Aaron Guzikowski
“I just follow the thread: what would the character do? I don’t like to force characters to do things. Character drives plot. You end up with some really interesting turns that way.”
Prison Break
Four years after The Black List pronounced Prisoners one of Hollywood’s best unproduced scripts, Aaron Guzikowski’s terrifying tale of a father’s desperate search for his missing daughter finally sees the light of day.

Written by Todd Aaron Jensen

(September 20, 2013)

According to vaudeville legend Eddie Cantor, “It takes 20 years to make an overnight success.” Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski might have shaved a few years from Cantor’s maxim, but it still took a twisting, turning six years for the first-timer’s electrifying, white-knuckled thriller Prisoners to make it to the big screen. Penned in 2007 before dawn and after dark while Guzikowski burned the candle at both ends in a New York ad agency, Prisoners tells the haunting, harrowing story of how far a father will go to save his abducted daughter from certain death. In 2009, Guzikowski, who entered and won a number of screenwriting contests with his debut piece, hit a run of steady breaks – landing representation, a spot on The Black List, a studio sale, meetings with A-list talent, and a homestead in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Prisoners – widely considered one of the best scripts in town – came this close to production countless times over the years.

This week, almost six years after Guzikowski typed the final “FADE OUT” on Prisoners and amid a hailstorm of critical raves, the film – starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, directed by Canadian maestro Denis Villeneuve – hits theaters. Guzikowski, who also penned 2012’s Contraband for Mark Wahlberg, hasn’t stopped typing, though he long ago left the world of advertising. Early next year, his Seventh Son hits theaters with Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges, while Sundance Channel will next spring premiere his original series, The Red Road. Quick to laugh and radiating gratitude, Guzikowski seems not to only to relish, but to cherish, his at long last move onto the Hollywood main stage.

You’re an overnight success almost 10 years in the making. Congratulations!

Yeah, exactly, right? It’s amazing how long “overnight” can take. It’s been a helluva long, but amazing ride on this thing. I couldn’t be happier with how it’s all turned out. It was worth the wait.

Photo: © 2013 Alcon Entertainment, LLC
Hugh Jackman and Paul Dano in Prisoners.

One of the things that’s so powerful about this film and that sets it apart from other films that might have similar ingredients is its literary quality. There’s a depth and complexity to Prisoners that we don’t often find in films like this.

That’s great to hear. I’ve never published any of my prose, but I’ve certainly written boxes full of it. I just sort of think that way. I read a lot. I write a lot. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Prisoners is actually based on a little short story I wrote a while back. It had a kernel of the idea in it that turned into the movie you saw.

Tell me about that story.

That was back in about 2007. It was just a little short story I wrote for my own amusement, which is sort of what you do when nobody’s reading what you write. That story is akin to something like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” about this guy whose daughter is killed by a hit-and-run driver, and he believes he knows who’s responsible. He takes the guy and puts him in this hole in his backyard and keeps him there for a long, long time and is driven crazy by having taken this guy captive. It was kind of a surreal, Gothic horror story. That was the little kernel that eventually became the much larger story that now exists on film.

From all that I’ve read, you had a happy childhood. So what’s wrong with you? Prisoners is some dark, heavy, twisted stuff.

I don’t know, man. I’ve always been interested in dark things. My childhood was fine. But I’ve always loved horror stories and thrillers and have been fascinated by the unknown, by what’s happening out in the woods. I grew up in a sort of suburban area, but there were woods surrounding us, and there were always urban legends about those woods that captured my imagination. But I had a happy childhood.

And yet you’re making up stories about locking people up in boxes?

I will say this: I wasn’t allowed to see R-rated movies before I was 17, my parents wouldn’t let me, so I’d just stand and stare at the movie posters and try to figure out and envision in my own head what the movie was about. And you know, the imagination can be a tricky and powerful thing. Or I’d pick up the horror books that my mother would read all the time and thumb through them and see if I could make up the story. And I drew a lot as a kid. I didn’t write a lot. I drew pictures, even up into my teenaged years. I drew these kind of wacko Hieronymus Bosch, bizarre, dark sorts of things. I don’t know why I found it comforting, but for some reason I did. Just these hidden aspects in the mind, I guess. I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t due to any real-life darkness.

Prisoners was a hot script around town for years. It must be gratifying to have it finally made and be so well received.

I can’t even tell you. I mean this is an idea I’ve had since 2007, and a script that’s existed almost as long. A lot of that time was just kind of waiting to see who was going to direct the film, who was going to be in the film. There was definitely a point where I figured, Well, they’re never going to make this movie.

Talk about development hell…

Exactly. Except they never changed the script. Usually development hell is rewriting the script for eternity, trying to please everyone who puts their hands on it, and then it just never gets made anyway. With Prisoners, we retained the script. It stayed the same. It just took a long time for all of the elements to come together. And it’s all for the good. Denis Villeneuve was just the perfect man for the job of directing this movie, so all of those delays, they were really just blessings.

Tell me a little bit more about the maze, so to speak, that you walked seeing this film to completion.

It was a very, very crazy thing. I wrote this thing, and then it took on a lot of different incarnations. At one point, Mark Wahlberg was going to be in it, which would’ve been great. That would’ve been with Christian Bale and Bryan Singer directing. That didn’t quite work out. Then it ended up on The Black List, which was great. That put a lot of eyes on it and, career-wise, got me a lot of jobs, which allowed me to actually be a professional writer, full-time. After that, Leonardo DiCaprio was going to do it for a long time, and that was very exciting, but ultimately not meant to be. We just never quite got to the finish line. In the meantime, I just tried to stay as busy as possible working on other stuff. Waiting will make a man go insane, so I was very thankful there were other jobs to handle. There is so much in this business that is so beyond your control, keeping yourself busy is a way to stay sane.

It’s very rare for a script that’s been around this long, and been set up with so many actors and directors, to remain unchanged. Tell me about that.

I know. I was very lucky in that sense. With all those different possible incarnations that came and went, none of them involved rewriting the script. When Denis came on board, we made a few changes together. I enlarged the [Jake Gyllenhaal] detective character a bit and made it a little more of a two-hander, but beyond that, it really never changed at all. That made me very happy, obviously, as a writer. But I also know that’s not often, or ever, the case.

Tell me about The Black List pick. How did that change things?

That was crazy. For an unproduced screenwriter, making The Black List is just such an amazing gift. So I was working at this ad agency in New York, basically helping do graphics for direct mail pieces, and stuff like that, very unglamorous, long hours, and at the same time, working on Prisoners in the nights and in the mornings. When the script finally got to The Black List, it was nice. It was a very surreal sort of thing. But even after that, it took a while to actually get the script sold. So there was this kind of strange in between time where people at work were, like, “I thought you sold a script; what are you doing here?” And I was, like, “It doesn’t work that way. We’ll sort of have to wait and see what happens.”

When does that first check come through and when were you able to lose the day job?

I was able to lose the day job somewhere in 2009, or thereabouts. The check came through, and my wife and I were able to move to Los Angeles, and we had our first son a few months later. After that, it’s just been a crazy run. It’s been almost four years since I got here, but it feels like last week. That might be because there are no seasons in L.A. It all blurs together.

Prisoners plays on every parents’ worst nightmare, the abduction of their child. Do you have children?

I do now. It’s interesting: when I first started writing the script, I did not. Now, I have a 3-year-old and a 15-month-old. I don’t know that I would’ve been able to write this script if I had kids. I would’ve been too stuck in trying to put myself in these characters’ heads, trying to imagine too deeply or profoundly or personally what would happen if something happened to my kids. That would’ve burned me out pretty quickly. Writing this without having kids, weirdly, it was easier to imagine that situation clearly and vividly. I think it worked out well.

Critics are really latching onto the film’s ideas of vigilante justice and the torture elements in Prisoners. How aware of these things are you – the social, moral, and political implications – while you’re writing?

I just try and write the story and be honest about the characters. The other stuff just sort of happens. If you go in saying you’re going to write something in the tradition of A, B, or C, or something that’s going to generate a conversation about vigilantism, you’re probably not going to write a very good story. You write a great story, and then it kind of becomes something when people put their eyes on it. Just going in, though, I’m trying to write a scary, exciting story and make very real characters and get it to feel real and entertaining in my mind. The other stuff, it’s all great, but I don’t think you can really plan for it.

There are so many moments in Prisoners that defy genre expectations, and it’s kind of exhilarating for audiences to think they know where a scene is going, only to have the rug pulled out from beneath them.

Well, that’s my job, isn’t it? The truth is, I just tried to adhere to reality as much as possible. As weird as it sounds, a lot of stories don’t do that. We tried to be really honest. There are, obviously, aspects to this story that are very heightened, but the way I write, I just follow the thread: what would the character do? I don’t like to force characters to do things. Character drives plot. You end up with some really interesting turns that way. I end up surprising myself a lot of times.

A part of Prisoners is police procedural. Did you do a lot of research?

I pulled a lot of it out of my hat. Occasionally, I would research stuff, but for the most part, I just pulled it out of my hat and checked against it to make sure something wasn’t completely outside the realm of possibility. That’s how I usually do it: I just make everything up and then go back to it and make sure I haven’t done something ludicrous. Which happens, of course. All the time.

When did you know you wanted to write?

That first thing I wrote was this story in fourth grade. It was a little assignment – you write, like, a paragraph and read it out loud to the class. But I ended up writing this seven-page science-fiction epic, and I read it to the class, and it was this whole thing. My classmates loved it. The teacher gave me a prize of some Choose Your Own Adventure books. It definitely made an impression on me. But my whole life, I’ve mostly been drawn to drawing and more visual type art, and even now, when I write, I have to kind of draw it in my head first. After I see it, then I write it. That’s helpful in a way for directors, because I don’t usually write things you can’t shoot. I always see it in my head first. Everything I write has to be some sort of a picture first.

The moment I realized Prisoners was something special was about two and a half minutes in. Hugh Jackman’s character is talking to his son in the pickup truck after they’ve killed a deer together, and the punctuation on the scene is this cutaway through the rain-spattered truck window of the dead deer lying in the bed of the truck. Writer’s choice or director’s choice?

That was scripted. In the script, we’re overhead, looking down on the deer in the truck. It was always the punctuation on the scene. Denis decided to shoot through the back window, which was fantastic. I usually try to write as if I’m storyboarding the film. I don’t give camera directions or anything like that, but in terms of what we see and how we see it, that’s part of my job.

Does that come from watching a lot of films?

I’m sure it does, but I’m also a huge comic book fan. I grew up reading tons and tons of comic books and watching tons and tons of movies, so I kind of think in that sequential artwork type of way. That’s helpful in writing screenplays.

Do you outline?

I write what you’d call a scriptment, I guess. I do prose and kind of write out the story in these big blocks of text. In terms of how it functions, I guess it’s an outline, but I try not to spend too much time on outlining things. It’s when I’m actually in the writing of the script that all of the visualizing happens. That’s when I kind of come up with the best stuff. The outline is just sort of a map.

What’s the writing process like these days, now that it’s your full-time job?

I write best in the early, early morning. I get up at the crack of dawn and write and write and write until lunch, or thereabouts. I’ll still do writing after that, if I’m not in production on something, but the writing’s just not as good after lunch for some reason. I don’t write well on a full belly, I guess.

They say great drama catches characters at the worst moments in their lives. It’s hard to imagine the characters in Prisoners having a worse week.

That’s true. I sure hope they don’t suffer anymore than I made them suffer. That’s a pretty bad week, for sure. I just wanted to take real people and push them as far as I could and get them to do things they probably ordinarily wouldn’t. I think that’s interesting.

So just one more time: nothing horrible in your childhood, huh?

No. Nothing that I remember, anyway. Well, high school was a little rough, I guess. But not Prisoners rough.