Known for his dark, white-knuckle films made within the last five years, including Incendies, Enemy and Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve has secured a spot among A-list directors with his latest, Sicario, drawing Oscar-buzzy performances from a star-studded cast led by Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. Up next for the French-Canadian are two high-profile sci-fi projects: the alien invasion film Story of Your Life starring Amy Adams, and the highly anticipated Blade Runner sequel that has original director Ridley Scott’s blessing. Here, Villeneuve shares his methodology in choosing projects, his fascination with characters exposed to profound violence, and the challenge of working against an audience’s expectations.
How did Taylor Sheridan’s script for Sicario come to you and what attracted you?
I always have a strange feeling that projects choose you. It’s always mysterious. I was attracted to the idea of doing some sort of jeu politique (“political game”) thriller. One—- evening, I received a phone call from my agent saying, “I read something incredible that you must read.” Is there any time he ever spoke like that to me? I love the work of Kathryn Bigelow, and I was raised looking at the political movies in the 1970s—you know, Parallax View. When I read the script, I felt tired already because although I wanted to go back there again, it’s difficult. It’s tough to make a movie about a dark subject matter. As a filmmaker, you just explore that with the camera. You’re not living the reality. I’m aware that I’m a spoiled kid, but still, you’re not dealing with the bubble gum—you’re dealing with sadness and violence—so I felt doomed, a bit, but… the script, it was too strong.
There’s a large well to draw from of films in the vein of the “drug thriller,” many of which also starred Benicio Del Toro. Was the history of what’s been done in that sub-genre helpful, or a burden in conceptualizing your own unique take?
Everything has been made, OK? Tons of great films that have been made before and a film like Traffic is a masterpiece. But for me, this movie approached that reality in a fresh way. Sicario is about how the Western world reacts toward problems outside of its borders. Should we become monsters in order to fight the monsters? It’s not about the cartels. The movie could have been set in Africa or the Middle East. When I direct a movie, I need to convince myself as though I was the first one that was taking a camera (to the subject).
Your collaborators approach their work strictly in service of the story. Has this been your experience on every film?
It’s, like, do you put the emphasis on style or the art of the movie—which is like a human journey. It’s true that, at the end of the day, you have to rely on ideas. I’m working with people that have deep souls.
Following from that, what are your thoughts on the auteur theory?
If I wanted to have total control and be a dictator, I would do ice sculpture in my basement. If I want to make a movie, I’m going to work with 500 people and I will have to work with their strength and their weakness. The idea, as a director, is to be able to bring everybody on board and to inspire and give energy to everybody and to explain specific color, specific ambience. I need to be very precise, but I think I’m a better director when I’m more a channeler than a dictator. When I look at the result, it’s better than what I had; then, it’s tough for my ego but it is (better). And that’s the poetry. The beauty of cinema is, like, 400 hundred people shooting at four o’clock in the morning for a month, trying to create poetry.
You had a great cast in this film, including Jon Bernthal, who has a small but pivotal role. What was your casting process?
I’m so happy that you’re talking about Jon, because nobody asks me questions about that and he is a fantastic actor. Jon gave everything he’s got on the screen and was super collaborative. Of course, everybody is talking about Benicio and Emily and Josh, for obvious reasons. But there were more secondary parts where I had the chance to work with insanely talented actors, and Jon Bernthal is one of them.
Do you have any trepidation about Blade Runner and transitioning to a movie of this scale with such passionate fans?
There’s the pressure coming from outside and pressure coming from me. The pressure coming from other people is something I can become quite artistic about. I understand; I respect it. But I have no control over that. I can just try to make the movie my own and to give everything I have to make it a great movie. I’m used to working with pressure because I made a movie in Montreal about a school massacre a few years ago that touched every single person living there. That’s a responsibility because I’m dealing with strong reality. In that regard, Blade Runner is a responsibility, but it’s about art. I’m aware that we’re dealing with a masterpiece and a landmark in film history, and it’s a very delicate and challenging project. But at the same time, the screenplay I read is very strong, and my crew and I think that it’s going to be the project of our lives. But it’s a risk. I know that the fans of the original will walk into the theater with baseball bats. It’s a fact and I respect that because I would do the same if I were in their shoes.