Catching Up With Enemy Director, Denis Villeneuve

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The release of Denis Villeneuve’s latest directorial effort, Enemy, marks the French Canadian director’s second collaboration with actor Jake Gyllenhaal (although Enemy was actually filmed before Prisoners, the 2013 thriller which also starred Hugh Jackman and Viola Davis). In a career that has spanned over two decades and includes the Oscar-nominated film Incendies, it’s exciting to consider that Villeneuve may just be getting started. Like other great directors, he seems to have found his muse, and the powerful performances delivered by Gyllenhaal in both Prisoners and Enemy speak volumes about Villeneuve’s capabilities. He has tapped into the invaluable ability possessed by few to transform a once-familiar actor into something wholly other. Gyllenhaal takes on dual roles as Adam and Anthony in Enemy, the uncanny story (based on Nobel Prize winner José Saramago’s novel, The Double) of two completely identical men living parallel lives. This strange, complex, and visually spellbinding tale from Villeneuve (who has brought us similarly powerful works with Polytechnique and Maelstrom) already has audiences anticipating his next project. The director was kind enough to speak with Paste about his early beginnings in film, dictators versus directors, and the possibility of a couple’s therapy session with Jake Gyllenhaal.

Paste: I heard you mention in another interview that you love filmmaking but you hate this particular part of the process—interviewing and promoting and all of that.
Villeneuve: Well, you know more than me how it is. It’s just a matter of the repetition! You feel like you’re not honest after a while. You’re not truthful, because you’re just repeating the same answers.

Paste: Sure, I understand. And I’ll try to make this semi-painless for you (laughs). I’d love to know about how you came to fall in love with film. Is there a specific moment that you can point to as a child or a young person?
Villeneuve: I would love to tell you there was a very specific moment, but it really came slowly. It started as a child. You know in Canada for boys your identity is built on hockey. It’s your social position; it’s everything (laughs). And I was the worst hockey player of Canada.

Paste: (laughs) Got it.
Villeneuve: I would be trying to play hockey with my friends, but most of the time the coach put me on the bench. Because I was too dreamy—I was dreaming all of the time. I was super bad on the ice because I was just thinking about something else.

I was a big sci-fi fan at that time. I was reading these books and watching movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and so I think I am a filmmaker because I was the worst hockey player.

Paste: So your failure as an athlete led you here.
Villeneuve: (laughs) Yes. Very early on, I was writing stories and I was amazed at Spielberg’s movies when I was young. Coming from the countryside, I was so impressed with the way he was able to tell stories and the way he was able to deal with le merveilleux—the wonders. Very quickly, he became for me a massive hero, and he introduced me to the world of a director. I began to study his movies, and then because of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I discovered François Truffaut and the French New Wave, and that was it. It was a ride, and I was an addict. So even in my early days, I wanted to be a director.

Paste: I remember reading somewhere that you said you’re a bit of a dictator when it comes to directing. And I thought this was interesting because I interviewed Philippe Falardeau a couple of years back when his movie Monsieur Lazhar was coming out, and he said something similar.
Villeneuve: Philippe?

Paste: Yes.
Villeneuve: You know, Philippe is a very close friend of mine.

Paste: Wow, I didn’t know that.
Villeneuve:Yes, he’s one of my very good friends.

Paste: That’s so great. He was one of the first directors who I ever interviewed. I loved Monsieur Lazhar and Congorama. And I remember him saying that he’s very specific about what he’s doing when he’s directing. I don’t know if he used the term “dictator,” but he definitely described it in that way. I’m wondering if that’s a trait that you find more in French film directors, maybe even French-Canadian film directors.
Villeneuve: Oh, no, no, no. It’s something that is in common with all directors. But I should say that it’s easy to be a dictator. Not easy—it’s more comfortable to direct as a dictator.

What I’m trying to do now more and more is to work with others. On a film crew, you can see very quickly that some people who are working with you are stronger than you. Then you have to have the humility to listen to them. And because very often they have better ideas than yours, it can be tough on the evil ego. But it makes a better film. So it’s like a sub-dictatorship (laughs).

Paste: Sure. Now you’ve talked a little bit about how your work with Jake Gyllenhaal has opened you up to this idea—to working more with others. But you’ve also said at this point the two of you need couples therapy because of the relationship that you’ve developed (laughs).
Villeneuve: (laughs) Yes, and it’s almost not a joke! We made two movies together. And the first one [Enemy] was a very strange experience because very quickly we became really close friends. And we were coming from very different universes. We started to bond together, and we were looking for the same thing. It was about finding a relationship and trusting each other, trying to provoke each other. And so we became very close and spent a lot of time together talking about acting, directing, cinema, poetry, life, women, family, kids. It was a very beautiful experience.

But then we did Prisoners (laughs). And by then, we were like an old, old couple. For me, it was a beautiful experience, but it was a challenge. So now we need a bit of couples therapy so that we don’t scare the crew when we start to shout at each other.

Paste: Paste (laughs) Do you think making another film—a different kind of film—could function as a sort of couples therapy for the two of you?
Villeneuve: I think that we will make another film together. Both of us want to work together again. But I think that the beauty is that both of us are willing to try to evolve as artists and as human beings, and we are both complementary. Honestly, I’m a better director working with Jake. And I know that I’m very truthful and honest with him, and he loves that. So we are able to deal with our own shit together, you understand what I mean?

Paste: Yes, yes.
Villeneuve: So yes, doing another movie will be part of a process, but I’m not naïve. We need a lot of discussion, and if there’s that one movie that can be therapeutic for us, we’ll need a lot of time there.

Paste: You say that you’re a better director with him, and I have to say I’ve seen a lot of his movies but I’ve never seen him like this. He was sort of unrecognizable in Prisoners, and it’s the same with Enemy. So I think you’re good for him, too.
Villeneuve: I hope so.

Paste: I’m always struck by your portrayal of women. From your short film The Next Floor to Enemy, where the character is caught between these women—his wife, a lover, and then there’s the mother. Even with Melissa Leo’s character in Prisoners, I appreciated that you weren’t afraid to show a woman who was completely broken. I wonder if you could talk about this, if there is something specific you’re trying to do with the women in your films.
Villeneuve: One thing that was a strange thing for me was that in my first film the lead was a woman. And the first time that happened, I was just deeply inspired, and I thought at the time it was giving me critical distance as a director—making the main character a woman. But I didn’t think too much about it. And then the second film came and I said, no I need to do it again. I think then I said to myself it’s because women are so strong in my family. It’s a matriarchy—the family is led by two very strong grandmothers. And then came a third movie that someone offered me and the subject, again, was femininity, and I jumped on it and said, “Again, women?” And then a fourth one came about—women again. So I think I am very deeply attracted to the qualities within femininity and the strength inside femininity. I’m very sensitive about the fact that there’s not a lot of good work for women in cinema that also deals with strong characters. But “strong character” doesn’t mean “masculine character”—but something that finds the strength in femininity and the beauty in femininity. And something that says you can find femininity in men in some way.

So there’s something about the love of life and the taking care of life that’s deep inside me. My movies are very often violent and dark, but there’s a spectrum of light, and that light is coming from the women. Not in Prisoners as much, (laughs) but in the other movies it’s there. There’s a real hope expressed in the femininity of the world.

Paste: What’s next for you?
Villeneuve: I’m planning to do a project next summer. The working title is Sicario. It’s a movie about a military operation at the U.S. and Mexico border. We have a very strong script, and the lead is a woman (laughs). And it’s another thing where I’m packing up that femininity and strength, and it’s going to be a lot of work to do with the actress. I’m very excited about the project.

Paste: I am, too. I know you have a busy day ahead of you, so thanks again.
Villeneuve: It was very nice to talk with you. It was a very nice interview. Thank you.

Shannon M. Houston is a New York-based freelance writer, regular contributor to Paste, and occasional contributor to the human race via little squishy babies. You can follow her on Twitter.

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