‘Sicario 2’ producer discusses creating a sequel from a completed story
The fact that “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” even exists may mystify moviegoers — of the dozens of films Josh Brolin has made in the past few years, this is the one that gets a sequel? — but producer Trent Luckinbill knew, or at least hoped, that a sequel would be a foregone conclusion. Along with Oscar-nominated writer Taylor Sheridan, he and director Stefano Sollima conceived a follow-up that would offer more of the same white-knuckle intensity as before but with a slightly different focus, this time exploring the moral quandaries of two men from the first film who ply their trade in a world filled only with shades of gray. Luckinbill sat down with Moviebill to discuss that process, including the challenges of rekindling Sheridan’s creativity for a sequel and recruiting a new director for the franchise; considering the surprising timeliness of its ideas, and the complexity of the characters; and finally, leaving the door open for possible future stories, perhaps ones that would include Emily Blunt, one lead from the first film who doesn’t appear in “Day of the Soldado.”
The first “Sicario” was such a critical phenomenon. What do you think was the impetus to continue telling this story and what was the hook that got you interested in wanting to tell a second story?
We talked to Taylor from the beginning [about] if he had ideas for where this could go if it found the audience and if the characters were beloved. But he sort of suggested, and we always thought the same, that there are more chapters, there are more things to explore with these guys, so it was something that started in our heads way back when making the first one. I think we kind of waited for that validation, and once the critical response was there it was just a matter of keeping the quality of the movie intact so we could feel good about where the plot would go in the second. Taylor had some great ideas. We kind of let him loose — he’s just a really tremendous writer, brilliant guy and great world builder — and he said, ‘let me take a crack, these are some of my ideas.’ And he turned in a draft to us that was just super exciting. It felt connected in the right ways but it was a standalone, which was kind of where we wanted it to be, so we kind of hit all the marks.
The topicality of this subject matter right now, exploring border crossings, is kind of off the charts. At what point did you realize that this idea was in a way sort of catching lightning in a bottle?
Obviously, it’s an issue that we’ve been dealing with for a very long time and it ebbs and flows. [Taylor] grew up in Texas and I think some of his family is in law enforcement or deals with immigration. I think he has been aware of this issue for a lot of his life, and I think a lot of his movies are grounded in his background — “Wind River” and “Hell or High Water” — and it’s just the world he knows, that modern Western sort of storytelling. So obviously the drug trade was the center of attention in the first one, and then the immigration thing was something that he really researched and thought was something to explore and something to talk about in a second [film].
It’s funny you use the word “beloved” to describe the characters. What needed to be the focus in Taylor’s writing or in the directing to make them interesting enough that we’re not watching people we are either afraid of or hate?
It’s interesting, because in the first one you didn’t meet Alejandro [Benicio Del Toro] until halfway through the movie, and Josh [Brolin]’s character came in and had a mission that he executed pretty much to plan. But what you got was this confident, cocky, fun, irreverent [character], but you knew there was so much behind that brilliant guy in the first one. So in this one it’s a little bit different: the plan goes awry and it allows you to get into a more personal view of the character, so you get to see both of them confronting the morality of their decision-making — they’re confronting their roles as soldiers. From Alejandro’s perspective, I’m defying orders in order to sacrifice for this girl. That’s what I think is the right thing to do. And Matt [Brolin] has a similar confrontation, which is defy orders or sacrifice a friend. So it really tests them, but in the process you really get deeper into their characters, and so I think that’s what we really responded to in the script.
How tough was it to find a director who could suitably step in and create a visual style that was certainly his own and distinguished the movies, but make them also feel sort of cohesive?
That was our chief criteria. We really went after somebody that we felt like could hold tension the way that Denis [Villenueve] did, because I think that’s one of his strong characteristics as a filmmaker— that ability to keep [people] on the edge of their seats the whole time and not let up. We knew that was part of the DNA of the first one that we wanted to carry through to the second, so it meant finding a filmmaker that had that same quality, and we knew Stefano [Sollima] from different projects. He hadn’t made an American film yet but we loved his Italian stuff. We really dug into his TV series and his movie “Saburra” and things that he had done in the past. It was really evident that he was a guy that had the same instinct.
It almost seems like you can’t make a movie now with a bunch of helicopters and sequences and have it all be physical and not CGI or otherwise doctored. How difficult is it to mount a movie like this that clearly requires a lot of logistical complexity, and technology is advanced enough to make it possible to either take shortcuts or achieve certain kinds of things other ways?
Technology opens up possibilities because you need scope in these movies; you’ve got to invite the audience in to a bigger scope. The first one had very strategic action, and I thought we picked some really cool scenes, but it wasn’t throughout the movie — it was more of a slow burn. In this one, we wanted to amp that up a little bit, and it was just inherent in the script that Taylor turned in. Visual effects are so important because they allow you to open up the scope when you otherwise would be constricted from a budget standpoint. In this case we added a lot of practical stuff; I mean, those helicopters chasing down those trucks had some of the most talented helicopter pilots in the business. They were just doing amazing work. But then we were able to do explosions and things like that with visual effects, and I just think these days you can’t make an action-drama like this without being able to access that.
The first one seemed so much about being a witness to the way things sort of change hands without necessarily contributing to that change — Emily Blunt’s character does not materially affect all these big machine parts that are moving. This one seems to be more about effecting change on a very small level in the midst of those big machine parts. How much do you see this as an ongoing story? Have you discussed how you could address the themes you’ve introduced in a continuing or a larger way in future installments?
Yeah, you’re sniffing around all the ideas that we have too. I mean, I think this one is important as a standalone, because we made it that way and that was our goal. The first one didn’t tee it up as much as this one does, but it kind of suggests there’s even more to come. I think in Taylor’s mind he always had an idea as a trilogy, and certainly those are the conversations we’re having right now. And I think that plot-wise, you brought up some interesting points about how you can explore the machinery that’s doing all this. Obviously we tapped into it this time, but, you know, maybe there’s a way to do more with some familiar characters.
This is a movie that many people were skeptical about as a sequel. What is most important to communicate for people to understand what this movie is?
I would say, first of all, good moviemaking is all about characters, so it’s characters in a world that is different from movie to movie. But we felt like Josh brought a lot more to [Matt] and left you going, ‘aw man that’s cool, I want to see more.’ I think we left the first one thinking that these characters resonate. Like you said, they operate in the gray — in a world that people don’t see every day or are not confronted with, but this is cool to experience. So I think we knew we had characters that we could build and could follow further. I would say it’s important for people to know that they can come see this and not need to have seen the first one, because that was our goal in making the movie and we feel like it worked out that way. And I think now that they’re invested in these characters, I think we’ve got a lot more to say about the two of them — and maybe even more about Emily.