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Sicario: Day of the Soldado director on provoking his audience and probing war

Stefano Sollima explains why Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin’s characters can’t be called ‘heroes’

sicario 2 josh brolin and benicio del toro Sony Pictures

In 2015, Sicario seemed like an unlikely candidate for an action movie franchise. French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and writer Taylor Sheridan’s taut, emotional thriller was far closer in tone and subject matter to Traffic than to, say, Jack Reacher.

But Sicario ended up turning a healthy profit, earning near-universal critical acclaim and picked up three Academy Award nominations. Though Villeneuve went on to direct the similarly lauded Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to Sicario earned a greenlight.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado, out now in the U.S., finds both Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin reprising their roles from the first film. Sheridan penned the script for this installment as well, but now Italian director Stefano Sollima (TV’s Gomorrah) is at the helm, marking his first English-language film. He’s already being earmarked for big things; he’s reportedly in negotiations to direct the first Call of Duty film adaptation.

In Day of the Soldado, del Toro’s tortured lawyer-turned-government hitman Alejandro once again partners up with Brolin’s Department of Justice agent Matt. The U.S. government unofficially assigns them to spark a war among the Mexican drug cartels by kidnapping the daughter of a cartel kingpin and framing a rival group for the smash and grab. By pure happenstance, this film about the government-sanctioned kidnapping of a Mexican teenager will arrive as debate about the treatment of Mexican children by the United States government is at a fever pitch.

Polygon had a chance to sit down with Sollima in Los Angeles and talk to him not only about where this film clicks with today’s political situation, but also where Sicario fits in among the more fantastical other action franchises that keep popping up.

Polygon: Where do you feel Day of the Soldado fits in with the current geopolitical climate? In particular, as it pertains to United States international relations?

Stefano Sollima: I think the immigration [aspect] is so relevant — [the] issue and topic. But it’s not just recently, it’s in the last hundred, probably 200 years.

Let’s talk about my country, [Italy,] where I have a better [knowledge of the situation]. It’s the same. By doing research for Soldado, of course, [we talk about the] border. U.S., Mexico. I mean, it’s exactly what we are facing all over the world. It’s people who are trying to get to a better place. To live a better life with other people who [are] gonna earn money [off] them, because of this [human trafficking] trade. This is the same no matter if you have a border with a desert, or, like we have, a border with water. It’s something that is part of our life. I don’t think it’s relevant [just] because it’s relevant now. It’s relevant because it’s relevant for us, and [has] always [been] relevant.

I’m Italian. We were [a] big part of the immigration in the last century. This country was made by immigrants.

Both of the Sicario films are predominately about United States-Mexico relations, they’re both written by an American, but neither film was directed by an American. Do you feel like for this particular franchise, this particular subject matter, it’s good to have a remove from the United States-Mexico relations when telling these stories?

Sollima: Exactly. I think it gives to the entire project a different point of view. A different angle. But then, as we said, it’s something that you experience no matter where you were born. The constant process of immigration is something we faced ... [for] years and years and years. So, but of course, by having a different point of view, it is a sort of neutral. Trying to analyze the fact without judging it.

From my perspective, the first Sicario film displays a sort of nihilistic view of the drug war and cartels, and the United States-Mexican relations. And now in this new film, you introduce the concept of terrorism and global terrorism. Is there still a nihilistic tendency?

Sollima: I think that the beginning, the terrorist part, I feel was really smart because it’s a pretext … to start a war. That makes absolute sense emotionally and logically. With only one problem: it is not the truth.

And I think that this was a smart beginning for a movie where everything is not as it seems at the beginning. They start doing a war for a reason. That the [characters] forget, as you [in the] audience forgets, why everything started. And after a while, you understand it was just not the truth.

And we’ve started an incredible amount of wars using exactly the same method, the same approach. By discovering later that the reason we started the war wasn’t really this. This, I think, it’s smart and it’s accurate and it’s truth. It’s the truth.

The domestic terrorist act that starts the film seems designed to shock and outrage.

Sollima: Yeah, and then also, I think it’s well done in the way it’s being manipulative in a good way, because I sincerely believe that you need to have a neutral point of view as a director, but you need to put all the elements to create and to drive the audience where you want.

And then in the beginning, of course I wanted to have people, the audience, with our heroes. So this was important. Well, this is too sad to watch. They killed a lot of innocent people, and a small girl. So let’s start the war, no matter what.

Then they kidnap a girl. That she’s pretty and sympathetic in the beginning, so it’s part of you that says, “Okay, yes, do whatever is necessary.” And after a while, it’s interesting. Why [would] you do this to a kid? Are you really ... This is part of the war? And this is the moment where you have your characters, your two main characters, doing the same. Start questioning what they are doing. What they are fighting for. The war they are doing. So I think it’s really interesting. It’s a deep process.

JOSH BROLIN AND Stefano Sollima on the set of sicario 2 Sony Pictures

You referred to the two lead characters in the film as the heroes. Are they heroes?

Sollima: You start to question that. They start to question themselves, and they start to question everything, and then you start to put them one against the other. And you have one of the two that decided to protect the girl. So I think it’s really complex.

Let’s say this: I love movies when [there] are a full emotional experience. I don’t want to be reassured by a movie, I want to be entertained. I want to be smartly entertained. And I think that the structure of our movie, it’s highly entertaining because you get to the point where you cannot predict what is gonna happen in the next 20 minutes. That, in a movie, let’s say is pretty rare.

What is it like to take over a franchise like this, where the first film was so well received and so critically acclaimed? I know it’s very in keeping with the subject matter that you are drawn to and you’re familiar with, but did you feel any obligation to maintain a specific look or a specific tone to the film?

Sollima: No, not really. I think you should be a bit crazy to do this job in general. So of course I respect enormously Denis Villeneuve, but I also know that each director is completely different from the other. And [there is] no point to try to imitate something, especially if it’s really good. So I think the best way to be respectful for something is to do something completely different. And you’re going to be respectful, because at the end, the spirit, the core, the idea of filmmaking is the same.

And it doesn’t matter if you slightly change the music or you change how you shoot the scene, and then you change the screen, doesn’t matter. Again, you’re going to watch two movies that are organically connected, even though they are completely different. Because I feel the difference between the two, of course.

Do you feel that a lot of what ends up being visualized in both films is largely a product of what Taylor Sheridan has put down on the page?

Sollima: Yes, for sure, but also, I think, if I’m being honest, it’s the smartness of the producers. That they [were able to] find two completely different directors that [have] something, probably, to share in this moment with this. You know?

I chose a completely different crew from the first one. This was the only thing I asked them. They said, “Yeah, but I want to do it with other people.” Because I think the project and the original, the vision was there to make this a fresh, new kind of trilogy where it’s not a sequel, but it’s more [of a] play, and to create three different movies, each one of them with his own personality, but based on some of the same characters and on the same world. I think it was exactly what we did.

Obviously there are bigger decisions to be made regarding how this film is received and that sort of thing, but do you feel like there is a possibility for Sicario to continue as a franchise?

Sollima: Yeah. I think, generally speaking, we miss these kind of movies. Because we produce so few of these. So I wish them to keep going on this road. We are talking about so few movies like this one that are being produced every year that you cannot imagine. It’s literally few, few movies.

And it’s a pity, because it’s like we are trying to reassure and to make just a simple movie for the audience, but sometimes it’s good, also, to shake the audience and show them something that’s more visceral. It’s more tough.

Day of the Soldado is an extremely tense film, and you’ve spoken before about how Benicio del Toro stayed in character a lot as Alejandro. How were you able to keep the set and the crew light, and relive some of that tension? Or is it even a detriment to relieve the tension when you’re trying to make a film that’s so intense?

Sollima: I believe that we are shooting drama, but it makes no sense to live drama.

So what I try to do always is to create a nice, warm, and kind environment around me. Because I feel that is our job it’s really tough sometimes, so when we shot the movie in difficult situation, in desert, it was super warm and super freezing in the night ... I mean, so it was pretty inhospitable sometimes, the set.

So I feel that you must create a good environment, human environment. I think we succeed in it. So we create a good environment where it was nice and fun to work. I don’t think you need to have tension on set to make a tension movie, you know? Making a movie is part of your life, and you want to have a life without too [much] drama.

josh brolin helicopter scene sicario 2 day of soldado Sony Pictures

How important was it to you to make the movie almost entirely using practical effects?

Sollima: I think it’s really important. Let’s say when you put an actor, a real actor, in a situation where everything explode around him, he’s gonna act differently. And this just a stupid example to explain why ... I think if you can do it for real practically, I think it’s better. Of course, when you cannot, like in the mall scene, you go for a visual effect or you mix the tech in.

But especially in the gun shot sequence in the convoy – try to imagine the same scene without having anything explode. I mean, it’s gonna be, of course, difficult for the actor, too. By doing everything for real, and if you are for real, with everything that start exploding, and with everything that fall apart, of course you’re going to act differently.

What was the most difficult scene to shoot?

Sollima: Probably the convoy, because it was complex and there was a lot of characters in it with a lot of moving parts and with a lot of action. And then, by choosing not to show everything ... because I don’t like the action for action’s sake, I like when action highlights a character or a specific point, moment in the story ...

So in the convoy sequence, I decided to show the battle by using Isabela’s point of view. So I almost shot everything from inside the vehicle. But it’s pretty complicated, because it means that you cannot use too many cameras, and you are going to create a huge, complex choreography without having any pickup [shots].

But I think that was the better way to show it, because this is an important turning moment for Isabela’s character, where she finally faced what’s the real world created, even, by her father, but what’s really this world about. And then I think was really important to be with her without never losing her.

I have never seen a scene in a film like the helicopters landing on the highway. Can you tell me about putting that scene together, and what it was like to shoot that?

Sollima: It was fun. It was complex to understand how to create and how to film this pretty elaborate sequence, but at the end, we shoot it in two-and-a-half days, so it was super fast. But we did a lot of rehearsal on the choreography. And then we did it with real actor, both on the convoy and up on the air on the helicopter.

You can tell it’s Josh Brolin in the helicopter, actually in the air.

Sollima: It would be easier to shoot it in a theater, in a stage with a blue screen behind, but it’s not the same.

Tou talked about the possibility of this becoming a franchise and moving on. If the stars align and those situations are right, could you imagine yourself doing a third Sicario film?

Sollima: I would rely on another smart, completely different director to do [the next movie], like they did with the Alien [franchise]. No? Do you remember?

Yeah, of course.

Sollima: The first one was amazing. The second one, too, and then the third one was [David] Fincher, and the fourth one was [Jean-Pierre] Jeunet. I mean, I would keep doing this. I think it’s more interesting. No?

I think to change and even to change a little bit more ... I mean, trying to have different talent playing with the same actor with the same atmosphere with the same nuance.

Bill Hanstock has been working in entertainment reporting and digital media for over a decade. He is a former senior editor and writer for SB Nation and UPROXX.

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