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


The Conflict

There’s the external conflict — missing kids — but that is intended to illuminate a much deeper question that most of us, thankfully, never have to ask. How would you deal with not just the loss of a child, but the idea that they had been stolen?

Maria Bello: If you could imagine losing your own child, but we all deal with it in such different ways. My character deals with it with putting her head under the covers and taking a lot of medication and not being able to really to get out of bed hoping her daughter’s just going to show up. She never changes her clothes. She’s just trying to stay in that day when she disappeared thinking she’s just going to come back any minute. But when she hears that their daughter has been found she snaps out of it.

Terrence Howard: It’s the messy things that make up the moments of life. And I think this film kind of captures those moments of life. You know there’s such intimate feeling. I guess it feels like, I hope I don’t get in trouble saying, but it feels like The Silence of the Lambs in a sense because you have this whole couple with this horror. You know, a couple with this fear, so it’s like this anxiety on steroids, you know.

Jake Gyllenhaal: The thing that’s interesting about the movie to me is that when everyone is a mystery of some sort, you get to be the audience’s eyes. However interesting it is to you, however much of a mystery any of these people are to you, it’s going to be to the audience. Therefore It’ll be a more interesting film to watch ’cause you see in a way the case unfold through [my] eyes… Detective Loki serves as the audience’s eye, so in that way I think there’s a relative amount of paranoia and skepticism that every audience member walks into when they’re brought into the story, when they’re being entertained that I weirdly revel in.

Hugh Jackman: If shit’s going to go down, Keller’s the kind of guy you want to have around in a way. And it’s obviously any parent’s worst nightmare situation you know… It’s even difficult to even vaguely go there.

Maria Bello: I think that as a mother, when something happens to your child, morality goes out the window. Most people that I’ve ever talked to said “If someone did something to my child, someone’s going to kill my child, I would kill them.” Even the most nonviolent people I know say if there was a choice between my child and killing someone, I would kill someone.

Hugh Jackman: The whole premise of the story is how far would you be prepared to go, you know, in his situation, which I’m sure for most parents is a long way.

Viola Davis: What I find interesting about this one is it is, I don’t want to say an indictment, but it will make you look at yourself in a way. Not your neighbor, not your friend, but yourself. For me it’s like almost a litmus test. It will make you question your own sense of right and wrong.

Jake Gyllenhaal: Even the most mundane scenes can became something really interesting to be in, and to act in, and then also to watch, when you know you’re following some character who’s probably going to be doubting everybody else along the way. And it just creates good tension. So you meet a father who is desperately trying to find his daughter, and my doubt of him creates a whole another dimension to the scene, you know?

Terrence Howard: You don’t want to put your children in as a surrogate for [the feeling of loss], or your own family as a surrogate, because you don’t want to put that energy out there in the universe. So you now, you approach it very trepidatiously. And the heart is so treacherous and cunning because it wants you to go all the way out there, but once you get out there will leave you out there because it doesn’t want to be there.

Maria Bello: I do find working with actors who have children is a much different experience than acting with actors who don’t have children. There’s something much more important than story, than acting, than anything really. We tend to constantly talk about our children, and that’s a priority for us. And I find acting in a way is easier when you’re not paying attention to it, you know? When we’re talking about our kids and then just go right into doing a scene ’cause you’re not thinking about it so much.

Hugh Jackman: A huge part of the theme of this movie is obviously the morals of what’s the right thing to do in any situation. And this way there’s really no rulebook. In this I mean there has officially been in many ways for a parent whose child was missing the level of agony, the level of desperation, the lack of sleep for example. Reason doesn’t necessarily come into it all the time you know?

Maria Bello: Even though I’m a social activist for a long time and have my own NGO (We Advance) I hate message movies. I want nothing to do with them, anyone preaching me a message. I want to see a good story and get to feel the way I want to feel, get to think my way.

The Research

There’s not quite a procedural aspect to the story — while Gyllenhaal’s detective is a major character, this isn’t about cops — but there are all too many real-world examples of how similar cases play out. Each actor was touched by those realities.

Hugh Jackman: I did a lot of research… This one woman whose child was missing for many years, said after three years she couldn’t walk past the door without banging on the trunk of every car. She said cars were stopped at traffic lights, she would go out into the street, she would start banging on the boot [trunk] just to make sure. She said she could not mentally ever let a car go pass her sight just in case that was the one.

Terrence Howard: You watch videos of parents that have lost their children, and are in the process of searching for their kids. You may go to a group, you know, a counseling group. But you feel wrong being there because you’re there to kind of steal these people’s emotions that they’ve earned.

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