'Big Little Lies' Director on Tackling Domestic Abuse, Shooting "Real and Authentic" Fight Scenes (Q&A)

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO
Jean-Marc Vallee could add an Emmy directing nomination for 'Big Little Lies' to his 2014 Oscar nomination for 'Dallas Buyers Club.'

"It makes you feel uncomfortable watching it, and it feels messy because it's not perfect," says Jean-Marc Vallee, as he also discusses his next project, HBO's Sharp Objects' starring Amy Adams.

Consider Jean-Marc Vallee the Energizer Bunny of the directing trade. The French-Canadian helmer, 54, started working on HBO's limited series Big Little Lies two years ago, when his film Demolition was released. From Lies, he jumped back into directing yet another HBO limited series, the upcoming Amy Adams-starring Sharp Objects (still in production). He's figured out a way to keep going and going: "I've got a whole team, including a massage therapist, to keep the machine working," he jokes. He spoke with THR about collaborating with Lies producer-stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman and showrunner David E. Kelley on the series, which tackled domestic abuse, bullying, adultery and other fraught topics head-on.

How has the reaction to Big Little Lies been since the season ended?

It's a very good reaction. I'm happy. How do I process it? I'm so busy on the other [series] that I don't really have time to enjoy the whole thing. Reese and Nicole and I, the producers and David — we've met and celebrated.

How did you end up directing all seven episodes?

I was just supposed to do one and two and maybe the final [episode]. Then you start to work and you start to cast. And then with Reese, because of the relationship I had [from directing her in Wild], she said, "Are you sure you don't want to see the whole thing?" I felt like I was going to abandon them in a certain way, and I said, "I'll do it, and we'll see how I can manage two [shows] in a row." I was attached to do the whole of Sharp Objects, and that's why I didn't want to commit to doing everything on Lies. I'm tired now!

What was the most challenging episode to direct?

Seven was the toughest. I wish I could say seven was my favorite, but for trivia night, everything we had to do meant shooting at night from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. The five leads and their husbands were there, as well as the supporting parts and 200-something extras that we had to choreograph. We had to shoot from all these different perspectives. Everybody is watching each other, so that was a challenge — to nail the humor and the drama and the violence.

How tough were the fight scenes between Kidman and Alexander Skarsgard, who plays her husband?

Nicole, Alex and I all committed to this and wanted to be faithful to the material. There was some talking about how we were going to shoot this, but at the same time we wanted this to feel real and authentic. We [said], "Why don't we shoot the rehearsals and see how it goes." It was really violent. We tried to cut as little as possible and just shoot and capture as much as possible. It makes you feel uncomfortable watching it, and it feels messy because it's not perfect — it doesn't feel stagey. Our actors were willing to do that and go there. Sometimes they hurt themselves a bit, but never to a point where it was dangerous. That was the nature of the scenes, and I was impressed by what they did and how they did it. It had an impact on them and us all.

How do you compare working in TV versus film?

I don't approach them differently except I have more to do in [television]. I feel like I'm doing the same thing except the duration is longer [than film]. I like having more time to explore the characters. But after doing two TV series in a row, I can't wait to go back to feature film. I only have two hours and 40 days of shooting, that's it. Next project.

So do you approach material for TV and film differently?

I do. When I read a book, I go, "Oh, yep, TV. That would be more of a TV series than a film." Particularly now with what's going on in the TV world — there's a lot of quality content.

What can you say about Sharp Objects?

The material is very dark. I was impressed that Amy wanted to do this and play this crazy character. She is such a professional and so devoted to her art and what she's doing — the face, the nuances. I'm the first to witness the magic.

You've said you don't think there should be a second season of Lies. Still feel that way?

My feelings are the same. It was a limited TV series, and the end was so powerful. Of course, Reese, Nicole and Laura [Dern] love their characters so much. They'd love to see them again, but I feel the same. I'm not sure it would be the thing to do — but, at the same time, let's see.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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