Denis Villeneuve's Favorite Shot From Prisoners Doesn't Feature A Single Actor

"Prisoners," director Denis Villeneuve's suffocatingly intense thriller about child abduction and the black depths of the human psyche, boasts a star-studded cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard, and Paul Dano. Despite all this Hollywood pedigree, however, Villeneuve was fixated on one shot of the film that featured a tree in lieu of any actors.

The filmmaker, who most recently garnered acclaim for adapting Frank Herbert's science-fiction epic "Dune" to the big screen, is known for his striking visual style that makes extensive use of contrasting color palettes and negative space. "Dune" and his other ventures into sci-fi, "Blade Runner 2049" and "Arrival," have plenty of gigantic, sweeping vista shots that lend a sense of wonder and awe, but Villeneuve is also an expert at creating claustrophobia. "Prisoners," on which Villeneuve collaborated with celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins, is a master class study in how to create a sense of paranoia and dread out of mundane environments.

Some Very Ominous Mundanity

Trees play a huge role in "Prisoners," making small-town Pennsylvania feel like an oppressive wilderness in which the denizens can turn into animals or a jail trapping everyone behind their cell bars made out of trunks. The trees also serve as a way to heighten paranoia and suspense. Who knows who may be lurking behind those growths? All of these dark and multiple meanings to an everyday piece of scenery is why Villeneuve considered the visual representation of trees so important, even if no characters were visible at points. The film even opens with a shot of an empty forest before a lone deer pops into the frame, only to meet its demise from Jackman's Keller Dover on a hunting trip with his son.

Villeneuve singled out one single frame as emblematic of the feeling he was trying to invoke. In an interview with IndieWire, he explained that there's a shot of a tree in front of a house near the beginning of the film, before everything goes to hell. He said of the moment:

"We were always trying to express things with as few shots and saying [on the surface] as little as possible... This shot was designed not to be understood, but to be felt. It has a subconscious feeling that can vibrate in your soul. [It functions] like a dread, an omen. It's like when you suddenly have a bad feeling but you don't understand what it means, it's linked with intuition."

An Improv Without Performers

Villeneuve reportedly didn't plan out this particular shot before shooting, much to the ire of the film's producers. According to him, they approached him and, in his words, angrily told him:

"Denis, you have been shooting a tree for the last half an hour, there are five Hollywood stars in their trailer, we are a 200-person crew and you are having fun shooting a f*cking tree."

Thankfully, Roger Deakins was on Villeneuve's side and happily participated in his fixation of the ominous tree. The director stated that the same producer who had previously scolded him complimented him on the shot and expressed that it was his favorite in the film. Finally, Villeneuve was able to share his dread-induced gut feeling about an ordinary tree with his audience, an intuition that warned of the coming intensity without the use of a single spoken word, body movement, or facial expression.