Making his way along the press circuit for HBO limited series Big Little Lies—which earned eight Emmy nominations last month—director Jean-Marc Vallée has repeatedly been asked one question: “What was your transition to television?”
An Oscar nominee known for Dallas Buyers Club, Wild and Demolition, the auteur has a simple answer: There isn’t one. Making another major splash with his first television series, Vallée treats all of his projects as films—whether they arrive in theaters or on HBO, the process and the goal are the same.
Speaking with Deadline, the first-time Emmy nominee gives an in-depth look into his creative process, expressing his passion for female-driven projects and his desire to be involved with every aspect of the projects he creates.
You came to Big Little Lies thinking about directing the first two episodes and departing. What initially attracted you to the project, and what was it that kept you around?
Reese Witherspoon changed my life, made me a tired man. It’s more the merrier. Yeah, I got invited by Reese to direct, and we talked. They knew I was attached to do Sharp Objects the next year, and Sharp Objects wasn’t ready. I was attached to do the whole thing. I was in deep, and I didn’t want to do two back to back.
I said, “Well, I love the material.” I reacted to the scripts that they sent me that David Kelly wrote—the first three, I believe. I said, “Yeah, maybe I’ll do one or two, or the first one and the last one, but no, I’m not going to do everything. It’s crazy.” She said, “All right, all right. Let’s do this. Let’s start this show together.”
As I started to prep and cast, [she said], “You sure you don’t want to do everything? I’m going to miss you. It’s getting complicated to find other directors.” Then I realized that it’s kind of hard, also, to let go of all these characters and the material, and go, “Well, it’s a limited TV series. It was meant to be eight episodes.”
David Kelley said, “I’ve only got material for seven,” and I told David, “Cut one episode and I’m directing everything. Alright, I’m going to try it.” I didn’t want to abandon them, so I went back.
You know, I was asked: “What was your transition to television?” I said, “What are you talking about? There’s no transition to television. It’s the same thing.” I approach this like a long feature film—just another project, but it’s not for the big screen, it’s for HBO. But I do it as if it was for the big screen. I still have this desire to give a good show for the big screen.
Today, people have bigger screens in their homes, and we have the premiere in a theater, so this will and desire to create a good show for the screen is still there. It hasn’t changed, the way we frame, the way we use music and silence.
This series is very particular in its themes and its examination of all kinds of femininity. What ideas were you interested in exploring with Big Little Lies?
That was the main one, to use five strong actresses that would portray five strong female characters. The reason [Witherspoon] called me is that I’ve worked with her before, and conserve that. There’s been a mission. There’s an intention from Reese’s company [Pacific Standard] to bring on screen projects that will feature intelligent, strong female characters, whether they’re good or not. I respect that, and I’m glad to be part of that journey.
There are all these ideas and themes, and then there’s a story, with these women and their husbands, and the kids, the family and relationships. How is it to raise kids, to be in relationship and have kids at this point in their lives? I’m 54, so I’ve been through that. My kids are older now, but it’s well-known territory and I’ve been there. My kids went to private school, and I was one of the soccer dads.
I was the soccer coach on the field; I saw the competition between parents and all this shit. And to laugh about it—to tell a story that resonates to most of us, and to laugh about it, because there’s a lot of comedy.
Kelly is very funny and very clever with his way of writing, writing these characters and his dialogues, and Reese has this instinct—even with comedy, she’s so strong, she’s so good. Yet, when it’s time to be dramatic, she also nails it. She’s incredible.
I can talk about the themes and the ideas, but it’s the whole package that got me in. Little Chloe was already there [in the script], but I made her a music freak. You’re not supposed to know music like this when you’re six and seven. Impossible: Except when you’re a phenom, when you’re a prodigy. It was a blast to use music in their world, using this character to do that, and to contaminate her world and family. Wherever she goes, she listens to music.
What was your thought process in setting up the world of Big Little Lies with the first episodes? Immediately, you are met with the Monterey waves and a Greek chorus of gossips.
The Greek chorus was shot in two passes because we shot [Episodes] 1, 2 and 3 as a long feature film. Then, we shot 4, 5, 6, and 7 as another big one. We didn’t shoot episode by episode. The Greek chorus was really there to establish a bigger picture of the thing, which we do at school with the children, and how we use the music. I never use a composer, in any project.
I spoke to music supervisor Susan Jacobs about this, but can you explain why it is that you tend to work without a composer?
We let the story unfold, just like in life—there’s music in life. Characters listen to music: if you want to have a feeling of reality, so that’s how I want to create and tell stories. I put music in the center of their stories—they listen to music, whether it’s Chloe or Madeline in her car, alone. It’s part of what we do. We listen to music and it makes us think, it makes us dream, it makes us think of the past.
That’s how music was served. Whenever there’s music, it’s playing somewhere in a car. Sometimes, I cheat. I use it with a previous scene, or in the scene after, as it becomes score, but most of the times it’s source music. It’s mixed so that it sounds like it’s coming from cheap speakers from the car, or better speakers from the living room, or you’re in a restaurant.
It’s not mixed in way where it comes from the filmmaker, if he wants to play cool music—it’s not that. It’s about something else. It creates a sense of reality. You just follow these characters.
It’s interesting—with the recurring presence of a classical piece from Agnes Obel, viewers can be lured into the illusion that there is, in fact, a score.
Through the years as a filmmaker, you develop a film language, and you find it from one film to another. It becomes a thing where, whoops, you get conscious about it, and then you can talk about it. It’s not the first time that I’m doing it.
I don’t use score because I find everything I need in the music that I know, or that I will discover. The solo piano from Agnes Obel is beautiful, and perfect to express this feeling of solitude from this woman. It’s solo piano, period, and it plays. It expresses what they’re going through. She likes the song when the kid starts to play it, and it’s part of their life.
Little Chloe wakes up in the middle of the night, as her mother and older sister are having a talk at the piano. Reese’s character was playing the puppet show piano track, little Chloe arrives, and, whoops, it suddenly becomes score, as if they’re initiating the cue in of the song. I use them to initiate the cue in and the cue out, because we get out of the scene. In that case, we’re going to a montage. The track becomes score, but it was initiated by little Chloe. Therefore, Chloe knows about that Agnes Obel.
What was the experience of working with your ensemble of world-class actresses—particularly Nicole Kidman, in scenes of violent confrontation with Perry?
I’m not sure it’s different from Nicole to Reese to Laura [Dern]. Of course, they’re portraying different characters. Yes, there will be a difference in how we talk, and what we’re saying. But the way of shooting is not different from Nicole to Reese and Shailene [Woodley]. It’s just trying to create a space of freedom on the set, where you get rid of the technique and you get rid of the crew.
All that’s left is the [camera] operator, the focus puller, the boom guy, the actors and myself. Sometimes, the boom guy is not there, and we’ll just have this little microphone on their shirt or dress.
They use the space and I start to shoot their rehearsals. Sometimes it works, sometimes it sucks. They can go wherever they want. There’s no mark, there’s no spot, there’s no flag that blocks the light. There’s no reflector that reflects the light. They love that. They don’t feel the heat of a big cinema spot because there aren’t any, ever.
We use available light, even at night. The production designer is helping the DP with practical lamps. We choose the location depending on how we can use it with natural light, and if we’re going to need a torch or candles, then we buy some practical lights. The way of shooting is a way of working with the actors. It’s adapting and it’s being creative on the spot, where we react to each other.
If the camera’s there, they start doing their thing. Then, whoops, I see something and go “I’m not going to put the camera there, why don’t you come and get your close-up at the same time?” I try not to interfere—I try to talk as little as possible.
Do you know this thing of doing a master [shot], then a close-up and the reverse? I do it sometimes, but I try to avoid it and just let them work, find the close-ups when they come and then move away, and find the right distance between the camera and the actors.
I always keep the same lens 90 percent of the time—a 35-millimeter lens. This is the first thing I do with this kind of material, with Nicole and Alex [Skarsgård], with the tough sexuality and the violence and abuse, when they were courageous and generous and brave enough to go out there and do it. When it was too violent, I had a stunt double. The double was doing it first and Nicole was watching. Then, she was doing it—not the falling, of course.
The idea is not to cut and keep the camera rolling, not design the thing, and then you realize that you’re moved, that you’re touched and it’s tough to watch, and it works. You haven’t done any cutting yet, you haven’t put in your music, and it’s powerful.
You watch these scenes and I didn’t do a lot of cuts. If there’s some cuts, it’s because sometimes I pushed it further in the cutting room.
The image was shown later on, but just a visual flashback. She’s prepping the new apartment, for her kids and herself. She just got beaten up in the morning. We decided to show it with quick flashes—she’s prepping the apartment and remembering what happened. It’s better to hardly see violence than to stay there and watch it for 30 seconds. If you hardly show it, but you show the part that is tough, the memory of it is almost stronger than a 30-second shot.
As a director, you’re intimately involved with every aspect of your productions. What is it that drives you to wear so many hats?
Well, I don’t know any other way. That’s how I direct films—I’m there, and I check my baby. I want to be there, and call me a control freak, but I’m there, man, and I want to do this. I want to share, and I want to communicate what I see, what I hear and this approach with my collaborators. This is how I’ve learned to do it, and this is what I love to do.
After being on the set, I’m in the cutting room, and this is where it’s happening. I bring all these tracks, and before I start cutting, 75 percent are selected already.
When I do my jogging, I have my music, and this is how I pick the tracks. I make CDs for each character, and as I shoot, I always listen to music. This is part of my life—this is who I am. I wake up and I listen to music. I just pressed pause to do this interview—I’m going to be done, and I’m going to press play. Then, it becomes what it becomes.
It seems that you’re in a Game of Thrones situation in that you’ve run out of source material—the series was based on one novel, and there isn’t another. Do you have a sense of whether the series will continue, and in what capacity you might be involved?
Fifth amendment! [laughs] I can’t talk, but there’s some discussions going on right now, and I’m sure people will hear about it.
This series feels right in Gillian Flynn’s wheelhouse. Have you recognized any through lines between BLL and Sharp Objects?
The funny thing is no. I don’t see any link. With Sharp Objects, I’m out of my comfort zone. This is not the kind of material I work with. It was an invitation from Amy [Adams] to come and play in this weird sandbox with her, and I said yes.
Now that I’m almost done shooting, I see it’s true: There is a link with the family relationships, these characters and these women. The three main characters are female. So again, I’m on a project with strong female characters, strong actresses. I guess I’m not afraid of them.