Director Denis Villeneuve Says It’s Normal to Be Confused by ‘Enemy’

Denis Villeneuve, EnemyA24 via Everett Collection

After earning his turn as tortured Detective Loki in the psychological thriller Prisoners, Jake Gyllenhaal has reunited with director Denis Villeneuve for a film that is even darker and more twisted: Enemy. Gyllenhaal stars as Adam Bell, a sad sack history professor who discovers while watching a film one night that there is a man out there who looks and sounds exactly like him. His name is Anthony Clair, and once their paths cross, Adam finds himself caught in a confusing, tangled web of deception and mistaken identity. 

Villeneuve was inspired to make the film after reading Jose Saramago’s acclaimed novel The Double, and though it is only a loose adaptation, he was focused on translating the essence of the story into a movie. We sat down with the director ahead of the film’s March 14 release to talk about making the film, how he and Gyllenhaal became friends and why you shouldn’t feel bad if you can’t quite figure out what’s happening onscreen. 

I saw the movie a few days ago, and I’ve been thinking about it since, trying to piece everything together, and I finally think I understand what was happening. But I was wondering if that’s been the general reaction that you’ve gotten from audiences.
I think that if you see the movie, and at the end of it you don’t understand it, I think it’s because you’re normal. I think it’s a normal reaction. It’s designed to be a puzzle; it’s designed to be an enigma, so it means that at the end of it, you’re not aware what you’re watching. You’re supposed to be disoriented. The way we tried to do it, it’s supposed to be an exciting disorientation, not a frustrating one. I hope that people who will see the movie will be excited at the end, and [will want] to try to find the meaning, because all the keys are there, everything is there to be understood, but it’s not easy to understand. As a film lover, in the past, some of the movies that I loved the most were enigmas, like 2001: A Space Odyssey [and] Mulholland Drive. Those movies that haunted me for weeks and months, because they were so mind-challenging. [With Enemy] I had the pleasure to try to do this once in my life, and it’s just very exciting. But I think the audience has to be warned that when they see the movie that it’s an enigma and a challenge.

So, have people been giving you their theories about the film, and you’ve been using them as a way to determine who’s normal and who you should stay away from?
No, no, no. The thing is I think that the meaning inside the film is quite easy to understand. I think that most of the people, a lot of people [who] came to me after, audiences and critics, [were] trying to find meaning according to their own sensibility, and I love that. And I think that’s why, from the start, I decided that I will try to be disciplined and not talk about some elements of the film in order to lead the audience, to spoil their pleasure. Because Kubrick never said to me what was the meaning of the room at the end of 2001. He was not there to explain it to me, or David Lynch, and it created a lot of pleasure for me. So, it’s a bit pretentious, but it’s so much fun.

Were you familiar with Jose Saramago’s novel before you made the film?
I made this film because I read the novel. I fell in love with the novel, and then [with] my friend, the producer, we hired a screenwriter, because I was doing another movie and I didn’t have any time to adapt it myself.  Then someone else came on board, a new friend, Javier Gullon, and we started to work together on the screenplay.

I’ve read the book, and I would be lying if I said I finished it. I think I made it about halfway through…
It’s normal too, because it’s a very tough novel to read. Honestly, I was fascinated, I was excited, but at the same time, it’s quite tough to read the first two-thirds. The last third is much more dynamic.

Since The Double is such a dense story, and told in a stream-of-consciousness style, what were the biggest challenges you faced when translating it to the screen?
I think that first of all, you have to [keep in mind] it’s not like an adaptation. It’s inspired by the book, which means that we took a lot of liberties. For instance, there are no phantasmagoric images in the book. It’s just straight-forward reality. The only thing that is surrealistic is the fact that he is meeting himself. So, we took liberties, shortcuts, in order to be able to translate it to the screen because it’s so complex that there were a lot of decisions. So, the way you work is, you try to, in a simple way, find the main ideas of what the novel means to you and … the ideas that you think are important, according to you, and then you take the elements that are going according to those ideas. Basically, I was trying to be as faithful as possible to the novel, but at the same time, it’s not possible to. Saramago as you noticed, is very complex. You have to be a traitor, a bit. It’s inspired by the book, it’s not the book.

And one thing that’s not in the book but is so important to the film is all of the spider imagery.
That’s what I was talking about. It’s not in the book, but at one point I realized that as we were making the translation to the screen, there was something missing that was super important in the book … and I said, “No, we need to find something that the audience will feel this kind of pressure and fear that is in the book, but not in an intellectual way, in a physical way.” I tried to find an image that was the perfect incarnation, representation of something that was in the book, very subtle in the book. It’s my own interpretation, but the spider image in the movie is very important. But I won’t explain it.

You worked with Jake Gyllenhaal on the film Prisoners, right before you made this one. What is it about him as an actor that made him so perfect for this film?
In fact, it was the opposite. I did this first, I did Enemy first. I was looking for an actor, I was looking for a strong actor, English actor — Anglophone, I mean, an English-speaking actor — I was looking for somebody profound, somebody that would have the strength, the ability, the creativity [to take on the role]. And I had seen him in Donnie Darko. I knew that he was playful, willing to do strange things. I knew that he was a strong actor because of Brokeback Mountain. He blew me away how strong he was, I think that is one of the most beautiful performances of the decade, what he did in that film. So difficult and so precise. I love Jake in Jarhead… every time I had seen him on the screen, I was fascinated. I was starting the casting, I learned that he was available, so I took a chance. I just took a chance. I wrote him a big, long letter, sending him the script. And he invited me to drink a glass of wine with him in New York, and we drank the whole bottle, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I think what interested Jake in the project was not so much the story, but the process. What we will try to do with this movie.

Obviously, in order to play both roles, Jake had to know everything that was going on with the characters. I was wondering then, how much the women in the film – Melanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, and Isabella Rossellini – knew about what was happening.
The truth is in order to be able to do it, Sarah Gadon, the young one, the pregnant one, had to know everything because she was playing on both levels. And of course, Isabella Rossellini, in order to get her, she had to read the whole script, so she understood – because she was afraid that, “If I just do two scenes you will cut me out of the film!” [And I said,] “No, no, you are the center of the movie. I cannot cut you out.” So that’s why she read the whole script, to understand why. But Melanie Laurent, I felt that she was just interested by her part, and I am not sure she was aware of [everything else]. But it was perfect, because her character was dealing with the story this way. This was a character that did not understand what was happening, and so was Melanie.

There’s a lot about the film that reminds me of Hitchcock’s work – Vertigo in particular – and I noticed that both Melanie and Sarah are blonde. Was that a total coincidence, or was it an intentional homage?
Totally intentional homage and I am so happy that you are talking about Vertigo, because there’s some hair or dress or thing that – there were colors that were very Vertigo-like. And because it’s a movie that is talking about duplicity as well, like doubles, one of the best ones, by far, and I felt that it was playful just to flirt with some imagery as an homage to the master. It’s pure cinematic pleasure for a filmmaker. 

Speaking of colors, there’s a lot of yellows and browns in the film, sickly colors. Why that particular color palate?
I think really it was a strong, strong feeling coming out of the book. When you were reading the book, there’s a kind of feeling of sickness, a feeling of nausea, a feeling of discomfort, feeling of paranoia, fear, someone who is … very melancholy. And the story took place in the ’80s, and I don’t know why, but in my mind, the ’80s are yellow. That is tough for me to explain, maybe it’s a little bit [inspired by] childhood, my childhood or something, but it’s the only color I had in mind. When I gave my art director, my cinematographer examples of colors and what I wanted the movie to look like, and we went in that direction.

I think it does a great job of disorienting the audience, which you said was your intention, but another element I think worked to do that was the pacing of the film. Everything is drawn-out, and elongated. Why did you choose to pace the film in such a way, or was it just a result of Jake’s performance?
No, it’s really, the idea was to create tension, and at the same time, we need to feel the discomfort, we need to feel the strangeness of the situations, and the weight. You need time, sometimes. And I don’t know, some people — I don’t know how you felt, if you felt it was dragging too long, you can [think] that —  but … a lot of people so far felt that it’s tense and there’s tension. This tension is coming from time, sometimes, so we tried to find the right equilibrium. I hope that people won’t feel that it’s slow. My idea was to feel tension. And for me, there was a filmmaker that I loved a lot when I was a teenager, which was [Michelangelo] Antonioni, which is a guy that takes his time with the shots. So for me, it was a kind of Antonioni on acid. It was really like a movie that was trying to explore space and time in different ways for us, that’s our exploration.

If you were to meet your doppelganger, what do you think he would be like? Would he be the complete opposite of you, or do you think there would be some overlap?
I’m dealing with him every day. I have two people, and I know it’s my good friend and a strong enemy. And that’s why I think it’s very frightening to have someone that looks like you, but that is not you, but is part of you. It’s very frightening. For me, it’s an enemy. That’s why it’s the title of the movie.

You can check out Enemy in theaters now.