The Toronto International Film Festival has only just begun, but the Canadian MVP race is fait accompli: Nobody is going to catch Denis Villeneuve. The Gentilly, Que.-born director has followed his Genie-winning, Oscar-nominated Incendies with two notable TIFF entries: the surreal psychodrama Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a man tracking his own doppelganger; and Prisoners, which features Gyllenhaal again as a cop trying to locate a pair of kidnapped children. Touted at both the Telluride and Venice festivals as an Oscar contender, Prisoners has also earned Villeneuve a deal with the American production company Alcon Entertainment to develop a new original feature. He spoke to The Globe on the first day of the festival.
Prisoners is about certain aspects of life in the United States, including the link between religious conviction and a certain kind of righteous violence. Was it interesting to watch the movie in Telluride, with an American audience?I think the relationship between violence and religion is quite universal. We often use religion to justify our actions, and that can be linked with every religion. I think as Canadians we're pretty close to Americans, except we have less power. The ways our countries are using torture, we're closer than we think we are. There is a greater tension between individuals and institutions in America, though. It's cowboy country. I always thought that Prisoners could have been a Western.
There's a definite northern vibe to the film. Why did you want to use Pennsylvania as its setting?The script was originally set in Boston. I wanted it to be set somewhere close to Canada, so it would have the right sort of weather, but I didn't want to deal with Boston accents. I had an Australian star. I'm French-Canadian, so I can't help actors with accents. We had a big meeting, and we tried to think of the places in America where people speak with a normal accent. I've always loved Pennsylvania, because it's close to Quebec. It's a landscape that I thought was suitable. When I read the first scene where they're hunting the deer, I saw it happening in that state. The script was set in a village, but I wanted to put it in the suburbs – a scary place without a community, where it's just houses linked with highways. There's all of this ugliness, but I needed someone who could make poetry out of it.
Which is why you hired the great Roger Deakins as your cinematographer?It was the first time in my career I had the impression that I was working with a genius. There were times when I had tears in my eyes looking at the beauty of the images. Roger Deakins is very sensitive about light, and it's amazing to see him working. He's like a painter. It was just so impressive. There are no coincidences in his work. Everything is planned. Everything is controlled. The colour timing on Prisoners took like 10 minutes, because there was nothing left to do.
I'd imagine that sense of control over the images suits you. You are yourself a very strong visual stylist.
The style of a film is fundamental to me. I always like to work with strong cinematographers. We defined a vocabulary for this movie and we stuck with it. Roger wanted to make my film, he wanted me to be happy. In some ways I think he protected me. There were no concessions.
The deal that you just signed with Alcon gives you a lot of freedom. Are you surprised that you've gone so quickly from a filmmaker working independently in Canada to somebody who can call the shots on a big American production?
The way I work is always one step at a time. I did Prisoners for very specific reasons, and it was a privilege. But if this morning you said to me, 'Denis, that was your last movie,' I would say 'ok thanks,' because it was a great adventure to work with those actors, and with those artists. The movie has been well received, so I get to make another one. What I love about Hollywood is getting to work with that level of talent. Can you believe the actors that I get to have in the same frame? You get addicted to that.
You seem to have a fondness for Jake Gyllenhaal, shooting two movies back to back with him.I loved him in several other movies, and I was curious to meet him. When we met, we bound together and in two minutes, it was like, 'That's not Jake. That's my brother!' I think we met at the right time and the right place. He wanted to explore, and I had the same needs. [On Enemy], we spent several weeks together in an apartment in Toronto experimenting with acting – it was like a laboratory. We had a lot of the same questions about what we were doing. After Enemy, I thought it would be great to continue on the next project. I mean, sometimes he pissed me off, and sometimes I hated him, but I deeply love him. What I love about him is that he has the ability to surprise me. He likes to create chaos. Sometimes on Enemy, we did 30 or 40 takes, to get closer to a certain truth.
Prisoners is such a precise movie, so I'd imagine there's less room for that sort of chaos.Yes, it's more precise, but there are scenes with some improvisation in them. There are moments where Jake went crazy. Hugh [Jackman] and Jake together … to get to put them in the same frame … it was like explosions, and those moments are in the film. To me it was a massive privilege.