Director of the Year: Denis Villeneuve

The Canadian director has a headline-making year, with two features debuting at TIFF and a box-office win stateside.
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This article originally appeared in Playback‘s Winter 2013 issue, which you can read in full here

That Denis Villeneuve is this year’s recipient of Playback‘s director of the year will be of little surprise to anyone who’s been following his career. The year saw Villeneuve go through a phenomenal growth spurt, completing two films and marking two firsts in his career.

Slated for a 2014 release, his first English-language film, Spanish-Canadian copro Enemy, is produced by Canadian prodcos Rhombus Media and micro_scope and Spain’s Roxbury Pictures and Mecanismo Films. Prisoners, his first studio film, is currently in theatres. The film is a dark thriller about the abduction of two young girls. Both films premiered to sold-out audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival. Both films feature Hollywood mega-star Jake Gyllenhaal.

Since his start in television in 1988, he’s established himself as one of Canada’s leading feature film directors, earning name-brand recognition internationally. He’s earned three Best Director Genie Awards for his independent films Maelstrom (2001), Polytechnique (2010) and Incendies (2011), the latter of which went on to world-wide acclaim with a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination and a spot on the list of top films in 2011 by The New York Times.

In the span of two years, Villeneuve went from working with a budget of $6.8 million for indie Incendies to a budget of $46 million for Warner Bros.’ Prisoners. It was a shift that came as a surprise to those familiar with the art-house films that until then had defined his career.

And it begged the question: would the commercial pressures of a big-budget American project, a high-profile cinematographer (Roger Deakins) and a Hollywood cast (Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis) mean Villeneuve’s celebrated vision would be compromised?

Put more simply, “Will Hollywood ruin Denis Villeneuve?”

It was a question he too considered, Villeneuve acknowledges, given he came up through a Canadian system in which government support allows for certain artistic freedoms.

“(In Canada) you can develop yourself as a filmmaker and take risks,” he says. “You don’t have a lot of money but you have a lot of freedom.” says Villeneuve. “I was afraid of having the pressure to shoot [Prisoners] in a specific way – in a commercial way,” he adds. “I had a feeling that I would, at one point, be crushed. But they gave me space. With Roger [Deakins], I shot the movie I wanted to shoot.”

Villeneuve initially felt that taking on Prisoners was a “massive risk” because it’s what he calls a “feel-bad movie dealing with dark subjects.” It’s ironic that the prospect of undertaking a difficult theme should cause Villeneuve concern considering he’s been making difficult themes palatable for most of his career.

“I’m very sensitive about the power of images – the power of cinema. You can really create images that have a poetic meaning and those images can have an imprint on (the audience’s) mind.”

The risk proved to be a significant game-changer for Villeneuve. Consider that Incendies launched in Québec on Sept. 17, 2010 with an opening weekend total of $179,933 on 29 locations. Its English Canada opening, on Jan. 21, 2011, took in a total of $42,641 at three theatres with six holdover locations in Québec. Incendies had its highest play week on Feb. 4, with an English Canada expansion to 48 locations raking in $166,664.

Two years later, Villeneuve’s Prisoners is released on 3,260 screens, taking in $20,817,053 on its opening weekend in the U.S. alone. By Oct. 20, Prisoners is reporting a gross intake of $51,259,000 in the American market.

Following early favourable reviews for Prisoners at Telluride, Villeneuve also inked a two-year deal with U.S. prodco Alcon Entertainment, the company that produced and financed Prisoners, ahead of its premiere at TIFF. The overall deal covers Villeneuve’s writing and directing services for two years, including a blind script commitment.

Villeneuve attributes much of the success of Prisoners to the cast and to working with cinematographer Deakins.

“It was a master class every morning for me. And [Deakins] was very generous because his goal was to make my film,” says Villeneuve.

“(Villeneuve) is a very assured director,” says Deakins. “There was little he needed from me other than someone with whom he could collaborate and bounce ideas around…he certainly gave me the confidence to maintain what was a rather bleak visual tone, but one that felt right.”

Although Villeneuve declined to comment on future projects, except to say that he is committed to continue making independent and French-language films, his success with Prisoners points to the likelihood of another studio film.

And regardless of where he goes next, it will be with a commitment to his artistic vision.

As he told the producers of Prisoners ahead of shooting the film, “I have to do the movie with my own sensibilities. I cannot do it as a director for hire. I wish [I could] because I would be rich. But I can’t.”