Jake Gyllenhaal's New Film Will Make You Want to Break Things
If you’ve ever wondered what it might feel like to take a bulldozer to your life, ask Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s a subject matter the Academy Award nominee explores both literally and figuratively in his new film Demolition, the latest offering from critics’-darling French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée. Penned by first-time screenwriter Bryan Sipe, the feature also stars Chris Cooper, Naomi Watts, and newcomer Judah Lewis, and we caught up with the filmmakers for an insider’s perspective on the nearly decade-long production, the art of bringing levity to grief, and just what makes Gyllenhaal the de facto leading man for French-Canadian auteurs. There are also bulldozers and Heart sing-alongs.
Demolition was a hot script. Sipe’s initial script appeared on the 2007 blacklist, Hollywood’s ranked queue of unsold material, where it gained considerable attention. The film would wait nearly 10 years to find the proper alchemy of artists to bring it to fruition, a process the screenwriter describes as daunting. “It becomes very discouraging,” he tells us of the film’s multiple false starts. “You get close, and then you have the rug pulled out from under you and you start all over again. You begin to feel like, Alright, I’ll believe it when I see it,” he says. The script landed with production company Mr. Mudd (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Juno), helmed by producers John Malkovich, Russell Smith, and Lianne Halfon, who sought out a then relatively unknown Vallée.
At their behest, Sipe attended a screening of the director’s 2011 autobiographical film, Café de Flore, an experience he credits with steeling his confidence in Vallée. “There was a kinship to the characters that I recognized, and an amazing beauty to the language that he created,” says Sipe. “I knew he would be able to bring himself to this story.”
Demolition stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Davis Mitchell, an investment banker struggling to reconstruct his life after losing his wife in a fatal car crash. Numbed to the tragedy, Davis becomes obsessed with the ideology of dissemblance—physically taking things apart to better understand their composition. Things like refrigerators and bathroom stalls—a theology that unravels as a metaphor for his fractured psyche as he begins to question the inner workings of his marriage and career. If the subject matter sounds bleak, rest assured the real ace up Demolition’s sleeve is its biting sense of humor. The film’s wry and ruthlessly cunning send-up of the confusion and emotional upheaval following significant loss serves as stage for a string of laugh-out-loud moments, buoyed by razor-sharp dialogue and stellar performances from an A-list cast.
Admitting the film to be cathartic by design, Gyllenhaal confides he felt great kinship to his character, explaining that the material oftentimes hit close to home. “It’s easier to destroy than it is to create,” he says (a statement germane to the movie’s protracted production process). There’s the metaphor of pulling one’s life apart, and then there’s the actuality of driving a bulldozer through a kitchen, a stunt Gyllenhaal performed himself without the use of a double. (No real kitchens were harmed in the shooting of the film. The demolition site was a set piece on an existing Long Island residence.)
Vallée is now an established marquee talent, having turned out back-to-back Academy Award–winning features with surprisingly nuanced performances from major box-office stars, first with Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s pair of Oscars for Dallas Buyers Club and directly followed by Reese Witherspoon’s heartfelt portrayal of author Cheryl Strayed in Vallée’s adaptation of Strayed’s autobiographical Wild.
In person, Vallée is wildly likable by any measure. He has a steely gaze and coltish energy, his bright eyes saucer-like and his voice bubbling with enthusiasm. The convivial director generously extolls the virtues of both his writer and cast, a quality that gives credence to his reputation as an “actor’s director.”
“You know he’s a DJ,” says producer Trent Luckinbill of Black Label Media (Sicario, The Good Lie). The soundtrack features everything from M. Ward to Dylan covers, French songstress Lou Doillon next to My Morning Jacket, and a prominent placement of Heart’s “Crazy on You.” “Jean-Marc doesn't compose. It’s all sourced. That’s his DJ roots,” Luckinbill tell us. “He would play music to set the mood for everything, even the costume department. As the actors were trying on outfits, Jean-Marc had a playlist going. He just sets the mood.”
Vallée’s visceral energy and hyper-engaged charisma make his former music career easy to picture. Meet him, and you’ll want to hear him spin. “He’s really driven by music,” continues Luckinbill. “He edits his own movies, so at the end of the day, he’s a great editor, too.” On set, the director’s easy brand of confidence left room for freewheeling experimentation and open creativity.
“There’s a real confidence actors have with Jean-Marc,” says Luckinbill. “His vision is very clear, he never really wavers. They feel a comfort level in letting go and giving in to that.”
In other words, the sort of state inducing skill set one might ascribe to, say, a great DJ?
“That’s true. He is like that,” says Luckinbill. “He’s a great shooter, too. What he wants to do is so obvious. That gave Jake a lot of comfort to go with it.”
It was Vallée’s idea to tap Gyllenhaal for the lead role. Having made multiple films with French-Canadian directors, including Valleé’s Montréal contemporary, Denis Villeneuve, Gyllenhaal credits the country’s social initiatives for the arts with turning out such special talent.
“The country itself puts so much money into the arts, and so it has bred really wonderful artists and filmmakers,” Gyllenhaal says. “Ones that are really about cinema and about art, even more so than the commercial,” he tells us. “I think that’s my mind-set. I want to make movies primarily that are really good first, and that hopefully a lot of people will see second. That, I think, I share with Denis and Jean-Marc.” Luckinbill adds, “We’ve done three movies with three French-Canadian directors. They all got their start in the same way: bootstrapping their films together with Quebecian grants.”
Demolition is the second artistic endeavor wherein Vallée would work through the unexpected passing of his mother—the first being Wild. “This film is a study on grief, a mediation on grief and loss,” he tells us. “What do you do? How do you deal with it? What’s your journey? I decided to unpack it and to celebrate it. Celebrate life. Celebrate film. It’s tough, and it’s beautiful to see how life is precious when you lose someone.”
Anchored by Gyllenhaal’s bankable likeability even in the face of unlikeable choice, Demolition asks modern questions in an unexpected tone. Its humor is its greatest sleight of hand, the embodiment of a you-gotta-laugh-to-keep-from-crying ethos. Gyllenhaal’s Davis is a relatable modern man, having acquired all the trappings of success only to pull at the strings of the American dream and ask what it’s all worth in the face of real loss. The characters are flawed, and Vallée gives their flaws a wide berth. It is the protagonists’ aching for awareness that makes them so relatably endearing, if not inspiring.
One of the greatest discoveries of the film is Judah Lewis, a young unknown cast in the role of Chris, the rebellious teenage son of Naomi Watts’s Karen. The relationship between Davis and Chris serves as a touchstone to the exposed-nerve emotiveness of adolescence and the rueful candor of youth, spotlighting American teens anesthetized by social media in the same breath connecting with large-scale global issues. Davis is somewhat of a revisionist Shane character, if Shane’s wanderlust was tethered to beseeching the meaning of life after stepping off the corporate treadmill. The cynical kid—resigned all too early to life’s passing disappointments in service of a modern man seeking to feel—avails as the film’s strongest and most enjoyable story beat.
Shooting entirely in and around NYC, including locations on Long Island and Coney Island, Vallée captured Gyllenhaal from a distance for the film's first act, a visual cue to his character’s disconnected emotional state. “There are only a handful of close-ups,” says Luckinbill of the film’s opening sequences. “Jean-Marc wanted to convey a coldness, a sort of numbness. There’s also not a great deal of music in the beginning of the film. It’s really peppered in after that. He really wanted to sell this holistically, that Jake was numb. That’s one of the themes of the movie. He wasn’t feeling, and he wanted to feel. The quietness in the beginning and some of the shots being more distant were part of a strategy.”
At his SXSW premiere, Valleé told us, “Demolition is such a musical film, a film that uses music, uses rock and roll. Bryan Sipe had the courage to talk about his grief talk, about how he felt lost in this world and how he wanted to find his way back. You have to celebrate this.”
It was mathematician Alfred North Whitehead who said, “The deepest definition of youth is life untouched by tragedy.” In that sense, Demolition is a film about youth. It tackles the weight of hope. The burden of it in the face of numbness and the cathartic joys of tearing things apart.“Its spirit is a rock and roll film," Vallée tells us. "A film that makes noise.”
Demolition is in theaters now. Shop John-Marc Vallée and Jake Gyllenhaal films below.
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