Interview: The Back-to-Basics Brutality of ‘Prisoners’

By  · Published on September 20th, 2013

Despite screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski’s script earning raves all around Hollywood, Prisoners wasn’t exactly fast tracked. If you recall the project’s development, a series of talent were on and off the film, from directors Bryan Singer and Antoine Fuqua to stars Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio. Even Mark Wahlberg was attached at one point, who, from the start, served as a key cheerleader for the project.

According to Guzikowski, Wahlberg was one of the script’s biggest and most important fans. “Mark Wahlberg was the first person to champion it.” After that stamp of approval “everything got more and more attention.” Guzikowski wrote Prisoners as a spec script, and without Wahlberg, Prisoners and Guzikowski’s career would not have blossomed the way that it has. “He was totally pivotal in getting the film made. That endorsement helped it get around.”

He went to write the modest hit Contraband for Wahlberg. While both features are drastically different, they feature a race against the clock tension. To keep that tempo on high, Guzikowski says, “You have to keep the visual of it all in mind. It has to have a musical sort of pacing. I think the best thrillers have a real rhythm to them.” As for where that rhythm comes from, it’s all about the drama. “That pace is informed by however the characters are feeling. I think that’s they key to making that ticking clock.”

What ended up on screen after a two-year writing process is considerably different from the story’s humble beginning. Not only was it not penned as a script, but instead a simple short story. “The short story was a small inkling of what became the script,” explains Guzikowski. “It was a story about a father whose kid was struck by a hit and run driver and then puts this guy in a well in his backyard,” which, if you haven’t guessed yet, was in fact inspired by “The Tell-Tale Heart.” “It was a Gothic little short that gave birth to the story.”

The final product ended up as a morally ambiguous dramatic thriller, primarily focused on Keller (Hugh Jackman), whose kid is kidnapped along with his best friends’ daughter, and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). Both attempt to find the missing children, but with different methods. Keller and Detective Loki create a striking dichotomy, and initially, that contrast wasn’t in the script. “For the first couple of drafts we didn’t really follow Detective Loki. It wasn’t as much of a two-hander that it eventually became, because it was more singularly focused on the father character.”

Two-handers aren’t exactly a hot commodity in Hollywood. Often screenwriters are advised against writing them, receiving the dreadful note that asks “Whose story is this anyway?” Luckily, nobody attempted to sway Guzikowski away from focusing on Detective Loki. “Oddly, I never got the note they wanted to shift the emphasis completely to one or the other. I think both these characters are two sides of the coin, because they’re very similar in a weird kind of way.” Hugh Jackman had been circling the role of Keller for a long period of time, but Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t become involved until after working with the eventual filmmaker behind Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve (Incendies).

“The birth of our relationship was a small indie movie, Enemy,” says Villeneuve, discussing their close collaboration. “One of the reasons behind Enemy was to spend a lot of time with one actor, to create a relationship where I could explore cinema and talk about cinema.” Of course Enemy isn’t Villeneuve’s first feature, but it became an experience the director had yet to have. “Actors in my past work were coming in front of my camera and going away. I never had time to share cinema with them.”

If you’ve seen Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal in a room together, their budding rapport is evident. It probably helps that their relationship couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. “We were so free on Enemy that we got to explore ways working with each other. We’re close friends and he can piss me off and I can hate him,” Villeneuve jokes, “but I’m still deeply inspired by Jake.”

We’ll see what the two did on Enemy sometime in 2014, but that may not be the last we see of Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal. “I’d like to make all my movies with him. I’m a better director with how he pushes me. I like to think I push him as well. I’ve been looking for that for decades.”

While Kate Erbland and I are on the same page about Prisoners being the Jake Gyllenhaal show, the film is still an ensemble with an eclectic cast: Hugh Jackman, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, and Maria Bello.

Even though Enemy was an essential learning curve for Villeneuve, his process with actors is still evolving. “I’m learning more and more to share creativity with the crew and actors. A film crew is more powerful if you listen to them, but it does make my job more tough because I have to listen,” Villeneuve laughs, before covering the varying performance methods from the set. “All the actors were different on Prisoners. Maria Bello just wants to be directed. She has ideas, but on the set, she needs straightforward direction. Jake is someone who wants to share and question all the time. They’re all different, but I love them.” Villeneuve concluded with a sentence most directors would never dare to utter: “It’s my job to adjust myself to them.”

If Enemy was an experiment for Villeneuve, then Prisoners was a back-to-basics approach to the filmmaking. It’s the kind of cleanly cut thriller you’d expect from a major studio back in the 70s, not in today’s climate. “I wanted the camerawork to focus on the intimacy and drama, instead of the trailer elements. The trailer elements were already so strong in the script.” To find that intimacy, Villeneuve ultimately made a two-and-a-half hour movie. As for why the film required such a length, it needed to “go deeper into the characters,” and according to Villeneuve, Warner Bros. couldn’t have been more giving in that regard. Not only did they give him final cut to make the movie he wanted, but the filmmaker also had a nice heavy on his side. “[DP] Roger Deakins was there to protect me and keep the style of the movie alive all the time.”

Together Villeneuve and Deakins crafted an eerie mood for the film. The camera moves methodically and hauntingly, always backed by chilly weather. “We wanted to shoot the movie with subtle camera movements, always putting pressure on the characters. There were some scenes in the movie where we’re following cars, but we’re trying to keep it as claustrophobic as possible.”

That claustrophobia is felt most when we see Keller violently forcing information out of the crime’s main suspect, Alex (Dano), in a suitably dreary bathroom. There’s a stillness to the camerawork, and yet, it’s incredibly cinematic despite the tight location. When it came to directing those torture scenes, once again, Villeneuve gave credit elsewhere, “We had a great production designer. Those were in studio sets, because I wanted the actors to have space, so we couldn’t shoot that in a real bathroom.”

Hugh Jackman was also curious about how those scenes would be handled. “The first question Hugh Jackman asked me was, ‘How will you see shoot the torture scenes?’ I said I had no idea and that I would figure it out with him.” It’s obvious why that question would be on Jackman’s mind. That bathroom is where we see Keller at his most lowest and intense. Scenes like that need to breathe, so in order to find that space, Villeneuve would be “throwing out his storyboards” every day for his actors.

Those moments between Keller and Alex make an audience flinch without hesitation. Not only because they’re seeing golden boy Hugh Jackman getting his hands dirty, but by the simple brute force of it all. “I thought about how far we could push that character,” Guzikowski says, when it came to keeping Keller empathetic. “You have to think, ‘How far would this character be willing to go? How can you go there without going off the rails into another movie? What will an audience think?’ I always thought about that.”

“After all that torture, in the end, aren’t we all just prisoners?” is, surprisingly enough, not a line in Prisoners. The fact that we don’t have to endure that thud of dramatic exposition, which was never once written in a single draft, is reminder of the respect Guzikowski and Villeneuve show for a broad moviegoing audience. Prisoners may be two and a half hours long ‐ and, at one point, it was three hours ‐ but the film never condescendingly holds your hand, instead allowing for Roger Deakin’s crisp cinematography, the subtle camera moves, and the performances to carry you down into perfectly crafted despair.

Prisoners opens in theaters September 20th.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.