ScreenPrism talked with Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée about his new movie, Demolition.
Québécois director Jean-Marc Vallée is best known for Wild (2014) and the Best Picture-nominated Dallas Buyers Club (2013). Vallée is back with Demolition (2016), a film about a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) who decides to deconstruct and rebuild his life after his wife’s sudden death. Featuring an ensemble cast including Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper along with newcomer Judah Lewis, Demolition is thematically similar to Vallée's previous films.
Before Demolition's release, ScreenPrism's Joshua Handler talked with Vallée about grief, intuitive filmmaking and his "styleless" approach.
ScreenPrism: How did you find Bryan Sipe's screenplay?
Jean-Marc Vallée: It came to me. Russ Smith and Lianne Halfon, two of the producers of the film, saw Café de Flore that I had written and directed in 2011, it premiered at TIFF, the Toronto Film Festival. They called Bryan and said, 'We think we've found the director of Demolition, and then they sent me the script, and I called them back and I said, 'I am the director for Demolition. I've got to make this film. This is for me. Let's rock.
SP: You made two films, Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, in the meantime. How did that happen? Why was this one pushed off for a little while?
JMV: The film was on the blacklist, which is not a negative thing — it's a good thing. That means it's a film that is hard to produce. It's a special one. It has something. So the thing that it had is that it's so original, so unique that nobody knew what to do with it, and it was challenging in that manner, in that fashion. Even the actors were afraid to play Davis Mitchell, but fortunately not Jake Gyllenhaal. And he responded the same way I responded to the script — viscerally, deeply moved. I laughed so loud, and at the end, I cried like a kid, like a baby, and I didn't know why, and I was like, "What the fuck, why am I so touched? What is touching me like this?" It wasn't death. It wasn't something sad. It was a guy running on the boardwalk and a race against kids he doesn't even know. Of course he's going to win, he's got taller legs. He was like some sort of loser, but the win of that race was so beautiful to see, and I felt that what was touching me, making me cry, was the beauty of it, and not because it was sad. And I went, "Wow." I cried because it's beautiful, which is very rare in life, that you cry because it's beautiful; you cry because you're sad because you lose someone, and that's why I did Wild because I wanted to pay tribute to my mom I just lost as I was shooting Café. And Wild came on my desk, and it was supposed to be Demolition after Dallas, and I called the producers, Lianne and Russ and said, "Sorry, do you mind if I do Wild? And we're not exactly ready, we don't have all the money, we don't have an actor yet." Jake wasn't on board yet, and they went, "Alright." So I did Wild to pay tribute to this wonderful book and this kind of woman that was my mom and then Demolition, so it's funny how the two films have similarities in their characters. They are going through some sort of crisis, different crises, and experiencing grief and loss but in a totally different way.
Reese Witherspoon in Wild (2014)
So Demolition was such a fable, such a celebration to life, at the same time to love and to cinema. And Bryan's writing had such a rock 'n' roll spirit, which is to make noise with loud instruments and to tell your parents you're going to do it your own way, fuck off, and this script had that quality, had that spirit. Bryan had the courage to write this and tell Hollywood, "Fuck off, I'm not going to write a conventional thing." You've never seen a script like that before, and that's what this is for me. I want to pay tribute to this guy, to this kind of writing, to this kind of cinema, and can I do this? And if it's true that what we do defines us, man am I proud to release Demolition.
SP: It's funny that you say Demolition and Wild have a lot in common because one of my questions was about the fact that both are about people who choose to lose everything before rebuilding their lives on their own terms. Is this a mindset that you relate to or a fascination of yours? Or is it just a coincidence that the two films have similar protagonists?
JMV: It's a coincidence, but see I reacted deeply to Demolition and then Reese [Witherspoon] came to me after seeing Dallas, she sent the book from Cheryl Strayed and the script that Nick Hornby adapted from the book, and I was so touched by it, so moved, and of course I thought of my mom, and I used this experience to go to the end of my grief because I don't think I went through it before I saw Demolition. And I used this film, this project, to mourn and to deal with it. I'm not sure I'm at the end of it because losing a parent is very hard, and it's tough, and it's part of life, and then you see life differently when it happens, and you have to pay tribute.
SP: What do you see differently about your own life through your work on these films?
JMV: I'm 53. Choosing your film is choosing your lifestyle, and I want to commit to projects that touch me, that are beautiful. I'm aiming for something beautiful, and just like I explained the scene at the end being moved by something that was beautiful, I'm looking for that. I guess these films are allowing me to experience that I feel privileged and touched and blessed to be part of these projects and in looking for them, and I'm fortunate, from Dallas to Wild to this. It's funny how these three films have characters that are putting on a fight; they have to put on a fight to find their happiness, to find their truth, and I guess I relate to that and I'm doing that in my professional world. Life, it's always putting on a fight. Demolition was such a fight — it wasn't an easy one to do.
SP: I remember last year when the film premiered at Toronto, it was slated to be released sometime in 2015, and then after Toronto it moved to 2016.
JMV: No, that was the opposite, it was always planned to be released in April, and I pushed Fox Searchlight. I fought hard to convince them to screen the film at Toronto and my home country, almost my hometown. I'm from Montreal, but it makes me feel at home when I go to Toronto, and I like them, and they love what I do, so they accepted. And then they went, "Let's see, we might change our plans, but the release is next spring," and then they were maybe going to change their plan, but they were always planning to release the film in spring. They know what they're doing. I had to trust them.
SP: You said in an interview for Dallas Buyers Club that you like the "less is more" approach but went for more with Dallas. Do you consider Demolition to be "more is more" or "less is more"?
JMV: I consider it to be a "less is more" approach, and "more is more" was Dallas. With the guys they were giving me "more is more," and I was scared of it, but I'm always trying to not overdo it. Let's just trust the material and trust the acting, and I'm not going to interfere as a director by trying to be clever with fancy shots or fancy editing or fancy music or fancy this and fancy cars. I'm not putting style above [substance]; I'm not aiming for style. I know I have a style, that the way we shoot has a style, creates a style, but it's not what projects are about. It's about touching people with a beautiful story. In this case it's a fable, it's an over-the-top story, it's a little bit "more is more" by its nature, but we treated it like it was a truly possible story, plausible, authentic, real, and therefore the acting is "less is more" and same with the cutting. I let the shots breathe as much as possible, although the first 20 minutes it's a total contradiction with that because I had to cut the first 20 minutes like an action film where every four seconds there's a new shot because I tried it. I tried "less is more," don't interfere, don't overcut; you let the shots breathe 30 to 45 seconds, a minute, sometimes 2 minutes without cutting.
I couldn't do that with Demolition, and I went, "Whoa, why am I doing this?" because when I was doing it, I had time to think and judge the character, and I was hating him because he was there doing nothing about the fact that his wife has just died, and he wasn't feeling anything, and he wasn't doing anything but laughing about it. So of course Bryan's writing was clever, so it helped us to care about the character because it comes from a truthful place and a beautiful place, but even that wasn't enough, so every four seconds or so you got a new shot, and therefore more information that the brain has to register and where we don't have time to think, and it works to have another shot; it works to have another one. You just follow this thing and this guy, and then after 20 minutes, the shots are getting longer and longer. That came out in the cutting room; it wasn't planned this way. I think it worked.
SP: You and Yves Bélanger have worked together on quite a few films now. You have a loose, free visual style that fits with the characters onscreen. How did you develop this style together?
JMV: As I said, it's not about trying to create a style. It's about trying to serve the story and the characters and just giving them the space and freedom where you can use the locations and the space and move wherever you want to move. So there's no artificial lighting. It's just watching the room, natural light and available light, and it's not blocking the light, so I can shoot everywhere without seeing some cinema stands; it doesn't exist on our set. You can move everywhere, and so it's all about capturing. We know we're staging because it's a fiction, but we shoot the rehearsals. I don't tell them where to go. Sometimes it's great; sometimes it sucks. Then we adapt, then we change, and we get creative and we react to what we do, and then we stop because we won't feel it, and then we go, "Right, next scene." See, nothing was made to create style or to create a tone. Everything was made to be true and to capture these great performances and not to interfere. That's how my style is. We don't say that it's our style; we say that it's our approach because we have a little bit of a thing against this word "style" because we don't want to put it above. We hate it.
SP: So it's more of an intuitive approach when you and Yves work together.
JMV: Oh yeah, there's no look. We're not about look — look and sound did not exist. We don't care about that. It's when we get to the grading process at the end: we have almost no time, we are not grading, we're not changing the colors, we want the film like we shot it, and the way we shot it is the most realistic way. So we are not trying to put in more blue or more green or more red or get it to the style of this painter or like this guy or this artist. Fuck that. We're all about reality, acting, emotion. Fuck style. Fuck colors.
SP: Not enough filmmakers go for that intuitive, styleless approach.
JMV: It's a styleless approach, exactly. But I'm aware that it becomes a style, but we're not aiming for that. But because it's handheld, and it's observing, and it's rough, and it's raw, and sometimes the cutting is rough and raw, but it is, it becomes a style. It's not the intention — the intention is to tell a beautiful story that moves us and makes us laugh and makes us cry and to respect these wonderful actors and work with them and make it happen.
SP: Once you're finished, are you a director who sits through the film many times at festivals, or do you watch it once and then you're done like the Woody Allen approach?
JMV: No, no, no, I'm not Woody Allen at all. I watch it 100 times, if not more. I'm in the cutting room all the time, and I watch the film over and over and over and over. I challenge and cut; I challenge, I challenge, and once I'm done, I appreciate watching it at Toronto with an audience and at SXSW and then this other place. It's nice to feel the crowd — that's why we do it. Being in the dark with a lot of people, this communion of watching a film, there's something beautiful about this, gathering a bunch of people in the dark watching images, and all this for what? One thing that touches me the most which is storytelling. Story. It's all about the story, and then it's all about the acting; it's all about characters. Surround yourself with people like you. Demolition is a beautiful example of a team effort with lots of people that were on the same page. All wanted to do the same thing: serve the beautiful, strange thing that was the script and make it happen.
SP: As a director, do you think of how every film fits into your filmography, or do you just take it film by film?
JMV: Film by film. I don't think about filmography. Not at all. Please, I don't want to think about that. It's one film at a time. Then okay, you can look back and look at what you've done, "Oh funny, there's a link or there's some sort of similarities here and there," but it's one at a time. It's all pure coincidences.