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Jean-Marc Vallee Runs the Show, from the First ‘Big Little Lies’ to ‘Sharp Objects’

"I am used to doing it this way in the feature film world, I ask you to trust me. Let me make the creative decisions."

"Sharp Objects."

“Sharp Objects”

HBO

The first time I interviewed Montreal filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée, at Telluride for “Wild,” he started crying. Like an actor, his feelings are close to the surface. He also feels strongly about what he’s trying to convey, whether it’s the isolation of Reese Witherspoon as hiker Cheryl Strayed in “Wild,” the struggle of Matthew McConaughey’s fight against AIDS in “Dallas Buyers Club” – which won the actor an Oscar – or the intense sexual dynamic between an abusive husband and his pummeled wife (Alexander Skarsgard and Nicole Kidman) in Emmy-winning “Big Little Lies.”

This time, I find the director huddled in a dark editing bay as he gives “Big Little Lies 2” the once-over before it hits HBO June 7. “They needed some help,” he said. “Since I know the series, these characters, the music and the cutting, I’m here working with the editors checking their stuff.”

After applying his trademark mise-en-scene – one digital camera moving fluidly with natural light, long takes for the actors, a percussive soundtrack crammed with contemporary music – to all seven episodes of the first season of “Big Little Lies,” Vallée discovered that all series are not alike. He had already committed to direct HBO’s “Sharp Objects,” adapted by showrunner Marti Noxon and Gillian Flynn from her bestseller, when HBO decided to greenlight “Big Little Lies 2.” He was happy to return to the series if HBO would wait. That was not possible.

And so Vallée was delighted with the choice of British auteur Andrea Arnold to take the directing reins. “It was her turn becoming a marathonian,” he said. “It was a good decision, based on ‘Fish Tank’ and ‘Red Road,’ if she was ready to play in the sandbox like I did, to come from the feature film world. She was on her own; she didn’t need any advice. She did what she does, hired her people; the DP is different. We have similar ways of shooting, when you look at it. She shot hand-held, available light. She aims for performances, like I do in Season 1. She is who she is, but the spirit of the other is there.”

Big Little Lies Season 2 Laura Dern cast

“Big Little Lies”

Jennifer Clasen/HBO

On “Big Little Lies,” Vallée realized in retrospect, writer David Kelley, having delivered all the scripts for the series, did not function as a showrunner, leaving that role to the feature director, who was accustomed to being the biggest voice in room. So Vallée had to make an adjustment on “Sharp Objects” in order to collaborate with veteran writer-showrunner Noxon.

“They respect the work, the background, and what I’ve done,” he said. “They want me to be creative and do what I love to do. They were all expecting something that will look like something I’ve done before, with music, editing, the way we work, always aiming for authenticity and emotion. That’s my thing, acting. Then I have fun with music.”

But Noxon expected to be in charge. “It was hard at the beginning, because she was used to her world,” he said. “I didn’t even know what a showrunner was, David Kelley didn’t act like a showrunner, [and] then I realized I was the showrunner on “BLL.” Oh. I said, ‘I am used to doing it this way in the feature film world, I ask you to trust me. Let me make the creative decisions. I will go to you, I will be respectful. We had to learn to work together, be respectful of each other.'”

Jean-Marc Vallee

Anne Thompson

So the director insisted on casting the show with his usual casting director David Rubin. “I don’t want people watching,” he said. “I was with [Noxon] this morning. She was saying it was a learning experience, to see a director coming from the feature film world at HBO, how I was pushing for things and not letting go. From where she was coming from, she was letting go more easily. It was a lesson for her to hold on to what you want, even if it’s going to cost more.”

As far as Vallée is concerned, a showrunner can cede some authority when there’s only one director doing everything. “I can understand one showrunner checking all the creative control on four to five directors, and following up on different writers, which she was doing as the showrunner. I was one director.” Nor was Noxon in the editing room. “They let me do my cut. When I was ready to deliver the cut, they watch and give me notes, they were always very respectful. They’re great partners, they give intelligent notes, they challenge me. You find your partners, your people, and you learn to work with them, and to challenge.”

Sharp Objects Episode 7 Amy Adams

Amy Adams in “Sharp Objects”

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

With “Sharp Objects,” having read the novel and one pilot script, Vallée worried about missing the book’s strong voiceover narration. “I challenged Gillian and Marti at first,” Vallée said. “We love her internal monologue. I remember wanting more of that person that was so special, and damaged, yes, the way she talks about the world, her sexuality, her mother, her siblings, her friends, her world, and she goes back to where she’s from, investigating murders. They said, ‘You know, it’s a different medium. Let us go for it without it. We’ll manage.’ I went, ‘all right.’ I trusted them.”

The other thing the director wanted to restore was Flynn’s idea of words burning on Camille Preaker’s scarred body. “In the book, we have access to this,” he said. “We know the word ‘petticoat’ is burning on her hip. Are we going to flash the word? No, we are not going to do anything. Then it happened on the set one day during the shooting, when I went ‘Oh!’ The production designer had carved some words on her desk at her apartment. ‘That’s it!’ She’s going to see the words that she has on her body and it will burn. You see it in her reality. If you pay attention, every time there is a word from her perspective, Adora won’t see the word in the reality, it’s in Camille’s reality, in her mind. If it’s carved on the table at a diner, you see it just in her mind. From Chris Messina’s point of view, the word is not there. Cut on her perspective, the word is there. From the objective POV she opens the trunk. Nothing is written on the trunk. Cut to her perspective, you see the word “dirt.” It’s her, the words are burning.”

So the team went back to Flynn’s novel, found 78 words, and put them into the episodes, “hidden in her reality in her perspective,” said Vallée, who also added many digitally in the cutting room. The words caught on with fans of the series. “It became a thing on the web, it engaged the audience to another level.”

Sharp Objects - Cherry, Episode 6 Henry Czerny Patricia Clarkson

Henry Czerny and Patricia Clarkson in “Sharp Objects”

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

Creating an atmospheric southern film noir

Shooting exteriors in humid Georgia with the thermometer in the 90s, Vallée made sure that the audience felt the heat. “I was suffering, I was so hot and sweating,” he said. “If there wasn’t enough sweat, I said, ‘go back and do more, it’s hot hot hot! We need sweat!'”

By casting Patricia Clarkson and Henry Czerny as Camille’s parents, Vallée hoped to conjure a vintage ’50s Hollywood film noir feel, in color. “It was the house, the way they dress, something old-fashioned and meticulous about these two, the record player,” he said. “She looks like a diva, Patricia Clarkson. She gave that quality to this house, she’s the country beauty, the way she talks and acts, she’s bigger than life, and yet you believe it. People are not like this, but there’s something that works.”

“Sharp Objects”

HBO

Working with Amy Adams was a revelation. Every morning the director met with his star for a half hour to go over what they would tackle that day. Shooting out of continuity, they had to track Camille’s state of mind, look, level of inebriation. “Where she is, how drunk, how angry, vulnerable, how sexual,” he said. “In this scene with Messina in the woods, ‘Where are you going with this, how’s it going to happen, are you starting it?’ Amy is so dedicated and so cerebral. It’s all analyzed. I am receiving this every morning, she’s challenging me, sometimes I don’t have the answers or the arguments. I was impressed by all the questions. I was just there to comfort her: ‘You have the right questions, I don’t have all the answers for you.'”

Sharp Objects - Cherry, Episode 6 Chris Messina

Chris Messina in “Sharp Objects”

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

After the morning meeting, when Adams arrived on the set, said Vallée, “no more talk, ever. We shoot the blocking, the rehearsals, we witness the animal, the instincts. Before she’s the university professor, then ‘Phew!’ She does it, the way she walks, the sloppy way holding back the hair. She became that girl.”

Adams as Camille had to cover up to hide her scarred body, so she uses her long hair as her sexual allure. “She’s camera-conscious,” said Vallée. “She knows where we are with the camera. It’s blocking, and it’s natural: ‘If I go like this, I want the camera to see me, I put my hair there.’ The hair is her way of seducing and being with men around her. She does that more than when she is with women.”

Sharp Objects Jean Marc Vallee Amy Adams

Jean-Marc Vallée and Amy Adams on the set of “Sharp Objects.”

HBO

Editing for tension

“Sharp Objects” is precisely edited as a genre thriller. Vallée doles out snippets of information, ratcheting up tension for maximum Hitchcockian anxiety. Who’s the villain? Is Camille, constantly drinking and driving, going to crash the car? “We never make a comment out of this,” he said. “This is the work of anticipation in the narrative that I love to do. How do we tell the story, when are the audience is hooked? What are they anticipating? How can we bring them somewhere else? Scare them. Now they love her. Now they hate her. We try to be conscious of this. When I’m in the cutting room with the guys, the editing is the continuation of the writing. So it’s always with this in mind: to hook the audience and engage them.”

Sharp Objects Episode 2 Patricia Clarkson Amy Adams

Patricia Clarkson and Amy Adams

Anne Marie Fox / HBO

The filmmaker also fought for his fractured ending. With carefully timed Led Zeppelin music cues, he finally reveals [SPOILER ALERT] that Camille’s sister Amma is the real killer, who had been hiding in plain sight all along, burying her victims’ teeth in the floor of her doll house. “Don’t tell Mama,” Amma says to horrified Camille, just as the credits roll, along with a montage showing that Amma and her girlfriends murdered Ann and Natalie, while Amma herself did in Mae. Amma was the woman in white.

At first Vallée didn’t want to shoot anything from Amma’s POV, having let Camille tell most of the story until the end. “With everything we established with strong perspectives and POV it didn’t make sense to have the character there in the doorway saying ‘Don’t tell Mama.’ It’s going to be ‘Don’t tell Mama,’ bye bye, cut to black.” But they coaxed him into shooting the scenes on a stage, and sure enough, he found a way to make it work in the editing room – during the credits. “Bang! All these images, the first song heard in the series starts over again – ‘hey mama, won’t you come down’ – it’s a beautiful ending, all these themes of mother and daughter.”

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