Over the last decade, Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has made a mix of hard-hitting and compelling films, from his sombre take on a Montreal school shooting in Polytechnique to his Oscar nominated 2010 drama Incendies. Denis released two films in 2013 that both starred Jake Gyllenhaal: the experimental and brash Enemy, which provided a surreal and haunting look at a spousal relationship; and Prisoners, a kidnapping drama with Hugh Jackman, Viola Davis, and Melissa Leo joining the fray.
Villeneuve’s latest film may well be his best yet (he certainly thinks it is). Sicario is a richly drawn story about the moral ambivalence at the heart of the war on drugs. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, a seasoned FBI agent, who takes on the cartels directly with the assistance of a team led by Matt (Josh Brolin). Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a mercurial figure with a sordid past, also joins Kate as they bring the fight south of the border.
This week, the film is making its North American premiere at TIFF before it opens in theatres across Canada on September 25th. The film is stunningly shot by twelve-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, and played in official competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where Cineplex had a chance to speak with the filmmakers and cast.
CINEPLEX: What brought you to the project?
JOSH BROLIN: I was working a lot, one job after the other, and I got lost in the work. I was asked to do this film by Denis and I said no, stupidly. Luckily, Roger and I’ve done quite a few movies and Emily I knew socially. They came and made me feel, appropriately, stupid for turning down the role. And thank God!
I knew Denis’ films – Incendies I thought was so incredible. But you never know, and you get caught up in your own life and your own bubble. Usually, when you’re not sure about a film, it usually turns out very bad. We watched this film, and we were so proud to be involved in something like this. It’s incredible.
BENICIO DEL TORO: Pretty much what Josh said. [Denis and I] met, and he was very clear transmitting his enthusiasm and his quest for truth. So, that was a motivator. The script had all this potential, and he worked with all the actors, he was willing to listen and it made it really pleasurable to try to impress him.
CINEPLEX: What made this one work so well?
DENIS VILLENEUVE: People are asking me why I think this is my best film - It’s not about the film [simply] being good, but [how] I was able to, as a director, go where I want to go and do what I want to do. Benicio brought ideas, Emily brought ideas, I brought ideas, and Roger brought ideas, and it was very, for me, a beautiful moment of creation because I knew what I wanted exactly for ideas and emotion, but at the end the journey to get there was a collaborative process. As a director I sometimes feel that I’m at my best when I’m more like a channel where everyone’s creation comes together, and I can grab that and bring it higher. For me, it was just pure teamwork, and I know I’m here today because of those guys. So I’m grateful. Thank you, guys.
EMILY BLUNT: The thing that struck me most, and the thing that I have so much respect for is Denis’ humility and ability to say “I don’t know, let me sleep on it, I’ll come up with an answer tomorrow.” 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. I think that kind of openness is very present in his films, because he allows for you to carve out space for yourself.
BENICIO DEL TORO: I’ve done many movies that deal with that part of the world, and I’m very sensitive about that part of the world and what’s happening on both sides of the border. The story is kind of new through my character, or new for me, that I haven’t played, which is this revenge, this total the ends justify the means.
In order to play that, you need to have someone that is willing to take chances. Denis was like Tom Sawyer to Huckleberry Finn - he pushed me to drive and to take the chance and go further out, which I think was true to the movie, true to the story of that character being all or nothing. We’re not taking any hostages.
JOSH BROLIN: I don’t know if I believe Denis anymore, you know? He comes across as somebody that’s very uncertain, and I don’t think that’s true. “I don’t know, I feel uncertain about this scene, what do you guys think?” When I saw the movie, I go, “This f***** knows exactly what he wants. There’s no way to accomplish what I just saw and have no idea what you’re doing.”
I think what he does, is he wants it to come from you, even though he’s manipulating you to do exactly what he wants you to do, so not only you can feel good as an actor, like you actually gave something to the film, which you didn’t. [Laughs]
CINEPLEX: The film has a particularly intense female protagonist. Was that always the case?
EMILY BLUNT: You kind of think that there’s these new waves of equality, and waves of people realizing that women aren’t just kind of fascinating and interesting to watch and bankable. With this film, I think [Denis] got asked early on if you’d rewrite my part for a guy.
DENIS VILLENEUVE: Not me but the screenwriter. Several times he had to through the years. People were afraid, in part, because the lead was a female character. When I got on board, I embraced the screenplay as it was.
EMILY BLUNT: I get asked a lot, you know, “You play a lot of tough female roles,” but I don’t really see them as tough. I think there are plenty of strong women out there, and I don’t think they can be just compartmentalized as being one thing, like “You’re tough,” what, because I have a gun? I think that I found this character strangely quite damaged and vulnerable, and she’s struggling within this realm of being a female cop and certainly with the morally questionable things that she’s having to experience with these guys.
The FBI agents that I spoke to, they sound like me, they sound like normal girls, and they go home and watch "Gosford Park" and "Downton Abbey". They’re really great girls, you definitely want to have a beer with them.
I had worked with guns before, so I felt pretty competent with them, and then I had some training once I got to New Mexico where we shot it, and worked with the DEA guys there, just to learn the choreography of a SWAT team and how that works, and how incredibly choreographed it all is. It’s very intricate, almost like a dance.
CINEPLEX: The film is a balance between the dark and the light elements – how as a performer did you capture this subtlety and keep it on track throughout the shoot?
JOSH BROLIN: The subject matter is so heavy that you have to keep the light. There’s something to dive into when you keep it light, for me. It’s a very selfish state of mind to stay in.
If I’m sitting there, you know, if I’m in the corner of my trailer thinking about the most horrible things I can get bored. If I keep it light, I’m affected by what we’re going through organically.
I knew a lot about the subject, and the subject matter is very, very heavy. You know, there’s obviously a lot of innocent people who are dying because of it, and because the drug trade. It exists because of the demand in America. When you have a scene like that last scene, you have somewhere to go, you haven’t just been there the whole movie. You get these great breaths of fresh air, which is supposedly my character helping to create that. So you can actually be hit by the profundity. My job in the movie is to be as anti-profound as possible [Laughs.]
CINEPLEX: The cinematography captures this balance between light and dark as well.
ROGER DEAKINS: It’s tricky, really. It was good working with Denis on Prisoners beforehand, because that was also a very dark subject. I was very nervous about Prisoners, I wasn’t so nervous about Sicario. I was nervous about Prisoners because it was very easy to make it go gothic or something. I think you take a script like that, and just treat it as though it’s absolutely real in some way, without trying to exaggerate, accentuate, make comment on it, almost.
It’s very complex, there’s so much going on. And I’m a very simple person, I like simplifying things, I like keeping things really honest, in a way, if that’s not pretentious.
Sicario opens in Toronto on September 25th and across Canada on October 2. Click for tickets and showtimes.