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Directors on Their Teams: Jean-Marc Vallee Talks ‘Dallas Buyers Club’

Jean-Marc Vallee filmed “Dallas Buyers Club” in 25 days, for just under $5 million. The director, whose credits include “Young Victoria,” had a no-frills set, including only source lighting to illuminate the scenes (“I’m a less-is-more kind of guy.”) Co-scripter Craig Borten had been with the project for 20 years, but Vallee said the script didn’t change much after he signed on; the only changes involved concentrating even more on the three lead characters, played by Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner.

Cinematography: Yves Belanger

We used only natural lighting. I worked that way on “Cafe Flor” and I loved it so much. We were shooting with Down’s Syndrome children and we wanted to use digital, low lighting, with 360-degree mobility, to capture the kids, shooting handheld. “Dallas” was the perfect project to push it further. It was not only a creative decision, but it helped the budget. Yves accepted the challenge. It looks good, it looks real and it creates a dynamic on the set; the actors don’t feel the heat, they don’t have marks to hit, they are free to move around in the space. They didn’t feel like they were “acting.” Sometimes I was shooting rehearsals, not telling them where to go, just to see: “Let’s try it.” And it creates a nice spirit.

Editing: Martin Pensa, Jean-Marc Vallee

The editorial line was to tell the story from his point of view (McConaughey’s real-life character, Ron Woodroof). You want the audience to be inside his head, to hear what he hears, to see what he sees. On the set, I (focused on) these three main characters to design the shots; when I shoot, I try as much as possible to have the editing in my mind, but of course the editors are always creative and come up with new stuff. In the cutting room, we wanted to find when to use closeups, to try to not cut and to be moderate, to let the shots live as long as possible. The performances were so good in one-shot takes, we tried to use them as much as possible. We didn’t want to interfere.

Sound design: Martin Pinseneau; sound mixer, Dick Hansen

I had that intention during the shoot. I knew I didn’t want to use a score, I wanted that ringing that he hears, and use that almost as a music. So the silence and the ringing would become almost like a score. The idea was to make it real, make the music coming from the story. Music comes from a car, a bar, in the strip club or from Rayon listening to Mark Bolan.

Writers: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack

Their script was emotional, beautiful; it was special and real. The script didn’t change much. But I worked with Craig and Melisa to get rid of scenes with the FDA and the government, with offices and board rooms. I asked them, “How can we use the characters to convey that information instead? I’d like this film to have the strong POV of the lead character.” It was all there on the page, it was their script.

Producers: Robbie Brenner, Rachel Winter

We were a great collaborative team, trying to come up with the perfect cut: James Schamus and Jeb Brody, the Focus people; producers Rachel Winter, Robbie Brenner and executive producer Nathan Ross. Rachel and Nathan were on the set every day. Robbie was the main producer and very creative, watching the dailies the whole time. This was her baby. She had the project, she had the script, she wanted to make it. Robbie made it happen. It’s a great team effort, the nice collaboration of a bunch of people who love film.

Visual effects: Marc Cote and Fake Studio

There’s one more collaborator we need to talk about: Fake Studio, owner-president Marc Cote and his team. There are more than 120 visual effects in the film, and they’re mostly invisible. We had so little money, they made miracles transforming New Orleans into Dallas and doing all these traveling effects shots. Every time you see an oil field or a tarmac in the film, it’s VFX. We shot Matthew in front of a green screen for a day in New Orleans, and then they suddenly made him seem to be in airports or in a Japanese hotel. There are no oil fields in Louisiana, we shot an exterior of a run-down damaged trailer and behind it put a huge green screen; then we bought a plate of Texas oil fields. When Matthew is crying in the car, I went to Marc and said it would be nice to see a single derrick in a field and it’s early in the morning and the sun hasn’t risen yet and the sky is orange. This shot was created in the VFX studio. He designed a sunset and used a shot of Matthew in a car, and it looks great.

Directors on Their Teams will run Monday through Friday this week. Tomorrow: Peter Berg on “Lone Survivor.”

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