While attending the 38th Toronto International Film Festival Trevor Hogg had the opportunity to chat with Denis Villeneuve about having double the fun working with Jake Gyllenhaal…
Having tackled a story featuring a talking fish in Maelstrom (2000), explored the real life massacre of 14 female students in Polytechnique(2009), and delved into the Middle East conflict with a brother and sister trying to unravel the past of their mother in Incendies (2010), Denis Villeneuve readily admits, “I feel alive when I take risks.” The creative inclination has continued as the publicity tired Villeneuve promoted two of his latest efforts at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival which mark his English-speaking and Hollywood debuts. Enemy starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Zodiac) is the cinematic adaptation of the novel The Double by José Saramago; the story revolves around a university lecturer who seeks out an actor who looks exactly like him. Prisoners deals with a parent portrayed by Hugh Jackman (The Wolverine) who is prepared to resort to torture in an effort to discover the whereabouts of his abducted daughter.
“You have to dig inside your own intimacy to find images that can translate fears in a more efficient way,” remarks Denis Villeneuve when discussing how to give visual expression to psychological turmoil; the creative challenge is made even more effective with the addition of another key cinematic element. “Sound is very powerful. It can easily change the perception of an image.” The filmmaker from Quebec admits, “Usually I don’t like music a lot in movies but in Enemy there is music all over the place because I felt that it helped to create a distance with reality and it gave a sense of tension in scenes that could feel banal.” Some of the visual sensibilities found in the “existential erotic thriller” echoes a classic helmed by David Fincher. “I never thought about Fight Club . I know what you mean. For the colour palate it was inspired by the book not by any other movies. The book was set in an urban landscape and I was looking for a smoggy yellowish light and we tried to reproduce that here in Toronto.”
“I wanted the audience to believe it was technically possible that both the teacher and the actor could be living in the same city,” states Denis Villeneuve. “I was deeply inspired by the urban landscape of Mississauga which has a forest of white buildings standing like big ghosts without any human beings in sight. It was quite interesting and powerful. It was exactly what I was looking for the film.” A particular moment stands out to filmmaker who helmed the Canadian and Spanish co-production. “Adam has just found his double’s house; he is parking, and in-between the surveillance camera and going to make the phone call I was looking for a paranoid tension and aesthetically I was happy with that scene.” When I point out the little details incorporated into the settings such as the motel sign missing letters to spell satellite television, Villeneuve chuckles, “It gives a sense of what kind of place it is.”
The psychological web that needs to be navigated is emphasized with a motif which literally manifests into a giant spider rising about the city. “As I was doing preparation [for the movie] the streetcar wires reminded me of a gigantic spider web,” states Denis Villeneuve who also orchestrated a spectacular car crash. “I didn’t want Enemy to look like a visual effects movie. I wanted the double scenes to be shot as if there were really two people in the room.” The man behind the camera notes, “The most important visual effect in this film was the ability of the actor to believe that he was in front of himself. There was another actor who was standing there and was playing Jake’s part. Often Jake was playing in front of nothing. We had floating tennis balls. We had things he was playing against.” The lead performer was able to convey a different inner energy for the roles of Adam and Anthony. “I could feel which character Jake was playing by looking at him in the eyes; he did not have the same vibe or aurora.” Villeneuve remarks, “Jake is such a powerful actor. My job was to try to make the two characters closer to each other because sometimes Jake was making them too much different.”
A minimal supporting cast was assembled around Jake Gyllenhaal which includes Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) as Adam’s girlfriend Mary, Sarah Gadon (Belle) as the expecting spouse of Anthony, and Isabella Rossellini (Fearless) as Adam’s mother Caroline. “It was a need,” explains Denis Villeneuve. “I wanted to spend a lot of time with few actors instead of having multiple parts [so I could have a relationship with them].” As for significance of the female roles, the director wrote in the production notes, “A man who wants to leave his mistress and go back to his pregnant wife must confront his worst enemy: himself. Saramago decided, with all his ferocious humour, that this man should be in competition with another version of himself.” Villeneuve carried on to write, “In the dark spaces of his mind, Adam deals with an obsessive sexuality that cuts him off from intimacy and therefore any hope of true love. In order to be able to return to his regular life, his narcissistic side turns against the object of his sexual desire and destroys it.”
“It was like a laboratory that I designed that I was able to explore acting so I would be ready to deal with the actors in Prisoners,” remarks Denis Villeneuve who also recruited Jake Gyllenhaal for his first Hollywood production. “I asked him to join Prisoners because I enjoyed so much working with him that I wanted to repeat the experience. I did it because I was looking for a specific person for the detective and he was perfect for it.” Contributing to the dark subject matter is decision by character portrayed by Hugh Jackman to resort to extreme physical measures against the man he believes to be responsible for the abductions. “We did the torture scene at the end because I wanted to have a strong confidence with the actors as it required all of our concentration.” Reflecting upon Enemy which has a startling conclusion, Villeneuve states, “This movie was designed to play with the audience who have to accept the idea that some images will shock them; they will have to think about them for awhile before they can understand.”