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Interview: Director Denis Villeneuve Keeps His ENEMY Close

As far as gripping, cerebral dramas go, Denis Villeneuve and Jake Gyllenhaal are as delightful a combination as peanut butter and existential-dread-filled jelly. In Villenueve’s latest film, EnemyGyllenhaal plays a dual-role, one of two men who look identical and wind up accidentally crossing paths, leading to disastrous results. One is a struggling actor, one is a self-destructive college professor, both are deeply unfulfilled, and when they meet one another, they embark on a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse that fills both the characters and the viewer with a persistent air of anxiety. Are they two separate, distinct individuals? Is there some paranormal force at work? Is this merely an extended metaphor for one man’s psychotic breakdown as the two halves of his subconscious war with themselves for dominance? What in the lord’s name is that ending? These are but a few of the questions that arise from viewing the crisply shot, tensely paced psychodrama. To delve deeper into the deeply discomfiting world of Enemy, I caught up with director Denis Villeneueve over the phone to talk about his relationship with Gyllenhaal,

Nerdist: I watched the film last night by myself, and I was kind of wishing I had someone there, because it’s very deeply unsettling stuff to watch alone in the dark!

Denis Villenueve: [laughs] It’s a bad idea!

N: Yeah, especially – it’s the kind of thing where you don’t want to be alone while you’re watching this guy wonder who he is and if he’s losing sense of himself. This film finds you reteaming with Jake Gyllenhaal – two of him, actually. What kind of working relationship do you two have? What about him as an actor in particular speaks to you especially for a film like this with a double role?

DV: The thing of it is, I met Jake because of Enemy. I wanted to find someone – to find an actor that would be willing to build a relationship with me, in order to explore acting and directing and film making together. And as I was casting Enemy, at that time I learned that Jake was free, and was looking for a new project, and I just jumped on the occasion. It’s just that I was supposed to cast an actor that was coming out of Europe – out of Europe, because it was a co-production with Europe, Canadian, Spanish and English co-production.

And I convinced the producer to go toward an American actor, toward Jake – to try with Jake, because I just felt that he was an actor with intuition, but I just knew that Jake was comfortable with more, can I say phantasmagorical material, like Donnie Darko? But at the same time that kind of profoundness and creativity, and I really always loved Jake, like in Brokeback Mountain and Jarhead – I think he’s a very strong actor.

So I took the chance to send him the script, with a long letter explaining why I wanted to make the film, what was the meaning of this film for me, and how I wanted to do it. It came – I think it was just a coincidence, that Jake was at this precise moment of his career looking for exactly the same thing-which is to go back to acting in the place where it was more about, a more playful way, with less pressure, more about exploration, and to be welcome. I think it just – he was really willing to work with someone that would love him in an unconditional way.

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N: Right, right.

DV: To explore acting, and not be judged, and have fun together. And after I went to New York to have a drink – glass of wine with him, and it was the birth of a beautiful creative relationship, because he trusted me, and because I extended to him what I would like to create with an actor, and he was very excited by this idea.

We began to work on it, and then it was like a kind of explosion. We just had so much creative fun together, and I was really impressed. The more I was working with him, the more I was excited and impressed; how skillful, how precise, how profound, and how creative he is in front of the camera. How willing he is on the-how he’s not afraid of taking a risk and push the envelope all the time. It’s very exciting. For me, I was just over and over more and more excited to work every day with him.

At one point, I was – I realized I would love to work with him on my next project, which was Prisoners, and I offered him the part, because I just felt that he had all the qualities required for this specific part of the cop, the detective in Prisoners, and Jake agreed, because he wanted to work with me again. Again, in Prisoners, again I was like, smashed by the quality of his work. And I think, honestly, I’m a better director when I work with him, because he pushes my limits. He never – we are never – working with Jake Gyllenhaal, I never enter the comfort zone. It’s always uncomfortable, because he always pushes me to be better, and that’s, honestly – it’s painful, but it’s in the same time I feel that I’m better.

N: Well, the results certainly speak for themselves, and I think exploration is definitely the name of the game here, because this film plays around…

DV: You said “exploration” and I jumped on that word, saying that exactly about exploration, and it suddenly occurred to me that it’s like – it’s so rich, and so deciding and visceral and vital to go in that place from time to time, because in order to stay alive and to evolve, you need to take risk. And Enemy for me was a fantastic experience. I learned so much doing it, and Enemy allowed me to do Prisoners as well. I would never have been able to do Prisoners without Enemy.

N: Nice. What’s the old saying? “Stasis is death”? It seems like you guys definitely have that momentum. And this film I really enjoyed – it plays around a lot with issues of identity and sort of notions of domesticity and how they relate to happiness. I feel like we get a sort of fractal view of two halves of one man, and his relationship to infidelity and intimacy. So I was wondering if you could speak a little bit to that-are these meant to be two halves of the same whole, or sort of an example of the two extreme polar opposites of how we view identity and intimacy?

DV: I think the thing that you are talking about the main tension of the film, which is are we witnessing an extraordinary event of someone seeing another [of] himself, or is it a man starting to go berserk, and having a double identity?  Are they two, or just one? And the movie becomes constructed on that tension, like the book. Is he spying on another [of] himself, or is he spying [on] himself? It’s like my version of the equation 1+1=1.

We tried our best to build the movie so both are possible. Create the kind of feeling of vertigo from an intellectual point of view. We are always unsure if you are in reality or in the subconscious level of mind of the character. The story’s very simple – it’s the story of a man leaving his mistress to go back to his wife. And it’s the most simple story on Earth, but it’s told in a very complicated way. Because it’s seen from his subconscious point of view. And I loved that idea so much, and for me it was such a big pleasure to do that.

N: It’s a real joy to watch, too, because you’re constantly on edge, because you’re never quite sure what you’re seeing, from whose perspective – you know. I really enjoy that it keeps you guess and keeps you sort of hooked in. Like you said, at the core there is this very elemental through-line, but the way in which it is deployed is quite ingenious.

DV: It’s based on the book [The Double by Jose Saramago], and we tried to be – it’s not a faithful adaptation of the book. It’s different from the book. We tried to be faithful to the idea that is in the book, so the movie is different from the book.

N: I’d imagine that the ending is a little bit different. [laughs]

DV: Yes. In the book, it’s a different way to express the idea of cycles; the idea of repetition. But it’s a different way to express it, but there is a similar ending, but not with the same images.

N: Nice. I also wanted to talk to you about the film’s visual aesthetic, because the film’s color palette is immediately noticeable-it’s this sinister blend of blacks and golds, yellows and greens. It’s occasionally pierced by these swaths of blue and red, and it sort of plays into this pervasive sense of anxiety that is roiling under the surface of the film. How did you arrive at this visual aesthetic?

DV: The thing is that it’s based on the book, because when I read the book, it was this feeling of claustrophobia; paranoid environment, and it felt that this story was set in South America, so this was a kind of brown-ish, smudgy feeling to the light, like I remember when I was in Bangkok or South America. It was like the sun coming out from the clouds. There was a yellowish feeling, and I brought back images from the Middle East where I was in a sand storm, and I had that – the city of Amman was under this big yellow cloud, and it felt so claustrophobic and so, that kind of nausea feeling that I felt in the book, it was the best way to express it. In some strange ways, I mean, the book is set in the ’80s, and for some strange reason that is tough to explain, but the ’80s for me are yellow.

That is the color of the ’80s, and that is from the Reagan era. I don’t know why, but it’s really a color that is there, and maybe it’s linked with a kind of melancholia, and the different states of the main character, and it’s something that I felt that it was totalitarian. I mean, the palette color of Enemy will be that kind of yellowish feeling. We made a lot of tests in order to achieve that kind of look, and I worked with a strong production designer for this movie. It was really, really precise, and I’m very happy with the result.  And so-the will to go very dark, a lot of darkness.

I wanted to film the sexuality, and I wanted the audiences to guess the bodies in the muddy light, you know, to have that kind of murk, mud feeling, that the corpse, that we were just guessing the corpse, and the bodies in the darkness. I don’t want to go very – to feel intimacy without being too much of erotic. The sexuality would be more approached from an intimate point of view, without too much trying to eroticize too much those moments, because I wanted it to feel like big differences. So there was something about, it was very – I really had a lot of fun with the cinematographer on that shoot.

N: Obviously a production like this is not the most joyful subject matter, but what was your favorite moment, either on or off screen during the production?

DV: Oh, there are so – I mean, it’s a movie that is starting about a bit of depression, but at the same time, it’s done in a very playful way. It’s done with a lot of smiles. We had a lot of fun doing that film. I mean, a lot! It was a small, thin crew, in studio – very often we were in the studio, we were just like a bunch of friends doing the movie together, and it was like, I had a lot of strong memories coming out of this shoot, and nice ones, especially linked with Jake.

I think it was – it’s just the pleasure was coming from freedom, and exploration, and the fact that very often, I felt that it was a dance between Jake, the cinematographer, and I, just trying to be very present with what was happening, and really to improvise, and to go in one direction then another. But there was something very alive on that set.

But a specific moment?  I must say that when I did the last shot of this shoot, I was very excited, because I was willing to do that shot since I had the idea when I was writing the screenplay. I was dreaming so much, I was so excited. I felt so lucky to have the chance at once in my life to do that, so that must have been-that last shot was very, very exciting to do.

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Enemy is in select theaters now. Are you going to see the film? Let us know in the comments below.

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