Aaron Guzikowski’s original script for “Prisoners,” the just-opened kidnap-revenge thriller with Hugh Jackman as a concerned father and Jake Gyllenhaal as a dedicated cop, is getting plenty of notice in Hollywood. But its creative roots are much closer to home.
When he was growing up in Brockton, Guzikowski, now 39, was a skateboarder and played saxophone in the high school band. He later moved to New York, where he went to art school, played guitar and sang in a rock band, and ended up working in an ad agency. But he never shook the writing bug that had been gestating within him since the fourth grade, when he turned in a seven-page science fiction story for a classroom contest.
“I think that was the first moment where I thought, ‘This is really cool,’ ” Guzikowski said by phone from his current home in Los Angeles. “I remember there were characters riding elephants on some alien planet, but I couldn’t really tell you anything else about it. But I got the grand prize for it and got to order some choose-your-own-adventure books.
“I’d always been writing, off and on, since then, but it wasn’t until seven or eight years ago that I decided to try writing full time.”
One of his short stories was titled “Prisoners.” Guzikowski admitted it was a bit like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
“It was about a man who captures this guy who he believed had hit his teenage daughter with his car and drove off,” he said. “She doesn’t make it, then he finds the guy and kidnaps him and keeps him in this hole in his backyard, but is slowly driven crazy by having the guy down there. Then I started thinking about it as a screenplay, and spun off of that: What if there were more than one person and how would different people react to a situation like this? Then I started working on the detective character and how I could make him and the father character be two sides of the coin sort of thing.”
The script was started in 2007 and sold in 2009, at which point it began its circuitous route to the screen.
Mark Wahlberg liked the script and showed early interest in playing one of the leads, but he first wanted to co-produce and star in a remake of the 2008 Icelandic thriller “Reykjavik-Rotterdam,” and hired Guzikowski to adapt the script. The resulting 2012 film, “Contraband,” became Guzikowski’s first produced work. Wahlberg later became one of many names interested in making “Prisoners,” eventually signing on as co-executive producer.
“The first incarnation of [‘Prisoners’] was Bryan Singer [‘The Usual Suspects,’ ‘Superman Returns’] possibly going to direct, and Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale were going to be in the film,” Guzikowski remembers. “After that, Antoine Fuqua came onboard to direct, and we had talked with Hugh Jackman at the time. There was also a time when Leonardo DiCaprio was going to play the lead role. Finally, Denis Villeneuve [‘Incendies’] came on to direct, and was able to rally together an amazing cast. Then it came together fairly quickly.”
Villeneuve has praised Guzikowski for providing an easy roadmap. “I just had to follow the screenplay,” the Canadian filmmaker said in a press conference at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. “My job as a director was more to take care of each character and try to dig into them, to give each character a chance to be brought to life. The thriller elements are all Aaron’s fault.”
And it looks as though Guzikowski has plenty more of those elements up his sleeve. He’s currently writing and co-executive producing “The Red Road,” a thriller-drama-horror series for the Sundance Channel, set to premiere in February, and he recently finished the script of a “Moby-Dick” remake for Universal.
“I jumped at the chance,” said Guzikowski. “I was hired to do a rewrite but I had sort of a different take on it, so it was a start-from-the-beginning sort of thing. It follows the through line of the book, but the focus is on different characters.”
Being different is a conscious goal, he says. So, what’s the first line of the script?
“Well, all I’ll say is it’s not the first line of the book,” he said, laughing, “and I’m sure Herman Melville hates me.”