Jean-Marc Vallée can’t slow down.
The Montreal-born director’s feverish pace has resulted in three features in just three years: Dallas Buyers Club (2013), Wild (2014) and now his latest, Demolition, which premiered in the opening night slot at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. Like Wild and Dallas Buyers Club, Demolition is an intensely dramatic character-piece driven by a central performance that will be hard to ignore come awards season. The same could also be said for Vallée, who is himself becoming impossible to ignore as one of his generation’s most interesting, prolific auteurs.
After earning widespread recognition in his native Quebec—his debut film, Black List (1995), was the highest-grossing Quebecois film released that year, and the autobiographical C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) is regarded as a high watermark of the country’s native cinema—he’s become one of Hollywood’s go-to guys for gritty, emotionally raw projects. With both Demolition and a 92-day shoot for an upcoming HBO series keeping him in the conversation, the director is poised to give everyone in the industry a run for their money… if only because he simply won’t stop working.
“I don’t know why I’m shooting this way,” he says, taking a break on the set of Big Little Lies, the HBO serial drama that reunites him with his Wild star Reese Witherspoon. “I think I’m able to cope with it. I think I’ve found my comfort zone. This became my rhythm, my lifestyle for the last four years.”
In order to release films quickly, you have to work quickly, and Vallée credits his increased productivity to a frenetic shooting style. Demolition, like its immediate predecessors, was shot digitally and off the cuff with an eye for cinema vérité. Think available light, handheld camerawork, and fully dynamic 360-degree space. It all works perfectly for the kind of movies Vallée makes, which deal with emotions and themes as chaotic as the shoots themselves.
Any art student knows that you have to learn the rules before you can break them. Vallée refined his philosophy through decades of trial and error and a conscious decision to not look back. “I pushed the envelope with Dallas Buyers Club,” he says. “[That production] made it clear that I would never go back to the traditional way of shooting, with spotlights and flags.”
Demolition, based on a Blacklist screenplay by Bryan Sipe, follows a rich and successful investment banker named Davis Mitchell whose wife dies in a violent car accident. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Davis is a complicated character, and his apathetic reaction to his wife’s sudden death triggers a monumental change in his life.
Transformation is a crucial theme in Vallée’s work. As the wandering Cheryl Strayed character in Wild gradually comes to terms with her troubled past, the terrain on which she’s traveling transforms from acrid southern California desert to lush Washington rainforest, a powerful shift to growth and development. In Demolition, Vallée arrives at a similar place but takes the opposite approach: Destruction and ruin forge the path to change.
In a key sequence, Gyllenhaal and his young co-star Judah Lewis lay waste to Davis’s sleek, ultramodern home, fulfilling the character’s desire to smash his materialistic existence in favor of a more honest and natural life.
To create the scene, the director and his team had an extension built on the front of the house—makeshift kitchen, dining room and living room included. Under a different leader, the production might get multiple cracks at the scene, with more than one extension built and ready for use. Budgetary restraints aside, that’s just not the way Vallée works. “We started to shoot and one hour later the house was totally destroyed,” he says, describing a hectic and exhilarating experience. “It was a one-shot, one-take scenario, and the idea was to shoot it like it was a rock concert. That’s why at one point, before destroying the super-expensive sound system, Judah says, ‘Let’s play some music.’ They become like The Who, completely destroying their instruments at the end of a concert.”
Gyllenhaal remembers the experience as therapeutic. “[Vallée] told us to go apeshit. It was great fun and cathartic—for both me and my character,” he says. Watch the scene and it’s obvious that there aren’t any tricks involved. Those are real sledgehammers flattening real walls, and Vallée’s camera is within striking distance of the action. Not only is it thrilling to watch, it’s also a testament to cinematic gutsiness. Go fast, get the shot, and make sure it’s real.
Vallée says, “I think this is the most rock ‘n’ roll film I’ve ever made.”
But Demolition isn’t all smashed architecture and brazen attitude. The softer, quieter moments reflect Vallée’s sensitivity as a filmmaker as well as his remarkable way with actors. In fact, his shooting style seems to suit actors and performance more than anything else. Just ask Gyllenhaal, who says the director’s loose approach “allows him to capture performance and reality—he never misses anything. Everything is filmed in respect to emotional instinct. It is incredibly freeing for performance, because everything and nothing is precious at the same time.”
“One take you can be shooting a close up,” says the actor, “and the next he will grab the camera, run across the street and get a wide shot of the scene.”
As good as the director is with actors, even Gyllenhaal admits that Vallée’s most unsung quality is his editing. Under various pseudonyms, including “John Mac McMurphy,” a reference to the infamous One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest protagonist, Vallée has edited or co-edited six of his nine feature films; for Demolition, he’s working under a new name: Jay M. Glen.
The director talks about a virtuosic climactic sequence in Demolition, in which one of the main characters is rushed to the hospital, undergoing changes in post-production. At first, it was a more raucous and lively affair, with loud music and hard cuts. In its final form, the scene is a ruminative and slightly gentler montage, one that jumps between multiple spaces and viewpoints with surprising elegance. “I try to stay organic and not show off,” he admits. “I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, look how cool this guy is.’ I’m just trying to be invisible and transparent and not interfere.”
As such, locations were shot as they appear in reality. If a room had particularly soft, warm lighting, then that’s how it would appear onscreen; if the light was harsh and fluorescent, well, that’s just how it was. “We try not to cheat,” Vallée says. “Sometimes the DP has to use a more practical lens, or maybe we’ll ask the set designer to switch out some bulbs to make things a little brighter, but it comes from whatever we have at the location. There was never a discussion of, ‘OK, for this scene, we’ll go blue-ish, or warmer with some orange.’ We shoot the rehearsals. We shoot the blocking. And then we react.”
Vallée admits to having a unique emotional reaction to the script, and seeing a lot of himself in the Davis character. Hard work takes sacrifice, they say, which is something he learned while blazing his trail to Hollywood relevancy. “I did not lose my ex-wife [as Davis does], but I did get divorced,” he says. “I was too busy trying to make money, trying to make it as a director, trying to pay the bills. I didn’t take care of [my relationship].”
These personal stakes were wholly present on set. Gyllenhaal and Vallée had daily discussions about the character and the messy emotional landscape in his head. “I believe all emotions are equal, even apathy,” the actor says. “There isn’t one way to grieve. Trauma can make feelings harder to access, and that’s what Jean-Marc and I loved about the journey.”
Accessing buried emotions is painful. Vallée, though, accepted the hardship. “I did so many things [in life] because they were easy,” he says, “and that’s what Davis says at one point. They ask him why he married his wife in the first place, and he says, ‘Because it was easy.’ The film is a celebration of ‘fuck easy.’”
You get the sense that for Vallée, it’s always been about the journey. Like the complicated characters he puts on screen, he possesses a true sense of longing, which probably explains his insatiable desire to work. Each new project represents further progress on a long road that, more than two decades in the making, shows no sign of ending anytime soon.
“Jean-Marc is one of a kind,” Gyllenhaal puts it, bluntly. “May he work and work and work.” MM
Demolition opened in theaters on April 8, 2016, courtesy of Fox Searchlight. Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Spring 2016 issue, on stands April 19.