From the Set: An Oral Pre-History of ‘Prisoners’

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Everyone on the set of Prisoners looked exhausted. Some of that was makeup, but some of the drain and fatigue was quite real. When I visited the production, it wasn’t working on a constructed set, but in a location. A real hospital, complete with physical dimensions that aren’t all that friendly to wide lenses and large groups of film crew, was the site of the shoot towards the end of the film’s schedule back in March.

The location wasn’t helping the mood, but it wasn’t just cramped quarters that was grinding down the cast and crew. Prisoners, scripted by Aaron Guzikowski and directed by Denis Villeneuve, is not a cheery film. It follows two families whose children are abducted on Thanksgiving, and examines the different coping mechanisms employed by the two adult couples as they wait for any news. Ironically it was quite nice outside on the day of our visit, but Prisoners is the sort of movie that retreats from sunshine. When the weather got good, the crew shot indoors.

The couples are played by Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, and Viola Davis and Terrence Howard. Garbed in realistic costume and styled like people rather than movie starts, several looked like they’d been put through the wringer. Slightly more energized was Jake Gyllenhaal, playing the detective who takes charge of the missing persons case. In conversation, each outlined their approach to the difficult material, and after the break you’ll find a lightly edited oral pre-history of Prisoners, assembled from their comments. 

A note: This wasn’t a typical set visit. We saw little being filmed, and we were shown no footage. Three of us sat in a hospital waiting room and interviewed most of the major cast of the film as they had time to talk. We did not speak to Denis Villeneuve. We barely even saw Roger Deakins, who was shooting the picture. So I can’t describe scenes, though at this point the trailer will be much better at getting the tone across.

I hadn’t seen any footage when these interviews were conducted, and going back over them now after watching the trailer, I don’t think there’s anything spoilerish here. Instead, you’ll find the thoughts of a powerful acting troupe in which each individual has their own approach to the material, with the story and sense of experience and loss to unify their work. Usually the oral history comes well after a film’s release, but why not do something a bit different for Prisoners?

The Characters

While we didn’t speak to Paul Dano, who plays a chief suspect in the missing persons case, we did get time with the five actors who make up the film’s core. Maria Bello, looking strong and determined, set the scene:

The scene we’re shooting today is after our children go missing — Hugh Jackman and myself, and Viola and Terrence’s kid — we finally found one of the girls. It’s their daughter, but our daughter is still missing. And so Hugh and I are trying desperately to get some answers from the other little girl about where our daughter might be and if she’s alive.

Hugh Jackman: [My character] Keller is a working class guy. He’s a self-made man, and he’s a survivalist. There are many interesting qualities in this religious man, and he believes in being ready, ready for anything. In fact it’s one of the first scenes in the movie where he has that chat with his son where he says basically don’t rely on anybody in life. He has a saying in the movie, which I love, which is, “Pray for the best. Prepare for the worst.”

Viola Davis: I think the religious element is more with Hugh Jackman’s character. I think [Terrence and I are] just a normal loving couple and we then go down this road. You’ll see, I can’t reveal too much. But, you know, we all have smokescreens that we put to on ourselves to give us the stamp of evil or good. And then when we’re questioned and we have to step up to the plate of morality, you don’t know what’s gonna come out of you. That’s why I think focus groups are interesting. You know, when you’re asked the question, well, what if you were in Nazi Germany and you were blah, blah, blah. What would you do? How do you know?

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