Jackman stars as Keller Dover, who decides to take the investigation into the disappearance of his daughter and her friend into his own hands after being frustrated by a lack of results from Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal). And while both men work tirelessly to bring the girls home safe, the pressure begins to mount as each day goes by with no new leads.
Despite that heavy subject matter and the thriller's dark, often relentlessly gritty tone, the cast and crew kept the mood fairly light at a recent press conference held during the Toronto International Film Festival. Here's what we learned about the early awards season favourite.
Denis Villeneuve's attention to detail bordered on obsessive.
Clocking in at over two-and-a-half hours, there's a lot going on in "Prisoners," but despite the movie's many layers, Villeneuve encouraged his actors to focus on the details.
For Melissa Leo, who plays Holly Jones, the elderly aunt of the movie's main suspect, that manifested itself through making sure that the prop department didn't clean her glasses between takes. "I like to have the fingerprints all over her glasses and have them be a little cloudy and hard to see through," Leo said.
"He's obsessed with that type of detail," explained Gyllenhaal, who'd previously worked with the director on "Enemy," which also premiered at TIFF 2013. When asked about his character's nervous tick, Gyllenhaal said it was something Villeneuve strongly encouraged: "He was such a champion of those types of mannerisms, where I think so many other directors would be afraid."
The actors weren't always on-board with the detail-oriented approach.
Leo recalled finding out about the director's refusal to allow wigs on set, despite her character's need for grey hair. "So we had to talk him out of that tree," she laughed. "But we did, and he saw the light."
Gyllenhaal wasn't as lucky. Because when a scene called for the actor to be surrounded by snakes, Villeneuve wasn't taking any shortcuts. Gyllenhaal imitated the director's glee in torturing him, laughing, "'No, we are not going to CGI, they are going to be real! And you are going to be in the room with them! And they are going to be poisonous!'"
"It so easily could've been done in a way that was CGIed," Gyllenhaal explained. "Every single situation that we were put in was done in a controlled way and very prepared, but ultimately there was risk in it," said the actor. "He wanted things to be real."
Villeneuve was fearless, not to mention extremely hands-on when it came time for set dressing that scene, recalled Gyllenhaal: "He'd grab like seven, ten snakes under his arms and he'd just be throwing them."
Hugh Jackman learned what happens when you don't sleep.
With the movie taking place over the course of eight or nine restless days for Jackman's character, researching the effects of sleep deprivation was key. So he looked at what would happen to someone who wasn't getting enough sleep, like shaking hands, or "the incomprehension of taking in information" -- something he used for an early movie scene between Keller and Detective Loki.
Keller's motivation for pushing his limits was simple though. "To sleep is to fail your child in a way," Jackman said. "It's impossible to just go and rest."
Maria Bello really got into character.
Likewise, to make her turn as grieving mother Grace Dover more authentic, Maria Bello hit on a relatively simple idea: "It doesn't feel right for her to ever change her clothes."
"She's stuck in this moment, in this day," explained Bello. So the actress made sure her costume matched. "It's a week, and you see my hair get greasier," she said. "I really did sort of not shower."
Paul Dano was able to do a lot with so little.
In spite of not having many lines, Paul Dano still delivers an impressive performance as Alex Jones, whose mental capacity and ability to carry out a crime like child abduction is a matter of contention for Keller and Detective Loki. What isn't up for debate is his acting ability, which Gyllenhaal praised, saying that even in the few scenes where all you can see of the actor is one eye, "There is more performance in that one eye than sometimes all of us put together. It's really, really, really extraordinary."
And while Dano didn't do much talking during the press conference either, he revealed that Alex's voice was his "first gateway to the character," describing it as an "impression of somebody who's stopped at a certain age, and almost everything stopped then."
Jackman vs. Gyllenhaal is a metaphor for something bigger.
For all the plot twists, the main event in "Prisoners" is getting to watch Jackman and Gyllenhaal go up against one another. "For two characters who are lone wolves on their journey, their relationship is really important to the story," said Jackman. And while they only had a handful of scenes together, they were ones that the actor relished playing. "We really wanted to make the most of those," he explained. "It was one of those occasions where as actors no one really wanted to leave the scene."
According to Gyllenhaal, Villeneuve "always referred to the movie as the institution vs. the individual," with Jackman representing the individual and Gyllenhaal as the institution. The biggest problems come when "neither are speaking or communicating with each other," he explained.
Jackman agreed, saying that being left out of the police investigation can be "maddening" for a parent like Keller. "Knowing that your child is waiting for you. And can't understand why you're not there every second of every day," he said. "They're not waiting for the police to come rescue them."
There are no easy answers.
At its core, "Prisoners" is a morality tale, but it's not as simple as saying that either Keller or Loki are right. "This movie exists in that fact that there's no right answer, that there is always collateral damage, that it is not easy, that there is moral ambiguity," said Jackman. "This is life. And very rarely do we see it in cinema."
For producer Adam Kolbrenner, the movie forces audiences to confront difficult questions and ask themselves how they would react. Villeneuve praised Aaron Guzikowski's script for that, saying, "You can see that it has so many layers."
The movie stuck with the cast.
As a mother herself, the story really struck Bello, who said, "I just can't imagine going through it." Jackman, meanwhile, thinks it made him more conscious of being prepared for the unthinkable. "Instead of praying for the best and prepare for the worst, I generally just stop at the pray for the best bit," Jackman laughed. "It's probably a bit of laziness, maybe a bit of naïve optimism." And now? "I probably have changed a little bit," he acknowledged.
And for Gyllenhaal, all the mornings spent watching intense real-life police videos to get into character took its toll. "There were a number of times on my way to work where I could feel myself resist how dark this world was," he admitted. "I remember a number of times I would spend the evening letting go of whatever we did during the day."
Of course, the actor made sure he wasn't the only one who had to suffer, forcing Villeneuve to watch with him. "It was 5:00 a.m. and Jake would go, 'Look at that man! Look at that!' " remembered the director. "And I am the one who needed therapy after."
After watching Villeneuve's intense thriller, audiences might feel the same way.
"Prisoners" opens in theatres on September 20.