From The Set: An Oral Pre-History Of 'Prisoners'

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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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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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.

denis-villeneuve-Incendies

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.

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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.

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