A Conversation With Director Denis Villeneuve

By Christopher Redmond

On the day Sicario was announced as part of the 2015 Festival de Cannes’ official competition, C. Redmond speaks with the incredible French-Canadian director about his chances of winning, maintaining his signature in Hollywood, and the upcoming Blade Runner sequel.

What does it mean to you to be accepted into Cannes?

It’s the biggest honour – it’s a massive honour for me to be part of the competition this year. Cannes is the Mecca of cinema. To see the lineup, I go there with humility because just to be part of that lineup I’m already very proud, and grateful for the invitation.

You kind of got your start at Cannes. You worked your way from the Director’s Fortnight, and then Un Certain Regard. Did you feel it was almost inevitable that you would someday have a film in competition, or are you surprised?

It was my dream but sometimes you feel like dreams are fading because more and more I was making movies in America. So I thought I was going away from that world of film festivals, and right now this movie that was produced in Los Angeles is a nice compliment because it’s very important for me to keep my identity as a filmmaker when I’m shooting abroad. Just to be able to keep my point of view, to stay myself. And the fact that they are inviting me, they recognize the fact that I was able to protect my identity as a filmmaker in another system of production. That for me is a big compliment.

The Coen Brothers are going to be leading the jury. Do you think that will help your odds?

Honestly, strangely, I’m feeling that because we share Roger Deakins as a cinematographer, I think it makes things tougher (laughs).

Can you talk to me about working with Roger Deakins? Tell me what the difference was between working with him the first time and working with him a second time.

The second time I was much, much more comfortable with Roger. The first time I was always a bit impressed. I was feeling like a student and he’s the teacher. The second time it was more collaborative, the communication was much better. Stylistically we get along pretty well. The first experience was beautiful, but the second was better. Working with Roger, honestly, it’s rare in your lifetime that you will have a chance to work with a master. And he’s someone, even if I’m on set with him and I have to direct him, or nourish him so he’s able to create, I always feel like I’m in a learning process, because I’m learning all the time with Roger. Every shot, I’m learning something. It’s a massive privilege for me to get to work two times with him.

Is there someone you worked with on your most recent film Sicario that stood out to you as great, but might never get any media attention?

Oh boy. Yeah, I’ll give you one right now: the dolly pusher, his name is Bruce Hamme.

You’ve got to be kidding! I did a review of Prisoners and I wrote to Bruce Hamme . That’s too funny. I noticed his work.

That’s the man. That guy is an artist. He’s the dolly grip and he’s the extension of Roger, the one who will create the dance of the camera, the one who will find the right rhythm. He’s the most precise, the way he pushes the camera is just an art form. I feel he is also the most lovely human being. Roger is using a specific crane in almost every shot, which means in almost every shot we have to build that crane, a little crane that is so precise and so delicate and Bruce is dancing with that crane all day long, and working and he never complains. And he’s the nicest human being. Bruce is definitely the one I will make an homage to, a tribute to Bruce. I could talk about him for hours.

That’s perfect. I met you at the Genie Awards four years ago, and you told me your friends were making fun of you saying, “Denis, when are you going to stop making these pretentious art films and make a sci-fi film, because you know that’s what you really love”

(laughs) Exactly!

And now you’ve got two sci-fi films coming. Tell me how that finally happened.

When I arrived in LA with Incendies, all the studios were asking me, “What will you do? What would be your dream?” And my only answer was always sci-fi, because I knew that if there was something that I could do in Hollywood that I couldn’t do at home it was sci-fi. With sci-fi you need a certain amount of resources. So I kept on saying this and at one point two young producers came with a fantastic little short story called Story of Your Life. It was one of the best things that I’d read and I was like “Whoa!” this is poetic, beautiful and strong and exactly the kind of project that I would dream to do.

I keep saying I want to do sci-fi for adults, so like 2001, or Blade Runner. That was always the two examples I would give that I would want to do. Or Close Encounters. So with 21 Laps, a company set in LA, I developed this little sci-fi project called Story of Your Life. I’m going to shoot in next June.

And now you’re going to work with Bradford Young as a cinematographer.

Yes, I’m going to work with Bradford Young because Roger Deakins wasn’t available this summer. He wanted to do the project but there was a scheduling conflict. So I made a long research and came into contact with that cinematographer. He’s young but he already has a strong signature. I was very impressed. I fell in love with his work quite quickly, and to my great pleasure he agreed to get on board.

Would you consider working with (cinematographer) Nicolas Bolduc again?

I’d love to because I love Nico. Yeah, of course! But when you cast a DP, you cast a specific sensibility, and for Story of Your Life I needed someone like Bradford.

What about Blade Runner? That doesn’t seem like it would be in Roger Deakins’ normal palate of what he does. Would you consider him for that?

I cannot answer that, but I can tell you you have the wrong instincts (laughs). It would be a dream for me to do that with Roger.

(laughs) Good to know! Are you able to talk about at all what you want to do, how you want to put your stamp on revisiting that story?

From a creative point of view unfortunately I can say nothing, other than that the script is pretty powerful and that it was a long decision for me to make. It was too much of a dream for me to participate on such a project and I’m aware of the massive pressure. The original Blade Runner is one of my favourite movies of all time. I saw that movie maybe fifty times in my life. I will do my homework and I am uber excited. I wake up every morning pinching myself.

Do you think there are any lessons to be taken from Prometheus?

You will be very disappointed because unfortunately I can say nothing. All I can say is that the script was written by Hampton Fancher, Ridley Scott and Michael Green and the three of them did very impressive work.

Are there any scripts that you’re writing that you want to do in the future?

To be honest I cannot make a lineup of projects. For now I’m just concentrating on Story of Your Life and the possibility of Blade Runner right after is enough for me (laughs). After that, I will sleep for three weeks, or three months maybe. I feel that I lined up a lot of projects one after the other and after that I will probably take a break. Just for a few months and go back on to screenwriting.

Just promise it’s not going to be as long as the break you had between Maelstrom (2000) and Polytechnique (2009). We need you too much.

(laughs) Don’t worry, that’s not going to happen.

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