Prisoners is a menacingly dark and psychologically disturbing detective thriller. A pair of families is finishing up Thanksgiving dinner when they discover that their two young daughters, who have been playing outside, have suddenly gone missing and appear to have been abducted.
Filled with noirish touches – rain-drenched nighttime scenes and shots through windows and windshields – the movie follows the urgent and convoluted search for the girls by a local detective (Jake Gyllenhaal), while the father of one of them (Hugh Jackman) takes matters into his own hands when the initial suspect, a mentally incapacitated person (Paul Dano), whose RV was parked near the house, is released from jail for lack of evidence.
Lensed by award-winning director of photography Roger Deakins, the film has an elegant monochromatic look and carefully restrained camerawork. It was helmed by Denis Villeneuve, who directed Incendies, which was nominated for an Academy Award in the best foreign film category in 2012. Deakins is currently nominated for an Oscar for his work on the film and is also in the running for the feature film award from the American Society of Cinematographers.
“Denis and I talked at length about the style of Prisoners as we were both concerned that the audience should be invested in the characters, and not just be there for the ride,” said Deakins. “We felt that the film could veer towards melodrama if we didn’t use restraint in the way we moved the camera and in the lighting. So we basically went by the ‘less-is-more’ philosophy, moving the camera only to increase tension, and lighting the film in a stark naturalistic way. I guess you could say that the camera was observational for a lot of the film.”
The objective was to make the audience face the same dilemmas and choices as the main characters, he noted. “We wanted to hold shots for a long time and force the audience to confront the reality of what it means to take the law into your own hands. What does it really mean to torture a man? What can be justified? How far would you go? Where do you stop?”
Prisoners, the DP said, “could be seen as ‘noir’ but I was lighting it in quite a naturalistic way.” Deakins is known for his use of practical lighting, or actual point sources that appear on the screen, but are enhanced by film lights. “I did use a lot of practicals,” he said, but many had to be added or created. “For all the night scenes I had to design exactly what I needed in every scene as there was nothing there to start with. The suburban neighborhood had no street lamps and we had to bring these in. The suburban houses had no porch lights and very few other light sources so each and every light you see in the film was supplied by us.”
In one scene, there’s a candlelight vigil, with Christmas decorations in the trees, street lamps and porch lights as well as security lights, which are triggered by the fleeing figure of another suspect. “Every one of these lights had to be rigged with ‘gag’ lights behind them,” he pointed out. “That was actually quite a complex job for our gaffer, Chris Napolitano, but I hope that the results look as if we shot with natural light.”
The day interior scenes were also completely lit. “Almost nothing was shot in ‘natural light’,” the DP said. “When you need to shoot a four minute dialogue scene over the course of a day it is obvious, if you think about it, that, in the middle of winter, you only have enough ‘natural’ light for a few hours a day. Every interior shot or night exterior in the film was lit.”
One of the most difficult scenes to light, he indicated, was the gas station in the rain where the RV is found by detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) and then the suspect inside crashes it as he tries to flee. “The first challenge was to find a location where Loki would find the RV,” Deakins noted. “Originally this was a rest stop but I wanted light. I didn’t want to do a ‘moonlit’ scene so I suggested a gas station with a parking area, and we just happened to come across one by chance. The second challenge was controlling the rain, which the crew created, over such a large area. Without the rain the characters disappeared into the darkness, but with the right amount of rain they became these wonderful silhouettes.”
Prisoners was the second film he has shot digitally, using the ARRI Alexa and the ARRI RAW format. Last year he used the Alexa for Skyfall, the most recent James Bond movie, which also earned Deakins an Oscar nom. He said the camera was especially handy in low light situations. He stopped down the camera ratings to ASA’s of 1280 and even 1600 a few times in Prisoners. “Yes, everything was lit and I could have used larger instruments but that would have been rather more expensive. There were also times where I really needed the extra speed of the camera to capture the feel of the light.”
Deakins’ Oscar nom for Prisoners is his eleventh. Others were for films including The Shawshank Redemption, Kundun, No Country for Old Men and True Grit. He has yet to win one. But he has won three ASC feature film awards – for Shawshank, The Man Who Wasn’t There and last year for Skyfall. And he received the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. Deakins is currently trying to finish up filming Unbroken, with a script by Joel and Ethan Coen and directed by Angelina Jolie. “We are still shooting in Queensland, maybe for another week,” he said. “I can’t say when exactly when we will finish as our last location is under a tropical cyclone warning.”