Since the beginning of the 21st century, Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve has cobbled together a small but distinguished body of work. However, it’s only in the past five years — in that time, he’s helmed four features and two shorts — that a recurring theme has emerged: The Québec-born director has a proclivity for smart people who do bad things and are then forced to face the moral and psychological consequences of their unsavory actions.
His latest feature, Sicario, is no different. Enlisted by a government task force to help reduce drug trafficking between the U.S. and Mexico, a by-the-book FBI agent named Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is paired with Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) — a cartel insider and assassin with his own personal agenda. As she goes deeper into the underworld, Macer is asked to disregard her principles for the sake of her mission. Chronicling the erosion of Macer’s ideals, Villeneuve manages to poignantly examine what is happening on both sides of the Mexican-American border.
When I sat down with Villeneuve at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, he discussed his enlightening trip to Ciudad Juárez, confessed his surprise at Donald Trump’s success, and explained why in making the next Blade Runner movie, he wasn’t “crushed” by Hollywood.
As someone who is from Montreal and has limited experience with life [in Mexico], how did you go about depicting Juárez authentically? Did you venture down there?
I did. The thing is, first, I’m coming from the documentary world. I’m used to trying to see reality with a camera and bringing the will and the passion to make it as authentic as possible.
And you had protection, I’m assuming.
Unfortunately, yeah. I had to go there with people that knew what they were doing; people that knew where to go and what not to do and knew how to behave in Juárez. I went there just to know what I was talking about. A part of the movie is set there, and I wanted to see the people, be among them, feel the vibe of the city, see the architecture, the streets, see what it looks like, because there was [not much] description in the screenplay. In the screenplay it was described as a “living hell.”
You wanted to know what “living hell” meant.
Yeah, exactly. I’ve been in different places in the world where you feel a tension, when you feel fear, and as a filmmaker it’s important for me to see it with my own eyes and to see the light. You just go there and you just absorb.
What did you absorb?
Honestly, what I felt was like the same as some war zones, where you feel a tension coming from the ground. Where there’s something that is not right and there are forces that are not right there. There are shadows and you feel it. It’s like being in a place that has suffered too much and you feel the fear in the way people walk, the way people look at each other. It struck me how you would see a group of policemen that were dressed as if they were in a war, with the body armor equipped like they were soldiers. Usually when you see those people in another part of the world, you feel power. [In Juárez] when I looked in their faces I saw fear, like they were afraid. For me it was a striking thing to see policemen that have so much [fear].
Right, unless they are one of the corrupt ones, they are mostly powerless. Do you feel guilt about any of the suffering you witnessed? Did it feel like a completely different world to you?
That’s the thing, we’re used to seeing people suffer in different parts of the planet, and we are numb to it.
Do you feel numb?
Yeah, I still try to keep alive … how do I say that in English? Grounded. But listen, I’ll answer in a different way. It’s very tough in the daily business to witness the amount of suffering on the earth. It’s overwhelming. The way I deal with it is every day I let a little bit come in my heart and I feel the pain, and when it’s too much you close yourself to protect yourself in some ways. I think everybody is doing the same when you see kids dying because they are not eating or don’t have enough water. There are horrific events, and we’re in contact with them more than ever because of the Internet. I was hearing recently that it seems like violence is decreasing on the planet, there’s less and less violence.
But we know more about it.
Which I think is a good thing in a way, because there’s always, in a strange way, responsibility.
Is that what filmmaking is to you? A responsibility?
Yeah, I think it’s a way to be in contact with the suffering of other people and to try to tap into that. It’s a very good question, because that guilt — I felt that a lot, very often. I’m coming from a very rich society. I mean, I’m not a rich person, but I’m talking about the fact that the only thing rough at home is winter. Someone asked me, How can you deal with the darkness, and I said maybe because I’m a spoiled Quebecer and the only thing that’s rough in my life is winter. I have the luxury to go there, because if I lived in Africa I would make movies that were more light and more joyful because I need this joy. I have joy. Canadians have the reputation of making dark movies because we are in this society where we have the space to explore darkness. That’s the way I see it. Honestly, I think it’s a way to love people. To love humanity and try to understand where we are going, and that’s my way of dealing with reality — with a camera.
Are you engaged in American policy with the [Mexican] border disputes? Is that something you’re interested in?
Listen, I’m not an expert in American politics.
To be fair, no one seems to be.
It’s crazy these days with technology that allows us to know more about others and I feel fear of the others, more and more. The world seems more radical to me than when I was younger. There’s a polarization of the world that’s quite strong. There’s a lot of work to be done.
Are you following what is happening in the Donald Trump saga?
From very far away. I just finished a shoot this summer. And when I’m filming, I’m a bit out of it. That’s the paradox of it; you try to explore the world, but as you’re exploring it with a camera you are away from it. But I heard about Donald Trump. When I first heard he was going to run for president, I thought it would last five minutes. And it’s getting bigger and bigger.
I was talking with Americans on my last movie, and one of them that is a very liberal, very left-oriented friend was saying to me, But the problem is that Donald Trump doesn’t say bullshit. He’s really saying what he thinks for real. And that is really refreshing for everyone. It really creates a shock in our country because he doesn’t try to please people. He just expresses what he thinks. And that is a very strong thing. I don’t agree with what he is saying, but it’s maybe a good thing in American politics because the politicians today are too much under the control of money. And he’s free. I mean, that’s very strange.
I brought this up to discuss the idea of building a wall along the border, which he believes will stop some of the people in your film from coming over. Do you want that?
No, walls can stop nothing. I think that what will help to solve the problem is a share of wealth. Mexico is a part of North America. The poverty there and disparity of wealth — it doesn’t make sense. Also, one thing that is very moving for me to understand, a person using cocaine has a responsibility. He has blood on his hands, almost, or when you take drugs you have to understand a lot of suffering went into that and there’s a line.
Would you call yourself a socialist?
I’m someone who thinks that the world would be a better place if there was a big middle class. I mean, middle class is peace. In a perfect world, everybody would have enough to eat and we’d be living in security. It’s obvious. I’m very happy to pay my taxes and all that. I would say I’m more of a Social Democrat. I’m coming from a society where I was raised in a social democracy. Someone in my family recently had a problem and the ambulance came and brought him to the hospital and it was done in two minutes and everything was OK. It cost me zero money. In my country, it’s not perfect, but the idea is beautiful. The idea that everybody can afford to go to the hospital and you won’t have a bill at the end. And that school is as free as possible. I’m coming from a world where this idea lives, and I love this idea.
One idea or question coursing through your movie is whether it’s ethical to operate outside the law. The characters played by Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, for example, challenge our protagonist to contemplate whether the ends justify the means.
You know what? That question is a problem for me, too.
And do you have an answer?
It’s hard to understand why we work this way. I don’t respect this way of doing things, but there’s a fantasy … I’m tempted to say, “Please exist” [to those who exist outside the law]. An example, against ISIS, obviously those guys are insane. What they are doing now is insanity, it’s like Hitler. For me, it’s the same kind of evil. They don’t respect anything, they kill innocents, in the name of a god, and it’s really ugly. We cannot deal with those people. We can’t talk with them. They are mad killers.
It’s hard to combat an irrational group with a rational response.
So how do we deal with that? Knowing violence always brings more violence. I don’t have the answer, but I like to ask the question. I feel, since 2001, this huge need for Americans to have superheroes on the screen. This idea that a super-being will protect you. That this being can go above the law, but at the end of the day would be a good force and defeat the evil. This idea that this half-god exists. This need in the subconscious of America to find these gods. It’s very interesting, actually.
Do you have that need?
There’s a part of me that would. That’s what I find terrifying about Sicario. There’s a part of me that wants Alejandro to exist in a way. I don’t have the answer.
Sicario, in the end, seems to chronicle the erosion of Emily Blunt’s character’s world. Have you had a situation like that happen in your life?
I must say that’s a good question. I remember that when I was young, I was doing documentaries for Canadian TV, and I was in the Middle East just before the Iraqi invasion. And just to get another point of view, it didn’t convince me, but it just brought me a lot of doubt. It’s impressive to be on the other side and see the world and how they see us. When I say “us,” [I mean] Canadians are Americans at the end of the day.
Did you feel it gets more difficult keeping autonomy and your vision intact making a bigger film like Blade Runner?
It’s one movie at a time. And it’s all about who you work with, and who is behind the wallet at the end of the day. It’s who has the power. When I did Prisoners I did it in a very specific spirit. I remember saying to Jake Gyllenhaal in New York when I was trying to convince him to do Enemy, I said, Listen, I said yes to a Hollywood production and I don’t know what will happen. I heard all of the stories of directors getting crushed by the system, and I’m not better than someone else.
But you haven’t been crushed yet?
I was afraid of that. I remember someone saying to me, You know where you’re going, and now you’re taking the plane to shoot that movie, and I don’t want you to come back angry. I said to myself, I’m going there, I’m going to learn, and I’m going there to have a different experience, and if it happens, then I was warned. But it didn’t happen.
I felt super respected, and that’s because of the people I worked with. The people that were doing Prisoners, I loved. At the beginning of the project, the conversation with them was saying, if you want someone that will do the movie that you want in the way that you want to do it, then there’s five thousand guys in L.A. that are very strong and everyone would be very happy. But if you want it from me, I can’t get out of my own sensibility. Otherwise I’m not good. It’s not an ego thing. So that’s why I was tempted to do Sicario. And again, I had the same experience. I was lucky so far.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Sam Fragoso (@SamFragoso) is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Playboy, NPR, and elsewhere. A book of his interviews with emerging filmmakers, Talk Easy, will be published by The Critical Press in 2016.