Three years after his feature directorial debut Carré blanc played at the festival in 2011, the French director who made his name in commercials returns to Toronto with thriller The Reach.

Paris-born Léonetti talks to Jeremy Kay about working with Michael Douglas and rising star Jeremy Irvine in the Mojave Desert-set two-hander produced by Douglas’ Furthur Films. The Oscar winner stars as Madec, a calculating corporate titan who engages in a battle of wits with Ben, an impoverished young tracker whom he hires for a big game hunt when things go badly wrong.

The Reach receives its world premiere in Toronto on Saturday. WME Global represents US rights and Good Universe handles international sales.

How did you get involved on The Reach?
About two years ago they called me and gave me the script and I read it and thought it was very interesting. I was in Paris and three months later I was meeting Michael Douglas in New York.

What was it about Stephen Susco’s adaptation of the 1972 Robb White novel Deathwatch that attracted you?
It was very visual and I saw immediately I was made for this movie. I wanted something simple, strong and dark. This story is like a Biblical story: it’s a strong and brutal metaphor about the power and money and I saw it as a classic survivor Western. It was an opportunity for me to show I could make something simple and strong.

What was it working with Michael Douglas, who not only stars but produces this (with Robert Mitas)?
It wasn’t easy. Michael’s a legend and I am a [relatively fresh] director, so if you are to convince him you have to fight for it. But if he is convinced he gives a lot. I wanted to create this character with a big hat and yellow sunglasses in the desert and he was interested and helped me a lot. At the same time it was an opportunity to show another side of Michael because we have seen him as Gordon Gekko and in Falling Down and other iconic roles but we haven’t seen him play this kind of character before.

And Madec is not simply an all-out alpha male is he?
It was interesting because I wanted to explore how much this guy was lost. He has a lot of power and money but he is alone and sad. I thought it was a new Michael Douglas.

The UK’s Jeremy Irvine, so impressive in The Railway Man, delivers another fine performance here.
He is a really young guy. He’s very smart and enthusiastic and saw my movie [Carré blanc] and wanted to work with me. He was very involved in the shoot; always trying to improve himself. I like him a lot because he wasn’t afraid to put together a character in front of Michael.

The scenery sears itself into the mind. Where and when did you shoot?
We shot in September 2013 for five-and-a-half weeks. We filmed in the desert near the town of Farmington in New Mexico. It was difficult but at the same time I was in love with this place because it was like the planet Mars. You feel the violent temperature and you feel the loneliness. The people are strong but there’s a kind of sadness. It was a tough location for the crew. Temperatures reached over 100 F but we knew we had to shoot there and Michael Douglas agreed with me.

Why is it called The Reach?
For the screenwriter it meant something wide and unpredictable; a place where everybody would be able to lose himself. It means something really big; bigger than nature.

What are your feelings about making your return to Toronto?
I’m proud because I was there three years ago with my first film.