Screenwriter Bryan Sipe thought he had it made when he sold his first script in the early aughts. Nearly a decade later, the New Jersey native believed his career was over, and was busy trying to make ends meet with a bartending gig (one he held for nine years, after thinking he’d only be there for a few months). But while other people might have resigned themselves to fate, Sipe tapped into the anger and apathy that his stalled career instilled in him and wrote “Demolition,” a story about a man who (quite literally) tries to rebuild his life after it all comes crashing down.
Now “Demolition” is a feature-length film (and a TIFF premiere and SXSW award-winner to boot) that stars Jake Gyllenhaal as investment banker Davis, who finds his world upended by the sudden death of his wife. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, the film embraces many of the cinematic hallmarks the filmmaker seems most attracted to, most obviously in its story about a man who is desperate to connect to the world around him and wholly unable to do it. The film also stars Naomi Watts as Karen, a relative stranger who Davis finds by calling a 1-800 number to complain about the quality of a hospital vending machine (yes, Davis’ spiral into insanity and absurdity happens pretty quickly after his wife’s death), and the pair embark on a mostly unexpected new relationship.
The film is about Davis saving his own life, but it may have saved Sipe’s, too.
Indiewire recently sat down with Sipe to talk about festival accolades, literally demolishing things and why he almost gave up on screenwriting.
The film just won an Audience Award at SXSW. That must feel good going into the release.
That’s amazing, isn’t it? That’s a big deal, right? I mean, it makes us feel good because we really think that this is an audience movie. Audiences are contagious. Emotion is contagious and the way that this movie plays with a real audience of people who want to go to enjoy a movie. You can feel that electricity when you’re in there. I love sitting around in some of these screenings. Even still, and I’ve seen the movie two dozen times. I sit around and I watch the people and I wonder where the moments are going to grab people.
It’s the same thing with Jean-Marc. He edited the movie. He spent endless, countless hours in front of this movie, and [at SXSW] he said, “Okay, we’re only going to watch the first 10 minutes and then we’re going to go next door and get a drink.” We were there for 25 minutes. I remember at TIFF, it was the first time we sat down and watched the completed sound work. I was sitting next to him and toward the end of the movie where it gets emotional, I look over and he’s crying. I just remember thinking, “This guy cares so much and it shows.” He really put his heart into this movie and it gets me choked up sometimes. I’m just so grateful for it.
It must feel especially gratifying to have someone as well-respected as Jean-Marc to really connect with something you wrote.
So gratifying, especially the influence that he has been on me, and the relationship that we have developed. From the very beginning, he said, “You are coming along for the ride with this, every step of the way.” I was on set every day. I’ve been told time and time again by people, “You’re the writer? You’re on set everyday? That doesn’t happen.” It wasn’t just like he was throwing me a bone either, it was important to him.
It was interesting because there was something he got out of it, watching me watch what was happening. He’s this successful director who has made great movies and has been down this road that I’m going down now. He didn’t need that experience for himself but it almost, in this paternal way, was watching me experience this and getting so much joy out of it. I felt like it was fuel for him.
It’s continued right through to now, when we’re going and doing these festivals. I know that when he’s talking about the movie, he’s talking about the script. I’ve heard him do it. I step back and think, “I can’t believe this man is talking about me like that.” I just feel like he’s in a position where he doesn’t need to blow himself up, so why not reach out and blow up somebody else. He’s an amazing artist and he’s an amazing human being. I feel so lucky and spoiled.
This film really taps into the sorts of stories he likes to tell, stories about people who are not very well-equipped to connect with other people, but who are really desperately trying to do that. Do you think that’s what spoke to him?
He’s very aware of force-feeding an audience. I’ve seen it in a way that he directs: Less is always more. And then in the way that he edits. He invited me into the editing process, and always invited my notes. Again, when does that happen?
We would have conversations because, for me, you see this vision of what your movie is going to be and then this is his vision. It really became this confluence of ideas. He would pull back on a lot of stuff because he didn’t want to tell the audience how to feel in this moment, and he didn’t want to hit anything too hard. So there were moments where I remember we would have conversations about maybe adding a little more, just to make sure that the pulse remained the same.
When you were on the set, did you change anything major in the script?
Lots and lots of little things, but I’ll tell you, we changed the ending. From day one, there was always something, always a little bit of adding and subtracting, mostly subtracting. Once you subtract, there was, “Okay, fix this thing because it’s not going to make sense now.” But we were always looking for a stronger ending, a more motivated ending.
The other thing that was constantly changing was the wife who died. She’s not really in the script too much. In the script, we never see her face. We never see her until the memorial celebration dinner at the end. You see pictures of her and that’s what supposed to jog his memory of who she was and what she looked like. He cast this actress, Heather Lind, as the part and she came in the first day or two of shooting, and he shot a scene with her. I remember Jean-Marc coming over to me and saying, “We need to find more for her. This actress is wonderful and I want her in the movie.”
On a daily basis, it was like, “Okay, we’re going to be shooting at JFK, find some scenes for Heather. She’s going to be on camera now, so we’re kind of jettisoning the idea that we never see her face. Forget that. That’s gone now. We’re shooting at the carousel, let’s bring her in!” She was such a trooper. They would get her on a plane to come and do these quick scenes that Jean-Marc was like, “Okay, we’re going to use her! Call her at her hotel!” It really put some heart into the movie, because you care about her, she becomes more of a real human being. You care more about him and the loss that he’s experiencing, even if he doesn’t feel like he’s experiencing that loss. You do, and when it catches up with him, you know why.
Speaking of catching up, your career has had an odd trajectory. There’s almost a ten-year gap between this film and your last feature. What happened?
I came out here, and I got lucky early on. I sold this script, I had a writing partner, and I thought, “This is easy. No problem.” 24, 25 years old; I’ve got money in my pocket. And then I didn’t work again for like seven years.
Along the way, emotionally, I surrendered. I was waving this white flag and I was feeling this apathy. And that apathy was re-stimulating. It brought me back to this place where I was doing this demolition work [when I was younger]. What was happening was that I was in these burned out houses, ripping walls apart and stepping on nails going through my feet, standing around this debris or remains like a skeleton and going, “How the fuck is this my life?” I felt something so much bigger that wants to come out but I feel trapped inside of this environment.
There was that same apathy. It brought me back to that place, but now I was 27 years old or something like that and I was failing, not just in my career but in my relationships. I was broke. I was working in bar, where at first I thought, “I’m going to be here for a few months, I’m good.” I ended up working at that bar for nine years. Out of that apathy came this voice and that voice became this character and that character introduced me to these other characters.
So Davis and his experiences were what paved the way for you?
Once you’re walking down that hallway, it’s like, “Oh, there is a vending machine over there in a hospital. He walks over and hits the button and puts his money in, but the candy gets stuck probably, that’s what happens.” It really unraveled that way, and once I saw that thing that you see on those vending machines, a 1-800 number, I thought, “I got my other character.”
The movie is sort of elevated slightly above reality. There are things that we couldn’t get away with, that he says that we couldn’t get away with. But there are things that you think about, right? Maybe things that you want to say or things that you want to do. Like, it would be cool to get shot with a bulletproof vest. In this world it was acceptable. In my way, that was me doing it without the consequences. I get to explore what the consequences are for him.
I think a lot of people are expecting the film to take a more traditional path than it does, especially when it comes to the relationship between Davis and Karen. How did you crack that?
I think in the same way that Jean-Marc likes to pull back, I was very aware of that. I didn’t want this to be a love story. I wanted this to be a relationship where these people intersect and they each got a little bit to offer each other and maybe that little bit is going to help the other’s journey as they walk away from each other. That’s what we got. We flirted with the idea of there being something romantic there, and it just didn’t work and I’m so glad that we didn’t do that because their relationship is more than that. I wrote it in there. It’s there, we just pulled it out.
So what’s next now that you’re back in the Hollywood mix?
I just finished a book adaptation. I want to do this again next. I’ve got ideas. I’ve a little superstitious about talking about new ideas because you end up going, “Damn it, I don’t know the answer to that thing!”
I want to be involved in something that I care about. There’s these jobs out there that will pay you money, but they don’t have much soul to them. I’m lucky enough right now that I don’t have a family or don’t have to pay a mortgage and I can maybe find something again like this that I just really care about. I love the movies that are about something, like “Spotlight.” I just want it to be something that’s got heart.