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Interview: Denis Villeneuve
January 19, 2015
It’s hardly hyperbole at this point to crown Denis Villeneuve as one of the most astonishing and consistently energizing talents to come out of this country.
His previous two films, 2010’s harrowing account of a school shooting Polytechnique and 2011’s Oscar-nominated Incendies, a disturbing tale of a woman sent on a quest to reclaim her past, both took home the TFCA’s Best Canadian Film Award. As such, it was quite the news story when, at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, Villeneuve brought not one but two films starring Jake Gyllenhaal. While his noir detective studio picture Prisoners captivated audiences with a fresh take on the genre, his more surreal effort—the unsettling Enemy—was often cited as the more imaginative of the two.
Released theatrically in 2014, Enemy is a dark, brooding film about a man’s battle with his subconscious. With stark photography that brings out the arachnid nature of Toronto’s streetcar lines and towering, banal apartment buildings, the film is an adaptation of José Saramago’s novel The Double, and it’s an intensely moving, at times inscrutable look into a deeply conflicted man. The internet is rife with hermeneutical analyses of the film’s imagery, with many pointing to the film’s final reveal as one of the finest jump scares in recent memory. Yet it’s the performances of the fine cast, the almost sordid way Villeneuve shoots this city, and the mix of the bizarre with the humorous that sets this film apart.
Jason Gorber spoke to Villeneuve from his home base in Montreal, discussing what the film meant to him, whether he views himself as a particularly “Canadian” filmmaker, and whether he was serious about splitting the $100,000 prize for winning this award from the TFCA with his fellow nominees Michael Dowse (The F-Word) and Xavier Dolan (Mommy).
Jason Gorber: Congratulations once again on your hat-trick from the TFCA.
Denis Villeneuve: Thank you!
How would you describe your own connection with film critics and criticism?
As a cinema major I had a tendency to be very careful with critics; good ones, bad ones, it all depends on the intention behind the critiques. Sometimes, bad ones are good critiques for me because they are pointing their fingers at things that as a filmmaker I should improve. Then they are my friends.
As a filmmaker I think film critics can be a kind of a mirror. Sometimes what you see in the mirror is not what you hope to see, but it’s good to look in the mirror. So to receive a prize from critics, it’s always one of the biggest compliments. Film critics of course are seeing a massive amount of movies. They are film lovers, and so to receive [the award] it goes straight to the heart. It’s a massive, massive compliment. Toronto film critics are a big pool of film lovers. A lot of people are part of this association and for me it’s the biggest compliment I can receive. It’s a huge one, because for Enemy specifically, it’s a movie that wouldn’t get that kind of love because it’s a beast. It wasn’t designed to please—but to challenge. It’s more of an “art-house” movie and to have that kind of spotlight, that kind of gesture of love it’s very meaningful and touching for me.
I should add that when we did the movie, it was for us a kind of love letter to Toronto, it means to me that you guys received the heart.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about how you stood up and when you were given your $100k prize, you said immediately that you were going to share it with your fellow filmmakers. I just need to get on the record: Were you serious about sharing it with co-nominees Michael Dowse and Xavier Dolan?
That was a very spontaneous gesture! [Laughs.] There was too much a big difference between the first prize and the second and the third actually. It was so huge that for me it was totally natural.
Now, both refused. I had a talk with Xavier and Michael and they don’t want it! What I am thinking about now is that I will share it with my crew members.
The other two filmmakers, they said a big thank-you but [sharing] was non-negotiable.
They didn’t want to claim a share because they wanted you to celebrate the win?
I think so. Listen, I don’t know Michael but he was very kind with me. Xavier’s a friend. But I think filmmakers are proud. That’s the way I will say it.
The F Word is a really beautiful look from an outsider’s point of view at Toronto and everything that makes it amazing to live in this city. The F Word makes you love the good parts of Toronto, why many of us choose to live her, yet what I find amazing about Enemy is that despite the giant spiders and surreal messing with location it’s in many ways a real Toronto that we can all recognize.
[Laughs] That’s funny! I haven’t seen The F Word yet, but [production designer] Patrice Vermette and I, we were saying to each other that we love Toronto, but in a funky way. It was really to create that atmosphere and that tension that we felt as, for me, as I was reading the book. I was reading it trying to recreate that tension and that paranoia, that pressure on the characters. In fact it was quite a dream for me because I found exactly what I was dreaming, that kind of brutalist architecture.
I felt as I was reading the book, so it was really a fantastic playground for us.
When you watch The F Word, you think Toronto is Paris in Spring, when you watch Enemy, you think it’s Mogadishu in a Ridley Scott film.
Exactly. Or Sao Paulo. We were trying to be closer to Saramago’s universe.
In terms of the narrative, I know lots of people have spent lots of time trying to figure it out. Do you think Enemy is in some ways less complicated than it may first appear?
Enemy is not that complicated. It’s just that the structure is more of a spiral than a straightforward narrative, traditional way of saying the story. It’s designed to be a puzzle, but all of the keys are in the film. Most of the time when I’m meeting people on the street or at the bank they come up to me and say “What the hell is the spider?! What does it mean, what does the movie mean?” My sister is still writing me e-mails every three days asking me, bombing me with questions and I don’t answer.
Most of the time people find the answer by themselves. It’s like poetry and I love that.
There are are so many movies that I love as a film viewer that were more like poetry or enigmas that are excellent. The one that lasts in my soul and my heart is 2001: A Space Odyssey. For me it’s a beautiful, strong enigma, that every time I’m seeing the film again, I discover something new and I connect to my own life experience. It grows on me.
I was dreaming, and I know it’s very pretentious and ambitious, but I was trying to create that kind of enigma that would sparkle. I didn’t want the movie to be frustrating. I know that the ending is very abrupt. Between you and me, it was such a great joy for me to do that, to have the privilege of at least one time in my life to do something [like] that.
I did the movie exactly the way I wanted to do it, knowing that the distributors will hate me, knowing that some people [would hate me]. I was hoping the reaction would not be [one of] frustration, but wanted to have fun with the ending.
Doing something this personal as well as a larger picture like Prisoners within the same year with the same lead actor is remarkable.
You know what, you’re putting your finger on something important here. It’s that fact exactly.
I remember I was [talking] late at night in New York with Jake Gyllenhall. The last thing I said to him the first time I met him, I said, listen, the truth is I’m going to do a studio movie. I have no idea what will happen there. It seems I’m working with nice people, [but] I have no idea. I’ve heard all of those stories about Hollywood and I need to do something before, because I need to do something to stay alive. I need to do something that would be totally mine. I needed to do something pure, an act of cinema, a love of cinema. So I did Enemy and I felt secure doing Prisoners because I knew that Enemy was there.
You filmed Enemy first, and then Prisoners. How different do you think Prisoners is because you did Enemy already with Jake?
First of all, we’re talking about a lot about the directives, but the process of Enemy was a school, it was like a laboratory. That laboratory was one of the most important cinematic experiences I had in my life. As much as the theme was eploited, that the process, the scripting was very precise. We didn’t improvise with the story, but we improvised a lot with the actors to be into characters
The process with Jake was so unique for me. Not for other filmmakers, but for me as a filmmaker, it was a new approach, a new way to work with an actor. It had a massive impact on Prisoners.
There are a lot of scenes that I was able to do with Hugh Jackman and Jake that it would not have been possible to do without [shooting] Enemy before, with the security of how to improvise with an actor, and how to direct improvisation. It was all born from Enemy. That same approach [carries forward] – the way to communicate with an actor, the way I can write with actors, it’s all born with Enemy.
What have you been working on since?
I just shot a movie (Sicario) with Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin. It’s deeply influenced by Enemy as well. It is a way of working with actors that I had the chance to develop with Jake and I will be forever grateful to him because of that.
Is there anything you can tell us about Sicario?
Sicario is a bit tough to describe. It’s a black operation led by the CIA on the Mexican border. It’s a movie not really about the cartels, it’s more about American prisoners. It’s quite a dark story, but it’s actually a film noir. It’s quite tense because I really fell in love with the screenplay. It’s quite dark for me, very dark, but very powerful and saying a lot of things about how America deals with foreign problems.
Now that you are working on these bigger studio flims, were some of your concerns invalidated? Are you still meaning to find the artistic voice that you wanted to preserve with Enemy in these bigger projects?
On Prisoners I was free and the movie is the director’s cut. I heard the horror stories coming out of Hollywood, I know a lot of people suffered and I know that this can happen to me at any time. I am not naïve. But I was lucky.
When I did Prisoners, I was thinking, I will just experience it one time and if it’s a bad experience, I won’t die. I will come back to Canada and it’s OK. I went there really with an open mind saying I will experience something different. It was a frenetic experience, but I felt freer.
The studio that hired me really, really loved Incendies and Polytechnique. I had a big talk with them at the beginning of the project. I put everything on the table, saying I’m ready to do this film if I can do it with my own sensibility. If you want to do worse, someone with actors for hire, there’s someone who will do a 10,000 times better job, I can just do it the way I feel it. If I don’t do it the way I believe, the way I have an idea, it won’t be good. You should go to someone else. And they respected that.
They gave me freedom. They loved the director’s cut. There were some bold decisions in Prisoners – I changed the script, several things, and they all respected that and protected that. The actors were very good to me too. So the experience was honestly maybe one of the most fantastic film experiences, it was totally unexpected, so I realized that it was possible because it’s great to make movies in Hollywood. You can do things there that I cannot do at home. Some movies I can do there that I can’t do at home because of the money. It gave me the opportunity to work with great actors too.
To work with Roger Deakins, it was more than a dream. It was a thing that I will be grateful to life all of my life. So far, Sicario was a fantastic experience. But I will not be able to do movies in another way. I’m not doing movies in Hollywood as a director for hire. I’m doing the movies I want to do, the way I want to do them. So I have more money and more . . .
…A bigger canvas?
We’ve looked forward, let’s go the other way. Did your earlier films like Incendies and Polytechnique shape Enemy?
There was a line that I felt from Polytechnique, Incendies and Prisoners, and Sicario. For me Incendies, Prisoners, and Sicario are more classical movies.
Enemy was closer to what I’ve done before in the past, like my short Next Floor. There was a kind of experimental feeling to it. From a thematic point of view, this idea that the past is a pressure that our subconscious is something that is driving us towards violence is something that is present in Polytechnique and in Enemy. That would be the link, the misdeed of the subconscious.
What Canadian filmmakers overtly influenced you and what for you does it mean to be a Canadian filmmaker?
Someone that I felt was influencing me as I was doing Prisoners was the philosopher and director Michel Brault. He died one or two years ago, [yet was] someone who has a way of filming a reality and has a discipline. His film Les Ordres had a huge impact on me as a film student. André Turpin, the cinematographer and director, has a huge impact on the way I like shooting. I discovered filmmaking with André Turpin. Michel Brault and Andre Turpin are filmmakers that really influenced me in Québec.
In Canada, Cronenberg is not an influence, he’s just a master that I respect a lot. But I’m not influenced by him. Even if, saying so, I’m aware that I’m shooting spiders in Toronto, I know that I was playing in his backyard. That was very funny for me.
I always thought that I was more of a Québec filmmaker, it was an obvious, influences and a background and community, but at the same time, I don’t feel that close, I feel as a stranger at home, honestly, but that’s my problem. I belong, I hope, to cinema. I don’t know where from, I can belong to any community and in particular Canadian or Québec, that’s where I am right now. I’m just trying to make good films.
There is always a concern about thinking things provincially, not just in terms of Québec of course, but in terms of putting you into a box, of saying, oh, you’re a great Canadian filmmaker instead of simply a great filmmaker. Polytechnique may be a highly specific story but it obviously has universal appeal.
It’s a good example because Polytechnique is the only movie that I did that was done really done for [specific] people. It’s a movie that was made to heal a wound at home so I was not thinking about going abroad. It’s the only movie I did this way. The other films [have] ambition to be more universal. I enjoy making movies that can cross borders. Cinema is a language that should be seen, that should cross borders. That’s the beauty of this language.
Are we going to get to be able to see Sicario at Cannes?
I’m not interested in the film festivals in a way because I’m not very comfortable in those environments. I was talking to Roger Deakins and he said to me he’d almost never been to film festivals. He’s just making movies. I realized the freedom of that, how free you are when you just make movies. The rest, you just let it go. How people will receive it, I can have no control over that. I’m just trying to make good films.
So, years after you shot, and after all these other projects, you must now have a bit of distance from Enemy. Looking back, what does the film mean to you?
When we did Enemy we knew that it was a non-typical movie that would have a non-typical way of being released. I remember talking with Jake and just saying to ourselves the movie will travel in its own way, it will find its public, probably more underground because it’s such an art house piece. We had so much fun doing it! It is a movie that will lie underground.
Like a spider!
It’s travelling, it has its own strange life. I love that and it’s a movie that will stay alive I think in some ways and for me, it’s a very intimate movie, it’s a warning and it’s a movie that is striking me a lot about the limit about human beings and I’m very concerned about that.