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LOS ANGELES, April 6, (RTRS): After working on critically acclaimed films “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild,” Jean-Marc Vallee 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.
Vallee and Sipe talked to Variety about their upcoming film “Demolition.”
RTRS: What attracted you to this project?
Vallee: 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, “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.
RTRS: 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.
RTRS: How did you know that Jake Gyllenhaal was the right person for the project?
Vallee: 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.
RTRS: Judah Lewis, who plays Chris Moreno, is so fantastic and complex as a teenager. What was it like to work with him?
Vallee: 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 Bryan 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.
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.
RTRS: When you read the script, how did you envision this film and how did that vision change throughout production?
Vallee: 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. I am so thrilled and excited to be with HBO again for “Sharp Objects.” With Bob Jakes, 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.”