‘Sicario’ Director Denis Villeneuve On His Buzzed-About Film And The Extraordinary Power Of Drug Cartels

Denis Villeneuve
Getty Image

Look, I don’t even try to hide the fact that Denis Villeneuve is one of my favorite filmmakers working today. (And the fact that he often shoots his movies with Roger Deakins, as he does with Sicario, just enhances that fact.) Two years ago, the French-Canadian director had two movies here at the Toronto International Film Festival: The underseen Prisoners and the grossly underseen Enemy, both movies that brim with so much tension that they are almost physically uncomfortable to watch. Right now, Villeneuve is bringing tension to movies in a way not many other people are doing.

Now he has Sicario, a movie that stars Emily Blunt as an FBI agent who is recruited by a lot of mysterious people (Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro among them) for secret missions into Mexico in an effort to disrupt the drug cartels. It’s a movie that revolves around the drug cartels, but isn’t really about the drug cartels. (And, yes, it’s very tense.)

I met Villeneuve at his hotel here in Toronto to talk to him about what has become a huge hit here at the festival (and, lucky for people not in Toronto, it opens domestically on September 18) and discusses why Emily Blunt (who we interviewed on Friday) was absolutely perfect for his role. He also gives us a sneak peak at his next film, which he compared to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and then immediately regretted that for setting the bar too high).

It would be simplistic to call this a movie about the drug trade.

I don’t think it’s about the drug trade, it’s a movie about black ops.

But to sell it, you kind of have to say “drug trade.”

Yeah, yeah, it’s kind of universal. For me, it’s more about a black operation led by the CIA. And, for me, it’s a movie about America – Westerners – we are trying sometimes to solve our problems with violence outside of our boarders. And it’s a movie that raises questions about this way of doing things. But the movie could have been set in the Middle East or Africa. That movie could have been about ISIS in a way.

But being an American, watching a covert operation happen right across the border from El Paso into Juarez, it hits harder. Sometimes it’s too easy to think about violence in the Middle East as, “Well, that’s way over there.”

That’s why I thought it was so powerful to set that story in a specific place. It’s a Frisbee away! You can throw a Frisbee into Juarez from El Paso.

And El Paso is one of the safest cities in the world.

Exactly. The contrast is so strong. The world today, the middle class is slowly disappearing. The people who are poor are more poor; the people who are rich are richer. And that Juarez – El Paso border says a lot about the world today. It’s the world of the future, it’s almost Mad Max. There’s a line: on one side it’s about chaos and the other is about order.

Is there a solution?

The most sad thing for me is the disintegration of the trust of the people in their own institutions. You cannot trust the government and you can’t trust the police.

We have that problem in the United States, too.

Yeah, but in Mexico…

It’s another level.

Yeah. And that I must say to myself, Denis, we must remember there are still good cops.

A subplot follows a Mexican minor character who doesn’t have much to do with the story until much later. We meet his family. Then we find out he’s corrupt and works for the cartel.

He is someone who represents, for me, a victim of the system. We don’t know why exactly, but he needs to work for them.

But the way it’s presented in this movie seems so routine — that this is just the way it is.

In a way, I think so. At the same time, it’s important to say there are a lot people who are still honest in Mexico. Not all of Mexico is part of it. But what impressed me is the massive power of the cartels.

Have you seen any of Narcos, the Netflix series about Pablo Escobar? Without giving anything away, it almost fills in the backstory of why Benicio Del Toro’s mysterious character is doing what he’s doing.

I read the first thing last week about that. I wasn’t aware of that TV show. It just came out?

It’s basically about how the Colombian drug trade fell apart and opened up what we are seeing now in Mexico.

The drug trade is a bit like oil. When there’s power and money like that, there’s a shadow that’s following slowly.

You are very good at building tension in movies. And in a way where it doesn’t mean anything is even going to happen.

The most terrible thing is a spider that doesn’t move. But it’s very scary, a spider that almost doesn’t move in front of you and you don’t know if it’s going to move or not. The immobility and silence can be very scary and I’m trying to explore that – bringing tension with simplicity like that. It’s something for a filmmaker that’s quite exciting. But I’m not the first one to do that.

No, but you’re good at it. There are plenty of people who are not good at it.

I remember I was saying with Roger Deakins that one of the best action movies I’ve ever seen was Seven Samurai. The action is so powerful and so precise and there are scenes when you are on the edge of your seat and nothing is happening. You’re just waiting for something to be happening. And the violence is very brutal and very quick. So, for me, when I was making Sicario, I always refereed to Seven Samurai.

Again, you’re not the first, but you’re one of the few people doing this now. I love something like the Fast & Furious movies, but it’s become all nonstop “happening.” You allow anticipation.

There are some sequences in the movie that I know are pretty tense, but after, nothing happens! [Laughs] But life is like that. Sometimes you’re in a place where the fear of something happening is stronger than the event itself. So that’s why I’m trying to explore that tension.

Two years ago with Enemy and Prisoners with Jake Gyllenhaal, and now with Emily Blunt in Sicario, you have actors who were already great, but who seem to be hitting their peak performances right now.

As you said, those people have made great movies before. But it’s just that I’m not looking for movie stars, just a great actor. Sometimes there are names on the table and I will say, “It’s a lot of box office maybe, but this person will not be able to do what I need it to do.”

How do you know that?

It’s just watching what they did and being very curious about what they did before – qualities I’m looking for in a specific project. There are not a lot of actresses who can portray in an authentic way an FBI agent that will lead a SWAT team. A young woman who can lead a SWAT team needs to be a woman that will bring a kind of inner strength and physicality to the part. You’re not laughing when you see Emily pulling a gun, but it’s not all actresses who can do that unfortunately. [The FBI] is a really masculine world, so I needed someone with that inner drive. And when I watch movies of Emily I noticed she has that kind of strength. For Christ’s sake, she was playing the Queen of England.

I’m under the impression your next movie will be more lighthearted?

We have a movie I just shot. The next one there’s more hope in it – it’s more fantasy and sci-fi movie that’s closer to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

That’s one of my favorite movies.

Maybe I’m putting the bar too high?

You might be. People like that movie a lot.

It’s the story of a linguist who needs to get in contact with an alien civilization. It’s a movie about language and how language can change your perception of the world. It’s very intellectual, but the screenplay is very poetic and very moving. I shot it with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. I was super lucky.

Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.