"Demolition" teams Oscar-nominated "Dallas Buyers Club" director Jean-Marc Vallee with Oscar-nominated "Brokeback Mountain" star Jake Gyllenhaal, but the result is nothing akin to Oscar bait.
Instead, this daring drama penned by up-and-coming screenwriter Bryan Sipe paints a strange yet charming tale of grief and apathy that aims to make audiences uncomfortable as much as it moves them to tears or laughter. (Spoiler alert: It's fantastic.)
Gyllenhaal stars as Davis Mitchell, an affluent investment banker who has all the signs of success, from a good job to a handsome home and lovely wife. But when a car accident leaves him a widow, Davis is stunned to discover he feels nothing. Seeking to understand himself and his grief, he manages to rile his father-in-law (Chris Cooper), befriend a pot-smoking single mom (Naomi Watts), mentor a flustered teen (Judah Lewis), and tear apart just about every part of his once-tidy life.
Following the film's U.S. premiere at SXSW, SPINOFF spoke with Vallee, Gyllenhaal, Sipe, Cooper and Lewis in a series of roundtable interviews, unearthing how a film this defiantly different came to be, how its production was distinct and infuriating to some suburbanites, and what it means to work "French Hours."
"Demolition" came from its screenwriter's "failing"
As a younger man, Sipe worked a demolition job for years with his dad. "Those times I was destroying these houses, I experienced this apathy," he said, recounting "Demolition's" inspiration. "It's mindless work. It's work where you stand around going, 'How is this my life?' All you want to do is break out of it. I'm looking around at the debris surrounding me, and I'm like, 'This is a metaphor!'"
His dream of screenwriting drew him to Los Angeles, but there he found himself at another dead-end, this time bartending. "In Hollywood, half a dozen years later, I'm experiencing the same feeling, going, I'm failing."He shared, "I thought I had a story to tell. I thought people were going to pay attention. And no one is paying attention. That's a scary feeling, because all of sudden this [apathy] happened again. I was like, 'I don't know who I'm writing for. I don't care about anything anymore. I'm not inspired by going and watching a movie or listening to music like I used to be.' I used to be so passionate, like 'Yes, there's a story in this and then I got this other story. And I know how to tell these. And don't worry, I'm going to have a career.'"
Then came a literal blow that changed everything: "I remember throwing somebody out of this bar and getting sucker-punched. I had a black eye for, like, two months. And I would look at myself in the mirror every day, and go, 'You fucking deserve this.' And out of that came this voice, this character, who was experiencing this loss. And he invited me into his world. And I followed it."
Following the voice led to a story that willfully rejects standard Hollywood tropes like romance and rousing self-discovery in favor of strange bedfellows and self-destruction. "It germinates from the idea of being down and failing so many times that you end up going, 'Fuck this. I'm just going to write whatever is in my heart right now,'" Spipe explained. "And what was in my heart in that moment was this voice."
The script's rejection of convention is what attracted Gyllenhaal
As an in-demand leading man, Gyllenhaal gets a lot of scripts. So when he began reading this story about a widower dealing with the death of his wife, the savvy actor thought he knew where it was going. "Every time you start to roll your eyes [because] you think you're heading down that conventional way, all of a sudden you get sideswiped, just like the first scene in the movie," Gyllenhaal said with a smile. "As you move through the story, all those moments where you think you're heading in a conventional way, the character is forced in an unconventional way by Bryan. It's what I ended up loving about it. It took that convention and at every turn, turned it on its head."
Those sideswipes spooked much of Hollywood
Before that script made its way to Gyllenhaal, Sipe's screenplay hit a dizzying series of highs and lows. "People are responding to it, and then there's the Black List," Sipe recounted. Making that coveted collection of the best unproduced screenplays meant producers were banging down Sipe's door for a meeting. However, most of these didn't go as he hoped. "That's so disappointing, when you go into these rooms and people go, 'Great script, man. Great script. We're not making it. But we really loved it. What else you got?'" Sipe said. "Every room I would go into, 'What else you got? Can you put this character into this world?' No! I can't. I put him into this fucking world, and this is the movie that I have."
Mr. Mudd made "Demolition" stronger
It was finally Mr. Mudd, the production company founded by Russell Smith, Lianne Halfon and John Malkovich, that committed to make this antihero's tale the way Sipe envisioned. "Lianne and Russ became a big part of the development," the writer said. "We'd sit down at a big table like this at the farmer's market, and they would ask questions. They wouldn't say, 'You should do this, it would be better if you did that.' They would go, 'Why did you write that scene like that?'"
One big change the producers encouraged was a revamping of Chris Cooper's eventual role, as a father grieving the abrupt loss of his adult daughter and at a loss for how to deal with his son-in-law's strangely stoic reaction. "He was a little one-dimensional in early drafts," Sipe admitted. "He was just this gruff father-in-law who didn't give a shit about his son-in-law; all he cared about was the job that he was doing and daughter that he lost. And they said, 'Why don't you love him?' And his character evolved into one that does love Davis, and he does care about him. But he's drawing a line in the sand at some point because he's not going to disrespect the memory of his daughter."
Vallee made some major script changes too
Sipe said the biggest change from his Black List script to the final shooting script was the fleshing out of Julia, the wife killed in the first act. "I wrote her in that car scene, but we never see her face," he said. "We're only on Davis, we never see her face. And we see her face in pictures at the very end, like all of a sudden he's remembering her. One of the first days, Jean-Marc shot with this actress Heather Lind [who plays Julia], and said, 'There's something about this actor. I love her.' And he's shooting her face, and I'm like, 'What are you doing? We're not supposed to be shooting her face.' And he's like, 'The camera keeps finding her face.' And he said, 'We need more scenes. Let's figure out more scenes. We're shooting it. We're shooting at Grand Central Station. We're shooting at Coney Island. Find scenes for those locations. Find scenes and write more scenes for this girl, because it's going to make the story stronger. Because if you care about her, ultimately you care more about him and his loss for her, because she's real.'"
Vallee uses music not to score the movie, but to develop it
When he was brought on to helm Sipe's script, the collaboration began not only with conversation, but with music. "We shared music," the writer recalled. "He's in Montreal and I'm in Los Angeles, and I'm sending music back and forth because we discovered we share a similar taste in music. ... Our relationship began with music. I didn't even realize it at the time, but we were laying down a rhythm. He was creating a language and rhythm for the movie he wanted to make, and it started with this low, light foot tap. The closer we got when there was money, he invited these master musicians into the room. We got Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Cooper and Naomi Watts. They're all playing this language with Marc to his rhythm."
The film's child star Judah Lewis was similarly brought into the fold. He shared how Vallee sent him playlists to better understand his character, an angst-ridden teen struggling with his sexual orientation and personal identity. "Huge influences to my character were Mick Jagger and David Bowie and glam rock," Lewis added.
"Demolition" was shot on "French Hours"
That refers to a style of shooting that doesn't stop for lunch, and doesn't stretch out to the 14-hour days all too common on film sets. "When you have a little break, you just go [and eat]," Cooper explained. "If they're doing a two-shot of somebody else, it gives you just enough time.
The veteran actor commended Valle's process, saying, "He brings a high-energy in many respects in his directing. ... He works so closely with Yves [Belanger], his DP. We worked on 'French hours,' we don't stop. So that camera is going all the all the time. I don't know the technological terminology, but please understand what I'm saying when I saw Jean-Marc does not break to reset up lights and take 15-minutes break. That's the way we usually work. But he moves so fast it keeps the actors on their toes. It almost feels like improvisation."
Sipe said Vallee's approach allowed for onset collaboration and spontaneity, explaining, "He was so excited about the creativity that was taking place on set on a day to day basis. It wasn't like he mapped it all out, like, 'OK, we're going to shoot scene 1-A.' It was like, 'We've got this space and I'm going to put some actors in it. And then I'm going to hold the camera, and we're going to pull all of this together. We're going to create this scene. But it might look a little ugly at first. I might need to pull some pieces apart. I might need to move some things around.' But he's being creative in that moment, he's seeing it and finding it in the moment. Like a scene is out there somewhere. Those moments are out there somewhere, and they search for them. And they search and all of a sudden it's like 'this goes like this.' And he goes, 'cut.' And everybody on the monitor is looking at each other like, 'Did you see that? How did they do that?'"
Gyllenhaal added, "He sort of floats around you while he films. While at the same time, he's creating what you see and what you don't see as a character. So, I recognized that he was going to be visually creating and emotionally behind me and around me this experience for an audience as they were watching me."
"I like to test audiences with perspective," Vallee said via conference call. "Get them into his head." Asked about his distinctive production style, Valle said simply, "I don't rehearse, I shoot."
Long Island residents where riled by the climactic demolition scene
As teased in the trailers, Davis' self-destruction reaches new heights when he rolls a bulldozer into the front of his modern suburban home. But neighbors who'd seen the handsome front addition completed just days before were irate about its destruction. Lewis didn't the residents but rather the exhilaration of shooting that sequence. Vallee shrugged off the incident, saying, "They thought we built the extension on the front for it to be. We built the extension to break the shit out of it. If you're a neighbor and you don't know what's going on … it can be disturbing … Mostly they were watching and trying to see what was going on. It was quite fun."
Lewis initially refused to do one of his character's big scenes
In "Demolition," Gyllenhaal's apathetic widower plays a fractured mentor to Lewis' struggling teen. And one of the more unexpected lessons he offers is the proper use of the word "fuck." However, the exceedingly polite Lewis felt uncomfortable letting loose with the four-letter word.
"He did not want to say the F-word," Sipe said. "I remember that being an issue. He was like, 'You know, I'd rather not.' Like this is a big part of his arc, that whole scene where he teaches him to use the F-word, like, 'This is a really pivotal scene and it's going to play really well. Are you sure?' I think he went home and talked to his family about it. They're amazing people. He came back and I think he realized it was not him, but the character and he was able to separate the two. "
Gyllenhaal aims to entertain and provoke thought
"I do feel that films are political, regardless of whether they are overtly political or not. We all have a power in what we say," Gyllenhaal said. "I think what we do and say has an effect whether we like it or not or whether we care or not. It does. A movie always has to have something other than just pure entertainment for me, though I need the movie to entertain. It needs to be fun to watch. I'm not interested in something people don't want to go see. I love pop culture. I love going to the movies, getting popcorn and enjoying myself. But I also want it to be connected to something.
"That's why all those superhero movies are great," he continued, "because they are connected to a mythology and are connected to us in a much bigger way. We can walk through our lives and refer to [those]. I believe every movie has the same responsibility. I don't consciously say, 'Get me the movies that have something political to say about where we are now.' But I will say I easily dismiss the ones that don't."
"Demolition" opens today.