“Demolition” is the third film Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Valee has made in the U.S., and each has focused on an American fighting for their lives and/or sanity. His latest, which follows “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild,” follows an investment banker played by Jake Gyllenhaal who starts to destroy and rebuild his life in the wake of his wife’s sudden death in a car accident. As with its predecessors, Valee shoots his actors (also including Naomi Watts and Chris Cooper) in hectic handheld and natural lighting, which is unusual even for high-end independent cinema. Not coincidentally, he’s directed four Oscar-nominated performances so far, two of which have won.
Gyllenhaal’s Mitchell Davis isn’t afraid to be unlikable at times. That’s an interesting challenge considering it’s a movie about someone wrestling with grief.
What attracted me to it was how f—ing original it was. The number one quality for me was the script. It’s so unique. It’s a UFO. You’ve never read something like this. You’ve never read a character like Davis Mitchell in a script. I laughed out loud and I cried like a baby at the end. I was wondering why I was crying. I was crying because it was so beautiful. Something that’s beautiful makes me cry. His journey made me cry. The way he finds himself after losing himself made me cry. It’s irreverent, it has a rock ‘n’ roll spirit — tell your parents you’re going to do it your way and make a lot of noise. That’s the rock spirit. It tells Hollywood to f— off, I’m doing it my way. That’s why I wanted to be a part of this. Bryan [Sipe, screenwriter] had so much courage to write about himself, to talk like this about his feelings. It was on the Blacklist for a very long time. It was not an easy one to get produced and financed, and it wasn’t easy to find an actor who had the balls to do it.
Your last three films all have this loose, hectic way of shooting, with no artificial lighting. Do you plan out your shots with storyboards or do you find the film as you shoot it?
I find the film as I shoot it. I don’t storyboard. I shoot the rehearsals. I tell the actors to use the space, to go bug each other. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s not. It’s more about capturing things than staging them. Of course we stage them; we’re making fiction. But I like the idea of capturing without interfering. I capture great performances, therefore in the cutting room I don’t want to interfere. I want the shots to run as long as possible.
Funny thing with “Demolition”: I recut the first 20 minutes because the shots were long and I had time to think about and judge the character. That was bad, because I wanted to kill him. “Why the f— are you reacting this way to the death of your wife? You’re an asshole.” I made the shots shorter, and therefore I wasn’t busy judging the guy. After the first 20 minutes I came back to what I usually do, which is I let the shots breathe. It’s always about finding the right distance. For “Dallas,” for instance, they were so big and bold I couldn’t be close to them. Close-ups didn’t work. They looked stupid; they were scaring me. So I stepped away. I shot them from a distance. I was shooting them from head-to-toe.
It’s unusual for actors, too. Do they have trouble adjusting to it at first?
They love it. It creates a sense of freedom. They feel like they were really acting. They don’t worry about the technical stuff, like hitting a mark. With lights it can look stagy. It can look like they’re playing for the lights. Audiences don’t care about style. They just care about acting, emotion, character and if it looks real.
It might have been difficult even a few years ago making a film that looks handsome with such a guerilla shooting style. Technology has really made it easy to make this kind of film.
It’s funny: If John Cassavetes was alive he would tell you, “Hey, buddy, I was doing this 40 years ago.”
I thought of Mitchell as a very American male, which is to say he’s not great at accessing his emotions. He acts out in part because he doesn’t seem equipped with the ability to be emotionally honest. Is that something you sensed as someone who’s not from here?
No. Even though I’m not from the States, Quebec — though we’re a French-speaking culture — is like living a little bit in the States. We’re also Americans, you know. It’s a different country, but we’re still consuming your culture, your art. We know what’s going on next door. What’s happening here is also happening in Quebec.