‘Sicario’ was one of the best reviewed films from the Cannes film festival and saw it’s U.S. release this past September. ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Enemy’ director Denis Villeneuve, Emily Blunt and Benecio Del Toro were the big names on the marquee for this intense action-thriller focused on the world of drug cartels, but the man who got it all going was first-time screenwriter and former actor Taylor Sheridan.
I had the pleasure of talking with Sheridan about the film. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
AWARDS CIRCUIT: What made you want to sit down and write ‘Sicario,’ making that jump from acting to writing?
TAYLOR SHERIDAN: I’d just reached that point to where the notion of telling my own stories, or stories that were interesting to me, became more appealing than exploring other people’s stories. I made a living as an actor, but I wasn’t one of the fortunate few in a position to be able to choose what I explored. I was at the mercy of the jobs that I auditioned for and got. To pay the rent you got to do what you got to do. I just reached an age and point in my life where I wanted to be able to tell my own stories and write movies that I wanted to see. So instead of complaining about it I sat down and did it.
AC: Have you had experience writing in the past? What did you did to prepare?
SHERIDAN: I did 20 years of acting. For every job an actor gets he auditions for 50. I had read, I don’t know, 5,000 screenplays up to this point. I got my education as a screenwriter from reading things and wondering how it was going to work and acting it all out and seeing if it worked or if it didn’t. I learned trial by fire, as someone who is subject to a script rather than creating one.
So when I sat down I reminded myself, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing, but I know what not to do because I suffered that burden, and I know what to do because I enjoyed that benefit. So do what I like doing when I was acting and don’t do what I hated doing when I was acting. Then I just decided to write a movie I wanted to see and about something that was important to me and break a lot of rules that I felt that movies had held me to. I literally wrote it for me to watch, and I think the more that people do that, other people will want to see it too.
AC: What was the driving force in keeping the action more contained and methodical, so to speak?
SHERIDAN: I wanted it to look real. That was the most important thing to me. We’ve all seen the movies with big explosions but that’s not what real battles look like. I wanted it to be authentic.
What happens when eight special operations soldiers come up against four tweaked out 20 years olds? How does that battle go? We’ve seen that battle a thousands times, there’s shooting everywhere. That’s not how that battle goes. It’s over in seconds. It’s brutal and it’s immediate. I wanted it to feel real, that’s what was important to me was when the movie was over.
Yes, it is a fiction and it’s imagined characters, but it’s rooted in truth. There are aspects of the drug trade that are extremely violent as a means of doing business and the use of these highly trained military personnel to police is fact. So I just imagined if that happened here.
AC: There was are article after the film premiered at Cannes that said that studios wanted to change Emily Blunt’s role to a male role. Is that true? And if so, why did they try and push for that? And why was it important for you to keep this character female?
SHERIDAN: Well, what actually took place and how the story kind of evolved is too different things. My specific involvement with that taking place here… I worked really hard to make the construction of the character – she’s an extremely different character to play. She is very passive by design. She is the eyes and the soul, she’s the surrogate of the audience. She guides us through this world and she’s guiding us blindly. We have to never question her morality or her ethics ever. The way that you build that is to show how much she sacrificed in her life to be good at her job and to be respected in a job that is dominated by men. To change Kate from a woman to a man destroyed this screenplay, destroys the anchor of the entire piece, and why?
The story of when I was confronted with that possibility is a little different than the way it’s been told. It was my first meeting on ‘Sicario’ and different producers than the ones who did the film. I got a call, he wanted to sit down with me. I go to his office, I sat there for 25 minutes while he checks his emails, ignores me, talks on his phone. He spins around in his chair he looks at me and he says ‘So, Kate. I want to make her a man and I want so and so to play the role.’ I looked at him and I said go fuck yourself. He looked at me and he said ‘have a nice day.’ I got up and I walked out. I called my agents and said please don’t fire me. They laughed and they didn’t.
It was the reason that the script didn’t get made sooner. I had other movies get sold and in production prior to ‘Sicario’ even being optioned. One of the reasons was the subject matter was so darn dark. It was a female lead, which scared a lot of people as far as to finance it, etc. It is an expensive movie in the sense of independents and it really is too dark for a studio.
The fact that a producer stepped up and didn’t want to change one word of the script and a director came on board who embraced everything about it and fought for it, and a studio – Black Label Media, loved the script.
Molly Smith, who runs the company, she didn’t blink, she didn’t care anything. She loved the story, she wanted to make the movie. She took her low fee. Lionsgate did the same thing. The conversation never came up in the current construction of the character. With the people we ultimately went with, it was never an issue. They embraced it and their reaping the benefits of just a spectacular performance by Emily.
AC: Why do you think Hollywood is still hesitant to back a female action star?
SHERIDAN: I think that oversimplifies it to sit here and to say it’s difficult to get a movie financed with a female lead – I’m staring at a post for ‘The Hunger Games’ right now – but I don’t think there is any argument about the manner this industry treats women. It’s no small accident that as an artist I think it’s our job to knock down barriers. Kate is a woman and she is the lead of this movie and she is a surrogate, she leads us through it. Her gender is not an issue. It doesn’t affect her ability to do her job; it doesn’t affect anything. It’s never used against her.
But, you’d have to talk to a much smarter man than me to get into the matrix of sitting there and figuring out how someone anticipates what a movie will make in Norway or China based on the individual who’s in it. They have some kind of weird formula that does it and I just don’t understand it.
Especially in the film world, but in every world, the foreign market is extremely important. To have some security in a return they try to place actors who have proven box-office success in certain places. Again, it’s algebra and I can barely do basic arthimetic.
AC: You’re next movie, ‘Comancheria,’ is the second film in a thematic trilogy. After the trilogy, are there other type of genres that you would like to explore?
SHERIDAN: I wrote a screenplay about the privatized space race that based on ‘Sicaro’ and ‘Comancheria’ feels like a depature, but it’s not really. I don’t hold myself to a genre so much as how is this story reflective of us as people. How does this say how far we’ve come or how far we need to go? I don’t celebrate or question, I examine life; it sounds really heavy and philosophical, but I spent a lot of time in my career working on really unimportant stuff. So this second career I’m determined to explore things that I feel matter to me, and are important to me. I don’t think that holds me to specific genre.
Obviously, I’m very influenced by certain genres. I was very influence by Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker and an actor. I was influence by Michael Mann as a filmmaker, extremely influenced, his method of storytelling, his structure of scenes. And I’m similarly fascinating by the same kind of stuff, so it’s what I got in to.
AC: There have been some rumors about a potential ‘Sicario’ sequel based on Benicio Del Toro’s character. Are there any updates on that?
SHERIDAN: I’ll say this. The timing of that statement makes it seem as though the movie came out and everyone got excited so they slapped together a sequel. In reality, many months before, because of certain things… there’s a lot left to explore. Denis and I had a conversation about a year and a half ago about what a fantastic character and he allows us a great means to explore very questionable elements of our society. So, there is truth to a sequel and it wasn’t motivated by box-office, it was just announced at the same time.