EXCLUSIVE: When Basil Iwanyk looks out this evening at the rousing ovation for Sicario in the Palais, the sense of accomplishment may be even sweeter than usual. The film, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by Denis Villeneuve, bowed Tuesday to a near-universally ecstatic reception with critics falling over themselves to praise the gritty drug opus. For all the high-fiving this evening, however, Sicario was far from a sure thing. If anything, actor-turned-screenwriter Sheridan’s script had been making the rounds in Hollywood for a year with no impact. Plus, its subject matter — a no-holds-barred look at the drug wars — was in many ways the anti-thesis of sanitized superhero fare so abundant today.
“It had kicked around for a while,” Iwanyk tells Deadline as he makes his way to the film’s world premiere Tuesday night. “I’d always been fascinated by this subject but I’d never found a way in to that story that didn’t feel either too grim or too American or too nihilistic. Taylor’s script, which was masculine, tender, epic in scope but also intimate, was able for the first time to embody what’s going on down there. With these three characters we could take take a very measured point of view from the American and Mexican side.”
Sicario is set against the backdrop of the border wars between the cartels in Mexico and the Americans trying to stem the violence from coming over the border. Josh Brolin plays a CIA officer who runs the task force that recruits Emily Blunt’s character from a SWAT squad out of Tucson. Benicio Del Toro plays a mysterious and lethal character working with the CIA man’s team to take out a powerful cartel figure.
In a film world increasingly dominated by binary codes of intergalactic good and evil on-screen, Sicario stands out as a bold, provocative study of unimaginable violence right on America’s doorstep. “If you’re American and you live in a border state like Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, California, that situation is right around the corner,” says Iwanyk. “In Juarez people are being killed and decapitated and horrible things happening, while 400 yards away you’ve got McDonalds and steak houses and American families being safe, watching TV and playing catch with their kids. 400 yards away from there is a battleground. We pay so much attention to the stuff that’s going on overseas, and it’s awful what’s going on overseas, but this is happening right around the corner from us and not enough people are paying attention to it.”
Iwanyk, who has ramped up his Thunder Road banner with a series of canny development deals with the like of Film House Germany, Lebanon’s Italia Films, China’s Fundamental Films and Cutting Edge Group, credits Canadian director Villeneuve and Black Label’s Molly Smith with being game-changers for the project.
Villeneuve, who has gone on to become one of the most intriguing filmmakers working in mainstream cinema ever since his Oscar-nominated Incendies — he has Amy Adams-starrer Story of Your Life as well as the Blade Runner sequel in the pipeline — was hired before Iwanyk and his co-producers had even seen his Hugh Jackman-Jake Gyllenhaal drama Prisoners. Villeneuve’s involvement, which came after his CAA agents passed him the script without even an offer at that stage, helped set the stage for Smith to board through her Black Label Media.
“Having Denis and Black Label as early adopters made my job so much easier,” says Iwanyk. “Molly just said we love this as much as you do, we’re here for you, let’s figure out how to put this together. It gave it momentum a lot of these movies don’t usually get so early in the process. They were great partners. I can’t even imagine the movie business without people like Molly and Megan (Ellison). It’s essential and allows films like Sicario to exist. Then once we brought Benicio on board, Lionsgate came in. ”
Lionsgate is releasing the film in the U.S. in September.
What makes Sicario such a refreshing and compelling case study — particularly in relation to the annual market jamboree of Cannes — is the extent to which the Iwanyk and his co-producers Smith, Trent Luckinbill, Thad Luckinbill and Ed McDonnell were intent on maintaining the film’s moral complexity.
“Everyone has their own definition of who the good guy and bad guys are in the movie,” says Iwanyk. “Denis offhandedly referred to Josh’s character once as one of the bad guys. I thought he was one of the heroes. It just shows you that people will bring their own definition. It asks if you need to be virtuous in fighting this war and understand the rules of justice? Or is it such a dirty, depraved world that the only way to fight it is to be dirty and depraved yourself. The film lays those arguments out soberly for people to make their own conclusions.”