TIFF: How Jean-Marc Vallee Captured Jake Gyllenhaal's Evolution in 'Demolition' (Q&A)

AP Photo/Denis Beaumont
Jean-Marc Vallee

The director, who brings his third film in three years to TIFF, on going back to basics and avoiding fake beards.

Montreal-born Jean-Marc Vallee has become one of the most reliable regulars at the Toronto Film Festival, where his Dallas Buyers Club premiered in 2013, Wild played in 2014 and now, with a promotion to the opening-night slot, his latest film, Demolition, was just unveiled. Based on Bryan Sipe’s original screenplay, which appeared on the 2007 Black List, Demolition stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a man grieving over the death of his wife in a car crash whose life is unraveling when he makes contact with a customer’s rep, played by Naomi Watts, who works for a vending machine company. Their unlikely relationship is at the heart of the film, which Fox Searchlight has scheduled for release on April 8.

In advance of the movie’s world premiere, Vallee, 52, talked with THR about his stripped-down-to-the-essentials shooting style, why he’s looking to take time off and whether he’s feeling added pressure approaching this movie’s high-profile opening night.

With three films in three years, you’ve become one of the most prolific directors around. How have you accomplished that?

Yeah, that’s why this year, I’m so happy I’m not shooting this fall. Otherwise, I would explode. I got out of my comfort zone doing this. Normally, I direct every three years or so. I was supposed to shoot Demolition after Dallas, and then Wild appeared between the two, and so I did it and then Demolition. So I’m glad I’m resting. I’m not doing another film this year. But it happened, and that was OK, too. You find a new strength and find some adrenaline going from one project to another and just do it. Being active, being creative on the spot is what’s challenging.

Why did you decide to take on Demolition?

It came to me 3 1/2 years ago from [production company] Mr. Mudd, and then we got Black Label Media as a partner. When they saw my film Cafe de Flore at TIFF [in 2011], there was some sort of link between Cafe de Flore and Demolition, and so they sent me the script and I said, "Wow, it is so rare to read a script with that kind of quality. When you turn the pages, you don’t know at all where it’s going, but you’re involved. You’re emotional." So I said, "Whoa, I want to direct this." It looks like it’s a meditation, a reflection on grief, but the film celebrates life, love.

How did you go about casting it?

Jake and Naomi responded to Demolition just the way I did, so that was an easy choice. We didn’t want to do a romance. It’s not about romance, yet there’s a slight romance in the film. These two have some sort of attraction for each other, but there’s nothing sexual. I loved the difference of age between the two, and it shows, and that’s why we went there with Naomi and Jake. There’s a 10-year difference. She meets him, and they’re curious about each other, but they know it’s probably an impossible relationship, but that’s the fun part also.

Gyllenhaal has changed his appearance dramatically in such recent films as Nightcrawler and Southpaw. Did you sit down with him at the beginning to discuss his look in this film?

We knew we wanted a transformation from the beginning to the end. I wanted to shoot the film in chronology. At the beginning, this guy is working on Wall Street. He’s clean-cut, shaved, perfect hair. And then by page five, seven, he stops shaving, he stops taking care of himself. So we wanted to have a transformation and do it for real. We managed the production to do that. We start with Jake the way he is. But then he starts to grow his beard, his hair, he starts to dress differently. He becomes this other guy as he tries to find himself.

Most films don’t shoot in continuity.

Yeah, I know. That was a must for me; that was a big thing I fought for. I was telling the producers, “Come on guys, let’s make the concessions and cuts somewhere else, but let’s find the money we need to do that. This is going to help the actors in their art, and this is going to help us.” Sometimes we had to leave a location and then come back three weeks later. It costs more, but it makes quite a difference. Just not having to have a fake beard or fake hair. From the beginning to the end, you will see Jake evolving physically.

Did you use the same stripped-down shooting style as in Dallas Buyers Club?

Yes, we shot available light, 99 percent. The production designer is lighting the film with his practical lamps, which he chose meticulously with the D.P. in order to have enough light. There’s no flags to block the light, no reflectors to reflect the light. We shoot 360 degrees. That was the approach from Dallas to Wild to this one. The actors love it, I love it, it’s lighter, and funny enough, we go faster this way, too. Everything we needed to do with Demolition, we did in 34 days. It’s very liberating. We focus on the essential. It’s nice to not always know what you are going to do when you arrive on the set. I don’t do shot lists. I work with the actors. The more I shoot, the more I feel comfortable doing this.

Is there added pressure showing opening night?

Maybe a tiny bit. But I rarely put pressure on myself. I’m grateful for what I have going on, I feel blessed and honored. Opening TIFF, it takes some balls from TIFF, from [artistic director] Cameron [Bailey] and [festival director] Piers [Handling] as the opening film, and I’m glad they did it. I feel like I’m always welcome in Toronto.

What’s next for you?

I’m hoping to do a film about Janis Joplin with Amy Adams. It’s not done yet. There are some legal issues, but that’s the project that’s in my heart. I’d like to do a rock ’n’ roll film with lots of music. I like to use music to frame stories. So I hope it’s going to work.

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