original work, how are you going to approach a sequel to a classic sci-fi film?
I said to myself that I would never do that, that I would never do a sequel. I was not interested in taking someone else’s universe. But "Blade Runner," I was not able to say no. It’s by far one of my favorite, if not my favorite movie of all time. I’m a huge, huge Ridley Scott fan. The thing that I felt in the screenplay is the movie has its own personality. The movie stands on its own. It really had its own life. So I said, "All right. I’ll be able to create a world." But it’s of course coming from the first one, but I have space to exist there.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
"Sicario" opens in limited release on Sept. 18 and nationwide on Sept. 25.
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