Jake Gyllenhaal has found a sympathetic artistic partner in a second Quebec filmmaker, Jean-Marc Vallée, in Demolition.
Gyllenhaal’s two films with Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners and Enemy) showed how far he was willing to go beyond the mainstream to find richly meaningful projects.
Demolition takes him even further. It’s a stunning piece about Davis Mitchell, a widower who feels nothing but violent fury after his loss.
He tries to beat the painfully relentless anxiety with a mighty bat in a series of symbolic and destructive outbursts. It’s exhilarating and disturbing and unforgettable.
Vallée related strongly to Gyllenhaal’s character, as he told us during a conversation in Toronto.
Jean-Marc Vallée: I related to it a lot, and I wished it could have dealt with grief like that when I lost my mom a few years ago.
I thought, what a special curious journey, and I experienced it as a director on set. I had sledgehammers and windows and shit to smash – and it felt so good.
I broke a window bigger than the TV set and it exploded. After that you’ve got a smile on your face.
I related to the material so much, and to Mitchell. I too forgot to love. You forget to be passionate.
In the guise of the meditation on grief, and the study on grief and loss, it’s a film that celebrates life. It reminds us to love, to function again, love yourself and love and have sex and be alive.
Jake reacted like I did, if not stronger. He wanted to do it so badly. He worked for a demolition company when he was 17. So he knows what it is to smash the shit out of something.
M&C: Mitchell’s wife dies and he’s at the hospital and loses money in a vending machine. That’s the tipping point.
JMV: Yeah, all of this happens because Mitchell wants a $1.25 reimbursement: “This fucking vending machine, they’re going to fucking give me my $1.25 back because my wife died and I was hungry and this is unfair and this is my situation.”
It’s about lost souls that connect to each other. He helps Naomi Watts with her son. The kid introduces Davis to music, and the kid is a special kid who doesn’t listen to the music that other kids of his age listen to.
He’s into old rock and roll and he dresses like a rock star, like Brian Jones from The Stones.
Davis wants to start to feel something and he sees this kid playing the drums and he starts to move slowly in the driveway and the kid gives him music on his iPhone, cut to the train and they start to dance and he starts to – “yeah, yeah, yeah”. That guy is starting to be alive because of what? The kid.
M&C: Naomi Watt’s son is played by Judah Lewis. He does a great job.
JMV: Oh man. We found a rock star there. We found a kid that was so at ease in his body.
I’ve never seen or rarely seen a kid with that swagger. I mean, come on. And the audition was three track: “I want to see you dance. Here are some empty boxes and here is a baseball bat and I want you to dance and demolish the shit out of these boxes.”
He reminded me of Brian Jones. So I gave pictures of Brian Jones to the costume designer to create a young Brian Jones. He’s not going to be like the other kids.
He’s an old soul in a young body. And he’s suspended from school. For what? Telling the truth. And the kid is smoking in the film. He’s 15. You’re not supposed to do that.
M&C: Describe working with Gyllenhaal.
JMV: Before he starts acting, there’s a quality in his face. Sadness. Don’t ask me why. This guy has sadness. It was perfect for Davis Mitchell.
There’s intelligence and there’s goodness and of course, he’s good-looking. These four things were perfect for this character.
In the first 20 pages, he was stoic. He doesn’t react, he doesn’t move an eyebrow and doesn’t feel anything after his wife just died, so we need someone that we care for, otherwise this selfish motherfucker doesn’t deserve our attention.
He breaks down in the end, he gets out of the shower and she asks, “Do you miss her?” He doesn’t answer. Of course he doesn’t miss her.
He looks at himself, at the mirror, her ghost appears and then sits down – and the way he plays that, his lips shaking and holding back – that’s Jake, he’s amazing. You don’t need CGI when you have Jake.
M&C: In the scene where he enters the graveyard, a flock of pigeons blocks out the sky. You turned the environment into an emotional beat.
JMV: When we scouted there were pigeons and I asked for bird seeds just to make sure we got the pigeons.
So on the day, the production designer put out bird seeds and they all came. And just before action, we smashed a sledgehammer on metal and the birds went. It’s using the elements.
Demolition, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, and Naomi Watts, is released this Friday, April 8.