‘Sicario 2’ director Stefano Sollima on exploring the crime saga’s timely themes
Bleak and uncompromising as was its finale, “Sicario” didn’t leave audiences with much to hope for – including a sequel. But director Stefano Sollima, taking over for Denis Villenueve, crafted in “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” a follow-up worthy of the original, even as it takes many of the first film’s characters in a new and intriguing direction. The filmmaker, who previously helped adapt Roberto Saviano’s “Gomorrah” into a critically-acclaimed Italian television series, recently spoke with Moviebill about the challenges of turning what moviegoers thought was a single-serving crime drama into the ongoing story of the drug war through the eyes of men struggling with the moral compromises they believe are necessary to win it. In addition to talking about the process of finding a second story that he thought needed to be told, Sollima revealed his studiously ambivalent approach to material that almost demands a specific point of view, and reflected on his own moviegoing appetites and interests, including the early experiences that helped shape his appreciation of the art of filmmaking.
I was talking with a colleague after I saw it, and beforehand neither of us were 100 percent sure whether or not we felt like a sequel was necessary, but now we’re eager to see a third one. When you came into this, what were your feelings about the importance of the story and what convinced you that it needed to be told?
Stefano Sollima: Taylor’s script was amazing, and then I felt that there are so many interesting aspects in it. I mean, first, without Emily Blunt’s character who [offered] a moral point of view in the story, “Day of the Soldado” has no moral point of view. It’s like you watch a story without any filter, and that way you discover a new aspect of two characters that you’re supposed to know through “Sicario.” And then I think that the topics that we touch in our movie – immigration, terrorism – they are so relevant in this moment, and then it’s full of action, it’s thrilling, it’s a compelling story. So it had all the qualities that I look for while I am reading.
Did you have a sense when you joined the film that given its focus on trafficking human people over the Mexican/ American border, was that something that you felt like was as relevant as it is now that the movie’s releasing?
Sollima: Oh no, that was relevant, and it’s a relevant topic in the last hundred years. And then of course by being Italian, it’s something that I also experience from there – I mean, it’s just different. Here, you have a desert at the border, there we have the sea, but the issues are more or less the same all over the world. So we touch on the local aspect of it that is the border between US and Mexico, but it’s part of immigration all over the world, so of course it’s relevant for you domestically, but for me it’s just part of a phenomenon that is all over the world. So I think it’s relevant, and it’s going to be relevant for the next few years.
You were talking about how the moral point of view is extricated from the first movie for the second, but what is very interesting is that it seems to force these other characters to begin to consider a moral point of view. What intrigued you about the characters in particular given that there are so many political elements and just the narrative itself is so interesting?
Sollima: It was an interesting journey to discover new aspects of each of the characters. I loved how this happened in the movie, because in the previous one this comes from the point of view of another one of the characters, and in “Soldado” it’s more that they are facing new dilemmas because of the [kidnapping of this] girl. And I think this was really brilliant in the script because this forced Benicio’s character to explore a completely different aspect than what was expected. In the first one. He was more of a lone wolf, animated just by the idea of revenge; he was a Sicario, a brutal, efficient one, and in this one, in “Soldado,” we discover with him is the idea of faith, the idea of forgiveness and the idea of sacrificing himself for this little girl. So the script was full, full, full of different themes, of different topics, of different issues so it was really stimulating to shoot it.
One of the things I think the movie does extremely well is avoid having too much of an opinion about the events that it depicts.
Sollima: That is exactly what I did all through my career, because this is something I hate as an audience member. I hate when I feel the director or the writer driving me by hand and forcing me to feel something. I believe that the audience is really, really much smarter than this, so you can super easily just show them something without taking any position. Of course I have my opinion, but I try to hide it because I don’t want to go over my characters. So I think it’s more interesting if you let alive your character and have them telling the story. And then at the end the audience will get the moral point of the storytelling.
I was talking to the producer about was how impressive the logistics of this are, and particularly in an era where technology seems to afford filmmakers a lot of short cuts with regard to mobilizing military air fields and helicopters and things like that, why was it important to do a lot of stuff practically?
Sollima: I think that it’s really important, because it’s part of the environment that you give to the actor to play the role. If you put an actor inside a real humvee and start exploding bombs all around them, gunshots, of course their performance is going to be better. So I feel there is a limit in using visual effects, and you should go for practical until you cannot succeed. For example, there’s a scene in the movie where we use visual effects a lot, but unless it’s really necessary, I think that it’s much better and more interesting to go for practical. In the helicopter sequence, Josh was on the helicopter for real, and this is something that you cannot fake. And it’s better to do it practically, even if it’s a little bit more complex on set, because if you do everything with the visual effects it’s going to be more complicated later on.
You’ve obviously shown an affinity for these crime and police-themed stories. Is that something that evolved naturally as a result of telling those stories well and getting more opportunities that way, or is that something that repeatedly intrigues you?
Sollima: I like to tell stories of anti-heroes, and it’s easier to tell in a gangster movie or in a cop movie. It’s easier to have bad guys as main characters. But also, I think it’s more interesting to tell stories about anti-heroes because they are closer to [ordinary] human beings. They have the same contradictions and then they force you as a director to approach a theme, a topic, an issue, from a different perspective. And most of all, I normally don’t like movies that are trying reassure you. I like to be shaken – I like to be entertained, and then I want a movie to make me question the world that is around me. And this kind of genre of movie is closer to the kind of movie that I would love to watch in a movie theater.
Moviebill is a magazine and a website that really celebrates the movie going experience. What is your most memorable moviegoing experience?
Sollima: My father was a director, so I grew up on sets. But when I was a kid I felt it was pretty boring – you always do the same thing, and I didn’t get what was the process exactly. And then one day I was in a movie theater watching a movie, and I finally got it. I put together all of the hours spent on set, in the editing room, or when my father was orchestrating the soundtrack. I put it all together and finally I understood what moviemaking was about. But the sad thing is that I remember it was a Western, but I don’t remember which movie it was! And it’s a pity, because it was the most influential movie in my life and I don’t remember the title (laughs).
Do you still look at the moviemaking process as boring as it was when you were a little kid?
Sollima: No! Because now I understand the process. It’s not boring. But of course if you go on a set, it’s rare that everybody is working at the same moment, so from an external point of view, every time you get on a set no one is doing anything and you never get exactly what all these people are doing on a set. But now of course I don’t feel it is boring. I think it’s a dream to work as a director. For me, I feel privileged to do a job that I love.