Interview: Jake Gyllenhaal & Denis Villeneuve

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In a Toronto hotel room overlooking a gray, January skyline earlier this year filmmaker Denis Villenuve and Jake Gyllenhaal are seated and ready to talk about their latest collaboration on the award winning film Enemy (opening in theatres this Friday). It’s almost surprising to look at them and look at the skyline behind them out the window. It’s just as surreal, massive and kind of dreary as Toronto is depicted in the film. It’s also surprising to not see a giant spider walking over the buildings towards the hotel. But that’s a reference more easily understood once the movie starts to get seen by a wider audience.

The second collaboration between the director and star (which was shot prior to their work together on the American studio thriller Prisoners, but released after) is an adaptation of late Portuguese author José Saramago’s novel about a man who searching for what’s essentially his other half. Not necessarily a story about twins, the film concerns a university professor named Adam who one day realizes that he has a doppelganger that happens to be a bit part actor (both played by Gyllenhaal). Both men have different lives – Adam is an introvert with commitment issues that’s dating a woman quite casually (played by Melanie Laurent), while Anthony is a motorcycle riding, fashionable extrovert in a committed relationship to a pregnant woman (Sarah Gadon).

Winner of several Canadian Screen Awards this past weekend (including one for Villeneuve for achievement in direction), Enemy is a hard film to describe without giving away all of its secrets, and an even more ambitious film to think about when one realizes that much of the production was improvised (both in terms of acting and technical requirements).

Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve sat down with us while they were in town earlier this year to present the film at Canada’s Top Ten to talk about the clearly defined roles of the main characters, how the simplest mannerisms can define an entire character, who Gyllenhaal thinks the real protagonist of the film is, why Villeneuve wanted to set and shoot the film in Toronto, and if they will collaborate again.

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Even for a film where people play dual roles, something that’s been done in films before, this is a very original take on that kind of concept. I know that the two of you like to work with improvisation a lot, and especially on this film, but you’re playing two characters that are just slightly removed from each other. In some ways, I think it could make those snap decisions that you have to make when you’re improvising a lot tougher, because one step too far in the wrong direction might not work for either character. What’s it like for people like yourselves who like to have that looseness, but to also have two characters that are slightly different from each other in terms of personality?

Denis Villeneuve - F2Denis Villeneuve: That’s a great question. I think to have that kind of freedom we had to have a lot of discipline. The boundaries were very clear. Aesthetically we were going in a very specific direction and Jake was in total control of both characters.

The screenplay itself was also very precise, as well, because to work in that risky and strange landscape, you need to have strong boundaries. But again, in order to create life in such an artificial world, we wanted to have the time to work that out. That was the biggest luxury we had on this project, to have time. I spent a lot of time with the actors a lot of time to improvise to provide sparks of life in front of the camera.

I think that coming from a documentary background, I have always been amazed by life, and working with actors I found out that when you make the right casting and what you can get from strong actors coming from their own impressions is sometimes better than what I can pick out.

ENEMY_DAY25-0152.NEFJake Gyllenhaal: There were also moments where somewhere we would have discussions where we would discover something – and this happened early on – and Denis would say “Well, I could put that in later on. If that’s a discovery now, it’s not something that we necessarily has to be at the beginning, it could be later on.” So we would come back to it. At different times we came up with different discoveries about the characters, and I think as things went on and the further into it we got, the clearer things got. I think the script and the structure of it is very clear, but when it comes to who these two guys are and what the real journey is that we were trying to discover was what we had to find. We always knew the beginning and the end of the movie. We always knew that the two would meet or else there wouldn’t be much of a movie. (laughs)

And he gave this amazing room, both technically and artistically, for those scenes. We would have two or three days for those scenes that we wouldn’t necessarily even use all of, but we were protected in that space. There were things that we wanted to do, but he always knew to elongate the time when the two of them meet to make things really paranoid. But we didn’t know exactly how both characters were going to respond to each other, so that’s what we really had to find. I remember saying to him “I really feel like Adam would feel like this is a huge mistake.” And I know we had to get out of the room and there were those kinds of conflicts the we needed to see how they would play out.

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DV: At one point it felt kind of like a stage play, and I had never done a stage play, but it seemed like that sometimes when it came to discovering with the actors what the scene would be. That was my dream to try that as a part of my process. When I did some of my other movies, I was working with a lot of different characters in front of the camera and not a lot of time. People would just kind of fly in front of the camera and do their thing and then we would be onto the next scene and we would only have five minutes to do that scene, and stuff like that. I was tired of that. I wanted to have time to really explore cinema with one eye.

JG: The reason I wanted to do this was because you had written this sort of manifesto that came with the script as to why he wanted to make it and what it was about to him. That was always clear. The movie was always about a struggle that a man had towards intimacy and the struggle with sexuality and being faithful and all of his relationships as he headed towards a real committed relationship. That’s how I looked at it. In a lot of ways it was a very typical story about evolving into being a man, and then he has a twist on it at the end where he’s kind of seduced by these same kinds of biological motives that people get seduced by, regardless of whether or not he wants to commit. I think what makes it a horror movie for him is sort of that ending thing, which is just about never escaping that. That was always very clear. There was never any fear that we were ever going to go off track. The rules were very clear, but within them anything was possible.

DV: But that’s the beauty of doing something that can be seen as sci-fi or horror. The reaction of the audience when your character finally meets yourself. There are tons of different reaction and all are good, but they’re all good even when you might be looking for one specific one as a director. But on a set like ours it was great because you can explore creating all these different kinds of reactions. It’s very exciting to work in that space.

There’s kind of this idea of the film as almost sort of being like an infinity mirror, and that has to be an interesting thing to explore for an actor; this concept of a sort of split personality with infinite options and possibility. In real life, actors have their roles and the persona you play in your day to day life, which is interesting when one of the personalities in this film is one of an actor.

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JG: It’s interesting because the irony of it all is that when I made this film I was at a place in my life and in my work where I wasn’t really interested in presenting anything that wasn’t closest to me to anybody. I mean, what you present as an actor or when you’re doing press or whatever that might be, I think the thing for me was to be as clear as I could be and as honest as I could be as possible at any given moment.

But I think we’re all presenting different things at different times. You’re not the same here as you are if you go home and you go back to your loved ones or your family or you’re by yourself. We’re not always the same person. You go to cocktail party or to something else, you are going to change who you are. It’s inevitable. We are animals, you know what I mean? I think that’s what’s behind that. What is authenticity? What is our true self? Who is this guy, really? Is he one person or is he two people?

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And Denis always said this is a story that feels a bit like a spy movie in a lot of ways; like they are two separate, but definite people, and I always thought of it as one man’s journey towards that idea. Neither of us were saying different things. We were always agreeing.

DV: Your idea of the mirror is a good one because when you have several mirrors that are one on top of the other you can kind of have that feeling like vertigo. That feeling is something that I was definitely trying to go for. There were a lot of films that were made in the past that capture that quite well. Those kinds of movies where you feel at one point as a viewer that the filmmaker created a feeling of the known and the unknown colliding and it has a strong impact. It’s almost subconscious. You feel a strong emotion, but you don’t understand it. From an intellectual standpoint you can seem confused, but from an emotional standpoint it’s very clear. I love those kinds of movies so much, and I was trying to be clear and not be pretentious about finding this vertigo feeling that I had experienced watching those movies.

How did you go about creating these two characters in the moment, because one is more of an introvert while the other is just a bit more of an extrovert?

JG: We flip flopped a lot between doing the two of them. When we first started I was playing Adam mostly through the beginning of the movie. Then about ten days in, we started incorporating Anthony into scenes. Then it would become that within one day I would switch about eight times a day. What I knew is that physically when you are shooting a movie of a certain length of shooting that often comes across in the character physically. So I knew that they both wear very different shoes. With Adam I was physically a lot more comfortable because I wanted him to be the kind of guys who can sort of swim in his clothes and have a lot of pockets to hide things in. I found this coat that allowed me to hide a lot more of myself and my hands and not move as much. With Anthony, we both wanted him to wear the same kind of white shirt throughout, but the tailoring of his shirt was really tight and he would wear this leather jacket that would be really tight, and inevitably he looks like he’s standing up straight.

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There was this really funny moment because Denis has this really funny obsession with hair…

DV: Look who’s talking. (laughs)

JG: (laughs) He’s just very particular about it being natural, so literally all I would do is comb my hand through my hair. But there was such a difference in that action between someone who would be aware of that action or even just be aware of their hands. Then it even happens in one shot where it happens when I am putting on the Adam’s clothes as Anthony and he puts his hand through his hair and he just walks out. Then he comes back to see Adam sitting in a chair. Those little things like the idea of putting your hand through your hair is such a specific personality trait. It’s like the difference between someone who shakes hands and say “Oh, hi, nice to see you” or someone who says that and just kind of nods or does something else with their hands. It’s something they’ve learned and something that they know.

DV: Both characters are formed by their tension. Jake wanted them to be secure in being different, and I wanted them to look alike as much as possible. I knew who I was in front of just by how Jake’s shoulders were. Even if both characters were completely naked I would have been able to tell who was there. They were so different from just the vibe between the two. I liked that the more we were working, I was trying to create confusion by bringing them back closer together when we were building this tension that two might become one. It was exciting to watch Jake go from one to the other, and it was very striking how both were in the same body, but embodied different souls.

JG: There’s this idea that I thought of that when someone like Anthony walks into a room that he won’t accept “no” for an answer, and I felt like Adam was the kind of person who would immediately resign to the “no.” That was a big difference in the two of them and their personalities, and those are the things you think about. I would always ask Denis, “Do you think this is enough?”

DV: And I would say it was great!

JG: And I would think, “What’s wrong with this guy?” (laughs) But then I would see it and in particular when shooting the scenes with the two of them together, those differences became very clear to me.

Then the improvisation came into play when forming the characters at that point, too. There was much more of a sibling relationship that began to happen where Anthony would say things, like, “No, do this. Show me this.” And Adam would be, like, “I don’t know if I feel comfortable with that.” And Anthony would just say “I don’t give a shit if you feel comfortable with that. You’re gonna do that.” And Anthony would then do whatever it was really reluctantly or say that something isn’t right or that he doesn’t feel good about this.

But the whole time I always thought Adam was the protagonist and the hero. I always thought he was the most courageous of the two of them. He was the searcher. He was the one trying to find out the answers.

It’s also interesting to note that because Adam isn’t the one that’s an actor for a living, which in the eyes of the audience already makes him the more trustworthy one.

JG: (laughs) Totally, which is such a weird, meta thing in general. But there was a time when we were doing an improv in the bathroom where he was rolling the camera for about twenty minutes and just randomly after about maybe 10 or 15 minutes just running the lines that I was working on for the scene that I had already done in a scene that I had done before, and it was a scene that I had struggled with, and I just started doing them in front of the mirror and I thought that really worked. That was just totally borne out of improvisation, and then he used that in that moment to emphasize really what being an actor was and what a performance was.

DV: We did those scenes at the end where you were able to switch from one character to the other and I could just see and say “Oh, he’s Adam now,” or “Oh, it’s Anthony. That’s cool.” (laughs) I loved that so much.

Toronto is often transformed into other cities on film, but here’s it’s playing itself, albeit a much darker version of itself. Where did the idea come from to set the film in Toronto?

DV: The idea really came from the book. The book was set in an unknown megalopolis, and the way the city was described it was something sort of like Sao Paolo, and something that was sort of distinctly Portuguese, but still kind of tied to Spanish culture, and the city itself was in Brazil. I wanted the movie to be in English and there’s not a lot of English speaking cities that have that kind of massive feeling or landscape or architecture that was like the book. I didn’t want to shoot in New York. I never felt that would be right. I was looking for something very specific. And while scouting in Toronto I every quickly found a lot of spaces and places that were exactly as I imagined it when I was reading the book.

We were very excited to take this landscape and make it our own in terms of production design and cinematography. For us it really quickly became the perfect place to shoot. It’s really exciting when you pick a place where you are given so much that Toronto in the movie itself becomes a very important character. It’s a city where the amount of people and the amount of buildings was something that we could turn into a really claustrophobic and oppressive environment. I thought that it had all the qualities we were looking for. It was the only place to shoot this film in Canada, and I don’t even think in the States there were any cities that would have all of these qualities. Maybe New York, but New York has its own aura and charisma, and I feel like Toronto was a lot more fresh for us to shoot something here. New York has been explored a lot by a lot of great filmmakers, but here basically it’s just David Cronenberg and that’s it. We were shooting in “enemy” territory. (laughs)

Do you see yourselves collaborating again after working together on two films back to back?

DV: I would love to. As a director I’m deeply inspired by Jake. He’s a very strong actor, very creative, and I love his will to take risks. With all his skill and talent, he’s still willing to take massive risks in front of the camera. I wish I would have this chance soon. The only main problem on my side is that on my next project it will probably end up being with a lead actress.

JG: So he’s going to cast me.

DV: (laughs) When I told you that, you sent me this funny email that just said “But Denis, I can’t shave!”

JG: (laughs) But we do have these moments between the two of us where one of us will write the other over the past little while where we’ll say “Let’s go do this together.” Then he won’t respond for a little while because I know he’s out there just thinking “Should we?” (laughs) Then he’ll write me about two weeks later and say “I would love to do this thing! Are you available?” And I’ll be, like, “Well, I was.” (laughs) But that’s how we feel. We’re constantly orbiting this thing where when we’re in our process we are deeply inspired, hurt, moved, enraged, all of those things together throughout the process, and those are the keys to us always wanting to come back and work together regardless.

DV: It’s like they say, it’s about finding the right project.

JG: That’s absolutely true.

DV: I have some good ideas. It’s just that making films are a long process.

JG: He’s inspired a lot by story, though, not just by any actor. I think if he finds something that he wants to work with me on, story will be the most important thing. And it really is THE most important thing to me.

DV: I actually think Jake could be a really strong screenwriter. He has very strong ideas.

JG: Well, my mother is a screenwriter, so maybe I come by it that way. But I know that just because my mother is a screenwriter that I would never be presumptuous enough to think I could just dive in and do it and do it well. I could definitely try it! It would just be words on a page from my perspective, but it’s a matter of figuring out how good those words are. That’s all to be determined. And  respect that process so much that I don’t even know if that is true, but I know I would love to work with him again, bottom line.

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