TORONTO - Making the leap to Hollywood with the Hugh Jackman-led thriller "Prisoners" has Quebec director Denis Villeneuve feeling "a bit addicted" to U.S. projects these days.
The Oscar-nominated filmmaker says he's "very United States-oriented" after helming his first big-budget studio project, which chronicles a father's desperate search for his missing daughter.
He gushes over working with Jackman and co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, who also stars in Villeneuve's Toronto-set psychological thriller, "Enemy."
Both films will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival, which begins Thursday.
"Prisoners" got an early preview at the Telluride Film Festival over the Labour Day weekend, and early reviews are rapturous.
Villeneuve says the enthusiastic response has thrown him into a sense of "euphoria."
"When you make a movie, it's always flirting with disaster," Villeneuve said Tuesday from Montreal.
"You never know. A movie exists when it's seen by an audience, you never know at the end of the day, it's like a wish, a dream, but you don't know if they will share the dream."
Villeneuve says he's become close friends with Gyllenhaal as well as "Prisoners" cinematographer Roger Deakins ("Skyfall," "True Grit," "The Reader," "No Country for Old Men") and the film's editors Joel Cox ("Million Dollar Baby," "Unforgiven," "Mystic River") and Gary Roach ("J. Edgar," "Changeling," "Letters from Iwo Jima").
"It was the most beautiful cinematographic experience of my life," raves Villeneuve, who called Deakins one of his biggest heroes.
"I had the chance to work with people that were so over-talented, it's like too much. It's like a massive drug and I don't know if I'm a bit addicted right now."
The Hollywood Reporter enthused over "a well-made and immensely gripping film," while Variety called "Prisoners" "a spellbinding, sensationally effective thriller" that marks "a grand-slam English-lingo debut for the gifted Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve."
Despite horror stories of the studio system squashing an auteur's vision, Villeneuve says he felt no pressure to alter his approach to "Prisoners," which co-stars Gyllenhaal as a detective and Paul Dano as the prime suspect.
"That was a big surprise. Because going there I was ready for anything and at the end of the day I did my movie. If people don't like 'Prisoners' it's because of me," he says, noting it helped having a dream team behind him.
"Where I was wise was I think that I chose strong partnerships. When you work with Roger Deakins, this man is so respected in Hollywood, you know, and Joel Cox as well.... It was like I had a creative film crew that was a bit bulletproof."
Before tackling "Prisoners," Villeneuve dove into the Canada-Spain co-production, "Enemy," an adaptation of the Jose Saramago novel, "The Double."
The film traces the increasing paranoia of a university lecturer, played by Gyllenhaal, who believes he's found his exact doppelganger.
Villeneuve admits to being especially nervous about how that smaller, more experimental project will be received, noting it's "a very challenging movie."
"For me, it's a movie experience. It was a laboratory that I did with Jake Gyllenhaal," he says.
"When the audience will (sit) in the theatre to see 'Enemy,' they have to know that I want to play with them. It's really like a game.... It's a movie that requires a lot of attention and the will to participate."
Villeneuve credits that experimentation with helping him prepare for "Prisoners," also an intense examination of humanity's darker tendencies.
"Thematically, both movies are puzzles and both movies, more importantly, deal with inner fears and the dark side of a human soul," he says. "One of the questions (they are) asking is: Who is really in control inside yourself?"
To a certain degree, such weighty fare is well-tread territory for the soft-spoken 45-year-old director.
Lauded by some as Canada's next Denys Arcand, Villeneuve has established himself as a master at lyrical, haunting visions such as his black-and-white rendering of the 1989 Montreal Massacre in 2009's "Polytechnique" and intense, slow-burning dramas like his 2010 Oscar-nominated "Incendies."
Friend and fellow filmmaker Niv Fichman credits Villeneuve with having an ability to mine deep themes from seemingly simple stories.
"He's so intuitive, he's the most intuitive director I've every worked with," says Fichman, who produced "Enemy." "He often doesn't know where he's going necessarily, he just kind of goes and certain things happen."
Villeneuve traces his gradual rise to the global stage back to "Polytechnique," which he says caught the attention of Los Angeles and eventually brought "Prisoners" his way.
Now he finds himself with some of the most glowing reviews of his three-decade career, and the promise of more collaborations with the film industry's best has him both elated and cautious.
"The beauty of success is freedom. That's it," Villeneuve says of what's next. "'Prisoners' was a big challenge, it was a big, big challenge, and it was a big risk as well."
Already, he's feeling the pressure of producing a worthy follow-up.
"I have a lot of offers on the table right now but I need to take just a little distance. Because the next movie will be, I think, very important for me and I must not make a mistake. I must choose the right one."
The Toronto International Film Festival opens Thursday.