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Immersed in Movies: Editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach Talk 'Prisoners'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood September 27, 2013 at 1:10PM

Clint Eastwood's editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach discuss taking time out to get under the skin of Denis Villeneuve's provocative "Prisoners."
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Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman in "Prisoners"
Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman in "Prisoners"

Lucky for director Denis Villeneuve that Clint Eastwood's "A Star is Born" remake with Beyonce Knowles fell through, allowing him to work with Eastwood's long-time editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach on the riveting child kidnapping thriller, "Prisoners," which took the top spot at last weekend's box office. It meant that Villeneuve ("Incendies") was in good hands editorially on his first Hollywood movie, a parable about anger, obsession, and vulnerability that gets under your skin like "Silence of the Lambs" or "Zodiac."

Then again, "Prisoners" is similar to Eastwood's best movies in the way it's performance-driven and classically structured, but with a greater fondness for long takes. Villeneuve certainly likes to linger on Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. And Cox and Roach were primed for distilling primal moments of truth.

Prisoners

The editors can't say enough good things about working with Villeneuve. He knew exactly what he wanted and delivered what they fully expected and then gave them the freedom to shape it in sync with his vision. For his part, when it was over Villeneuve told them that for the first time he made the movie that he pictured in his head. There was no recutting on his own, as he'd previously done. And the editors believe that "Prisoners" will have an important cultural impact: From now on, when parents lose sight of their children, it will send them into an instant panic attack.

"It's a very emotional film," Roach underscores. "He shoots things in long takes and wanted to see the film he's holding and not a lot of edits. He said he didn't wanted to make a Hollywood film, but as we went along, he wanted to see what we thought, so we cut things the way we [thought] they should be, and, in a few instances, we held shots a little longer because he wanted to linger on the moment, like the pushing in on the tree, where it shifted to this emotional ride."

The crucial thing was maintaining a balancing act between Jackman's enraged father and Gyllenhaal's aloof cop, both of whom have demons to confront during the horrific ordeal. In fact, Gyllenhaal came up with a whole backstory about being an orphan and a social misfit that create a sense of mystery about his character.

"We had a tough job being that the film was three-and-a-half hours long on the first cut," Cox adds, "so to take an hour out we were still able to keep the story intact with those moments that were very necessary to make this film work."

What did they cut? There were additional story points involving the older kids (in one version, they discover that prime suspect Paul Dano has been abducted by Jackman). And there was an intense scene with Viola Davis, who insists on killing Dano and burning down Jackman's apartment so there's no evidence linking her and her husband (Terrence Howard).

This article is related to: Prisoners, Immersed In Movies, Interviews, Interviews


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.