Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski is a father now, but he’s thankful he wasn’t one when he sat down to work on the script for Prisoners, the dark drama released in September starring Hugh Jackman as a father who’s willing to do whatever it takes to locate his abducted daughter – including torture the man he’s convinced kidnapped her and her friend. “I think if I’d had kids, I wouldn’t have lasted long. I wouldn’t have been able to write it. Your kids would constantly creep in to the imaginary scenario you’re constantly running through your head. At the time, I was just trying to imagine the worst thing possible,” he says. “I wanted to write something that involves things that scare me personally. One of the things I’m most scared of is losing things – it could be anything, even things that aren’t that consequential. Obviously when it comes to kids, it’s multiplied by a million times. I’m also kind of geographically-challenged. I’m constantly getting lost, so it’s something that I’m paranoid about. I took those two fears and used them as the jumping off point.”
How do you build a story that keeps people on the edge of their seats for two and a half hours straight? EW spoke with Guzikowski – who’s also created The Red Road, a six-episode TV series premiering on Sundance Channel in February that he describes as “Breaking Bad meets Twin Peaks” – for a few hints.
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• Patience. It took him about two years to write the script. “I was not working full-time as a writer. I was doing different jobs in Manhattan. I eventually ended up at an ad agency where I doing graphic design work, which was good, because all the jobs I had before that involved, like, moving furniture and stuff like that. This job was great because I was at a computer all day, so I’d actually have the energy to write after or before work,” Guzikowski says. “I would send drafts to my manager in Los Angeles, who I’d just gotten through a query letter not too long before that. We had never met, but I would send him drafts of this Prisoners screenplay, and he would send me some notes. I’d work on it, and we’d go back and forth. I wrote so many drafts of it, and so much material that I didn’t end up using – in terms of the backstory, and all these kind of scenes that didn’t end up in the script, but in some way, shape, or form made it feel like there was more tips to various icebergs – it was almost more like writing a novel, I think, at the end of the day.”
• Music and mind games. “It was difficult,” he admits, noodling a script for that length of time. “I think part of what helped was whenever I sat down to write, I would always put on movie soundtracks to try to get myself into the right mindset. I listed to the soundtrack to Psycho a lot, Jaws, Vertigo, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, oddly enough. None of them have any kind of direct correlation, but they feel ominous and exciting. That’s what matters,” he says. “And every time I sat down, I would try to play this kind of mind game on myself that I was working on something completely new. I would try to find some new angle on this story that I’d come to know so well. You try to look at it from a new perspective, or add some new piece to it, and suddenly the whole thing feels kind of new and exciting again. I had to learn to trick my mind in that respect.”
Director Denis Villeneuve kept Guzikowski involved throughout filming. “Anytime he wanted to change something, he’d call me up and we’d talk about it. I tried to do all the writing and rewriting on the script – even the newspaper articles that appear in the movie, I’d write the whole article. He allowed me to remain involved in a good way from beginning to end, which was huge.”
• Visualization. “I actually grew up drawing, not writing. Anytime I write a scene – this is sometimes a good thing and a bad thing – I kinda have to draw it in my mind first,” he says. “I sketch out the interior in my mind, figure out where everybody’s standing, and how the whole thing looks, and then I figure out ways to play the scene once I’ve built this image. I build all the scenes that way. I think they all have these little pictures in them that I find initially exciting, just from a visual standpoint. You can only do so much [in the script] because you only have so much room and you don’t want to get too detailed because I think it hems in the director a little bit. But in general, I definitely know how everything looks, what side of the room the characters are on, where the window is – things to keep in mind so as I’m writing, things will creep in that way that you may not have initially thought of, like, what’s going on outside at the time or what someone happens to be staring off at.”
SPOILER ALERT! One scene in the film he particularly liked was when Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) discovers the locked plastic containers: “He has to break them open one at a time with a crowbar. You see the clothes. Then under the clothes, there’s the snakes. There’s this layering of imagery. Denis did a really good job directing that,” he says. “I loved the idea of the closed door. What’s behind the door? Then you have the 16 closed containers. You’re hoping there’s no bodies inside of them. You get one open, and it’s not a body, but it’s a snake. I liked the way that translated to screen…. It’s hard to measure it and figure out what makes something suspenseful. It’s trial and error. But the unknown is always a great way to come at. A closed door can be the most terrifying thing, as opposed to a thousand other things you could possibly see. Closed door, closed box – anything that promises the unknown is great for suspense.”
Another of his favorites was the climactic drive to the hospital by Det. Loki, with blood dripping down his face from a bullet wound, after he found the drugged daughter. “I remember writing the scene. One of the things I kept imagining is that image of the detective bursting into the hospital with a girl in his arms and trying to picture what that would look like – having this sort of French Connection-seque drive to get this girl to the hospital after having endured everything we’ve gone through in this movie. In a way, it’s almost a release as much as it is this kind of tense moment, not knowing whether or not he’s gonna get there in time. The way that [cinematographer] Roger Deakins shot it made me like the scene even more.”
And then, of course, there are those torture scenes. “I’d always just try to put myself in the mindset of the father and what’s driving him to do this, that kind of converse feeling of being pushed to do something that you’re so disgusted by,” he says. “As much as you try to imagine it in your mind, it’s 10 times more intense when you get to see it visually, these actors and all the emotions running through the whole thing. I think even just the way they shot somebody getting punched in the face felt so painful and grounded in this real way that I wasn’t even completely prepared for it even having tried to imagine it all these different times. I was actually more disturbed by it than I thought I would be.”
• Vocalization. Watch the clip above, and you see it’s more than just a visual that creates suspense. It’s the pace of the dialogue. “Obviously a lot of it has to do with Denis’ directing style – it’s very deliberate and measured. Everything takes its time, but at the same time, it all feels like it’s kind of rolling along at a pretty good clip,” he says. “But I try to write stage direction within dialogue to get those moments of silence to happen. It’s almost like writing a song – there are certain little moments where you want it to go quiet or have people say things at a certain speed or intensity. [When I was writing] I would always mutter things. You’re performing it to yourself and trying to figure out how it’s all going to play. It’s all very embarrassing, for sure. [Laughs].”
• Simplification. The opening scene is one that went through the most drafts, he says. “It wasn’t so much the inner workings of the scene itself, it was just getting to the point where I decided that’s what the scene was going to be. I think before it was dreams the father [Jackman] had had about a nuclear holocaust and things to underscore the way he viewed the world. But it ended up being this very simple scene with him and his son hunting, which I think was the simplest and best way to get to the bottom of that.”
• Leave something for the imagination. Though there was concern the ambiguous ending wouldn’t test well because audiences would want to know for sure that Det. Loki rescued Keller (Jackman) after hearing the whistle and what he did with him, that wasn’t the case. Producers stood by their word and allowed Guzikowski and Villeneuve to keep their ending as is. “It keeps it spinning around in your mind a little bit longer after you’ve seen it,” he says. “You cut out before that moment where you’d finally be able to exhale and let the air out of the whole thing. All thrillers, that’s what you shoot for: Just trying to keep the audience wrapped up as tightly and for as long as possible.” That said, when asked, he will tell you what happened in his mind: Loki saved Keller and sent him to jail. “That’s how I would interpret it – not to say that’s the only possible outcome.”