It's the last week of February, and Jean-Marc Vallée is not in a good mood.
To start, news just leaked that the director has signed on to helm the cable series Sharp Objects, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn's novel that will star Amy Adams. ("We're all pissed about it, I'm not ready to talk about it, but what can I do? I was told to shut up," he says.) Then, there's the fact that he's fielding questions about this leaked project while he's supposed to be discussing his new film, Demolition – the man is simply not a fan of talking about his own work.
"It's part of the job and the process, but it's not my favourite part, promoting the thing," the 53-year-old says over the phone from Los Angeles. "I'm a writer and director, and I like to do that, but for some reason it's become part of the industry and part of the job to go, 'Alright, let's talk about it!' I think we give too much importance to artists talking about the art, and the film, and the books, and the plays, and the music – it's done, the material is there. But we talk about it, because it's part of the game. I'm comfortable with it."
That last part might feel a bit coaxed, but Vallée's work has never been aimed at those who are exactly comfortable with their lot in life. Ever since the Montreal-born director burst onto the film scene with his frenzied and raw 2005 melodrama C.R.A.Z.Y., Vallée has explored the edges of everyday suffering and struggle. Dallas Buyers Club chronicled one man's epic battle with the U.S. health-care system as his body withered from the ravages of AIDS; Wild followed gonzo memoirist Cheryl Strayed's volatile path toward self-acceptance; and even his historical drama The Young Victoria focused on the wildly turbulent first years of Queen Victoria's reign.
To add to Vallée's canon of better-living-through-self-immolation comes Demolition, which focuses on Wall Street shark Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), who finds himself emotionally numb after losing his young wife in a car accident. In an effort to feel something – grief, anger, whatever – Davis takes to deconstructing every aspect of his life piece by piece, from his office furniture to his own suburban home. It's a film built around the idea of discomfort, and what we must force ourselves to do if we're ever going to earn a moment of happiness.
For Vallée, though, it seems that true happiness is found through two things: work (he's made four films in five years, a remarkable output for a feature director), and using that work to perform career resuscitation on stars who've strayed from the spotlight. To glance at the actors Vallée has worked with is to witness the unique Hollywood miracle of a Second Chance: Reese Witherspoon, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto were all on their way to second-tier status before Vallée came along. It's no coincidence that each of the performers received Academy Award nominations (with Leto and McConaughey scoring wins) for their roles in Vallée's films – the director is an expert at coaxing remarkable performances from actors who have gotten accustomed to coasting.
With Demolition, it's not as if Gyllenhaal has spent the past few years slumming it in rom-coms. But Vallée still had high hopes for the actor's Oscar chances when the film made its world premiere in the opening-night slot at last September's Toronto International Film Festival. Yet in an odd move, the drama's release wasn't scheduled for that fall, when most awards bait makes its debut, but for the spring of 2016, eight long months after its TIFF debut. At the time, Vallée found the move disappointing. "Fox Searchlight is very good at what they're doing, and they're the best at it, and they gave me strong arguments – you gotta let go, man, and trust them," he said of his distributor during the fest. "And who knows? Maybe they'll change their mind."
Although the studio ended up standing firm on the release date, the director is still campaigning hard for his leading man, even if the 2017 Academy Awards are a long way away from Demolition's April 8 release. "My hope and desire is to bring Jake into the Oscar race. I'm so flabbergasted by what he's done," Vallée says now, before adding, with a slight hint of resignation, "I'm cool, man, with the spring release. They've been doing it with other films, and there seems to be a strategy."
In the meantime, Vallée is keeping himself satisfied the only way he knows how. In addition to prepping the first season of Sharp Objects – which was sold to HBO a month after the initial news leak – the director is wrapping filming on another HBO series, Big Little Lies, which reunites him with Wild's Laura Dern and Witherspoon. "Teaming up with [Reese] again was an easy choice – we have a thing going on that's gone from a professional relationship to a friendship," Vallée says. "She's so talented and it just seems to look so easy for her, it pisses me off. I'm a sucker for her."
Asked, though, whether his foray into premium cable is indicative of a shift in the industry – with other big-screen directors such as David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh and Cary Fukunaga taking on small-screen work, perhaps in a bid to gain more creative control over their work – Vallée demurs. "I don't see it like that; it's not television – it's just another film that happens to be seven hours long," he says. "It's filming episodes one, two, three as a long feature film, then taking a 10-day break, then back for four, five, six, seven as another long feature film. It's a marathon, but it's the same kind of creative work."
And despite whatever pressures that might be on him – both creatively and promotionally – Vallée stresses that he couldn't be in a better place. "I love where I am professionally, man. I was out of my comfort zone shooting one film a year, and now I'm changing my rhythm again," he says, sounding less tired and more, well, simply tired of talking about how busy he is. "My life's changed, for good. I'm in a good space."