Demolition: Tale of Grief and Loss–Interview with Director Jean-Marc Vallee

demolition_posterDEMOLITION, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, defies the preconceived notions of an ordinary marriage as well as a privileged life of money and status.

The tale takes the audience on a journey through struggle and forgiveness that ultimately celebrates love and the ability to reinvent a life of truth (with the help of some unexpected friends).

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a successful Wall Street banker in his mid-thirties who has spent most of his life as society’s definition of perfection, comfortably removed from any of its difficulties.

When his wife Julia suddenly dies in a tragic car crash, we see him short circuit before our eyes.  As we watch him attempt to dissect his mind, his father-in-law and boss Phil (Chris Cooper) is bewildered by his bizarre and inexplicable antics but tries to give him the benefit of the doubt and keep him on track–to no avail.

demolition_1_gyllenhaalOn the night of his wife’s death when the hospital’s vending machine malfunctions, he writes a complaint letter that quickly evolves into a series of honest exchanges with Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), a customer representative for the vending company.  As Karen struggles with her own emotional and financial burdens, they find an unusual connection – and solace – in one another.  Through the friendship of Karen and her son Chris (Judah Lewis), Davis realizes he must deconstruct the life he once knew in order to uncover the truth he needs to feel truly alive and whole again.

The story of DEMOLITION explores themes of loss, grief and reinvention.  Facing his own crossroads, young screenwriter Bryan Sipe developed the script, which was included on The Black List, based on his own stunted creative journey.  “I sold a script pretty early in my career and then realized how hard it was to actually get anything made,” says Sipe. “I tried different characters and different stories and different genres and I got to the point where I just didn’t know what worked. And I quit.  But out of that experience came the character of Davis, a guy who couldn’t feel anything anymore – he was numb and apathetic.”

Through the character of Davis, Sipe was able to articulate the loss he felt for his creative self.  Upon his wife’s death, Davis becomes a person who acts without consequence. He is reckless, unapologetic and brutally honest. He also develops an obsession with physically destroying things as he searches for emotional awakening, which came from Sipe’s experience as a teenager where he had a job demolishing houses. “It was the idea that once you tear everything down, you discover things.  I was processing that that’s how life works. I feel to understand something that is complicated — relationships, loss — you need to take things apart, to see what holds it together and then you can put it all back and make it stronger,” explains Sipe.

demolition_3_gyllenhaalOver five years ago, the Oscar-nominated producing team of Lianne Halfon and Russell Smith (partners with John Malkovich at Mr. Mudd Productions) approached Sipe about his script for DEMOLITION.  As Halfon recalls, “We were given the script in 2009 as a writing sample for a book we were thinking of adapting.   I remember reading it and thinking, ‘Whoa, we should make this!’ The writing was so specific and the character pressed the plot forward, not the other way around.   Everything about it seemed so raw.”

As Russell further explains, “We reached out to Bryan’s people to see if he would be open to working with us on the script. He was, and about six months later, we started to send it to directors.”  Halfon and Smith reached out to executive producer Nathan Ross to gauge the interest of French Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée.  Vallée, convinced, and agreeing on the strength of the material, knew he was the guy for the job. Vallée and Ross soon joined the team.

demolition_2_gyllenhaal_wattsHalfon and Smith continued to develop the project and eventually met with producers Molly Smith and Trent Luckinbill of Black Label Media. As Molly recalls, “This is one of those scripts that we had been tracking for years. We were lucky enough to get the project as a potential script for financing.”  Trent concurs, “We were really excited about the project when it came around through our agency. We knew how good the writing was and how great the script was and with Jean-Marc attached, it was something we couldn’t pass up.”

Executive Producer and SKE President of Production Carla Hacken became a fan of DEMOLITION when Sipe’s screenplay appeared on The Black List in 2007. After Molly Smith (with Black Label Media) attached director Jean-Marc Vallée, Hacken reached out to Smith about SKE’s interest in becoming involved with the project because of the Company’s desire to work with Black Label Media as well as a long standing relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal.

demolition_6_wattsAs Gyllenhaal was being cast, SKE joined Black Label Media and Mr. Mudd Productions as producers and co-financiers.

Recalls Sipe of his initial creative meetings with Jean-Marc, “Our conversations began over Skype because he is based in Montreal. You could tell very early on that the script meant something very personal to him.” Sipe understood that Vallée has very specific criteria for how he chooses the projects that he wants to be a part of.  Agreeing to make DEMOLITION was a solid indication to Sipe that his script had a profound affect on Jean-Marc.

Vallée explains, “My producing partner Nathan Ross was sent the script of Demolition from Russ Smith and Lianne Halfon, after they saw CAFE DE FLORE at Tiff three years ago. I have long admired the films they’ve produced, and after I read the script, I knew that it was for me.  I try to find the right stories with something beautiful in them — a humanity and great characters.  I want to be moved when I read a script, I want to be impressed.  It’s one of rare quality, the kind of material that hits you at the right place, that makes you stop for a moment and think about life, how special it is, how precious, how beautiful it can be. This script had that effect on me. It was a page-turner.  It was so unexpected, unpredictable, so fresh and fun, irreverent, intelligent and, yet, deeply moving.”