Hasitha Fernando revisits Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners on its tenth anniversary…
Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has, within a few years, achieved a level of status that rivals some of modern cinema’s best directors. Having churned out successive critically lauded movies – like Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and Dune – within a span of a decade, audiences now wait with baited breath to experience the eagerly awaited follow-up to his sci-fi masterpiece Dune, which hits theaters in 2024.
However, prior to the pomp and acclaim that followed his big-budget efforts, Villeneuve crafted a criminally underrated, procedural police drama that takes a twisty-turny journey into the dark side of the human psyche – Prisoners. Now, on its 10th anniversary we take a look at the film and gain some insight into what took place behind-the-scenes during the making of this morbidly beautiful piece of cinema…
Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t need to audition for the role
Before taking on the role of Detective Loki, Gyllenhaal worked with director Denis Villeneuve on the Kafka-esque psychological thriller Enemy, which although filmed beforehand, saw the light of day after Prisoners was released. Since Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve had a great working relationship on the set of Enemy, the French-Canadian filmmaker didn’t think twice before casting the uber-talented actor for his next project. As a reward for Villeneuve’s faith in him Gyllenhaal went full-on method for the role – incorporating unique quirks, tics, and mannerisms – in order to lend a sense of realism to his deeply conflicted character.
Hugh Jackman researched sleep deprivation as preparation
Hugh Jackman is a man that requires no introduction. From a ruggedly handsome unknown the Australian actor leaped to super stardom after embodying the role of Wolverine in the X-Men films. Ever since the chap made his onscreen debut as the angst-ridden anti-hero, Jackman’s made a career of playing good guys – even nabbing an Oscar nomination for such a performance by portraying Jean Valjean in Les Misérables – but nothing quite prepared audiences for his he’d done with this movie.
A caring family man thrust into a set of extraordinary circumstances; Jackman’s Kelly Dower starts out as a soft spoken, God-fearing human before transforming into a rage fueled personification of vengeance. In an interview with Screen Daily done in 2014 Jackman had this to say regarding his preparation for the role, “I did a lot of research on sleep deprivation. Over the course of eight days [in the Prisoner’s storyline], no-one sleeps. I read a lot about child abduction, alcoholism, sleep deprivation. I wanted to be very specific about when your hands start to shake, and when you are a lot rawer.”
The script was inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe short story
Aaron Guzikowski based his screenplay for Prisoners on a short story he had crafted a few years prior. This particular short story was in turn based on an Edgar Allan Poe tale published in 1843 titled the “Tell-Tale Heart“. The morbid tale follows an unnamed narrator detailing a murder he’s committed and the strange series of paranormal events that follows after. Similar to Guzikowski’s darkly tragic narrative, Poe’s effort also wrangles with themes of guilt, regret, horror and revulsion.
Christian Bale & Leonardo DiCaprio were attached to the project early on
Prisoners was mired in developmental hell for the longest time and therefore had multiple big-name creatives attached to the project, at one point or the other. After Guzikowski conceived the story in 2007, he completed the final draft of Prisoners two years later. This script won several competitions and was eventually featured in The Black List, which is an annual survey of the “most-liked” motion picture screenplays that haven’t been yet produced.
Following the in-demand IP’s sale to Alcon Entertainment, the script was floating around the studio until it caught X-Men helmer Bryan Singer’s attention. It was in this version that A-listers Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg were set to star. When the two actors backed out of the stalled production, none other than Leonardo DiCaprio entered the scene, with Jessica Chastain’s involvement rumored but even then, things didn’t move forward.
The movie was initially rated NC-17 and had a three hour long first cut
To say Prisoners ventures down a very dark rabbit hole is something of an understatement. But being the filmmaker that he is, Villeneuve wanted to push the envelope further, especially in terms of the visual storytelling aspect. Because of this, when the film was submitted to the MPAA it came back with an NC-17 rating. Needless to say, seeing that this rating would seriously hamper the movie’s box-office returns the producers instructed Villeneuve to make some changes, so that they might be able to get a more agreeable R rating. Oh, yeah and according to Guzikowski the first cut of the film clocked at an insanely lengthy three hour runtime.
Mark Wahlberg worked hard to keep the project going
While Mark Wahlberg was attached to star in Prisoners at one point, things didn’t pan out and the actor went on to join David O. Russell’s 2010 sports drama The Fighter later on. However, the performer didn’t completely sever his connections with the film’s production, staying on as an executive producer to “help the project get on its feet” according to writer Aaron Guzikowski.
Paul Dano is drawn to roles as disturbed young men
Paul Dano has, over the years, wracked up quite a resume working with some top-notch filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen, Ang Lee and Matt Reeves. But the young actor admits to having a strange affinity to roles featuring maladjusted social outcasts, often having developmental delays or learning impediments. Dano even tends to base the eccentricities of such characters on his real-life, personal experiences in order to add a dimension of plausibility to the role.
Roger Deakins went with a restrained style of approach for Prisoners
Cinematographer Roger Deakins is like a God amongst insects. The talented auteur has been the recipient of five BAFTAs and two Academy Awards in his illustrious career, and it came as no surprise that the chap received an Oscar nomination for his contribution to Prisoners, which visually shares much with one of his previous forays – Fargo.
Deakins detailed his creative approach in a recent interview with American Cinematographer saying, “For a while, we considered shooting the whole film handheld to give it a slightly raw feel, but that didn’t feel right. It’s a dramatic story, not documentary realism. Also, there was a danger of some of the Gothic elements being kind of over-the-top, and we wanted to play those down, not amplify them. So, in the end, we chose a very restrained, matter-of-fact style of camerawork. We didn’t need the camera to punctuate the suspense, because the suspense is there in the story and the characters.”
The film was a critical and commercial success
Made on a production budget of $46 million, Prisoners went on to gross a cumulative $ 122.1 million worldwide, by the conclusion of its theatrical run. This is quite a feat, for an emotionally heavy adult-drama wrestling with some truly dark subject matter. But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. The film also received unanimous praise for the compelling performances dishes out by its leads – Gyllenhaal, Jackman and Dano – and Villeneuve’s creative choices. As a result, it was not only chosen by the National Board of Review as one of the year’s top ten films, but it also got featured in various critic’s top ten lists for 2013.
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Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.