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HomeCraftsArt DirectionDirector Denis Villeneuve Tackles the Drug Wars in Sicario

Director Denis Villeneuve Tackles the Drug Wars in Sicario


LR-Denis Villeneuve-email

Denis Villeneuve
Denis Villeneuve
With Sicario, a stylishly made high-impact movie about the drug wars on the lawless border area between the U.S. and Mexico, the career star of French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve continues to ascend.

Villeneuve made his mark winning three Genie Awards (Canada’s Oscar) for best director for Maelström, Polytechnique and Incendies. The last of these put him in the international spotlight when it was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film in 2011. Prisoners, his first Hollywood production, released in 2013, opened to critical plaudits. Starring Hugh Jackman, the menacingly dark film is about a parent’s relentless pursuit of someone he mistakenly believes has abducted his son.

Sicario tackles the subject of how America’s efforts to bring down Mexican drug lords gets mired in ambiguity and moral compromise. The movie stars Emily Blunt as an idealistic FBI agent who is recruited by an elite government task force official, played by Josh Brolin, to take part in the escalating war on drugs. They become part of a team that’s led by an enigmatic “consultant” with a shadowy past, played by Benicio Del Toro. The team embarks on a clandestine mission, raising questions about who the bad guys really are.

Sicario (Photos by Richard Foreman Jr.)
Sicario (Photos by Richard Foreman Jr.)
“The film raises a lot of questions, but it’s not trying to provide answers,” said Villeneuve in a recent interview with Below the Line. “The movie is not about the cartels, but about how the Western world reacts to certain kinds of problems outside its borders. It could be set in Africa or the Middle East.”

Working for the second time with director of photography Roger Deakins “was again a massive privilege and a real blast,” said the director. “If you asked me 20 years ago what was my biggest dream, it would be to work with a cinematographer that is a true master,” he noted. “But I never dreamed that someday I would be able to work with Roger Deakins.”

They collaborated for the first time in 2013 on Prisoners, with Deakins receiving an Oscar nomination for best cinematography for his work on the film. “We feel very comfortable working together, we share the same kind of sensibility—a respect for simplicity and humanity,” he noted. Deakins and the director are set to work on Blade Runner 2, a reboot of the dystopian sci-fi film classic directed by Ridley Scott, now in prep.

S_D028_11555.NEFWhile Sicario is grim in subject matter, Deakins’ photography emphasized vibrant, clean colors. Villeneuve also wanted to make the landscape feel like a character, reflecting the glare of the bleached out desert on both sides of the border. “The overall look is one of naturalism,” he said.

Villeneuve’s production designer Patrice Vermette, working on his fourth movie with the director, had to design some unusual sets for the film, for example the intricate and well-hidden underground tunnels that are used to smuggle drugs across the border. “These have rarely been shown in previous films about the drug wars,” said the director.

But by far the biggest challenge was recreating the famed Bridge of the Americas, a busy border crossing, where a major shootout takes place amidst 14 congested lanes of traffic. “The Department of Homeland Security, besides security concerns, was not going to let us close down the actual bridge,” he noted. So Vermette built a facsimile. Tarmac was laid down, narrow lanes were striped and aged with oil stains and tollbooths were installed to choke up the traffic. “It was by far the biggest set I have ever had for a film,” said Villeneuve.

SICARIO Day 16 S_D16_04262.NEFCostume designer Renée April another long-time collaborator, aimed for a palpable realism, and did research watching many often-harrowing documentaries. “She’s there to embrace an actor’s character,” said the director. “For Benicio, she made you feel this is a man who can walk anywhere. With Josh Brolin, she created a kind of mystery man, a study in contrasts. The more you learn the darker and darker his character becomes.”

To cut the film, the director chose Joe Walker, who last year received an Oscar nomination for his editing of 12 Years a Slave. “I was looking for an editor who could stretch time,” said Villeneuve, “because there are moments in Sicario where there is a lot of tension but not that much action is going on.” He had been impressed by Walker’s taut editing on Hunger and Shame, both directed by Steve McQueen, who also helmed 12 Years a Slave.

“If I had not become a director, I would have been an editor,” said Villeneuve. “I love to work with editors that are strong. Joe can create tension, but he is also a great editor for the actors.“ Walker will also be working with the director on Blade Runner 2.

S_D037_09788.NEFSicario composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and sound mixer Alan Murray hooked up again with Villeneuve after teaming with him on Prisoners. The Icelandic composer combined a haunting aural backdrop, featuring rumbling synthesizers and a spare cello, with insistent percussion. “It’s not so much a traditional score that you hear but one that you feel—it’s barbaric and primitive but also melodious,” said the director. “When Jóhann brought it in, it just blew me away.”

Commenting on the sound mix, “to me I like silence, and Alan created an almost operatic silence as part of his very sophisticated sound design,” the director observed.

Next for Villeneuve are two highly anticipated science fiction films. Currently in post-production Story of Your Life, about the landing of alien spaceships starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. And as previously noted, he is now deep in prep for the highly anticipated Blade Runner 2. It stars Harrison Ford, who was in the original, and Ryan Gosling.

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