Cannes: 'Sicario' Director Denis Villeneuve on Exploring the "Reality of Women in the World Today"

The director, who will next helm 'Story of Your Life,' talks about why directing the 'Blade Runner' sequel is the biggest challenge of his life.

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, 47, is making his first appearance in the Cannes competition with Sicario. Based on an original screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the drama, which Lionsgate is distributing stateside, stars Emily Blunt as an FBI agent who teams up with Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin to bring down a Mexican drug lord.

The director — who’s readying his next film, Story of Your Life, in which Amy Adams plays a linguist encountering aliens, while also developing a Blade Runner sequel — spoke with THR about the importance of strong women characters, the pressure that comes with directing a sequel to a classic, and fl•ying the fl•ag for Canada in Cannes.

How do you feel finally getting into the Palme d’Or competition with Sicario, an English-language American movie filled with Hollywood stars?

I should say it’s a big compliment, because doing a movie in Los Angeles, away from my home country, there’s always a fear that I could lose my identity as a filmmaker. And of course, my dream is to make sure I make no compromise and I want keep my freedom. And from my point of view, I was able to keep that identity doing Sicario. And being invited by the o–fficial competition committee says that, according to them, I didn’t lose my identity, either. So going there with an American production, this is a huge compliment.

Coming off Prisoners and Enemy, you jumped quickly into Sicario. What attracted you to the project?

It’s always mysterious. I just fell in love with the screenplay. Taylor is a very strong voice. To me, it said important things about the world today, about the choices we are making and the north part of Mexico, an area of the world that I felt as a filmmaker I had a responsibility to look at.

How did you come to cast Emily Blunt?
I loved her in Young Victoria and I thought she would be perfect. We would be shooting in rough, climatic conditions in the desert, and I believed she has the physical strength and the spiritual strength to be such a character, an FBI agent working in harsh conditions.

Was her part always written for a woman?

In the past, some distributor or some producer wanted a man. When he said that to me, I felt it was a very strong, beautiful part for a woman, and that is something that doesn’t exist very often, so the fact that she’s a woman is important. They didn’t ask me to change the part. But I knew if I kept her character as a woman, I would probably have less money [to work with].

You’ve committed to a Blade Runner sequel. Feeling the pressure? 

I’m attached to direct. I took the decision after much thinking. I’m aware of the massive pressure I will have on my shoulders doing this. But first, I’m a massive fan of the first Blade Runner. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time, and I’m a huge fan of Ridley Scott’s work. When I read the script, I felt it was so strong and so inspiring, I was not able to say no. I said, “All right, let’s do it,” and I have Ridley Scott’s blessing. I know I can do it, but honestly, it’s a big challenge. It’s the biggest challenge of my life.

Can you talk about your next project, Paramount’s Story of Your Life?

My next feature will be shot in Montreal. It’s with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. It’s a sci-fi story that I fell in love several years ago from a short story written by Ted Chiang. The adaptation was made by Eric Heisserer. We shoot that in mid-June. So I’m in prep now, so I’m not thinking about champagne [in Cannes] quite yet. I’m really focused on my next feature right now.

Your movies tackle various genres. Do you see a common denominator in your work?

I don’t know if it’s a good thing to have a distance about what you are doing. I know a lot of my projects are talking about the reality of women in the world today. A friend of mine told me that after Prisoners, Sicario is the second part of a trilogy about life in America.

Do you ever talk to fellow Quebec director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) and together wonder when, as busy as you are in Hollywood, you will ever get back to Montreal to make a French-language movie? 

I feel like Jean-Marc. Because in Montreal I don’t know any screenwriter that can write for me. It means I have to write. And I love it, but it’s a slow process. Since I began making movies, I’ve always looked for screenwriters instead of going through the long and painful process of writing. Right now I have the privilege of being with artists who bring me stories that inspire me. As long as I have that material, I will do movies in Los Angeles. But one day, for sure, I need to go back to Montreal and write something on my own. I just don’t know when.