Sicario: Shooting the Drug Thriller in New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico

Juarez, Mexico lies just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. But for many who live there, it is a world away.

The once booming border town became known as “the murder capitol of the world,” many living in fear and often in extreme poverty. The city was lined with the remnants of foreign-owned maquiladora factories that spoke to an era of global trade that abandoned Northern Mexico. At one point so many people disappeared daily … and so many dead bodies appeared suddenly out of nowhere … that such events no longer made headlines.

Though Juarez’s murder rate has dropped since 2012, the city remains one of the riskiest on earth for journalists and probing outsiders, and new cartels are on the rise. So how was a major motion picture going to penetrate the treacherous realities of this world? It was not easy. Even the location scout was more like a military mission.

Says producer Basil Iwanyk, “When we decided to go to Juarez, we couldn’t find one American law enforcement agency to give us the official go-ahead to go across the border. We went with a Mexican ‘fixer’ who had successfully brought a CNN crew into Juarez a few years ago, and he contacted a bunch of undercover federales who drove us around. They carried submachine guns in the front of the car and told us very specific things like, I should bring glasses with me, since I wore contact lenses, just in case we got stopped and kidnapped. We drove a white SUV because only the cartel guys drive black SUVs and if you drive a black SUV you can get targeted.”

During six intense hours, the scouting group was only allowed out of the vehicle twice. Iwanyk recalls, “We were shadowed by a white Mustang because we were there too long, but the trip made the movie for us. We understood what Juarez was. It really coagulated Denis’s vision. The thing that strikes you about Juarez is that life goes on – there are kids playing ball there, there are people going on with their daily business – but at the same time there’s this overhanging veil of darkness and crime.”

Everyone who went to Juarez was hit hard. Producer Edward McDonnell says: “I remember asking the federales, `What’s the good part of town?’ They said, ‘the good part of town is where they’re not killing anyone, and the bad part is where they are killing somebody.’ There really is no safe part of Juarez. That’s not something you see on the news. You might see figures of how many people died in Juarez, but you don’t see the people’s lives behind it.”

While the production did not shoot on the streets of Juarez, the production did shot over Juarez and the landscape we are seeing in the film is the real Juarez City. Most of the filming took place in Albuquerque, New Mexico; El Paso, Texas; and Veracruz, Mexico. Villeneuve became fascinated with the borderland terrain, setting out to capture the harsh, bone-dry, yet lyrical essence of the badlands – a landscape that seems to mirror what Kate is going through. He brought in a group of trusted collaborators to bring the visuals to life, including 11-time Academy Award® nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, Oscar® nominated production designer Patrice Vermette and costume designer Renée April, whose works spans from the realism of Prisoners to the wild fantasy of Rise of The Planet of the Apes.

“Sicario’s colors and textures are directly inspired by the Chihuahuan Desert,” says Villeneuve. “I wanted the characters to be silhouettes crushed by the sun. We shot the movie in monsoon season, so every day thunderstorm cloud formations created astonishing skies for us. The sky became a silent character in the film, a poetic expression of Kate’s inner and outer torments. The desert is a fascinating place because it is an extremely harsh and raw, infinite brutal space that force yourself into introspection,” Villeneuve concludes. “This is what it’s like on the border – and we experienced that.”

The film’s glowingly bright, hyper-real look was forged in close collaboration with Deakins, reuniting with Villeneuve after Prisoners. They painstakingly storyboarded the film to prepare for the precise composition of Deakins’ shots. Both agreed that the photography should capture the unremitting action in maximum detail, but without stamping a judgment on it.  Describes Deakins, “We played with wide shots that allow the action to unfold without multiple cuts, and we used vibrant, clean colors. The overall look is one of naturalism.”

Benicio Del Toro as Film’s Visual Cornerstone

The cinematographer honed in on Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro as the visual cornerstone of the film, a man who wears the story of the drug wars on his face and in his body language. “For me the mood of Sicario comes from the characters and from Benicio’s character in particular,” says Deakins.

“In my mind I was thinking of something akin to Le Samourai or The Red Circle,” he continues, referring to Jean Pierre Melville’s atmospheric, 60s crime classics. “Those are films which have central characters who can be cold and cruel but who you sympathize with at the same time.”

Deakins wove the primal elements of light and dark through the film, often utilizing light in unexpected ways. “Perhaps the most chilling scene in the film is lit using a soft, warm source light,” he notes. “That may not be the norm but I think it works as a counterpoint that defies expectations.”

Production Designer Vermette

Production designer Vermette, who also collaborated with Villeneuve and Deakins on Prisoners, aimed for a gritty authenticity in his sets. He found inspiration in the work of street photographer Alex Webb, a reference suggested by Deakins for Webb’s vibrant but emotional shots capturing the paradoxes of life on the U.S.-Mexican border. Equally, Vermette was inspired by the sharp opposites of the landscape, by the drained colors of the desert and the teeming vividness of Juarez.

Vermette chose a palette of beige and sand for the U.S. side, but that palette explodes into a multi-chromatic kaleidoscope over the border. “The austere look of the U.S. military and DEA is contrasted in Mexico with an anarchy of colors and the chaos of urbanism,” says Vermette.

The designer’s biggest challenge was finding a way to re-create the famed Bridge of the Americas, where a major shootout takes place amid the heightened claustrophobia of 14 congested lanes of traffic. The Department of Homeland Security was not about to close down the actual bridge, so Vermette scouted alternate bridges in El Paso, then built his own facsimile. Tarmac was laid down, narrow lanes were striped and aged with oil stains and tollbooths were installed to choke up the traffic.

Another intriguing challenge was creating the mansion of Sonoran drug lord, Fausto Alarcon. Vermette used a Tuscan-style estate in the pastoral north Albuquerque suburb of Corrales, bringing in Mexican design elements and decking out the posh outdoor cabana for the climactic dinner scene.

Vermette also constructed on a stage one of the least-seen elements of the drug war: the cartel tunnels that burrow beneath the border to hide the illicit flow of drugs and money. Bricks of drugs stashed in the tunnel were created out of shrink-wrapped hamster shavings. Based on law enforcement and journalistic images of real tunnels, the set was then littered with plastic bags, Tupperware, sandwich wrappers, hardhats, electrical wiring, shovels, picks, and buckets – the detritus of constant human traffic.

Costume Design: Renee April

In her costumes, Renée April also aimed for a palpable realism. She says the research alone was harrowing. “I watched a lot of documentaries and saw a lot of pictures that I shouldn’t have seen, trying to find the truth so that people will see it and they will believe it,” she says.

For Emily Blunt’s Kate, April kept things stark and tough–the character is often seen in a plain gray T-shirt, dark pants and combat boots, even when she’s off duty. “She works with the boys, she’s out there in her sweaty uniform, and when she’s not, she’s still a T-shirt woman. I kept it very minimalist in keeping with her personality, no-frills,” describes April. “Then she goes into darker colors towards the end as everything that is happening to her darkens.”

Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro used to be an attorney, and is often clad in a Prussian-blue suit jacket, except when he dons all-black tactical gear for battle. “That blue is not a color you see often and it has a European feeling to it. That’s what I liked, that it didn’t look American,” says April. “This gives you a sense of who Alejandro was before his life fell apart.”

The look for Josh Brolin’s Matt was equally based on a character who is a study in contrasts: casual-minded enough to wear flip-flops yet hard as nails. “I went for what the character naturally is,” says April. “This is a guy who lives in hotel rooms. He never knows where he’s going to be next. He buys those ugly shirts and ugly pants that you wash in the sink and they dry in five minutes. He’s practical.”

Oscar-Nominated Editor Joe Walker

After production, Villeneuve closely collaborated with editor Joe Walker, who recently garnered an Oscar nomination for Twelve Years a Slave, to carve out the film’s high-anxiety rhythms. He also reunited with Prisoners composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, the Icelandic native known for his entrancing melodies and insistent percussion, who created a haunting aural backdrop for Sicario that matches the film’s fierce action and lingering emotions.

Sicario is a visceral inside portrait of the drug wars. It exposes a world of hard questions and even harder answers while testing human and emotional strength in a world where one is forced to grapple with emotions, desire and morality where there is no clarity and the only inviolable law is the law of staying alive to fight another day.

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