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Act Break: Director Denis Villeneuve Talks His “Jaw-Droppingly Weird” Enemy

Jake Gyllenhaal and Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy

In his newest film Enemy, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve immediately springs on us an omnipotent sense of dread. The chiaroscuro-tinged opening — a dynamo dream sequence in a film that feels like one long, unending hallucination — takes us inside an invitation-only sex club, populated by hard-looking, well-dressed men, one of whom is Jake Gyllenhaal. What are they watching? Scantily clad women doing seemingly erotic things that involve tarantulas. Bear with me.

Soon we meet a pregnant blonde (Sarah Gadon) who’s waiting at home for her husband. Is it Gyllenhaal whom she’s waiting for? The next time he’s glimpsed, he seems different — more stilted, less cool. He’s Adam Bell, a dull moth of a community college professor who lectures on methods of control used by repressive states. We watch his daily routine — teaching, dressing, making love to his very un-pregnant girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent), grading papers. Life seems boring. That is until, on the suggestion of a co-worker, Bell rents a video and sees a bit player in the background of one shot, a guy playing a bellhop, who looks just like him. That’s where the trouble starts.

As jaw-droppingly weird as it is insidiously intelligent, Enemy is the type of film that gives lesser men nightmares and makes you guilty all over again for cheating on your girlfriend. Based loosely on José Saramago’s novel The Double and shot largely in brooding yellow-and-off-black tones by War Witch d.p. Nicolas Bolduc, it keeps us guessing with its complications and unforeseen cruelties as we watch Bell and his doppelgänger come face to face. Enemy will be forever played on Toronto house party double bills with Dead Ringers, but for my money, this picture by Canada’s most exciting contemporary auteur is the more unsettling and deeply resonant picture.

Following last fall’s release of Prisoners, Enemy is Villeneuve’s second outing with Gyllenhaal, and the two are effusive about each other as creative collaborators. Below, Villeneuve discusses what Gyllenhaal brought to the demanding double role. And, in the A24 office following Filmmaker’s photo shoot of the actor and Villeneuve, Gyllenhaal described working with the director. “I realized that relationships are the most important part of making movies,” he said. “We tend in the movie business to be very selfish and driven for our own goals and expectations, and I really changed my perception about this when I met Denis. Those relationships — they make movies. Movies are really about going to places that are scary. Hopefully, you go to places that will scare you, and you need partners who say, ‘I’m here too. I have your back.’ Whether it succeeds or it doesn’t creatively, that’s what you have. Denis came to me and said, ‘Trust me, this is going to be an amazing experience. I can’t make any other movie until I make this movie. I need to make this movie.’ I’ve never had anyone say that to me, and that was an amazing, inspiring thing to hear.”

Enemy opens from A24 in March.

You made two movies of different scales in the past year. Obviously, Prisoners is a big studio movie, and Enemy is a smaller arthouse film. Having had those two experiences back-to-back, was there anything that you took from Prisoners that you immediately applied to Enemy, or were they such different sets of circumstances? The thing you must know right away is Enemy was done just before Prisoners. The idea was to spend time with Jake, with the one actor, and do experiments about acting. In my previous work, I was dealing with a lot of actors and having to deal with schedules that were quite tight, and I was running all over the place. I had the strong feeling that I had great relationships with my cinematographer, my editors, but not with the actors as much as I wanted because I didn’t have time to explore acting, to try things with them. I designed Enemy with the screenwriter — we wrote it together — and one of the ideas was to explore [the concept of] identity. It was about the idea of spending time with one actor in one location, to create a kind of laboratory. Jake came on board with this idea that I would give [him] space. And so we tried a lot of things, a lot of improvisations. We tried different approaches. We tried to push the envelope and explore the world of improvisation, and it was really one of the most exciting dramatic experiences of my life. And what I learned from it I got to apply on Prisoners. I was able to do Prisoners the way I did because I did Enemy just before.

Enemy director Denis Villeneuve
Enemy director Denis Villeneuve (Photo by Richard Phibbs)

Did you encounter the Saramago novel yourself, or was it brought to you as a piece of material to adapt? Enemy happened because of friendship. It’s a movie done by friends. For 12 years, I wanted to work with a friend of mine, Niv Fichman, a producer. We were looking for a project, and I knew that he had the rights of this Saramago novel. That [book] really inspired me — among all of the different projects that were on the table, I thought that this could be a fantastic idea to put on film. I was directing Incendies, and Niv presented me a screenwriter from Spain, Javier Gullón, who has become a close friend. He wrote the screenplay, but I was very, very involved with the screenwriting process. We were in communication all the time, and I really supervised very closely the adaptation of the book.

And were there things that were especially important in translating the book from a Latin setting to a Canadian setting? What did you learn about the material while doing the adaptation? The movie is talking about a problem: the problem with intimacy. In the Saramago novel, he goes on about society, about fear of the police and whatnot. That is more something that, when you more think it, more makes sense in a dictatorship or a more police-oriented state. So we decided to change it. Instead of having that kind of character come from a fear of the police, I decided to translate it to a kind of shame, this control of shame. So he is cut off from society, but by shame instead of fear. And it’s concerned with the Internet space, this bubble that was set in the ’90s. So those are the two big differences [between] the novel and the screenplay. In order to adapt [a work], I think you have to destroy it somewhat. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the privilege to show the movie to José Saramago because he passed away as we were working on the screenplay. I never had the chance to talk to him. I never had the chance to show him the film. But I tried to be as faithful to the spirit and the idea of the novel as possible. Books and movies are different mediums. You have to transform, and so I did.

Did you also bring in the motif of the spider as well as the ending, of course, which is something new? In the book, the mother figure is very important. But in the book, it’s with that kind of — how can I say — emasculated way of dealing with the world and even a fear of taking positions on top of society. I thought that it would be good to explore that from a male point of view. I installed a kind of symbol that would translate this fear, this problem with a stronger mother figure. I was honestly super excited to work with giant spiders. For a long time I’ve been aiming to make a movie that is playful with the audience — a movie there to provoke, to confront you with images that make you react. It’s more of a physical reaction, not an intimate, slow reaction. You have to think about it, you have to see the movie again to understand the images. I wanted to create a kind of feeling of vertigo, like the movie [Vertigo] I love. That’s one of my favorite films of all time. I still don’t understand some images from 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are pieces I am still struggling to try and find the real meaning of. I feel I understand different meanings of it as I grow up. It’s the power of cinema. It’s like a poem.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Sarah Gadon in Enemy
Jake Gyllenhaal and Sarah Gadon in Enemy

I thought about Hitchcock’s movies when watching Enemy. It’s forcefully, almost suffocatingly designed in a way that is similar to Hitchcock. There’s a rigor. Hitchcock was one of our inspirations — to create that kind of suspense. Vertigo was a very, very strong reference. But the colors and the atmosphere were inspired by the book. We tried to translate what we felt as we were reading the book into a cinematic formal approach. And I really tried to create with Nicolas and Patrice Vermette, the production designer, a specific atmosphere to express what we were talking about, this kind breakthrough in the character.

Did you look at other films that involved this concept of doubling, using the same actor on both sides of a frame? I’m obviously thinking of Dead Ringers, the Cronenberg film, but there are many other examples. Did you watch them to discover the challenges you would face, or perhaps because you didn’t want to repeat what those films had done? In some ways, when you’re doing a movie [today], it’s very tough to make something new. Even when you think you are making something new, you find out later that somebody did it before you. It’s very hard, very frustrating. Of course, we watched Dead Ringers again. Dead Ringers is one of the most traumatic movies I’ve seen in my life. Dead Ringers deals with that kind of strange exploration of intimacy as well, but from a different point of view. And there are a lot of double-identity movies that are something of a cliché. What I tried to portray in the movie that I never saw before is the impact of seeing yourself be the bad guy — the strength and the fear of being in contact with yourself. And that is something that we tried to create in the first encounter in the locker room between the two men. I think that’s the soul of Enemy. At the same time as I’m saying this, there is a Japanese movie or a Thai movie or a French movie trying to do the same thing.

Tell me about working with Jake in creating these two very different individuals, which I think he does masterfully. It’s a really magnificent set of performances. What was your dialogue like, both before and during the process? How did you find ways to differentiate these two people, to turn on one and the other off? Was it a consideration in how you arranged the order of the shoot? Yes, it was. First of all, we started with the main character, which is the teacher, and we worked with him as long as we were able to. And then, we started in the second part of the film, to explore the second character. But of course, when they were meeting each other, Jake was on the hook to play both characters. What really impresses me is that Jake’s a fantastic actor. He’s by far one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. He’s an inspiring artist. I knew which character he was just by the way he was putting his head or moving his shoulders or walking. His body changed [depending on] which one he was. And at one point on the shoot, I wanted to give some moments of confusion, where you weren’t sure if you were talking about two characters or just one, and that’s when we decided to switch [his performance] in scenes. There’s a scene in front of the mirror, where he’s going from one character to the other. He’s a very skilled actor.

And I’m curious in terms of his own preparation for it. Was there space for him to bring a lot of these details of character to it himself? Or was it a situation where those roles were very well delineated on the page and he more or less found a way to author that?Your question is if he had space or if it was super well written?

Yes. When you look at the film now, do you think that he contributed a lot of those characterizations himself in the improvisation work you all were doing beyond the screenplay? Or was this a situation where he just found these two people in the script and they’re similar to what you and Javier wrote? It’s very simple. The screenplay had a terrific structure. In the scenes themselves, the puzzle was super well written. We had the kind of blueprint that secures everybody at the beginning, where we just have to follow the structure. It was a kind of secret environment. When I brought the actors in, I said to them, “I want you to invent the part. I want you — specifically, Jake — to create those characters.” Because, I thought to myself, the characters on the page were lacking this. I wanted to reveal real human beings, and Jake brought a lot to it. The same with Sarah Gadon, by the way. I asked them to improvise a lot of the dialogue. We took a different approach. That was the main goal of the project, to have that space to create characters and to adapt. It was about the exploration of characters, the risk that they were taking in front of the camera, sometimes. We tried tons of different approaches. I never did that before. Before, I did one, two, three takes. I’m used to that — two, three takes, and if the dialogue is good and you have good casting, you’ll really have something great. But, with Enemy, we were doing 35, 40 takes. We were really doing exploration. For me, this movie is almost a documentary about Jake Gyllenhaal’s psyche.

I’m curious if he feels the same way. Oh yeah, when I say that he laughs a lot. He’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Mélanie Laurent and Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy
Mélanie Laurent and Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy

Were there things in the movie that deviated significantly from what you had planned in pre-pro or during the shoot, that maybe you discovered in the editing? The ideas at the beginning were very, very clear. When Jake came on board, I think he loved my director’s approach. That’s what he was always saying he needed. But, you know, he’s very precise. And so, the movie at the end, there are little details that are different. Like, there’s a phone call from the mother on an answering machine at the beginning of the film. That was not in the screenplay. In the dream scene, I had to change some things. But the main thing was that we didn’t change the dramatic structure that Javier wrote.

And that speaks to a dichotomy I find really interesting. Some directors are much more interested in control, like Hitchcock. The storyboard is the film, and the shoot is about executing the plan. Other directors, like Werner Herzog, or vérité documentarians, want to find chaos, cultivate accidents. Which camp would you consider yourself in? I’m imagining you’re more in the control camp. Honestly, I think it’s a kind of a mixture of both. About the cinematography, I like things to be very planned, optimized and structured — to have a defined, precise plan. About actors, I love chaos. I love when we go in a scene and once we do the scene correctly, we go out of the border and try to surprise ourselves by going in a direction that will involve risk. Sometimes, it creates things that are not interesting; sometimes, it creates jewels. When actors are not comfortable, you cannot do that. The problem is, [that approach is all] about relationships. You cannot do that with everybody, but with some actors, for instance, with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, I was able to move off of the tracks because the guys were so in control of their characters. They are so talented that I was able to improvise with them, and their improvisation was sometimes stronger than what was written. But you cannot do that with everybody, you understand? When you create chaos sometimes with the actors, it’s just dealing with the subconscious in addition to everything else. Sometimes accidents that happen in front of the camera are so very close to life. There’s something beautiful about it, and I am very excited about that. I am coming from the documentary [world] also; life is always about surprise and chaos, organized chaos is something that can be a quite impressive result. Again, with the movie like Enemy, it was all about getting a kind of equilibrium. There were specific scenes, specific moments required for the story to work, to come to life, so we had to be precise and controlled. It’s like with a horse. You can control the horse, but at the same time, you can deal with his power. You know what I mean?

How has the meaning of the film changed for you by the process of making it? I often found that, by the end, filmmakers’ relationships to their own films have evolved. Did that happen for you?  The meaning of the film didn’t change, but my relationship to it changed. It’s a movie that became more and more personal, intimate. It’s a movie that became more of an expression than a communication, and it’s an object that has brought to me a lot of peace as a filmmaker. Even if you said to me, “Nobody will see [this film],” I would be at peace. It is a strange feeling. I did this movie with friends just for the purpose of making cinema with people who are important for me. I want to show it, except I don’t. Okay, it is something very personal I want to share with other people, but I don’t have the same relationship with the audience as I did when I shot Prisoners, because that was a different approach. It’s more like something that is an object that was designed by friends that I love that I want to take care of in a very jealous way.

Do you plan to continue oscillating between more commercial projects and ones that are more personal, or as you said, less about finding audiences and more about satisfying something within yourself? It brings a lot of joy to be able to make a very personal movie. It’s like in the beginning, it was impersonal, this movie, and then it became more and more and more personal. I have the same relationship with Prisoners as with my other works. Prisoners, you know, is an object powerfully designed to be received [by audiences]. It’s not like that with Enemy. I’m aware it is a fragile movie, a more vulnerable object. When you do something like that, you want the people who will see the movie to have the will to play so they can enjoy it. They have to come to the theater with an open mind, I think.

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