Project takes filmmaker out of his comfort zone
After Quebec filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee arrived with the Canadian success of his Frenchlanguage hit C.R.A.Z.Y., he made an impressive transition to Hollywood.
His 2009 period piece The Young Victoria earned three Oscar nominations and critical praise. Dallas Buyers Club in 2013 scored a best actor Oscar for Matthew McConaughey, while Vallee picked up an editing nomination. The next year, Vallee’s Wild with Reese Witherspoon solidified his reputation as an artist.
Still, it was his more modest 2011 time-shifting love story Cafe de Flore that led to his latest cinematic effort Demolition, which opens Friday.
“There are some similarities to Cafe de Flore,” says Vallee in L.A., taking a break from filming the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies.
In Demolition, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a grieving investment banker who devolves into a series of disassociations after his wife is killed in a car crash. What begins as a letter of complaint to a vending machine firm turns into obsessive followups, even as he compulsively dismantles appliances and structures around him.
Naomi Watts co-stars as the company’s customer-service representative who responds to his com- plaints and ends up connecting with the distraught widower. Chris Cooper plays the grief-stricken father-in-law trying to help his son-in-law recover his composure.
At the centre of the film is Gyllenhaal, whose demanding portrayal is key to presenting the delicate balance of the movie’s poignant drama and quirky humour.
“Of course, I am a big fan of the guy, but first it was his reaction to the material,” says Vallee, explaining his casting choice for the Demolition lead. “His feelings were visceral and passionate and he wanted to portray this character badly. So when I started meeting him, I thought, ‘This guy’s perfect.’ ”
The director wasn’t disappointed with his selection when they arrived on the New York set. In fact, he was pleasantly surprised that Gyllenhaal brought some of his own ideas to “flesh out” the complex role.
“Jake’s intelligent, and there’s something sensitive about his approach, and there’s goodness, and there’s something sad about his eyes,” Vallee says. “He’s so aware of the art form’s process, and he has so much instinct.”
Meanwhile, the subtle romantic relationship between Watts and Gyllenhaal is the director’s take on a more low-profile approach.
“I didn’t want to get into that cli- ché of the classic romance,” he says. “They have a mutual attraction and they are curious, but I wanted to keep it light, almost like a kids’ romance.”
Demolition also features Vallee’s creative editing techniques that marked his previous endeavours, especially the award-winning Dallas Buyers Club. But he admits Demolition took him out of his comfort zone, occasionally.
“I knew I was going to cut it this way, but I didn’t want to interfere with the emotions of the film,” Vallee says. “I wanted (Demolition) to breathe as much as possible.
“What I didn’t know is that I was going to cut the first 20 or 25 minutes like an action film starting with the death of the wife: There is a cut every three or four seconds.”
Still, his reputation as an actors’ director counts the most, which was confirmed by Watts, Cooper and Gyllenhaal.
The director says he doesn’t have a magic formula for working with thespians.
“Actors are pretending to be somebody else, and it’s hard and noble because this is not an actor’s medium, it’s a director’s,” Vallee says.
“That’s why the best (actors) need to have humility, and they have to let go, and I always let them to know I will be there to honour their art.”