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Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve: From the suspense of 'Sicario' to the pressure of 'Blade Runner'

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 19:  Director Denis Villeneuve attends a photocall for
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 19: Director Denis Villeneuve attends a photocall for "Sicario" during the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 19, 2015 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 19:  Director Denis Villeneuve attends a photocall for
Director Denis Villeneuve on the set of the Mexican gang geo-political movie "Sicario"
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 19:  Director Denis Villeneuve attends a photocall for
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 19: (L-R) Director Denis Villeneuve, actors Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro attend the Premiere of "Sicario" during the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 19, 2015 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images)
Ian Gavan/Getty Images

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Sicario” is an intense film about the Mexican drug wars. It focuses on how U.S. authorities try--sometimes using borderline if not illegal tactics--to battle the cartels.

Sicario Trailer

The film centers on FBI agent Kate Macer -- played by Emily Blunt. Director Denis Villeneuve, who also made “Prisoners” and “Incendies,” wanted audiences to see things from Macer’s perspective, where she’s constantly guessing about what’s going on and in whom she can place her trust.  

The Frame's John Horn talks with director Denis Villeneuve about how he set the suspenseful tone of "Sicario," how Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" and the score from "Jaws" inspired him, and why the new "Blade Runner" sequel he's making will satisfy his long-held desire to make a sci-fi film. 


Where did you and [Taylor] Sheridan [the screenwriter] get the inspiration for the story and the style that it was told in? 

The movie is really like you're holding a flashlight in a dark room. It's like you are discovering slowly the truth with the main character. Kate Macer's character, Emily Blunt's character, is based on a real FBI agent working nearby the border. I know that terror was very inspired by this woman and the birth of the project happened when he met her and he decided to create a project to see a female evolving in that man's world. 

This film is very tense. How did you and your team -- editor Joe Walker, cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson -- create this atmosphere of foreboding and doom? 

First of all, it all started with Taylor Sheridan's screenplay, that fear was so alive in the screenplay from the start. So my job as a director was to protect that drive and when we started to edit the movie, I said to Joe, I would like the tension to be alive without music. So we edited the movie without music, without any single note. It was important for me to extract from each scene it's full potential without having to deal with any music that will help us. Then, Jóhann came on board after that process and I told Jóhann that I wanted music that the audience will feel before they hear it. 

I said the example of music I have in my mind, which is one the best scores of all time, is "Jaws" -- kind of barbaric, powerful, dark sound. Jóhann went away and came back with that fantastic score that is by far the best score I've ever had for one of my films. 

Sicario Score

When you are talking with your department heads and your cinematographer Roger Deakins about the look and feel of this film, what are the kinds of things you are referencing and what was the common ground that you guys kept coming back to?

For me, the main reference was a Kurosawa movie, the "Seven Samurai," one of my favorite movies of all time. One thing that strikes me is how Kurosawa was able to bring tension with immobility, stillness and silence. There's a lot of sequences in this film where nothing is happening, we are waiting for action. We are waiting for violence and that weight is so frightening and there's so much tension. I think there was something he was able to do with minimalistic effect with the simplicity that Roger and I were trying to aim for. 

There's a scene with Alejandro, played by Benicio Del Toro, where he's interrogating a prisoner and we have no idea what happens. I'm wondering if that was always your intention, that you were not gonna show what happened in that scene and that the audience was gonna come to its own conclusions? 

We had a very tight schedule and I wanted to have as less things on the editing floor as possible. We shot that movie with just enough movie. So to answer your question, what you see on the screen is what we shot. I wanted to evoke things by suggestion. 

So necessity was the mother of invention here. 

Yeah, that's always the case with movie-making. All filmmakers know we always want more money. But in a way, I think that my answer is not that good. John, I think the real answer is that it's not driven by money, it's driven by the idea that when you are making a dark and violent movie, I wanted the audience to feel the impact, the threat and the ugliness of violence, but I don't want to make a show out of it. I prefer to go in the poetic suggestion.

All of your past films are very dark. Is that the kinds of films you're drawn to? Are you that dark as a person yourself? 

No, I think I'm inspired by those things because cinema is a powerful tool to explore our shadows. Honestly, I would love to do a comedy one day but I think the comedy would look more like "Dr. Strangelove" than anything else. In a way, it would be a dark comedy. 

I have to ask about "Blade Runner" because I know you've been working on a sequel for that film. It's obviously a hugely beloved movie that has a cult following. How does that kind of pressure, that this movie is so well-revered, affect your approach to it or are you able to separate that out as you approach making this film?

Every movie that I did in my life so far, there was a huge responsibility. When I was doing a movie about the situation in Lebanon -- I was talking about war and victims of war. I had a responsibility towards those people. In "Sicario," I have a responsibility towards Mexicans because I was trying to depict their reality with authenticity. I'm used to working with a lot of pressure and I'm okay with that. I love risk. 

This new "Blade Runner" project is, by far, the riskiest project of my life, but there is something deeply exciting at the same time about that. It's a decision that I made not as I was flipping a dime. It's not something I decided one morning. I thought a lot about it. The screenplay, I must say, is very powerful and I'm one of the biggest "Blade Runner" fans. So it was not possible for me to say no. 

I've been wanting to do sci-fi since the past 35 years. I understand the pressure I have on my shoulder but it's okay. I'm ready to deal with it. It's part of art for me to make project with pressure. 

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