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


Jake Gyllenhaal: [There’s] a lot of research. I mean I have a lot of background with police officers, which is great. And I have a lot of very personal, close relationships with police officers. And so because of that I got an insight into detective work, which I didn’t know much about. Specifically for missing persons. And there was a lot of research done on interrogation in particular. I have plies of materials that I’ve compiled together for this exact [situation], from a detective who worked on missing persons cases… and then also tons of videos that I’ve watched of parents, and parents with detectives, and the detectives questioning suspects.

Terrence Howard: Jake [is] so silly in between [takes], and then he gets so serious because all of us are suspects. As far as the police go, you know, parents are the first suspects. So Jake, not shooting Jake is the funniest thing. And then he turns into this cop, and he doesn’t give you anything. You know like cops, they don’t give you anything.

Jake Gyllenhaal: I’ve seen different videos of like the first interrogation where you go, “Oh, this guy seems like a great guy.” And then all of a sudden, you know, the next thing he’s being tested, and there’s some weird things going on. And then cut to court where he’s admitting to what he or she had done. To me, I think that’s been the most interesting and most disturbing part of all of it, discovering all that stuff. Because I don’t consider myself an innocent, but I do think that human behavior and how we act, how we behave, is constantly a mystery. I mean my own behavior is a mystery to me most of the time. (Laughs).

Maria Bello: Hugh brought all of this research. He had someone doing this incredible research — a book this big on missing children and a lot of videos of parents who have lost children, missing children. And it was very easy to use all of that underneath and to see it is a reality for some people. It is a reality and to be able to drop into that.


The Skills of Denis Villeneuve

The director has several other films that any viewer should seek out, chief among them Incendies (2010), Polytechnique (2009), and Maelstrom (2000). He and Gyllenhaal have also completed another movie, Enemy, which is doing fall festival rounds this year.

Viola Davis: I think the person that I’m gonna take away from this is Denis Villeneuve the director. He’s been an absolute surprise.

Hugh Jackman: Denis is the perfect fit for this script. Aaron has put in the DNA of the script. There’s a lot of moral dilemmas here, and we’ve done a lot of research. I’ve done a lot of research, I know Jake has, and Denis, into these cases, and there are a lot of cases where parents act in a way that is quite shocking and yet completely understandable. On some level and human or any particular parent is going to partway sort of understand that someone might go a long way if they’re child is missing. But Denis understands and I think revels and excels in that gray area, in the gray area between right and wrong, good and bad. And I think that’s where this script really exists.

Viola Davis:  I feel like Denis is absolutely committed to the human story unfolding in this in a way that’s believable and realistic and I love that. I love that about him. So no, I’m not worried. I feel like that’s our secret weapon in this movie is Denis, and I’m glad the secret weapon is the director and not some actor who’s coming in for two days playing a scene.

Maria Bello: I like that in the beginning during rehearsal he let us play, find a position, figure out where we want to go, what our reactions are. And Denis has a way of very quietly showing you how to do it a different way. Not that he never likes your first way of doing it but he’ll say, “Oh, how about try it, you know, a little faster or a little more upset.” But you never feel that what you did before was wrong. He just gets excited and builds on top of it, so we’re building together.

Terrence Howard: Denis is so precise about what he wants, and just wants to tell this simple truth. And no elaborated, you know, extenuated tale; just the simplest of truths, even if it’s just a glance. And Roger’s perfect at capturing those subtle moments. And the scenes that you think, the takes that you think you’ve done the most incredible acting work, they’re like no, no, no. And it’s the ones that have these happy accidents in them, the little messy things that makes it. It’s a joy.


Roger Deakins, Master of Shadows

Roger Deakins, pictured above on the set of Skyfall, likely needs no introduction. He is among the few cinematographers whose name is known to more than hardcore film fans, thanks to his work on eleven films from Joel and Ethan Coen, as well as on Skyfall, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Shawshank Redemption, and too many other films to list.

Jake Gyllenhaal: And, you know, the way Roger [Deakins] is lighting the movie… there are shadows everywhere. And if you can create those same shadows within the scene, then it’s going to be even more interesting to watch.

Maria Bello: Roger’s brilliant. I worked with him before on The Company Men, John Wells’ movie. And I just love him. He creates such a vibe, a different sort of vibe for every movie that he does. For instance, we haven’t been on a schedule, as you’ve heard, because he waits for it to be foggy and dark before he shoots anything outside to keep the same look and the feel and the heaviness of it. And he’s really able to use the natural elements and lighting to suggest all of that.

Jake Gyllenhaal: I love that Denis has a similar sensibility to Roger. You get to, particularly also as a detective in this story, you get to hide in those shadows. And I will constantly look at the framing in the shot to be able to see exactly where they are and try and fit myself in there. And more often than not Roger’s always got me in there anyway. And so it’s, we’re all, I always think that when a cinematographer or a director is like pretty amazing they’re doing 75 percent of your job for you, you know, and in a way that’s exactly how I feel when I walk on set. There’s a great comfort within that.


You’ll find the Prisoners trailer below. The film opens on September 20.

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