Jake Gyllenhaal plays a teacher drifting through his life in a towering and faceless city, until he watches a film on the recommendation of a colleague that opens his world and brings him to the discovery of his very own double in Enemy (read our review here. We speak to director Denis Villeneuve about the film.
Starting off, we ask about Enemy and Villeneuve’s other film, Prisoners, which seemed to premiere in 2013 around the same time. What was the story there?
“Enemy was first,” explains Denis. “I had to convince Warner Brothers to do it first because I needed that level entry before Prisoners, I needed to work with an actor in English first and I needed to work on a smaller scale movie before going on a studio movie. More important than the scale was the exploration of acting. I shot Enemy, edited Enemy in the night for the final cut, the next morning I was taking a plane to start prep on Prisoners! I shot Prisoners and when I finished the shoot, I went to do the sound on Enemy. It was a back-and-forth on both movies and both movies were finished a week apart in August 2013. The thing is Prisoners was a wide release whilst Enemy, the distribution was shy.”
Of course, with both films being quite intimidating and daunting in their subject matters and tones, working on one would be enough alone to send someone into dark thoughts – but two? Denis, though, didn’t find himself struggling with such oppressive material being taken home.
“You put everything in front of the camera and you go home light. It’s like a therapy. The thing is I was able to do those two movies because they were so different. I was working back-and-forth on both of them, but they were so different that, in a strange way, they helped me. For instance, after shooting Prisoners, when I went to do sound on Enemy in Barcelona, two or three weeks there, it gave me a strong distance with Prisoners. When you work on a film you work, movies are big, they invade your life, so when I was working on Enemy, I was just thinking about Enemy, when I was working on Prisoners, I was just thinking about Prisoners. So when I was coming back to that other project, I had a freshness and a distance, which was great.”
“It’s a puzzle designed to create intellectual vertigo…”
Throughout the film, we see shots of Toronto from various heights and perspectives of characters, and it never looks anything less than intimidating and claustrophobic. Denis explains the need to get the location right, and to be different:
“The thing is the city had that kind of personality, the paranoid, oppressive feeling, and I was looking for that landscape, something with pressure. There’s not a lot of cities with that kind of landscape. There’s a lot of them in South America, but I wanted to shoot a movie in English and I was looking for a city that hadn’t been shot a lot. New York and Chicago have been shot over and over again over our cinematic imagery, we have seen those cities a lot, but Toronto has not been loved a lot with the camera. Cronenberg made several ones, like in Crash, but not a lot of movies have been shot in Toronto as itself. Toronto, I found as I was scouting, had locations I had been dreaming about as I read the book. Specific architecture that I was looking for. The streets were a fantastic playground; it felt fresh. When we were shooting there, we found the burgeoning energy we were looking for.”
The film is bursting with a yellow tinge. Every shot has the discoloured effect and it becomes the norm as the film progresses, an interesting choice that Denis required.
“The book [José Saramago’s The Double] was set in the 80s and it reminded me of Sao Paulo and the smoggy atmosphere, the pressure and pollution, overcrowded, paranoid environment and that colour was present,” he continues.
“We made several tests visually and we used a lot of desert filters in prep of the movie and finally we came with the look of the movie that I felt was accurate to my dreams. Everything was done in camera, there was no coming back, but it was a visual statement that we were trying to make as close as possible to the atmosphere of the book.”
Throughout the film, there’s a discussion, in the text and subtext, about control, between people, between man and his environment. But this didn’t quite translate to Denis being a controlling, oppressive director. If anything, it was the opposite:
“Most of the movie is shot in a studio, a very controlled environment, and what I said to the cinematographer [Nicolas Bolduc] was the structure of the screenplay, the scenes were very precise, but I wanted to improvise with the actors a lot and I did tons of takes. I was doing 25, 35, 40 takes with Jake Gyllenhaal trying to explore a deeper approach, to go in the verge of chaos and find a new way of acting. For that, I decided there would be no marks on the floor, the actors would be free in the environment and we worked with a little crane that was able to follow their movements all the time. The sets were lit in a way for the actors to essentially find their own light. It was very exciting. The control work was about the storytelling; with the acting, I was trying to push the boundaries and explore new ways of directing. It was a work of collaboration.”
“I was doing 25, 35, 40 takes with Jake…”
A collaboration which, for Denis and Jake, was important and went into Prisoners.
“When I approached him to do Enemy, it was all about this idea of creating a laboratory, a safe place where we could explore and make mistakes, and really try to find different ways to make a scene. I needed that laboratory, and Jake totally got on board. We had so much fun and decided to apply those techniques to a classic studio movie and it was, for us, a success. I’m really looking forward to working with him again and I know it’s the same for him. It’s really a nice creative collaboration.”
In addition to Jake Gyllenhaal the film has a small appearance by Isabella Rossellini, who is always exciting to watch.
Denis says that working with her was a dream come true:
“I was so lucky because she was my first choice for the mother and she’s a close friend of my producer, so it was easy to get in contact with her. She was very busy at the time but she was so generous with me. She came to Toronto for a few days to do the character, that was a beautiful gift from life.”
The film’s score is particularly ominous – full of slow, low cello pieces. The director says he was inspired by There Will Be Blood.
“As I was dreaming and prepping the movie, I was thinking about Johnny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, something linked with the subconscious that would create the feeling of a nightmare. I was looking for a composer and I knew that Greenwood wasn’t available at the time. When I heard [Daniel Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans’] score for Martha Marcy May Marlene, I asked them to do the score. The music itself is a character, linked with the subconscious of the character and I wanted the teacher, Adam Bell, to explore and come back in the new reality around him, and the music expresses the tension and anxiety of the character.”
We ask Denis about the length of time from the film’s premiere to now, on the precipice of the UK release, and how the journey has been.
“It’s a project. When we were doing Enemy, the filmmakers and I, the actors, we had a lot of fun, and it was really an act of love with cinema, an act of creation. Honestly, knowing that it would be a strange object, and knowing that this object wasn’t commercial at all, people would say: ‘We love this project a lot, but who would watch this?’ We knew from the start that this project was not designed for that, it was designed to be playful and that some people will love it and others would react negatively. It was done with that knowledge, that it was an act of love that we were giving to the world, and that probably the movie will have an underground life, so I’m hearing about Enemy every day. It’s not a joke, I just received an e-mail from my sister living in Switzerland and she’s sending me e-mails every week asking questions because she wants to understand the film, and I don’t answer. I receive lots of comments on the movie, there are people that deeply love the film and other people that are disorientated. It’s normal, if you don’t understand it. All the keys are there; it’s a puzzle that’s designed to create intellectual vertigo. It’s designed to be playful. I want people to have fun with it, but it’s normal because it’s not a typical movie structure.”
“I shot Enemy, edited Enemy in the night… the next morning I was taking a plane to start Prisoners!”
Denis has been busy finishing his next film, which he offers a small piece of information on:
“I’m finishing the editing of a movie called Sicario and it’s a movie starring Emily Blunt, Benecio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. It’s a story about a CIA black-ops on the Mexican border. It’s a very dark, intense movie, more in the vein of Prisoners. We are quite excited about that one.”
When asked whether he’d like to do something less intense, maybe comic, he sheds some hope.
“I’d love to do something like Dr. Strangelove,” he admits. “That’s my big dream.”
Finally we ask the big question: with Enemy out on VOD as well as in cinemas, what does Denis Villeneuve, director of Enemy, stream?
“I’m someone that loves theatre. I’m old-fashioned. I love being in a space with people, the tension among the other viewers. I love the big screen, I love going to theatre.”
He may not be one for watching films on demand, but you can see Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gordon and Isabella Rossellina, online from today.
Enemy is available on MUBI UK as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription, until 2nd September 2019.
Where can I watch Enemy on pay-per-view VOD?