With the recent surrealist escape of cartel kingpin El Chapo and the one-year commemoration of Mexico's 43 missing Ayotzinapa students, the ongoing drug war has again captured international media attention. Alongside this resurgence, a new swath of cartel related films and shows have emerged too, including Netflix's Pablo Escobar series "Narcos," and Lionsgate's cartel counterinsurgency thriller "Sicario," which opens in wide release October 2.
"Sicario" is "Traffic" meets "No Country for Old Men," where the tense story-line unfolds among the rapturously-filmed landscapes captured by the 12-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the minimalist score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.
In many ways, "Sicario" is a fever dream, a hallucinatory exploration of the so-called drug war, portraying an imagined Juarez as a war-torn nightmare akin to Syria or Dante's hellish wanderings beyond the River Styx. Yet, the film by director Denis Villeneuve isn't a documentary, at its core, it's an action-movie caricature where its characters are symbols. There's Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a silent angel of death, with a singular mission of revenge; Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) a hard-edged FBI agent who becomes a witness to the dark realms of cartel violence; and Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the FBI's covert mission man.
While the bones of the intense story are true -- the headlines in Juarez's most violent years often resembled a horror movie script or heavy metal lyrics, featuring beheadings, acid baths, or public corpse displays -- for some Latin American audiences, the story could be a bit hyperbolic, evoking the eye-roll of "another American drug war movie." Yet, as a piece of escapist entertainment, "Sicario" provides guilty pleasure of perusing a sensationalist tabloid or pulp fiction novel. And in Mexico, where the visage of violence looms in the negative space of daily life, "Sicario" offers relief from the endless greyscale of morality, imagining a world where cartels aren't immortal. In the way Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" imagined a world where Jewish soldiers could kill Hitler, "Sicario" portrays a reality where a single person can take on a cartel leader like a one-man SEAL Team 6. It's an impossibility, but like Westerns or film noir, there's catharsis in watching evil men get what's coming to them.
Actors Benico Del Toro and Emily Blunt recently stopped by KCET's Cinema Series for a screening and discussion with host Pete Hammond, where they discussed how the film reflects reality, working with esteemed cinematographer Roger Deakins, and filming in Mexico City and New Mexico. Check out the upcoming Cinema Series screenings here.
The following is a selection of their condensed and edited remarks.
On the reality of the film's plot
Emily Blunt: The screenwriter's brother is a journalist who works in Juarez and Mexico City. So, he has a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of what goes on there, and first-hand experiences. I think [screenwriter] Taylor [Sheridan] took it from that and I think he based that Kate Macer character on a girl that he met who I think was in the DEA. But it was more the interest in that part of the world, and from everything he'd heard from his brother that was the main thrust behind it.
Benicio Del Toro: Yeah, to my knowledge I don't think it's based on a specific event. It's all fiction.
On the consulting and training Emily Blunt experienced for her role
EB: I spoke to four FBI agents, women. It was a very transporting experience speaking to them, because we aren't really given any backstory. There's not much to go on in the film with, especially with Josh [Brolin]'s character. I think my character, you know that she just got divorced and she needs a new bra and like that's it. So it was very interesting speaking to those women. They were very helpful, but more on a sort of personal basis, with what that lifestyle is and how it affects you.
But I think when it came to the rules and regulations of how things are done, I mean, that really was all [screenwriter] Taylor Sheridan.
I had some firearms training. I had some right at the beginning. During rehearsals, I had firearms training from, there was a DEA agent there. There was an FBI agent, and then there was an ex-Navy SEAL. They all had different tricks. They'd all fight amongst themselves as to how you really should do it. So I got a kind of full whammy of expertise. But I really was amazed with that SWAT assault, how much of it is so strategically choreographed. It's quite elegant in a way. And an incredibly efficient way of doing things.
The best part was when, you're coming in and if someone's behind you, they have to kind of tap you on the shoulder. And the guy was teaching me, he was like "So I can either tap you on the shoulder or I can grab the back of your thigh. Which would you prefer?" And I was like, "Let's keep it up top, all right?" I was like, "You're not going to do the thigh."
I was amazed that it could be as delicate or aggressive as that, you know?
On what attracted Emily Blunt to the role
EB: What attracted me to the script was [that] I felt quite struck by how sad I was at the end of reading it, because you see this character's ideals systematically get broken down throughout the course of the film. I think at the beginning you can see she's got very bright lines between right and wrong. By the end of the film those lines become blurred, if not erased altogether. I was quite shocked by it, [and] quite shocked by the experience of reading it and feeling that quite profoundly. And yes, it is unusual, I think, to have the protagonist be a female cop rather than a guy.
I think it's better. Because otherwise you've just got guys running around with guns, being tough. And no one wants to see that. But I'm very happy that Denis Villeneuve, against some of the wishes of other financiers, stuck to keeping it as a woman because I think the attitude [that] you can't have a female protagonist in this sort of role, is a bit de passe.
I didn't ever find her to be a sort of swaggering butch character.
She's a female cop, and it was written with great reality.
In the fight scenes that you see between me and Jon Bernthal's character and Josh Brolin's character, it is the reality of what would happen in that situation, that she would be overpowered. And, and it's quite frightening in that sense. And, you don't have the action heroine scenes where she says the perfect thing and has the perfect punch and can take down any guy, you know? It is the reality of what would happen in that situation.
On Benicio Del Toro's reaction to seeing the film on screen
BDT: This one is one of those that you're proud of, you know? To me, this movie's a film noir. I was very excited when I saw it, the soundtrack, the editing, everything. All the acting, I really think is really strong. It's one of those that you go like, "Hey, you know what? I'm going to tell everyone. You've got to see this film, you know?" Because sometimes you do movies that you go like, "Yeah, it's okay." Yeah, yeah. But this one is one of those that you go like "Okay, I'll wear a T-shirt that says 'Sicario.'"
On the complexity of Benicio Del Toro's character, Alejandro
BDT: It was based on discussions that I had with Denis Villeneuve, the director. One of the things that drew me to the character was that he was a character driven by revenge.
I've done many movies in this world of drugs. I've played the guy who's addicted. I've played all the angles, but I haven't played this guy who's bent on revenge. So [for the film-ending dinner standoff] Denis felt like we should go far. We did two versions of the scene. There's the scene where I pull the trigger and I whack everybody. And then there's another version that we did where I let go of the kids. We felt that him going farther out was kind of like the original version of the scene.
It was kind of like more daring and more audacious to go out that way. And I felt that it did make the character stronger in that mode. He's completely covered in this revenge mode. And he's just going to wipe everything. It made it almost biblical in some ways, the fact that he kills the family and he kills everything. It's almost epic.
On the United States' relationship with Mexico, immigration and the drug war
BDT: I personally feel that both sides have to work on this. It can't be one side; it's got to be both sides. It's a very complex issue. There's issues. There's the war on drugs and there is the immigrant, issue. They're different.
I've met many DEA agents and I've worked with officers of the law for different roles. I got a couple friends of mine who are DEAs. And one of them said to me something that is really interesting: in the last 20 years, the productivity of drugs has not diminished one bit. But also the consumption of drugs has not diminished. It's a problem that it's on both sides. I think maybe the tactics are to be evaluated of how to go about it, how to deal with this problem. We could be talking about this for a while and not get to a solution. But it's not as simple as building a wall.
On how the film could be received in Latin America
BDT: I'm not good at speculating what other people are going to think in Mexico. You could say that my character represents an anger that you can find in many Mexicans that are fed up with what's going on in Mexico and the violence. I think they might be able to understand my character or to not maybe root for my character.
You can look at this movie and then think that it's saying that the only solution will be if America takes the wheel of this war. And, I don't know if the movie's saying that. In my opinion it's not saying that. But, people see different things. They might see the movie differently.
On the film's shooting locations in Albuquerque and Mexico City
BDT: We shot a big chunk of it in Mexico City. About, well, about 10 days or 12 days in Mexico City. Albuquerque's a big place for drug-related things because "Breaking Bad" was shot entirely there too.
EB: I think they not only have an amazing tax break there, but it's a very cinematic place. You have these huge skies and the colors there. I think people love shooting there.
BDT: I've seen it change quite a bit too because I was, I was there with "Traffic" and "21 Grams" in New Mexico. And back then there [were] maybe two restaurants. Now there's good restaurants everywhere. It's a fun place to shoot really.
On filming in Mexico City
BDT: Mexico is really big. And, these problems do exist in pockets in Mexico. But, we had a great time in Mexico City to be honest with you.
EB: In the scenes where we're driving through Juarez, Mexico City was a substitute for Juarez. I am actually sweating. It is not fake sweat. It was just a bad day.
BDT: We were really working in Mexico on the streets, you know? We had all those chases that you see, [they] are done in Mexico City.
EB: It was completely safe. Completely safe. I mean it was actually extraordinary on the day off that we had before we shot. We went and visited all the Mayan temples, the Aztec temples and it was just really, really eye opening.
And, so I agree, Mexico is very big. And I understand why I think it can make people reluctant travelers. But at the same time we really had a great time there.
BDT: I mean, you can take a movie like "Goodfellas." It was like I never want to go to Brooklyn, you know?
On working with director of photography Roger Deakins
BDT: Usually, I say to be in a movie, it should be the script, the director, and the actors, not necessarily in that order. But for this movie, Roger Deakins being part of it was a big incentive for me to be part of this film. It was that important.
I never talked to him. I don't even know anything about him. I never said anything. He would be there in the morning and then he would leave. He would never talk. And I like that. It's okay.
EB: Well, he talked to me.
BDT: Okay, well, everybody's going to talk to you.
EB: But, Roger Deakins is also the coolest guy ever. He would loll around the set like a Rolling Stone. He literally looks like one of the Rolling Stones. He's so cool.
On filming one of the movie's most distinctive scenes, a shoot out captured in the glow of night vision.
EB: The first bit that was shot in night vision, we shot in an arroyo. It was like a dried up river bed, and the hilarious part of shooting a night vision scene is that it really does have to be pitch black.
And so we were thinking, "Oh, this is great. We'll get night vision goggles. How cool will that be?" And then we got given the fake night vision goggles. So it was just like walking in pitch black with an eye patch on. I mean, that was really what it was.
It was so dangerous. And, so, that was the exterior. And then we shot the inside tunnels on a stage. They built a maze of tunnels on this, on this big stage in Albuquerque. And it was a nightmare for old "Long Legs McGee" over here who had to go and see the chiropractor after we shot it. But, yeah, it was pretty extraordinary. You know, when I saw the night vision cut together, it was really amazing. At the time it was not fun.
On working with the film's director, Denis Villeneuve
EB: He's the most delightful person, which you wouldn't realize watching this rather dark film. He's just incredibly sweet and warm and very, very collaborative. And I think the misconception with auteurs is that they don't want to listen and they want to do everything their way and they have no interest in your opinion. He is the opposite. He's very collaborative indeed.
I think you did need that different sensibility. And that's not to say that other movies about the war on drugs have taken a kind of wide-lens angle on it. But I think he did shoot quite a minimalistic, claustrophobic film. And I think at the time when we were shooting it, I don't think I was aware of just how taught and tense it was. And, I think maybe because he made the experience so lovely. I mean, he's just so sweet.
It was like a really lovely experience [on set]. And he said that we were like kindergarten kids.
BDT: I mean, the other side of the coin is that she is like him too. She's like really funny on the set and so is Josh. I mean, I felt like an outsider really. I would just like mind my own business, you know?
On how much the actors followed the script
EB: The screenwriter did a fantastic job. But we did kind of pair it down a little bit. I think that I'm, and it's not unusual, in nearly every film I do, I try and pare it down a bit because I think sometimes scripts are overwritten, you know? And so much of this is the power of suggestion and especially in a film like this is really everything.
BDT: We did take Denis there. There was a series of lines where my character would explain his background of what happened to him. And I always felt kind of weird because in my experience in life, I've met people who have gone through really tough situations, and they don't open up like that. It takes time to get to know the person. It takes time. And I know why it was in the script. It was in the script because it was trying to explain to the reader. But we needed to explain it to the audience. And Josh Brolin did a great job of stealing my lines.
His character explains to her what happened to me in that moment where they have the fight. That happened earlier in the script and it was like a little monologue that I had that I would explain to her. And it didn't feel like being in the moment and being the character. So Denis took that note and then Josh did a good job. You know people who have been in a war and they come back, they don't want to talk about it, you know? To me it's similar. That shock of is very similar.
On Emily Blunt recently becoming an American citizen
EB:Yeah, it was an interesting experience becoming a U.S. citizen to be very honest with you. I did it for tax reasons. That's not, and not to say that I don't like living here. But, I really like being British. And now I'm kind of half British, you know? I got sworn in bizarrely with Matthew McConaughey's wife standing next to me. And Matthew McConaughey there as well, you know? Yeah, it was hilarious. And Matthew McConaughey turned up looking like he was going on safari. And I was like, you could have worn a tie, you know?