NEW YORK, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve says audiences care about the characters in his thriller "Prisoners" because of Aaron Guzikowski's powerful screenplay and the extraordinary performances given by his cast, which includes Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano.
Co-starring Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello and Viola Davis, the Pennsylvania-set movie follows a distraught father who holds captive and tortures the troubled young man he believes kidnapped his 6-year-old daughter and her 7-year-old friend while they were playing outside on Thanksgiving. The father's actions drive him to the point of madness and complicate the police investigation as the girls' whereabouts remain a mystery until the final moments of the film.
The cast earned the National Board of Review's award for Best Ensemble and the critically adored film is a current Oscar nominee for Best Cinematography.
"I knew that the dramatic structure and the thriller elements in the screenplay were very strong," Villeneuve told United Press International in a recent phone interview. "As a director, I focused and concentrated on the drama and the intimacy of the characters. [I was] trying to be as close as I was able to be to them, and trying to love them and follow them and listen to them as much as possible because of the strength of the screenplay, so mainly my job was to listen to the characters."
So, is Villeneuve's job more enjoyable when he has a cast as amazing as this one?
"Of course! Of course! For a director, casting is one of the most important steps because, when you make the right choices, your job is 10,000 times easier. Those actors are all very strong actors who did their own work and knew exactly what to do and how to do it and were all very easy to direct. For me, it was like a dream cast, the chance of a lifetime to work with such great artists," he explained.
While those who haven't seen the movie might assume the deceptively simple title refers to the kidnapped little girls, the heading is also a nod to the suspect the father interrogates, as well as the parents, who are trapped by their grief, anger and hopelessness.
"The beauty of the screenplay is that there are a lot of layers and one of them is the idea that it is an exploration of the limits of each character where they are trapped in their anger or neuroses or their past," he noted. "There are different layers of jails in this film. That is the beauty of the screenplay. It has so many layers."
Villeneuve said another aspect of the project that appealed to him was how it doesn't judge the characters for their actions -- even if they seem weak or violent or commit crimes. Instead, the film urges viewers to ponder what they might do in the came circumstances.
"It's a story that explores morality. The fact that we can judge people from outside when they are going through a violent experience and the way they react, but when it is yourself and you are emotionally involved, sometimes your moral values become very blurred, and you don't know any more what is right and what is wrong. I think this is closer to reality. Reality is gray; it's not black and white," he said.
"Prisoners" is now on DVD and Blu-ray.