After working on critically acclaimed films “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild,” Jean-Marc Vallée took on an underdog of a project that almost didn’t find its wings – or the cash. From the mind of screenwriter Bryan Sipe, “Demolition” is the story of investment banker Davis Mitchell and his seemingly apathetic and existential spiral after the sudden death of his wife. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Mitchell, Naomi Watts as Karen Moreno, Judah Lewis as Chris Moreno and Chris Cooper as Phil, Davis’ father in law.
Vallée and Sipe talked to Variety about their upcoming film “Demolition.”
What attracted you to this project?
Vallée: Bryan’s script. I mean, what it represents, the whole package. It’s such a unique piece of material and it’s very rare to get to read a script like this — so unusual, so special, so funny, and so emotional and you don’t know where it’s going. And you don’t know whether you like the guy but you keep turning the pages and you wonder why. I was laughing out loud. At the end, I got emotional to a point where I was crying when this guy was running in an imaginary race against these kids that he didn’t know on the boardwalk. I was like, “Wait a minute, why am I crying?” I read the script again and laughed at the same places and cried in the same place. Then I realized, “Jesus, how beautiful is this? I’m not crying because it’s sad, I’m crying because it’s beautiful.”
It’s beautiful, irreverent, special. I wanted to be part of it and to do this and really serve this story and this project. I related to the character and what Bryan wrote. Sometimes in life you lose yourself and I could relate to that. And it’s funny how you find yourself back and find that control back, if you find control back. It all happens to us, and this is a script that was celebrating this life through the gaze of meditation on grief and at the same time celebrating cinema. That’s why it’s quite a treat for a director so I wanted it badly.
How did you come up with the character of Davis?
Sipe: I did demolition work when I was younger. I swung a sledgehammer and ripped down houses. It occurred to me at the time that once you take everything apart, you can see how it’s all put together. The other thing that happened to me at the time was I experienced this depression, like when I was 18 or 20 years old. I think it’s because I was doing something that I didn’t want to be doing and I didn’t really see any out. I was stuck and I was looking around at this debris, literally, surrounding me but I found my way out of that. About six years later I’m in Los Angeles and I’m experiencing the same thing but now I’m failing in my career.
That’s how I found this character — the apathy that I was feeling at that time because I didn’t see any way out. I didn’t see how I was going to succeed anymore; there was a lack of confidence all of a sudden, and once that happens, it’s a slippery slope. Before I knew it, I didn’t care about anything. I didn’t care about writing or music or art – none of it. I didn’t know where that way coming from. The only time I had experienced something similar was when I was doing demolition work, so the voice occurred to me. I think I was looking for it but he kind of met me half way. He starting talking to me and saying interesting thing so I followed him. The voice became the character and then he introduced me to other characters. And then I had him swinging a sledgehammer because I think where my mind went back to was that cathartic experience of destruction and how by tearing things down and getting to the frame, the bare essentials of how something is put together, you kind of learn how it works and maybe you can fix it, maybe you can grow.
How did you know that Jake Gyllenhaal was the right person for the project?
Vallée: I think it was his response to the material. Same as mine – visceral, deep and passionate. He wanted to portray it so badly so the first conversation I had with him I was blown away by what he was saying and how he felt emotionally. He got it and then when I met with him, of course, I was a fan of his work. He’s not afraid to get out of his comfort zone and challenge himself and he saw this opportunity to do that. When I saw him live I was blown away by the face, the presence that he has and how I wanted to put the camera on this face. He has such a depth and intelligence, he’s so handsome. There’s a quality in his face where you care about for this guy, there’s goodness. And there’s a melancholy, a sadness about him. Fate sent us this guy, he was so perfect for it. When we started to work, to shoot I thought we were so blessed to have this guy.
Judah Lewis, who plays Chris Moreno, is so fantastic and complex as a teenager. What was it like to work with him?
Vallée: I was impressed with him. I was the first audience with the crew, and we were blown away by this kid. First, I was blown away in the audition. The kid crossed the door and bang we had a rock star. He had a rock star quality. He had his long hair and reminded me of Brian Jones. When he started to act, it was amazing, and then he started to demolish stuff and that was amazing, and then he started to dancing and that was amazing.
It was amazing to witness this new, fresh talent, so wanting to do something with all these great actors that he admires. He was such a trooper, he was a blast, and his character was so beautiful and represented that rock spirit I’m talking about. It’s funny how this film about two lost souls that are going to find each other and help each other without even realizing it, without even wanting it. This kid is going to help Davis in his own way by what he is, what he represents and his love of music. Suddenly he contaminates his life. Davis has no time for music in his life – it’s just about “making it.” But the kid is so different. He’s not listening to the same stuff of his generation. The way he influences Davis makes him comes alive. He becomes almost like a kid again. He’s an amazing young talent to watch in the future and work with.
We never see a physical relationship between Karen and Davis. Why?
Vallée: It made the Davis character more of an asshole. Already, it’s tough to care for this guy, where he is and how he reacts to the death of his wife. For him to go there and even for Karen to go there, as she’s already in a relationship, it made us judge the character and not care as much for them. The romance is amazing the way it is. They don’t want to or have to go there and it’s not about that, which is great and exactly what was the intention from the beginning.
Sipe: There’s so much more about their relationship to enjoy that keeping it not physical, it stands out for me. I think that’s a conventional way to go. There was such a fine line about liking him in the film. There’s moments when you question whether you like Davis or not. Jake makes the character likable in the small nuanced things he does. But it would be easy to look at him and not like him, which I think is dangerous. It would have been a betrayal of Chris if there was something physical, if they had slept together. There’s a moment in the first time you see Chris where he asks Davis, “Are you f-cking my mom?” and Davis says no. Then they develop this relationship that is pure trust, and that’s the only reason this kid opens up to him. If Davis would have gone back on that, I would have hated the character, and I think the audience would have the same feeling.
What was the most challenging aspect of this film to execute?
Vallée: To find the level of emotion and go there and to find the level of humor and the right amount of it and the emotion. It’s not always the same from one film to the other. For this one, on a practical level, the demolishing was difficult. We shot this like a documentary. We had one house to demolish and we had to do it in one take because we didn’t have another one to demolish. We gave the tools to Jake and Judah and asked the crew to get out, and we shot for an hour and something and the house was destroyed. It became capturing the guys were demolishing, and I was moving with the camera. Once it was demolished, we had to move on to the next thing to demolish, we couldn’t do it again. I had a plan because I knew how I wanted to cut it but they had so much fun breaking everything that I knew I had a lot of material.
Sipe: After I finished the script, it was on the Black List, which I didn’t even know what it was but turned out to be a good thing. People loved it but it wasn’t getting closer to getting made. This is a hard movie to make. At the time, there was a recession, and movies like that weren’t getting made. Once the economy got better it became easier. There were a lot of times the rug got pulled out from under me. They’d tell me, “So and so is reading your script,” insert A-lister here, but after a while you become numb to those things. I adopted this “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude. I stopped getting excited because I didn’t believe it anymore. I threw in the towel, emotionally left the business. I was still working at a bar at that point. I tried to clear my head by going up north past Vancouver and stayed in a cabin for a month, but that didn’t help. I then went to Portugal and I wandered the streets trying to find answers but not coming up with anything. The prospect of having to ask my father for money was depressing.
But Jean-Marc was such a generous director with me. He knew the struggle I went through with this and didn’t want to separate me from it. He knew it was my baby and told me I was coming to set and along for the ride. He didn’t have to do that but I’m so grateful to him for doing that. He let me weigh in and heard my voice. It was such an amazing experience. I was so lucky to be a part of it.
When you read the script, how did you envision this film and how did that vision change throughout production?
Vallée: It’s funny how this film evolved, from the writing to the cutting room. The way I like to cut from one film to the other, I like to not interfere and let the shots breathe as much as possible. If you look at “Dallas” and “Wild,” the shots are long, it’s not about cutting performances but rather capturing them. Funny enough, in this film, in the first 20 minutes I did the total opposite. I didn’t know I was going to do that. When the shots were long in the first 20 minutes, Davis is so much the same that you have time to think and judge him for reacting how he does. It wasn’t good for the character. I started cutting the film like an action film — every three or four seconds, there’s a new cut. You don’t have time to think and judge because there is new information that the brain has to process. After 20 minutes he changes. We got rid of sex scenes, and I found a way of cutting this film differently but then the shots become longer and longer and it becomes emotional.
A lot of the stuff was shot like a documentary. We’re just observing, capturing, trying not to interfere. Of course were are staging, we have a script and making a fiction film. Here’s this sandbox, play in it, and we’re going to watch you play in it and not try to interfere so it looks real. The goal is not to put style and fancy camera moves and colors above substance. It’s all about story, characters, emotion and looking real. We weren’t looking for what’s the tone is. We went, “Let’s try and be real and we’ll find it.” There’s something so emotional about this story, the quest of these guys and, of course, it’s always sad and emotional when you talk about loss. What touched me isn’t the sad aspect, but the beautiful aspect. You cry because it’s beautiful.
Any future projects in the lineup?
Sipe: I’m doing a rewrite for a Sony movie right now. But other than that, I’m looking for the next thing. I’ve got my ideas and texts I tinker with but I want to do this [“Demolition”] again.
Jean-Marc, you’re currently in production on HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” what’s next?
Vallée: I am so thrilled and excited to be with HBO again for “Sharp Objects.” With Gillian and Marty and Amy Adams. I am such a fan of the book, it’s such a special one. Different than “Demolition” and if Amy is ready to play this character and to do this I want to accompany her and have fun with her in this sandbox. I’ve never attacked this kind of material — it’s so dark, but it’s also about family relationships and it’s so human. The humanity in it is so touching, but also so troubling, so there’s something so troubled about the world she depicted in this family. I never knew I was going to make two TV series back to back, “Big Little Lies” and “Sharp Objects.” We’re not treating them like TV series, I’m just making another feature film but just longer and, of course, “This is not TV, this is HBO.”