With Prisoners, Enemy and more, Denis Villeneuve has been churning out visceral thrillers and his latest is no exception. In our review, we said Sicario, which recently premiered in Cannes, “delivers a constant, exhilarating stream of elaborate and exquisitely photographed thrills that ends up largely compensating for the would-be profundity.”
The story follows a police officer (Emily Blunt) who goes down to Mexico with two mercenaries to capture a drug lord. Also starring Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin and Joe Bernthal, the majority of the top cast as well as Villeneuve, illustrious cinematographer Roger Deakins, and producers Basil Iwanyk and Molly Smith gathered for a press conference at Cannes.
As far as these things go, overall the press conference was a relative success, with a compelling discussion about the process behind the production of the film but, of course, had some delightfully awkward moments, particularly when a journalist mistook Del Toro for Javier Bardem. We’ve highlighted the best moments below, so check them out and watch the full conference as well.
On how the project came to be
The director began by stating, “I’m a very, very slow screenwriter and my appetite for cinema is huge right now. And I’m surrounded by strong scripts but some of them … you know it’s like falling in love.” He continued by saying, “I read a lot of scripts in the past years. And this one… I was traumatized when I read it, because I felt, first of all, that I was doomed because when you fall in love you don’t have a choice, you have to jump.” He further elaborated his interest in the geo-politics of this specific region of the world. “It came from my agent at CAA that sent me that script overnight who said this is exactly what you are looking for because I was really interested, for a few years, about that specific place in the Americas — the border between the United States and Mexico — and when I read Taylor Sheridan’s work I knew this would be my next movie.” He adds, “There have been a few movies dealing with this topic coming out of Hollywood but nowhere near as many as those dealing with other violence hotspots, even though this particular one is right near America. Unlike the Iraq and Afghan wars, which were indeed sparked by American intervention, but are nevertheless across the world, the violence fueled by the drug trade is in the North America backyard.”
On shooting the action scenes in the film and whether there were any sources of inspiration
Roger Deakins was first to respond to this question, downplaying any direct influence from films, saying, “I think we looked at some action films but only to see what we didn’t want to do, really.” However he does mention a source of inspiration in terms of approach. “Frankly, the person I had in mind was Jean-Pierre Melville. I’m in France, but he has always been my hero as a filmmaker. And for me somehow, I know this subject is very different from gangster films, but there is still the mood to me, that sort of take he had on character building and action sequences.” He continued by saying, “We shot most of the action with a single camera. We had story-boarded quite a bit, but in film you sort of talk about things and work it out as you scout locations and on the day you kind of just react to what’s there, what the actors want to do.” The director jokingly added, “Basically we storyboard a lot and on the day of we just tear away the storyboard and improvise a lot. It’s all about point of views at the end of the day. “
On Emily Blunt’s character
Villeneuve described the pressure that was put on the screenplay before he came aboard, saying, “It was a screenplay people were afraid of, in part because the lead was a female character. And I know that the screenwriter was asked several times to rewrite the part. When I got on board I embraced the screenplay as it was and it was the same for [the producers] and Lionsgate. But the pressure came before those guys had the guts – I can’t believe I have to say this, it’s crazy that I am saying this right now – but we embraced the screenplay as it was.” It is rather absurd and quite illuminating to hear that the lead being a woman was a problem for those who were interested in producing the screenplay.
Blunt added what she knew about the toying with the sex of the character, saying “I just heard about it from the director once I signed on.” On the subject of “tough women” she added, “I get asked a lot — ‘you play a lot of tough female roles’ — but I don’t really see them as tough. There are plenty of strong women out there; I don’t think they can be compartmentalized as one thing. ‘You’re tough,’ what, because I have a gun?” She further elaborated on details about her character, adding, “I found this character, strangely, quite damaged, vulnerable and she is struggling within this realm of being a female cop. Certainly with the morally questionable things she is having to experience with these guys and it’s not safe. You see this girl going through pretty much the worst three days in her life. So she is trying to maintain face for most of it. So I didn’t really think about adjusting to make it more masculine. I think she is trying to survive in a predominantly male industry, or profession.”
She also touched upon real law enforcement officials she interacted with, saying, “The FBI agents I spoke to, they sound just like me. They sound like normal girls and they go home and watch Gosford Park and Downton Abbey and they are definitely great girls. You want to have a beer with them. I found that interesting; to get under the skin of what it is to be a female cop and what that costs you: how it affects your marriage, how you sleep at night, how you cope with the men working alongside you. It was really interesting hearing their point of view and quite humbling.”
On the difference between working with Canadian directors and American ones
Emily Blunt began by talking about her experience with Jean-Marc Vallée, with whom she worked with on Young Victoria, and Villeneuve, who are both Québécois Canadian directors. “I think there is a different sensibility. Both these directors have nuance and a kind of free spirited way of a scene coming together. They are very collaborative. They find the beauty in darkness and I think that is the similarity.” She, of course, added, “But obviously Denis is so much better.” To which Villeneuve himself added “More beautiful.”
Brolin continued the praise-train saying, “Denis is amazing. I was very fortunate. I was working a lot from one job to the other and I got lost in the work and then I was asked to do this film by Denis and I said no, stupidly. Luckily, Roger I had done a few movies with and Emily I knew socially, and they came and made me feel appropriately stupid for turning down the role and thank God. I knew Denis’ films, like Incendies, which I thought was so incredible, but you never know and you get caught up in your own life and your own bubble. This was one of those films we kind of powered through. The writing was wonderful, and we are reworking scenes as we are doing it on set, as these guys were telling you. But I tell you, when we sat at that small screening room and watched the film for a first time…and we were so proud to be involved in something like this. It’s incredible, as he was saying earlier. It brings up questions, it’s a hypothetical, and it’s almost like doing this film was being in the war room. ‘If this were the case could this be a possible solution, could that be a possible solution, could that be a possible solution?’ And we were doing that on set all the time.”
Del Toro too piped in saying, “We met and he was very clear, transmitting his enthusiasm in his quest for truth, so that was a motivator. Also the script had all this potential and, as Denis has said, he worked with all the actors. He was willing to listen to the concerns of the actors and made it really pleasurable to try and impress him.”
On shooting the last scene of the film and whether or not there was any preparation
Del Toro began by simply stating, “We sat down at a table, we broke it down. I always go back to the thing about trying to impress the director and the other actors, but there is one other person you want to impress: Roger Deakins. We just sat there and worked it. As actors, we have been doing this for a while, and having the director there, and the cinematographer helped the actors understand where it should go.” He continued by Praising Blunt’s performance, especially in the last scene, saying, “I’m giving it all and [Blunt’s character] is taking everything. I’m playing offense and she’s playing defense and I think in that scene the defense is much more difficult and when Emily just took the scene, for me, was a really great moment to be there and just watch Emily take over the scene and really give it something I hadn’t thought about, or we hadn’t thought about. That was what made the scene work. “
Blunt added, “I think that scene changed from what is was originally on the page and, yeah, I remember the three of us sitting down, talking through all of the options: what we could do and what’s the most powerful thing, how are these people really feeling at this moment, what is it costing her. I think I found it, as we sat there and talked about. I suddenly thought that I was going to cry. I think it is quite an emotional scene and I didn’t expect it to be that. I think the stoicism finally gets cracked in half. This character sort of submarines through everything and as we talked about it I was finding the scene to be quite upsetting and that is when Benicio said, ‘That’s what we’ll do.'”
Villeneuve piped in, talking about the strength of the final scene: “It’s a good question because people are asking me why I think this is my best film. And it is not about the film being good, in itself, but where I was able to, as a director, go and what I want to do which is to bring people together and try to bring out the best in them. That scene is a good example. That scene was, in a way, inspired.” He further went on to talk about the creative collaboration that resulted in the final scene: “It’s different from the screenplay and the difference came from discussions I had with Benicio and Emily who felt that what was on the page was not what the movie should be aiming for. And together Benicio brought ideas, Emily brought ideas and Roger brought ideas and it was a beautiful moment of creation. I knew what I wanted from ideas and emotions but the journey to get there was a collaborative process. And it’s tough for my ego to say that but I think as a director sometims I feel that I am at my best when I channel what everybody’s creating and it comes together. For me it was just pure teamwork and I know that I am here today because of those guys. And I am grateful.”
On the representation of light and darkness in the film
Roger Deakins talked about the philosophy behind the aesthetic of the film: “It was good working with Denis on Prisoners beforehand because that was also a very dark subject. So I was very nervous about Prisoners and wasn’t so nervous about Sicario. But I was nervous about Prisoners because it was very easy to make it go gothic or something. And I think when you take a script like that and you treat it as it is absolutely real in some way, without trying to exaggerate, accentuate, and I think it worked in Prisoners and I think, in a way, it’s kind of what I felt with Sicario. It could also go way over the top. It could be a just a shoot-‘em-up movie but it’s so complex, there is so much going on. I am a very simple person, I like keeping things honest, in a way.
On Villeneuve’s approach as a director
Each actor spoke about their experience with him and what exactly is special about working with him. Emily Blunt began by saying, “The thing that struck me most, and what I had so much respect for, was Denis’ humility and ability to say, ‘I don’t know.’ And he would very often say, “I don’t have the answer for you” and go and have a sleepless night and have the answer in the morning and I think that that kind of openness is very present in his films. He allows you to carve out space for yourself and doesn’t stifle you as an actor.” She went on to praise him for being both a visual stylist as well as a director who works well with actors, as she found this combination relatively rare.
Del Toro praised him by saying “I’ve done many movies that deal with that part of the world. I’m very sensitive about that part of the world and what’s happening besides at the border with the problem with drugs. I think the story, and Denis, was saying something that is kind of new through my character. Or new for me that I haven’t played, which is this revenge, the ends justify the means, and in order to play that you need someone who is willing to take chances. Denis was like Tom Sawyer to Huckleberry Finn. He pushed me to take a chance and go further out which was true to the movie, true to the story about that character being all or nothing.”
Brolin jokingly began by saying, “I don’t know if I believe Denis anymore. He comes across as somebody who is very uncertain and I don’t think that is true…and when I saw the movie I thought: this fucker knows exactly what he wants.” He continued by stating: ‘There is no way to accomplish what I just saw and have no idea what you are doing and I truly believe that.”
On whether the movie promotes the “the ends justify the means” ideology
When asked about the film’s potential ideology, Villeneuve responded by disagreeing that the film tows that ideological line, saying, “I think, in my humble opinion, that the film asks questions about what you just said. I don’t think the movie gives any answers. I think it is true we are living in a period of time where grey zones are more blurred than ever, but that is why I was attracted by the project because it was raising strong, accurate questions without giving any answers. “
On Villenevue’s interest in the US-Mexico border drug problem
Villeneuve also addressed his particular interest in this specific geo-political issue: “We all know in this room how much violence is there. As a North American I know I share responsibility for that and that violence is, from what I understood, under a cover of silence. I think violence is horrible but violence under silence is even more horrible.” He continued by stating, “To me, the movie is not about Mexico. The movie is about America. I felt that the screenplay was sensitive about that reality and I felt comfortable talking about that reality because it was seen from the American point of view. I know that there are strong movies coming out of Mexico, but I think we should make more and more movies about that reality. People there are very afraid, I understand why, and I felt as a filmmaker that I was coming from my heart. It was what I wanted to talk about.”
Sicario premiered at Cannes Film Festival and will be released on September 18th, 2015. Watch the full press conference above (along with a new clip interspersed in interviews) and our complete coverage below.