TORONTO – The Toronto International Film Festival has turned into a veritable love-in for Quebec director Denis Villeneuve.
The Oscar-nominated filmmaker was the centre of attention at a press conference Saturday in which celebs Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal gushed over his deft touch and Maria Bello declared him a “master filmmaker.”
The trio star in Villeneuve’s first big-budget U.S.-backed feature, Prisoners, a dark thriller in which Jackman plays a father driven to drastic measures when his daughter and her friend go missing.
Although Villeneuve is well-established as one of Canada’s most accomplished filmmakers, he is a relative unknown in the United States. Bello predicted that will change with Prisoners.
“I would like to say, and the whole cast will say, and I really mean this from the bottom of my heart, Denis Villeneuve will be known as a master, a master filmmaker for many, many years to come,” said Bello, who was joined on the panel by co-stars Terrence Howard, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo.
“And it’s been my privilege and all of our privilege to do this movie with you, so thank you very much,” Bello said to Villeneuve as the rest of the panel burst into applause.
“This is a nice press conference, huh?” the soft-spoken Villeneuve said as he turned to the press corps with a sheepish grin.
Jackman added that Prisoners easily could have been a generic genre picture, and he praised Villeneuve for elevating the story to a complex psychological study that lingers with viewers for days.
Villeneuve, who also comes to the festival with the Canada-Spain co-production Enemy, was modest in assessing his own contributions, crediting Guzikowski with planting the seeds for a multifaceted morality tale.
“What Aaron was able to build, which was this idea of seeing the whole spectrum of human reaction towards violence and torture…. that’s why I fell in love with this story,” said Villeneuve, whose past films include the Oscar-nominated Incendies and his black and white portrait of the Montreal massacre, Polytechnique.
Gyllenhaal, who plays a relentless police detective, said Villeneuve was generous in incorporating cast and crew ideas into the core themes.
“He always wants to add and add and add on to those things,” said Gyllenhaal, who also stars in the Toronto-shot Enemy.
“I think that’s what you see as an audience — is just many, many layers and many ideas, that some of which he’s loved and some of which he’s not but he’s put them all, as many as he can fit, into this one story.”
Howard praised Villeneuve for pushing the actors to be their best.
“Last night I watched the film for the very first time and I didn’t see me. I didn’t see Terrence Howard there, I saw Franklin Birch and I felt like an actor was born under Denis’s hands,” said Howard.
“And I think everyone here feels the same way. You really create characters and you’re a great tutor for every actor along the road to becoming a great craftsman.”
Jackman noted the script came to him a year before Villeneuve joined, and that production company Alcon Entertainment and producer Kira Davis took their time in finding the right director.
“It could have become a more generic thriller,” Jackman said of the tense drama, which starts off as a revenge tale but quickly broadens into something much more complicated.
“Hats off to Kira and Alcon for having the courage to make a more ambitious thriller and thank goodness they introduced us to this man,” he said, patting Villeneuve on the shoulder.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs through Sept. 15. Prisoners is set for release Sept. 20.
© The Canadian Press, 2013