Denis Villeneuve interview: Sicario, Kurosawa, sci-fi, ugly poetry

Director Denis Villeneuve talks to us about his new thriller Sicario, the power of cinematic tension, his coming sci-fi work and more...

For such an enormously talented filmmaker, whose profile has exploded in recent years with such movies as Incendies, Prisoners and now Sicario, Denis Villeneuve is refreshingly self-effacing and honest. In fact, it’s notable hust how gentle and thoughtful Villeneuve is, given that he’s directed one of the most ferocious thrillers of 2015.

Sicario is set in a terrifying limbo, both geographically and morally; FBI agent (Emily Blunt) finds herself in Juarez, a city on the border between the US and Mexico where American forces fight powerful drug cartels. It’s a muddy world of uncertain allegiances and brutal violence where those seemingly on the side of law and order are just as corrupt and cruel as those on the side of the drug pedlars.

There’s a tension in Sicario that has bubbled away in many of Villeneuve’s recent films. In Incendies, nominated for an Oscar in 2010, Villeneuve explores an ordinary Middle Eastern woman’s memories of war and horrific mistreatment. Prisoners is about a group of parents deals with child abduction, torture and murder. Enemy’s a stiflingly intimate, oppressive piece about a young man’s fear of commitment, which manifests itself in the dystopian, spider-infested city around him.

Arguably among the most talented directors working, Villeneuve’s entering the sci-fi arena next with Story Of Your Life, adapted from the short story by Ted Chiang, and a sequel to the cult classic Blade Runner. We only had a tantalising 15 minutes to speak with Mr Villeneuve, but our conversation ranged from Sicario’s tough location shoot, the influence of Akira Kurosawa on his latest film, Roger Deakins, the sci-fi genre, and why aspiring filmmakers should start by making a small documentary.

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Many of your films deal with quite difficult subject matters about the darker side of human nature or murky morality. What is it that interests you in that, as a kind of through-line in your films?

Film always explores reality, you know? And reality’s quite intense! It’s a way to digest reality, a way to explore fears and a way to feel better after doing that. I don’t know. The truth is, I’m someone coming from a spoiled society – the worst thing we deal with in Canada is winter. So I have space to go to the darkness, I feel. Very often, people say that Canadian cinema is dark, but that’s because we have the luxury to go to those dark places – the same way as Swedish cinema does, in some ways.

I remember when I read the screenplay for Sicario I fell in love with it, but at the same time, I went, “Oh no, not again.” I mean, I would love to fall in love with something that is more light, like a rom-com or a comedy. I would love to. Because it’s very demanding to go to dark places like this.

I should imagine it is. So what’s the atmosphere like on set? Are there efforts to keep this very serious story light?

Yep. The thing is, I was working with three actors who are close friends. Emily [Brolin], Benicio del Toro and Josh [Brolin], the three of them, have a strong sense of humour. And Emily loves to laugh! So it was sometimes more like a kindergarten – I had to make discipline! I’m making jokes, but it’s true. There were high spirits on set, it was very light, and that was welcome because the climate where we were shooting was very harsh.

New Mexico in the summer, as you can guess, is very warm. We were at very high altitude, so it was very dry. It was tough, physically, so it was good to have that lightness.

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I rewatched Dennis Hopper’s film Colors recently, which like Sicario, shot in real, quite dangerous locations. Do you think it’s important that cinema does that – it goes to real places, and brings back accounts that people may not have heard about before?

Me, when I read the screenplay, I said to myself, “There have been a lot of movies that have been made about this subject.” But what I love about the project is that we’re seeing things from the victim’s point of view. I felt that this part of the world, the border between the USA and Mexico, says something very meaningful about the world of today.

Did you know that El Paso is supposed to be the safest city in America? A few feet away, there’s the worst city on Earth. That contrast, I think, says a lot of things about our world today, and I think that’s meaningful, too. I was looking for a story set there. 

As you say, it does seem to reveal something about our wider society. There’s a great quote I have here from [Sicario screenwriter] Taylor Sheridan: “Massive profits trump human decency.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah!

I thought that was a great line.

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Taylor’s a very inspiring screenwriter. A very strong artist. When I read his screenplay, I felt a strong voice. Have you spoken with him?

I haven’t, unfortunately.

He’s a brilliant guy. He knows what he’s talking about. He did a lot of research.

What I like about your films, and this one in particular, is the way you withhold the violence. You create incredible suspense this way, for example in the motorway sequence, where you know something terrible’s going to happen, but you’ve no idea when.

It’s two things. First, it was like that in the screenplay. When you read the screenplay, you’re exhausted by the end. I remember when I saw Seven Samurai, Kurosawa, there are some scenes in that movie where you’re waiting for violence. Nothing is happening; everything is still. One of my favourite scenes is where you have two samurai waiting for thieves to pass by. They’re waiting. They know the thieves are coming. But they’re just waiting. The violence will arrive soon.

The feeling of that, waiting for that moment to happen, was so strong. For me, it was my reference as I was doing Sicario. The pressure of time, to stretch time just long enough so you create the necessary tension. The thing I love is that, when you look at it from a certain angle, there are moments where people are on their edge of their seat when watching Sicario – but nothing is happening! [Laughs]

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I think it’s close to reality. From our subconscious point of view, it becomes so tense because we understand that reality’s a bit like this. Does this make sense, what I’m saying?


I’m trying to create this conflict by getting out of the path that action cinema usually takes. So I go to something smaller, more precise, to create a feeling of freshness? It’s a bit pretentious what I’m saying right now, because a lot of people do this. I’m just saying that… [pause] it’s amazing when you spread time and create tension. More so than if you try to compress it.

Also, you’re constantly aware that they’re flesh-and-blood human beings. You take the time to show that they’re frightened, vulnerable.

Yes, yes! Vulnerable. I agree. I agree. I must say that for the rhythm of the movie, I must give credit to Joe Walker, the editor. Walker’s a Steve McQueen editor, so he did Hunger, Shame, 12 Years A Slave. I always loved the editing of Steve McQueen’s movies. I always thought they were brilliantly edited. And to my great joy, Joe agreed to work on Sicario, and he brought a lot to the movie. He brought a lot to its inner rhythm, and also its sound. 

You managed to wring a lot of tension out of a scene like the one where Alejandro [Benicio Del Toro’s character] walks into an interrogation room with a cannister of water. The way he slams the water bottle on the ground is terrifying. You know it means something awful will happen.

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It’s the power of suggestion. I think those are cinematic images, because it’s evocation. Suggestion. It’s more powerful than seeing…that’s poetry for me, in some ways. Even if it’s talking about something ugly. It’s ugly poetry, yeah.

What’s your approach to a scene like that? Do you storyboard a lot? And what’s your working relationship with Roger Deakins like, given that this is your second collaboration?

It depends. Part of the movie was storyboarded, like the battle sequence – that was storyboarded very precisely. But other sequences, like the interrogation scene, that wasn’t storyboarded. It was very clear in my mind what I wanted, but it’s a collaboration; Roger brought some ideas, I brought others. It’s a very fluid process between Roger Deakins and I, that is very strange for me. Because I feel like I am the mouse and he is the elephant! I feel we’re two different animals coming from two different cultures, two different backgrounds, two different experiences. He is the master I am the beginner. In a way, I do feel like a beginner. But still, there’s a fluidity about the way we work; there’s something that makes sense.

That’s a good example, that [interrogation] scene. I express what I need, the way I see it, and Roger brings the answer, some idea. I dearly love working with Roger Deakins. I recognise totally how enormous his contribution to this movie is. I owe him a lot. In fact, as a director, when I look at Sicario, I’m aware of what I owe to Joe Walker, to Roger, to Benicio del Toro, to Emily Blunt, to Josh Brolin, to Alan Murray who did the sound – all of them are strong artists that brought a lot to the movie. I’m aware of that. And I’m a bit humbled.

You say you feel like a beginner when compared to Roger Deakins, but your career’s been going since the early 90s. You’ve built up to the profile you have now. Do you feel that the grounding you had, where you could make the short films and the smaller, low-budget features – was that an important part of your development?

Oh yeah, yeah. First of all, I started in documentaries. I started alone with a camera. Alone. Totally alone. Shooting, editing short documentaries for a French-Canadian part of CBC. So to deal with the camera alone, to approach reality alone, meant so much. I made a few dozen small documentaries, and that was the birth of a way to approach reality with a camera. I always try to remember that joy and that relationship with reality – that freedom. Even when I’m surrounded by 250 people waiting for me to make a decision, I am always trying to go back to that intimacy of filmmaking.

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So if a young filmmaker ever asked me what to do, I’d say, “Take a camera, go out alone in the world, and just try to make sense of what you see around you.” Making poetry with a camera – that’s the essence of what I do.

After that, my first films were really like sketches for me. They have some qualities, but they also have a lot of faults. I was not a good screenwriter at the beginning – I needed to learn more. I stopped for a few years, saying to myself, “I will go back to cinema when I’m able to better control my ideas.” I just felt that it was badly written. I needed to be more humble. In the beginning, I was very arrogant, and I tried too hard to impress other people. I came back with more humility, and the will to be at the service of great stories. So the beginning was really sketchy, I should say, and now I’m more and more in control, I feel. And that’s a great joy. 

These days, it’s not uncommon for young filmmakers to make a couple of short films, put them on YouTube and then they’re given a feature film. Or they make one low-budget indie film and go on to make a huge, $100m movie. Do you think that can be a disadvantage, and what do you think would have happened if it had happened to you?

Me? Everyone has his own path as a filmmaker. It’s art, you know?Some people start to make movies at 50 years old, others at 19. I feel that some people make their best films right at the beginning; their first movies are a masterpiece, then at the end it dissolves. I’m a slow learner. I’m still learning. In French, there’s the word empirique, which means to learn by doing things. I’m not good at theory – I’m good at practice. And that’s why, in past years, I’ve had this huge appetite to direct a lot of movies in a row.I’ve felt that I’ve learned so much from making each one.

After Incendies and Prisoners, I had offers to direct big sci-fi sequels that I felt I wasn’t ready for, that I didn’t feel a connection with. And I said no. To answer your question, it depends; at 25, if a director’s ready to do that, fine. I wasn’t ready until recently.

You mention sci-fi – well, you have two sci-fi films coming up next, Story Of Your Life and the Blade Runner sequel. Is that a genre you’re excited to get involved with now?

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I’ve been dreaming of doing sci-fi since I was a kid. I was born loving movies through sci-fi. So for me, it was my ultimate dream as a filmmaker to at least do one sci-fi film. So right now I’m blessed!

Has it been the case of waiting for the right things to come along?

Yeah. But I also feel ready. My first feature was about a woman drinking tea, you know? So there’s a stretch. I felt like I needed to learn. So from Prisoners to Sicario, it’s always levels of difficulty. I believe in steps. Before Prisoners, I insisted – I convinced the studio to let me make a small movie called Enemy, because I felt the step between Incendies and Prisoners was too big. I need to do something in between.

I convinced them that I needed to explore acting with someone. That’s what I did with Jake [Gyllenhaal]; then I applied that with Prisoners, which was a movie that had more characters. Then I was ready to do something technically a little bit more difficult with Sicario. Then Story Of Your Life is much more difficult to do, technically. Story Of Your Life is the most ambitious movie I’ve read so far. After that, I’m doing something more ambitious [the Blade Runner sequel]. So it’s layers, where I feel comfortable with my work.

Denis Villeneuve, thank you very much.

Sicario is out in UK cinemas on the 8th October.

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