Director Denis Villeneuve has been busy, bowing two very different, yet similarly dark features at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, both the studio thriller Prisoners and the smaller-scale Enemy. The latter is a more controlled, “playful” exploration of a theme the filmmaker often explores: our relationship to “the other.” Rather than focusing on an external crisis, the Kafka-esque Enemy is a twisted and fascinating psychological thriller staring Prisoner’s Jake Gyllenhaal doing double duty as a college professor and his “double,” a B-list Toronto actor. Melanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon and Isabella Rossellini star in the Spanish-Canadian co-production, which filmed in Toronto in the summer of 2012, and we spoke to Villeneuve on the eve of the film’s theatrical release in New York City. Check out our conversation below.
The Film Stage: I watched your film last night before I went to bed. As you can imagine, it led to some interesting nightmares.
Denis Villeneuve: [Laughs] Sorry about that! When you make such a movie – well, like a lot of other movies – that is designed to print images somewhere in the back of your brain, that will haunt you later. It’s true that Enemy is a problematic, maybe we should put a warning on it in the beginning.
It’s interesting because Enemy is unlike a lot of your other work – Incendies, Polytechnique and Prisoners. What drew you make the film?
I started to work on Enemy after I was doing Incendies; I was out with Polytechnique and finishing up Incendies and decided I wanted to go in a more playful direction. I did a short called Next Floor and I think Enemy is the “big brother” of Next Floor. I wanted to explore these themes in a more playful way – in a more fantastic way like magical realism. There’s a part of me that’s very attracted to fantastic or sci-fi, and after Polytechnique, Incendies, and knowing I was going to do Prisoners, I felt that I need to express myself in a film that’s more of a fantasy, a distortion of reality. I like those movies a lot. I was a big fan as a kid. There’s a part of me that needs to express myself in this way before Prisoners.
So Enemy was shot before Prisoners?
Yes, it was just before. The studio, Alcon, allowed me to shoot this small film because I told them that I wanted to explore acting and directing in smaller laboratory before doing Prisoners, because I felt like I needed to do something intimate before I moved on to something bigger. And I convinced everyone and they were kind enough to allow me to do Enemy before Prisoners.
How many years ago did you shoot Enemy?
I shot Enemy in the summer of 2012 and finished the film, and then we shot Prisoners in the winter of 2013.
How did Jake Gyllenhaal get involved with both films?
We were shooting Enemy and we became so close. We had such a strong creative relationship and we decided it would be great to work together again. And I offered him a part in Prisoners because the screenplay was very precise, but I also wanted the actors to have the have the space to create characters that were very close to them. It was a long laboratory and a lot of discussions with the actors to create the characters and the detective needed that kind of process, so I brought Jake on board.
How did Enemy come about? I know it was an adaptation of a novel by Portuguese writer Jose Saramago.
Yes, it’s based on his novel The Double. This came through a friend, a producer in Canada, Niv Fichman, and we wanted to work together for 20 years. I called him one morning and told him if we’re going to do it, it’s now or never, and we started to brainstorm and I learned that Niv had the option for The Double. It’s a novel that really inspired me and I thought it was saying things about repetition and tradition and how you have to break the cycle of your shadows and your past, and running from your subconscious. I thought that the novel was approaching this subject in a different way and we found the screenwriter together and that was it.
The past and running from your shadows is certainly a theme that’s reoccurring in your work and trying to make sense of the past and self. Each of your films have a very strong sense of place, what role does place play in your films?
It’s very important. The landscape of a movie is part of the equation that creates the meaning of the movie. On Enemy, the book, which takes place in a huge massive metropolitan area that’s oppressive, inspires it and it creates fear and paranoia because you feel there are too many souls around you. It gives you a claustrophobic feeling. I was looking for an English-speaking city set in a specific landscape; there are not a lot of cities that offer that. What is unique about Toronto is there aren’t a lot of filmmakers that shoot Toronto for itself – [David] Cronenberg did and Atom Egoyan has – so in the mind of the audience, Toronto is quite fresh.
I felt free there because I felt like I was the first one shooting here, and I had so much fun shooting there. So we found all the colors and textures and architecture that I imagined from reading the book. We planned to add CGI clouds and smog, and we were very lucky we didn’t have to add anything because it was all there. It was a dream shooting in Toronto; it feels like a dream. I did it in such a distinct moment in my life as I was prepping Prisoners. I’m not joking, I feel like my double did this movie. It’s a dreamlike process.
What was the reaction in Toronto? I know it debuted at TIFF and it certainly doesn’t look like the way Egoyan shoots Toronto.
I told the people in Toronto it was a love letter to Toronto and they look at me with big eyes. [Laughs] Toronto is very powerful and I’m glad it’s released there because we had a very small screening at the premiere, but it has been-well received in Canada.
We’re almost out of time. Is there anything else you want to tell us, perhaps about what you’re doing next? I watched your brother’s (Martin Villeneuve) TED Talk recently and it’s interesting you talk about fantastical elements. Are you planning on working with him?
[Laughs] My brother is very creative and he’s got some crazy projects. I might do a movie next summer taking place on the border of the US and Mexico. It’s a very strong script I’m excited about. [Editor’s note: Villenueve is referring to Sicario, announced last fall.]
Great, thank you so much.
It was a pleasure. Thank you.
Enemy is now in limited release. Read our review here.