Mexican Standoff: Stefano Sollima's 'Sicario' sequel pits Benicio del Toro against Josh Brolin

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When it was released in 2015, Sicario earned critical praise and three Oscar nominations. Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro, the story centered on drug cartels operating on the border of the U.S. and Mexico.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado, a Columbia Pictures release opening June 29, follows two characters from the first movie. But director Stefano Sollima is quick to point out that the two movies are quite different.

"Soldado is not a sequel, it's a standalone movie with two of the same characters, but a story that's unrelated to Sicario," he says by telephone. "I think the original idea was to make three standalone movies based on the same world. It's a fresh take on franchises, and I think it makes the trilogy pretty interesting. You can watch Soldado without having seen Sicario, and completely understand the characters and story."

Taylor Sheridan wrote the screenplays for both movies, and Sollima says that his participation was like a guarantee of quality.

"I liked Sicario very much," he enthuses. "Great actors, strong storyline, that soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson. I thought its approach was pretty close to the kind of movies I make. I was developing another project with Black Label Media when I read Taylor's script for this."

In Sicario, Blunt played an FBI agent drawn into a scheme to break up a drug cartel. It was put together by Matt Graver (Brolin), a dark-ops federal agent, and former prosecutor Alejandro Gillick (del Toro), seeking revenge after cartels killed his family.

Matt and Alejandro are back in Soldado, ordered to start a war between rival cartels in an effort to stop a wave of terrorist attacks in the U.S. heartland.

"Taylor and I worked mostly on tightening the storyline," Sollima says about collaborating with the screenwriter. "It was more complex than it is now. We tried to condense it, which I think is a normal process in developing a script. You go from a wide quantity of material and try to get to its soul."

Sollima added the idea of pitting Matt and Alejandro, friends and colleagues, against each other. But Sheridan's initial structure, in particular his decision to focus the storyline on two younger characters, remained intact. Soldado contrasts Isabela Reyes (played by Isabela Moner), the daughter of drug kingpin Carlos Reyes, with Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a high-school student from a Texas border town.

"That theme was there from the start," Sollima says. "It's one of the reasons why I loved the script. Also, Taylor put the characters in completely different situations, especially Alejandro. It gives us the chance to go deeper into the portrayals. Alejandro starts as a lone wolf, driven by revenge, and when he meets Isabela, we discover this unexpected side to this character."

Del Toro and Brolin were attached to the project when Sollima came on board. The director had a hand in casting the other parts. He praises Moner, who had progressed from parts on Nickelodeon series to a supporting role in Transformers: The Last Knight.

"Even though she's young, she's an amazing actress," he says. "Benicio was really warm and helpful with Isabela. For Elijah, this was almost his first experience, so we tried to guide him a bit more. Give them both a good environment to work in."

Sollima points out that Blunt's character in Sicario acted as a sort of surrogate for the audience, one that provided a moral point of view. "Of course, that point of view also contained a moral judgment," he adds. "Soldado is more of an ensemble piece where you experience different points of view. We don't judge the characters, we just show them, show how they interact. You kind of take a step back as a storyteller. In the end it's a more complete portrait of the world."

Sollima feels he has taken the same approach in his earlier works. Born in Rome, he entered the industry as a camera operator. After directing short films, he worked on popular TV series like “Romanzo criminale” and “Gomorrah.” His previous feature films include Suburra (2015).

"I never want to try to take the hand of the audience and explain to them how the world is bad," he says. "The audience is smarter than this. I just give all the elements that I feel represent reality. And then you will have your own point of view about the story, but without being forced by mine."

That approach requires persuading viewers that the world you have created is accurate. Soldado feels at times like a documentary, from its depiction of mules finding routes across the Rio to malls and fast-food stalls filled with anxious migrants. Despite the movie's subject matter, Sollima says that he never felt threatened working with consultants and scouting locations.

"We're researching for a movie, not doing journalism," he argues. "It's completely different. You have to understand that world, you have to understand how people move and talk. It's important for the production designer, the costume designer, the actors."

Much of Soldado was shot in New Mexico, where the crew built a border crossing that figures into one of the movie's key scenes. Without government cooperation, the production had to come up with its own air base and military equipment.

Talking about his first production with an American crew, Sollima says the experience was amazing. He praises cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who also shot The Martian and Alien: Covenant. Wolski employed elaborate camera rigs to capture complicated action scenes.

The most complex may have been an ambush on a convoy that involved helicopters, several moving vehicles, a car equipped with a Russian Arm (a remote-controlled crane), and a camera rig that enabled Wolski to rotate almost 200 degrees. The scene took about a week to shoot.

"When you have a sequence which is really complicated, where you have an incredible amount of moving parts, and where you have complex action, I approach the scene by ignoring all the technical difficulties," Sollima says. "Instead, I try to put one of my characters in the center of the action. In this case, Isabela."

In the sequence, a Humvee with Matt, Alejandro and Isabela becomes the target of corrupt police as well as cartel hitmen. "Instead of trying to cover all the action," Sollima explains, "we shot the battle from the point of view of the girl. Put her in the middle and observe her, in a long tracking shot without cutting. Create a scene where everything is confused and really scary, where you never leave her. It's a long sequence where you are in the back of the Humvee, everything exploding around you."

The memorable score for Sicario was composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, the Icelandic musician who passed away in February. Soldado is dedicated to him.

"We used one piece of music he created for Sicario," Sollima says. "He was with us, we had in mind his approach, the character of his sound. When we were making the soundtrack, it was almost a homage to him."

Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir composed the score for Soldado. Sollima says they worked together for a month fashioning her music to the movie. The director then collaborated with Matthew Newman (Drive, The Neon Demon) for the three months needed to edit.

"I look at editing as sort of a final draft," Sollima says, "the final rewrite of the movie. From the script through shooting, you can change things. But with editing it's the moment when you can rewrite the movie. You finally find the right rhythm, you cut everything that's unnecessary. For me it's probably the most enjoyable part, because it's pure creativity."

Sollima is currently in Mexico working on “ZeroZeroZero,” an Italian miniseries that will be available in the U.S. on Amazon. He says he takes "absolutely the same approach" to television and feature films.

"The only thing that really changes is the time you have for exposition," he adds. "You have more time to explore and give nuances to your characters. That way they become real human beings."

As for Soldado, Sollimo says he realized he took a different approach to the production than other directors might have tried. "I did this film from a European director's point of view," he notes. "With all the financing involved in the industry now, sometimes you risk losing that specificity. You risk losing your passion. But I'm proud that in this case, where I had the privilege of working with a great crew and amazing actors, we didn't lose that passion."