'Sicario' Director Denis Villeneuve, Stars on Tapping Into "Worse" Reality, How Emily Blunt's Character "Represents Hope"
The director also talks about the film's anxiety-inducing score, explaining that he told composer Johann Johannsson, "I want music that the audience will not hear, but that the audience will feel like a threat coming under their feet, like 'Jaws' or something."
[Warning: Spoilers ahead for Sicario.]
Denis Villeneuve's drug cartel thriller Sicario may tell a fictional story, but the director, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and the film's star-studded cast were committed to having the movie, which explores the murky, potentially corrupt nature of the U.S.-Mexico drug war, be as realistic as possible.
Villeneuve says that he was attracted to the project because of the "strong research" that Sheridan had done, and adds that he tried to preserve the authenticity of Sheridan's increasingly twisty script.
The cast members also worked to understand the truth behind their fictional characters, often spending time with their real-life counterparts.
Star Emily Blunt and her on-screen FBI partner Daniel Kaluuya talked to and trained with FBI officers.
"I spoke to four women in the FBI — one of them I sort of based the character on," Blunt told The Hollywood Reporter at Sicario's recent New York premiere. "They were so interesting about the job. You really understood how all-encompassing it is, how consuming, how taxing, how difficult it is to detach from work, how hard it is on your social life, on your relationships, on your personal life. So that was really helpful to get into the type of personality that would end up in law-enforcement as a woman. And then I trained physically with local FBI and Delta Force."
Kaluuya added: "We did gun training in Albuquerque, talked to a lot of ex- and current FBI officers. That was really rewarding because you got to understand the perspective and mentality that you're speaking from."
For Benicio Del Toro — who's done a number of movies about the drug trade, including Traffic, for which he won a best supporting actor Oscar — he told THR that to prepare for this film, it was just a matter of reconnecting with the DEA agents, law-enforcement personnel and others involved in that world that he's gotten to know over the years so that he could "be up-to-date." And Josh Brolin, who plays who plays the U.S. leader of the film's anti-cartel mission, said that the film made an issue he was already closely aware of from past projects and spending time in Mexico and Texas "more personal [and] more intimate."
For the actors involved in portraying key Mexican participants like hard-working drug transporter Silvio and cartel leader Manuel Diaz, they also sought to get to the truth behind their characters.
"I tried to find out who the major players were who I had access to," Bernardo P. Saracino, who plays Diaz, explained. "I kind of follow what's going on in the borderlands myself just because I'm from New Mexico. It's kind of a subject that we hear about more often… A lot of these cartel leaders have Twitter pages, have Twitter followers, that sort of thing. I started doing some research and found, maybe not exact counterparts but some counterparts."
Maximiliano Hernandez, who plays Silvio, and who had been looking for a project in which he could play a solely-Spanish-speaking character, watched a number of local Mexican news reports in Juarez.
"For every murder you see in America, there's about 50 murders in Mexico that they don't report," Hernandez explained. "For me it was really important to address that. These are regular people, everyday people who get caught up in this, and they're not making millions of dollars. They're not part of the narco industry. They're just real facilitators. They are gears in a huge machine. To me it was really important to portray that in the movie and that's literally what I am in the movie."
For Villeneuve, who includes a number of scenes with Silvio and his family early in the film before viewers are fully aware of the significance of his character, he felt it was necessary to show the life of someone who's in many ways a "victim of a system" and forced to be a part of the drug trade.
"For me it was very important for this man that we feel the pressure on his whole shoulders," Villeneuve says. "He doesn't have necessarily the choice, but it's just that the society is colliding under his feet. In order to survive, he participates… He was not the typical bad guy. I wanted to have someone that looked like a citizen that is dealing with stronger forces than him…I wanted the movie to be seen from the victims' point of view."
And the more Villeneuve and co. explored the reality behind the fiction, he says they realized the film is "not that far from reality."
"It's a total fiction, [but also] an extrapolation, like something that could happen, something that is quite close to reality," Villeneuve says. "The more we were asking questions the more I felt that we were not that far."
Still, he maintains, "The reality is worse."
That prospect is just one of the many frightening aspects of the tension-filled film, a feeling enhanced by Sicario's anxiety-inducing score by Johann Johannsson.
Villeneuve, who praised Johannsson as someone who's "overtalented" and "with a strong voice," explains that he told the composer, with whom he worked on Prisoners, "I want music that the audience will not hear but that the audience will feel like a threat coming under their feet, like Jaws or something." And when Johannsson saw the film, he was able to see the tension in what was on screen, with Villeneuve explaining that he instructed his editor to cut the film without any temporary music.
"I want you to find the tension in the scene from what's in the image," Villeneuve says he told his editor. "That's why I feel that the movie maybe the tension is so alive. It's not coming from any artifice. It's coming from the image. …When Johann watched the movie for the first time, there wasn't a single note on it."
As for the final note of the film, Villeneuve calls that moment a "warning" and "a big question mark." But Blunt's character makes a crucial, powerful decision, he says.
"Emily Blunt's character at the end, I think that she represents hope," Villeneuve argues. "Because the decision she makes at the end means that she will not follow their path. She will come back to her moral values, and for me the last moment is very important. Even if you may feel that she's less strong it's the opposite."
Sicario, which is currently in select theaters, will be playing across the U.S. next Friday.