When asked what it’s like to work with Jean-Marc Vallée as a director, people frequently bring up one word: freedom. He even used it himself to describe his process on “Sharp Objects”: “It’s all about creating this space of freedom and using this space,” Vallée told IndieWire.
HBO’s summer drama obsession, about a woman (Amy Adams) who returns to her hometown to report on the mysterious deaths of two girls, owes a lot to Vallée’s distinctive approach. When it comes to creating a set that encourages collaboration, “Jean-Marc is masterful at that,” co-star Patricia Clarkson said. “He creates this very conducive set to actors. He’s driven by character, which is for me, the greatest place to begin with the writing and the characters. The actions and the tone and the tambour of the set is about getting the actors to do the best work they possibly can and coming together to find the core of the scene, the heart of the scene, the truth of the scene.”
Clarkson added, “It felt epic in a way — I don’t think I’ve ever used that word, but Jean-Marc requires the deepest intimacy, the largest of your emotions.”
And that’s what unfolds on screen each episode, as audiences have seen for weeks now. Below, the cast explains what Vallée has in common with other Oscar-nominated directors, and how something as simple as a stair rail was one of Vallée’s most important points of inspiration.
“We Created the Best Victorian House”
Anne Marie Fox/HBO
One aspect of “Sharp Objects” that perhaps stands out the most is how every frame feels thick with the dense sweaty air of central Missouri. “I think he’s really masterful with a sense of place,” showrunner Marti Noxon said, “and also with something that feels almost subliminal.”
This is a particularly notable feat given that the show wasn’t actually shot in Missouri: Production mainly took place in Los Angeles, with the exteriors of the Preaker family house shot in Ukiah, located in Northern California, as well as a few days of shooting in the small town of Barnsville, Georgia.
But place goes beyond geographic location, especially when it comes to a family drama so rooted in what happens inside one house. Integral to Vallée’s approach was the concept and design of the home, with its Victorian elegance and awkward second floor.
“We visited a few Victorian houses but we were shooting in LA, so it was almost impossible to find the perfect Victorian house to shoot in,” Vallée said. “We visited one, where I loved that railing — when I went there, with John Paino, I said, ‘oh that’s great. We’re gonna put [Camille’s] room there and she’s gonna have to walk in front of every single room to get in her room.'”
They weren’t able to use that house for the shoot, but because the interiors were shot on a soundstage, Vallée was able to have Paino build that exact layout. “We created the best Victorian house, based on different models of Victorian houses that we saw,” he said.
The set impressed Scanlen, given that it was the Australian native’s first major acting job in California. “It was a surprisingly small studio,” she said, “so I got a very unique first time professional acting experience in L.A., because usually it was be a massive studio. And I just don’t know how they do it. They completely recreated the house and everything felt so real, which made it so much easier to drop into the space too, as an actor.”
It proved essential to the way Vallee wanted to stage key scenes, especially in trying to communicate the distance that exists between mother and daughter. “Just the first time Adora brings Camille, to her room…this is a mother seeing her daughter for I don’t know how many years. There’s no physical contact, except, she touches her hair,” Vallee described. “And then, Adora says, ‘your room is ready,’ and she brings Camille to her old room, from when she was a teenager. She walks to the top of the staircase and she walks all around and we present the house for the first time. You have to take the time. You know? It’s a one-shot deal.”
Clarkson promised “that staircase, how it comes into play throughout some of these scenes, Jean-Marc used the hell out of it in brilliant ways.”
“I Asked the Crew to Get Out”
One scene Clarkson had with Chris Messina — she didn’t specify at the time, but a safe guess would be the sequence from Episode 5, “Closer,” in which Adora gives Richard (Messina) a tour of her home during the local holiday Calhoun Day — took a particularly epic approach. “I start on the steps of my house. I go up the stairs of my house. I tell him all about my house. This is all one camera. I go up the stairs of my house, all the way down the hall with Chris Messina. We go into my bedroom, we take off our shoes, we go to the window, we look out, we look at my daughter, talk about my daughter, we come out the room, we have this very emotional scene at the doorway of my bedroom…
“One take,” she continued. “Four pages. Four and a half. One camera, he followed us and then he did it the other way. All the way down, all the way up.”
But it’s the sort of scene made possible by the way in which Vallée shoots. “It’s all about creating this space of freedom and using this space,” Vallée said. “I asked the crew to get out. I want to shoot 360. I want the actors to have the possibility of using this space and I just followed them. And, everybody’s behind the cameraman. I asked some things … the boom guy, to get out of the room. There’s no room for you here. So, we used just the little mikes hidden in their shirts or dresses. And then, they used the space. And, they had no marks. And, there was no light. And there was no flags. They just go. And, as they go, we get creative.”
Said Scanlen, “He encouraged us to move around the space, and he assured us that the camera wasn’t going to get in the way of that, and that we could move around freely. And I think that really helped. It almost felt like an acting class in a way, because it was so much about the relationships and listening to your fellow actor. And I just think it was, overall, such an incredible experience because I don’t think you really get that a lot, especially with shows of such high caliber where a lot of money is involved.”
And Scanlen felt legitimately encouraged to try things, with no fear of being wrong. “There were a few moments where he’d be like, ‘Not,’ in his French Canadian accent,” she said. “You felt it from him, he wouldn’t really have to say it. But he was usually really open to spontaneity, which is really great.”
Anne Marie Fox/HBO
It was a sentiment Clarkson echoed. “I love a free-floating set and that’s very much how Jean-Marc is, because Jean-Marc doesn’t stop for lighting. He doesn’t re-light. He lights the whole room and then you just act… It was free-form and it was beautiful.”
Added Clarkson, “I love beautiful classic filmmaking, but that’s a much more controlled environment. It’s a much more controlled set and it’s very specific. I love working both ways. I like working that way also. My heart and soul is probably closer to a free-form and a free-floating set.”
Noxon observed that “the way he cuts and the way he uses imagery really gets under your skin.” But many of those visuals, she noted, came in the editing room. “There are sequences where it’s very specific, and other scenes where he definitely finds certain things, and they he’ll pull visuals, especially in something like this where there’s so much memory,” she said. “[Camille’s] sort of living in her past, at the same time she’s living in the present. So, it’s been fun to watch the cuts, and see like, ‘Oh, he pulled this from over there, and he popped that in there, and … ‘ It’s definitely given it even more of the tone that I was hoping for.”
In order for Vallée to achieve all this, he said, required shooting every step of the process, especially as he tried to figure out Camille’s point-of-view in scenes. “I shoot the rehearsals and I shoot the blocking. And then, she starts to move and then, I go alright. Let’s go in there. This is what she’s looking at. I want to see what she’s looking at. Then I want to see how she reacts,” he said.
Lens-wise, for the record, “I use mainly the same lens, 95 percent of the time,” he said. “It’s a 35mm lens, and we respect the distance between the actors. So, if Amy is on this side of the table and Adora is here, well, they have distance between them … so, I’m not gonna do a close-up on Adora because, that’s her perspective. So, she comes and then she sits here, and she’s like this with Adora, then Adora will have a close-up. Sometimes, okay. I need to cheat here because, I want to see precisely, this thing. So, we go into her … and she focuses. But, mainly, we respect the distance and the POVs and what Amy is seeing.”
“They’re Very Different Human Beings, But…”
As mentioned, Vallée emphasizes a certain degree of freedom in his directing style, which Scanlen knew about going in. “I think the reason why he’s known for bringing out so many incredible performances out of these legendary actors is because he trusts them. And I think he’s very careful about what he says, and it, in a way, forces the actor to make decisions without second guessing themselves,” she said. “And so, in a way, the actors are put in a position where they have to throw something out there and see if it sort of sticks, and I think that sort of allowed for an atmosphere that was really spontaneous.”
It was new for Scanlen, but Adams noted that Vallée’s style had a fair amount in common with David O. Russell, with whom she worked on “The Fighter” and “American Hustle.” “It’s very fluid and very fast, with a lot of changes, a lot of the director talking while it’s going. I had sort of been through that boot camp — twice, I’ve gone through that, so I was used to that sort of pace, and that didn’t throw me at all to just reset and kind of stay in that emotional place.”
There are differences between Vallée and Russell’s style, Adams said: “Jean-Marc’s still a little bit more technical, and we’re not changing the dialogue in the moment, but still it has a similar fluidity and endurance. It’s like an endurance race. They’re very different human beings and very different creatives, but as far as the energy of keeping everything fluid and moving and not a lot of lighting individual scenes, that’s similar.”
Adams added that “it’s taxing, and it takes a different muscle” — an assessment that Clarkson agreed with.
“There were some very, very, very difficult scenes to shoot. Very dark, very emotional, really physically exhausting also,” she said. But, “Amy is a trooper and a consummate actress and a stunning actress and so is Eliza. So I always had beautiful Eliza, beautiful Amy… I was always surrounded by these remarkable people every day and I could never have done this without them. I could never have played this part if I didn’t have Amy and Eliza.”
“Sharp Objects” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.