The Australian star and French-Canadian director of Prisoners tell how they approached their traumatic kidnapping thriller.
17 Oct 2013 - 12:00 PM  UPDATED 17 Oct 2013 - 12:00 PM

Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal have come up with some of their most intense portrayals to date in Prisoners, a dark policier directed by the 46-year-old French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve and written by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband). The two-and-a-half hour child abduction story, which posits Gyllenhaal's supposedly failure-proof Detective Loki on the trail of Jackman's vengeful dad, Keller Dover, does not outstay its welcome, which marks a tribute to Villeneuve's skills.

the violence in this film is unsettling, it’s not glorified in any way

After directing films including Maelstrom (2000) and Polytechnique (2009), Villeneuve drew Hollywood's attention with his harrowing fictional Middle-Eastern thriller Incendies (2010), which proved more involving than the majority of Iraq and Taliban-themed movies that came before or afterwards. He went on to make the low-budget Spanish-Canadian erotic thriller, Enemy, starring Gyllenhaal in dual roles (as a man with a doppelgänger), and afterwards the pair re-teamed for Prisoners. Both films premiered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.

A lively, outgoing type, Villeneuve jokes how he now has to make a comedy, after directing three dark-themed movies in a row.

“When I read the Prisoners script I felt a deep connection, but I threw it away because I'd just made two dark movies and I didn't want to go there again,” Villeneuve explains. “But in the end what inspires me are sad, dark stories, and let's face it, the world is not an easy place to live in right now. I feel that cinema is a way to explore my relationship with the world and what I am afraid of.”

Suddenly he breaks off, looking over towards a loud commotion behind the nearby wall, and adding with a smile, “Hey, that Australian is talking pretty loud!”

Indeed, Jackman, in his typically magnanimous fashion, is holding court in the adjoining room. With all the working out for his multiple Wolverine roles (in 2013's Wolverine and the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past), the 46-year-old is bulging out of his slick designer suit and is brimming with energy. An hour earlier when we spoke, Jackman had been paying out his director for pushing him so hard in the film's most difficult scene, where with hammer in hand, his anguished dad tortures an intellectually handicapped man he believes has kidnapped his six-year-old daughter and her friend.

“Hugh was super easy to direct; he was totally committed,” notes Villeneuve, “but I felt that sometimes he needed that we walk together in the darkness; I needed to push him a little. I always felt that as an artist he was ready to go into that zone of intensity.”

“I loved the script, I loved the character and it was a different thing for me to play,” notes Jackman. “It felt truthful to me. When I started as an actor, the first movie I did in Australia was Erskineville Kings, which is similarly dark in a way. When I read this I thought that as long as we get the right director, this is potentially a great movie, a good thriller that can make people think after the movie finishes, which is a rare thing for this genre.”

A devoted father of two with wife Deborra-Lee Furness, Jackman might well imagine the horror a parent would go through when a child is abducted. Certainly, the McCanns have never given up on their long-missing Madeleine. But, says Jackman, everyone is captivated and horrified by such cases—and he mentions the horrific Ariel Castro case in particular—because we've all been parented. “We've all known that feeling of completely relying on someone and deep down if you touch onto that there is really a big fear.

“Still, as a father you can only imagine how maddening it would be in that situation knowing that your kid just can't understand why you are not there for them. 'Why aren't you saving me?' They are not thinking, 'Why aren't the police here?' 'Why isn't the ambulance coming to find me?' 'Why isn't the government helping out?' You are all they care about because they are innocent and they rely on you for everything.”

In Prisoners, Jackman's Dover is a burley carpenter who has struck hard times though is buoyed by his happy family situation with his two kids and loving wife, played by Maria Bello. On the surface, he seems like a regular American guy, so understandably Jackman had to keep his superhero muscles under wraps.

“Denis wanted me completely covered up the whole time because he didn't want anyone thinking, 'Oh, it's Wolverine' and that's vital because the nature of the violence in this film is unsettling, it's not glorified in any way. There is a certain element to comic book heroes where we enjoy the violence and the action sequences. We go for it sometimes and people go for that.”

The violence in Prisoners is played for real so it's all the more affecting. Terrence Howard, who plays Dover's friend and the father of the other abducted girl, couldn't take it.

“Terrence actually vomited during that [torture] scene,” Jackman notes. “We had to go some intense places. The thing about a lot of these scenes was we could prepare, we had a great script, but we also had to let all that go and see what happened, because when you're acting and dealing with these primal emotions, you can't plan them. You have to check your mind at the door and just go for it.”

Villeneuve admits his approach stems from his documentary background. “What I loved when I was doing documentaries was to observe life and be surprised by the power of life. With actors, I think that at one point when they trust you and you have made the right casting, you can succeed to create that kind of chaos in front of the camera, when you don't know what will happen next. Jake is very good at that, and Hugh is a master, so I was just lucky to have those two guys in front of the camera.”

Strangely, Prisoners plays like a two hander even if Jackman and Gyllenhaal share only four scenes.

“Jake and I always said that our characters have similar paths, yet we are both lone wolves, so we hardly ever interact,” Jackman says. “He is watching me a lot, you feel like we are together a lot. We really worked hard because the movie hinges on those scenes.”

In a sense, these two hunky unpretentious, relatively relaxed, movie stars are playing very strung out men far from themselves. As actors they found they had a similar process.

“Jake is like me, he loves to talk about it, he loves to rehearse, he loves to go over things, he loves to do research. On End of Watch, he spent six months in a cop car before they shot one frame of that movie. The research helps me on the day to forget and I need to feel that I've done the work.”

During his research into sleep deprivation, Jackman knew about it intimately as he was on the road promoting Les Misérables.

Prisoners takes place in eight or nine days so that's a big factor here as to why misjudgements happen and why people make mistakes. Dover is a recovering alcoholic so I was also interested in what happens to recovering alcoholics under that extreme trauma and stress. His father committed suicide so I wanted to know what that was like. He was a survivalist and that proved fascinating. Oh my God! There are whole subcultures of people who do not trust one government entity or one institution to take care of them, who honestly believe that the world as we know it is going to end at some point and they will be the only ones ready.”

The most important and difficult research, though, was reading about the victims of abduction. “It's just brutal to read that stuff. What I came out with was this overwhelming feeling of responsibility that we not make any kind of glorified sensationalist version of this situation that right now people are going through. We have a responsibility to them. I doubt that any of them are going to see it, but we had to portray their experience.”

On the set, the cast and crew kept the mood light. “I think it's a cliché, but the more the story is dark and heavy and painful, the more the set is light,” notes Villeneuve. “Roger Deakins [the cinematographer known for his work with the Coen Brothers] is someone who is very quiet. He talked to the crew, to 300 people, with a very soft voice. So he helped create a kind of calm, Zen attitude. What was beautiful was that everybody loved the script and felt that the film was trying to talk about something that is meaningful. We all felt we were making cinema and that was a good feeling.”

Prisoners is in cinemas from October 17.