This story first appeared in the Dec. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Crossing the border from El Paso, Texas, into Juarez, Mexico, is always dangerous, even for Hollywood filmmakers. Certain precautions are necessary. For starters, always rent the white SUV; black ones are associated with the cartels who have made Juarez one of the deadliest cities in the Western Hemisphere and ground zero in the Mexican drug war. Also, bring protection. Accompanying director Denis Villeneuve and producers Ed McDonnell and Basil Iwanyk on a research trip in January were two federales (federal agents) with machine guns on their laps.
Even so, there was one moment when the tough-as-nails stunt coordinator also in the car — J.J. Perry, an Army veteran — started getting nervous. After the SUV steered onto a secluded road south of the city, past a field filled with thousands of plastic shopping bags — “They told us this is where they dump the bodies,” says McDonnell — the film team realized they were being followed. “I saw J.J. looking around, and his eyes were squinted,” recalls Iwanyk. “He kept looking to the left. Ed and myself, we were alarmed all the time because we’re wimps. When J.J. got alarmed, we were like, ‘Holy shit.’ “
“It felt like a world that was so alien to what my experience was at that time,” says Blunt of ‘Sicario.’
But to make Sicario, Lionsgate’s drug war drama about a special team of U.S. undercover operatives — starring Emily Blunt as an FBI agent, Benicio Del Toro as the “Sicario” (Spanish for “hitman“) and Josh Brolin as the secretive leader of the group, which has been dispatched to Juarez to kill a drug lord — Villeneuve and his fellow filmmakers took risks with more than just their lives. They took a gamble on the audience.
A sometimes challenging-to-watch verite dive into the shadowy, violent world of narcotic smuggling across the southern border, Sicario is filled with disturbing images (dead bodies strung up from a freeway overpass), morally ambiguous characters with little hope of redemption and the farthest thing imaginable from a Hollywood happy ending. In other words, it’s not exactly the feel-good movie of the year. “In most movies, you’re given all the answers on a golden platter,” says Blunt. “But this is a film that give you none of the answers.” And yet, the $30 million R-rated thriller has hit a chord with audiences, grossing more than $80 million around the world and garnering outstanding reviews (93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes).
From left: Sheridan, Brolin, Del Toro, Blunt, Villeneuve and Deakins at a Sept. 11 ‘Sicario‘ party in Toronto.
Five years ago, Taylor Sheridan was an actor who wanted to write. After small roles on Veronica Mars and CSI, he landed a recurring role as a policeman on Sons of Anarchy. But he spent most of his downtime hanging out with series creator Kurt Sutter in the writers room. “I got very fascinated with the craft of storytelling,” he explains. After a couple of seasons of Anarchy, the 46-year-old quit the show and acting altogether. “My wife had just gotten pregnant, and I didn’t want to look at my kid in seven years and say, ‘You can be anything, son, but I can’t go to your baseball game because I have to go to a Windex audition.’ I sat down and wrote Sicario.”
Growing up in Texas, Sheridan always had followed the conflict on the border closely. “It’s such a visceral war that was being ignored by our media, and that was infuriating to me,” he says. A “military fanatic,” he’d been researching the specifics of Border Patrol and CIA operations long before he decided to write anything. The first draft took him four months; he found an agent at Gersh and they began pitching the script, but nobody wanted anything to do with it. “Everyone was like, ‘Yeah, I read it, that dark, awful thing you wrote, that macabre hell. It was great!’ ” says Sheridan. ” ‘We’re not going to do it, but I’d love to see it if it came out!’ “
Villeneuve had a military adviser on the set at all times to ensure authenticity for characters like Brolin’s. “Then I feel secure,” says the director. “It’s a no-bullshit zone.”
Then, finally, Sheridan pitched Iwanyk, whose Thunder Road Pictures had just produced The Town. “For a tough, potentially nihilistic movie, I found it so emotional,” says Iwanyk. “I laughed at all of [Brolin’s character’s] jokes, and when I found out what happened to Benicio’s and Emily’s characters, I was moved by it.”
While brainstorming potential directors, Iwanyk recalled a conversation with Ben Affleck (the two had worked together on The Town) about Villeneuve, the French-Canadian filmmaker whose 2010 drama, Incendies, had been Oscar nominated for best foreign language film. Affleck was a big fan, “so I knew Villeneuve was one of the directors I wanted to work with,” says the producer. He sent Sheridan’s script to Villeneuve, who’d just completed the 2013 Hugh Jackman crime drama Prisoners and wasn’t anxious to dive into another dark underworld project so soon. But he read it anyway and decided that he had to do it. “I remember going through the pages, and I was engulfed in the feeling of doom,” says Villeneuve, 48. “I was like, ‘Oh no, not again.’ “
“Maternity’s a beautiful experience for Emily, but at the same time, she wanted to go back to work,” Villeneuve says of Blunt, who lobbied for her role harder than her co-stars. “She said, ‘I need badass. I need something now.’ She was hungry to get back into it.”
The director immediately reached out to Del Toro, his first choice for the hitman. But Del Toro, 48, was skeptical. “I’ve done many movies that deal with that topic [Traffic, Savages], so when the script landed on my desk, I was like, ‘Well, here we go again,’ ” says the actor, echoing his director’s sentiments. “Then I read it, and it rang true.” Brolin, 47, who felt he didn’t understand his character, was reluctant as well and at first turned down the film. Villeneuve had to drive to the actor’s Los Angeles home to convince him. Of all the stars, only Blunt, 32, was eager — even though she’d just given birth to her first child. “I remember meeting Denis in my pajamas knowing I needed to pump,” she says. “I was like, ‘I can only meet you for an hour before my boobs explode.’ I said, ‘I’m interested as long as you’re not shooting it now.’ “
In the months before principal photography began in July 2014, Villeneuve immersed himself in the dual cultures of the border and the government agencies that control it. He interviewed scores of FBI and DEA agents. The director recalls that whenever he inquired about some of the riskier, extra-judicial strategies that the Sicario characters employ (the secret mission into Juarez, for instance), the officers would get tight-lipped. “Whenever they said, ‘Sir, I cannot answer your question,’ I knew I got it right.”
Blunt and Daniel Kaluuya inside a drug tunnel in ‘Sicario.’
Blunt, meanwhile, did a different sort of research. She learned to fire a machine gun, though she’d had some previous weapons training (thanks to Edge of Tomorrow, the 2014 Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller). She also spent a month Skyping with four real-life female FBI agents about their lives: “What music they listen to, whether they have trouble sleeping, whether they’re in a relationship,” Blunt recalls. “They actually go home and watch Downton Abbey to decompress. One of them finally confessed she watches The Office. She was like, ‘I didn’t want to be weird, but I go home and watch your husband [Office star John Krasinski].’ “
The first scene Villeneuve shot, in New Mexico, was a raid of the house of suspected kidnappers, when Blunt’s character witnesses firsthand the savagery of the cartels — who made dead bodies “disappear” by sealing them within the house’s walls. The scene, like most of the violent sequences in Sicario, would require weeks of drills and practice. “We rehearsed it like a dance,” says Blunt. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has lit everything from Fargo to Skyfall — and was Oscar nominated for Prisoners — shot the entire sequence handheld. Other moments required more of a mixed-media approach. For a complicated scene in which a convoy gets shot up on the bridge between El Paso and Juarez, the filmmakers spliced together shots from three locations: overhead shots of the real border and footage from the streets of Mexico City (doubling for Juarez) and a parking lot in Albuquerque, where they built a replica of the bridge. “Shooting in Mexico was a challenge because we were dealing with a lot of logistical challenges,” says Villeneuve. “Tight streets, police cars, real streets with a lot of people on them.”
“I love Denis; I think he’s one of the best directors out there,” says Deakins (right). “I love his sensibility, He makes, I think, the kind of films that drew me into the film industry in the first place — films about the real world, real life.”
And then there was the particularly harrowing scene when the team heads into a drug tunnel. It was shot in pitch darkness in the New Mexico desert, filmed almost entirely with military night-vision technology. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do moonlight; it doesn’t make sense,’ ” says Deakins.
For the most part, the 50-day shoot went smoothly, says Iwanyk, the days often ending early — perhaps so the cast and crew could seek sanctuary from the real world they were portraying. During their research trip in Juarez, the filmmakers came across hundreds of posters for missing women; images of them and of the shoes they found in the city’s “killing field” haunted them throughout the shoot. No production day — not even Blunt’s brutal fight scene with a cop (played by Jon Bernthal), after which the actress had trouble sleeping — ended up as harrowing as the producers’ and Villeneuve’s encounter with pursuers in Juarez, which found its way into a scene where Blunt’s convoy travels into the city. “It was scary,” says Iwanyk of the nerve-racking experience. “I’m not going to lie.”