The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Sicario.
There have been other stories about the cartels and the drug war. Why did you want to tell this particular story?
Denis Villeneuve: For me it’s not a movie about cartels. I don’t think anyone will learn new things about cartels from this film. The cartels for me were just as a background. It’s more about the way the United States, or the Western World, deals with their borders when it comes to trafficking, drugs, or their enemies. There is this fantasy of thinking that we can solve problems abroad with strong violence and not stopping to think about the violence that will come after. The whole movie is about cycles of violence. For me, that was what was very interesting about it. I feel that this border is very meaningful: it says a lot about the world today, about our media, about the world of tomorrow. It draws a strong contrast with poverty. The border is just a line, and on one side we have a society that doesn’t function, and on the other side is still chaotic, full of people who don’t trust their institutions.
In the very beginning of the film, there is a remarkable scene in which Ms. Blunt’s face is almost totally obscured. It gives us a tremendous insight into her character. Can you talk about how you and Denis work together generally, and that scene in particular?
Roger Deakins: In a case like that, the idea was that the glass is going to be misted, and it would slowly go to clear, and it didn’t clear, and it was really good it didn’t clear. I love working with Denis because we just bounce ideas around and other things come. But then at the same time when you’re on set, things like that happen. Connie Hall used to call them happy accidents, but they’re not. It’s similar to the scene when the convoy comes back from Mexico and they take the guy out and stick him in, and it’s left with Josh and Emily standing there and that conversation. We knew we were going to use the action of the convoy driving up and everyone getting out, but I don’t think we were intending to play this scene on the wide shot. We did it, and I turned to Denis and said, “Okay, what kind of coverage do you want?” And he said, “No. Definitely not. I don’t want to cover it because we’ll use it if we cover it. I don’t want to use it.”
“That moment there when she broke down was like, Oh my God, I thought we had it.”
When we first meet Kate, we realize how determined, how steely, how dedicated she is to her job. There’s a very specific look to her and she is the audience’s way into this world. Can you talk about how you developed this character?
Emily Blunt: It was a very interesting role to prepare. A complicated one at times, actually, because the challenge was trying to find the line between someone who has that steeliness at the beginning of the film that you gradually see start to blur and disintegrate as she’s thrust into this very incoherent world. I do think it takes a very specific kind of woman to go into law enforcement. I don’t think I would ever be any good at it. And I spoke to four women from the FBI who were very influential on how I played this part. I got a lot of insight into that lifestyle, how it affects your personal life quite profoundly, how taxing that job is. It was one of those parts where I wanted to shed every layer of skin. It’s very much like war, very gritty. It’s very, very internal, and it was very rewarding working in that way. I think I really enjoyed being in that reactionary position, and to be a sort of surrogate for the audience. I didn’t realize that at the time and then when I saw the film I realized just how much she takes you through it. But I admired her. I remember feeling I admired her greatly after reading the script. I admired that morality in an amoral world and I think that lines between right and wrong are very bright for her in the beginning of the film, and then become blurry and almost erased by the end. It was a challenge to play because it takes place over three days, but so exciting.
Matt has a very interesting persona, internally and externally. He is very pragmatic, but he knows whom he’s dealing with, and it seems like he wants to get his guy no matter how that’s going to happen. Can you talk about developing the characer?
Josh Brolin: That’s a tough question. I’m actually reminded of something Paul Verhoeven once said (which I completely think is true): You don’t really know about exactly the specificities of your character until you start doing press for the film afterward. And then you start cultivating answers! I have no idea, when you get into it, but what’s great about working with people like this – and then what’s awful about working with other people who don’t do this – is the collaboration. You don’t know the specificities about anything, and you’re searching through it, you’re ripping it apart, and you’re looking and you’re weighing it, and you’re questioning it, and you’re not sure. So by the time you finish the movie, you think to yourself, “It’s probably not going to be very good. I don’t think we did a good job. I’m sorry.” Then you see the movie, and you go, “Holy shit!” That’s my experience. But in this case, this is a special movie—there’s something very special about this movie. You don’t get experiences like this very often… It’s amazing once you get into the specificities of it. When we’re in it, we’re all kind of fear-based. What’s the best way to do this? Is this the right scene? Is it better to stay wide—to make the choice to stay wide? Not go in for coverage could be a very dumb decision, and to actually have the courage to do it and say, “I don’t want to have the choice, because I just have a feeling, I have an instinct.” The military guys, especially a guy name Jason Rome, gave me a patch that Chris Kyle had given him when they were on tour together, and that was a very, very emotional for me, and I felt very honor to have that moment, therefore honored to be in the movie and represent those guys in that way.
When you approached your character, did you care about his backstory? As an audience member, I was very much involved with the here-and-now. I wanted to know what he was going to do, how he was going to eventually have resolution with Kate, but I felt that I didn’t really need to know about who he was, or where he came from.
Brolin: Because he’s kind of a ghost in that way. This puppet master that shows up and, yes, by the way, I don’t do it for everyone, but for this one I thought it was important for me to understand how many kids I had, how I felt about being a parent, how protective I felt of my family. The fact that even though I’ve known Benicio’s character forever, he probably doesn’t even know that I have a family; we’ve never spoken about it. It’s probably best for my character to keep it as impersonal as possible even though it feels personal. The fact that it feels personal, but I have my life, that’s the whole point in why we’re doing this: the future of the United States. We need to create a reaction from the Cartel and just do something. Faced with the reality of having spent a trillion dollars in the last forty years and that not having any impact whatsoever, just creating some kind of reaction is what we’re trying to do.
You have been in films that reference the drug wars. What was it about Alejandro that drew you to the part?
Benicio Del Toro: A combination of everyone that is sitting up here, and the script. I thought the script was very original. I also thought the character was original for me, because I never played that guy whose main motivation is revenge. And then there’s everybody here, it was a motivator to go do it. My first meeting with Denis: his enthusiasm, his vision, his sensitivity to the subject, was a motivator to jump in… Movies are put together with teamwork and you really want to be with the best.
I thought throughout the entire film that your character really cared about Kate, and that you protected her. You were sort of her guide into this world that she knew nothing about. And then we get to one of the last scenes between the two of you, and then everything got thrown out the window.
Del Toro: We sat there, we talked about it with Denis. The core of the scene was on the page. The big question was what does Alejandro do? What’s important is to make sure she doesn’t talk. So we discussed it, we worked on it on the day. What I remember was that the scene went to another level, really, when Emily just broke down. It’s one of those moments that you experience when an actor just makes it into something special and it’s that moment when she breaks down, when whatever she stands for is flushed down the toilet basically. That moment there when she broke down was like, Oh my God, I thought we had it. From the point of view of my character, he doesn’t care at this point, even if he likes her, if she doesn’t sign that piece of paper, she’s going to have to go. Roger shot it. Denis said action and cut. And Emily ran with it.
You reference your daughter and for a moment I took a sigh of relief, but then I realized… not to be.
Del Toro: Yeah he wants to be gentle because it’s just a signature that he needs. But it’s when she reads what it says, which is basically saying that everything that we did was done by the book and there are bunch of lies. And she says No, and then it’s like…we go to mode Number Two, which is like, your brains or the signature.
Blunt: And I chose signature. That scene was a special one to shoot. What he’s asking her to do is to sign away everything that she’s ever believed in. She completely defines herself by this job and what she stands for. It was there on the page, was this idea on the page that he would come and intimidate her in some way, but with the mix of this sort of tenderness and something menacing, and so we came up with something that felt really good for all of us. The response of breaking down, it just very organic thing that just happened, it wasn’t really planned, and so we just rolled with it.
Sounds like her career was finished. Everything she had worked for and stood by and that was honorable, that was ended. Alejandro tells her, you’re not a wolf, and this is the time when we’re involved with wolves; get out of town fast.
Blunt: But it’s interesting the decision she that makes at the very end not to shoot him. Even though on the day I wanted to shoot him! I turned to Denis and I was like, “I want to fucking to shoot him.” Denis—my favorite response—went, “No, madam, because then you’re just like him.” I think actually that’s the glimmer of hope that she will regroup at some point and she will go back and she’ll try again, because I don’t think the steeliness or morality has been completely erased. I really don’t.
The perspective of the film is predominantly from Emily’s character, but you also jump into beautiful landscape shots and helicopters shots, and even into night vision or infrared mode… and it was so seamless, particularly in the last third the film, which is almost the climax. How did you approach the photography and the edit to make it so seamless, and build in that way?
Villeneuve: We instilled in the audience’s mind since the beginning that we will be in Kate’s point of view, and that most of the movie will be shot just around/above her shoulder, we would be very close to her, seeing everything through her perspective, so when at the end she use the new technology, we are still using that perspective, so it just feels natural.
Deakins: The perspective of the film sort of changes in a way. It starts as Emily’s perspective and it segues into Benicio’s perspective. But we were always sure that we wanted to stay with that particular character, and to see what is happening. The film’s not shot objectively from outside like an action film, it’s always within the perspective of Emily.
Villeneuve: I wanted to create through the movie a feeling of claustrophobia and tension, and that she’s trapped in the story. It’s like she’s embarked on a train and the train is going to a destination that she does not know, and the tension comes from that mystery. For that scene it was like doing scuba diving. She was going into the night and we had to show that everything becomes strange around her.
Deakins: You’ve got to feel a connection with the characters. Although there’s a lot of action in this film, for instance, it’s not an action movie, and I hope we didn’t shoot it as an action movie, we shot as it sort of character piece, and the characters happen to find themselves in action situations.
Del Toro: When I read the script, the fact that the point of view changes to Alejandro’s point of view… that’s unorthodox. I wasn’t sure it was going to work, and when you see the film it does completely work, and it just goes to show you that there are no rules, that the rules can go out the window sometimes. You guys did it right, whatever it was. When you read it, it was jarring, like, What happened to the girl?! But it did work emotionally.