INTERVIEW: Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, Bryan Sipe, and Jean-Marc Vallee talk ‘Demolition’

DEMOLITION_quad-e1457559510694Conversation, or the lack thereof in many cases, hangs over almost all of Demolition, the new film from director Jean-Marc Vallee opening this weekend. Whether it’s star Jake Gyllenhaal or supporting players like Chris Cooper, Judah Lewis, and Naomi Watts, the characters in this Bryan Sipe penned movie struggle to explain themselves and what’s going on in their heads. It makes for a very compelling movie, as well as fertile ground to engage in a handful of interesting conversations about the work itself. Last month I participated in the Press Day for Demolition and was shuttled from room to room in a swanky Manhattan hotel to chat in person with, or in one case an empty room to get on the phone with, most of the cast and crew. I spent a brief time with Cooper, Lewis, Sipe, and Vallee discussing the flick, with the highlights of which found below. Hopefully you enjoy, and remember to check out Demolition.

Quickly, a bit on the film itself, which I liked a great deal. The movie follows Davis (Gyllenhaal), a successful man who has been sleepwalking through his life. He barely sees anything, including his wife, and when he wakes up from this stupor of sorts, it’s when he’s in a car wreck that kills said wife. Unable to express grief in any conventional way, he takes to writing confessional customer service letters to a vending machine company. This gets the attention of employee Karen (Watts), who he begins a friendship with, along with her teenage son Chris (Lewis). Davis also, acting upon the misguided advice of his father in law Phil (Cooper) to take apart his life to figure things out, begins literally dissembling things, including bathroom stalls at work and his luxury home. It’s quirky stuff at times, but quietly powerful, especially when Davis’ emotions finally do begin to creep out. Vallee directs a script from the aforementioned Sipe, with the entire cast doing very solid work, especially Gyllenhaal, which shouldn’t surprise you in the least. It’s less overtly awards friendly than what Vallee usually does, but I’d argue that’s actually a good thing here with Demolition.

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Cooper talking about his attraction to the project

It’s, this was the nice combination of everything. A director that I was very pleased that he approached me and wanted me to take a look at this script and this character. A very unpredictable script, interesting story. And then, the actors involved, and some of the producers. I’ve admired their work, wanted to work with them, and here was an opportunity. Just one of those situations where everything came together.

On the compelling nature of the character he plays and the scenes he shares with Jake Gyllenhaal

In reading the script, I, for lack of a better word, I think his reaction to the news of his daughter’s death is pretty normal, you know? I liked that. It was something I wanted to explore, and I liked the idea of having to deal with Jake’s character Davis and his reaction. I came to the conclusion that Phil, my character, is someone who would rather not go too deep into the relationship with this young man. He feels that they’re getting on, getting on alright, and prefers to have it like that. And you’re right, the scenes between me and Jake are at a minimum.

What he looks for when accepting a role

I have great opportunities! At my age, in this business, I consider myself very very lucky. There are folks who do that (take roles just to pay the bills), and I’ve never been one, like you said, I know actors who have jobs four or five down the road, and for me that doesn’t work. I like to really, um, I like to take my job seriously, but I like to have fun, it’s terrific fun. It’s why I choose it, it’s what I love to do. But, I also like to go home, recoup, take a breath, and if it’s a month or two or three, you know, live. You’re an actor, you have to bring something to these characters. So, just going, my preference is going one job at a time and I don’t know what the next thing is going to be.

A quick bit on his part in The Muppets

I will take on a job, as silly as it sounds, because it is a business. This Muppets movie I did a couple of years ago, it was like pulling teeth for me to do it, but once I got in, I had a ball. And, truth be known, it just keeps my name alive. It’s kind of cool, and this is happening more and more. It happens at my gym, there’s little kids running around, playing tennis or whatever, and they’ll see me and go “Tex Richman”! So I’ve got these little youngsters who spot me, and it’s cool.


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Lewis discussing how he got this breakout role

I actually self taped for it, originally. Yeah. I did that a couple of times and got some notes, then Skyping with Jean-Marc Vallee, the director. I mean, we Skyped for maybe two hours! It was a really cool experience and we worked through all the material, we talked about the project and about the character, and actually music was a huge part of the film and of this character. So, he actually created a playlist of I think six or seven songs, and they ranged from rock to hip hop to rap, completely contradictory genres, and you know, my character dances, and the feel of music is very important, so he actually had me dance to the songs. He played each song for maybe ten seconds, and I mean, I’m not a dancer (laughs), so I would dance to one, and it would switch to the next one and I’d have to completely switch what I was doing. It wasn’t about technicality or the dance per say, but it was about the feeling. I think music is how Chris, my character, expresses himself, and so it’s about him kind of being able to connect to the world and show the world who he is through music.

On getting to work with Gyllenhaal and Jean-Marc Vallee

Everyone was so nice! Working with Jake, he’s so truthful and brings such realism to his characters, it makes you be truthful and bring realism. So, you kind of have these two characters having a dialogue, and then Jean-Marc makes room for all of that. Something that I worked a lot with Jean-Marc on was feeling. It wasn’t about, he didn’t give me line readings or ways to say things, but it was about emotion and how is Chris feeling, and what is inside, making him do the things he’s doing and say the things he’s saying? It was less about doing and more about feeling.


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Sipe discussing what inspired this idea

You know, I did demolition work, from 16 to 20 years old in the summers. I was working for my father, tearing down burned houses, and I learned two things. One was that I didn’t know how to build anything. I could tear it down, but it wasn’t until it was all pulled apart that I got it. The other thing was that I went on this downward spiral in my life and I found myself in this really dark place where I felt stuck, in this burned out house, you know? I felt like I was outgrowing my skin and I didn’t know how to step out of it. I knew I wanted to do something bigger, but had no idea how to get to it, which led to the downward spiral. I found myself in that same place, years later in Hollywood, where I was failing. Not just in my career, but in my relationships and I was in debt, I’m drinking too much while working in a bar, and I had this visceral connection to the world I used to be in. That same emotional place I went to, this darkness, and again I was looking around at this debris around me, and out of that came this apathy. That same apathy from when I was doing demolition work, but this time it was different. I was older, experiencing life failure, and felt like time was passing me by. Out of that came this voice, which was this character, and he told me the story. Out that came this whole world. That is how it happened. I didn’t sit down to write my experience smashing the shit out of things. I created the character first and it was out of his voice that it happened that he wanted to pick up a sledgehammer and smash things.

On getting this script actually made

Start with the surreality of this happening. This is ten years in the making! It’s funny, the second one I wrote, it took seven months to go to shooting, and this took ten years!

Talking about the metaphor of a character seemingly having everything on the surface but a wreck on the inside

It’s kind of the bigger metaphor of this movie, and I hate to say the word metaphor, but it’s littered with them. I wanted to call that out, I wanted to Eight Mile it (laughs), know what I mean? That’s what I was experiencing, all of the sudden seeing the world in these metaphors, so I sort of just transposed them.


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Vallee on his attraction to a different film such as this one

Well, I responded viscerally, and I’m sorry I have a cold, but I responded so passionately to the material, to Bryan’s script, the whole thing man. What it was, what it represented, how it was told, its originality. It was unique, and it’s rare, very rare, to read a script like this. I laughed out loud, I didn’t know where it was going, and at the end I cried like a baby, cried like a kid, and I didn’t know why. I read it again and again I cried. Then, I realized I wasn’t crying because of why you cry in life or when you watch a film, I was crying because it was simply beautiful and what this guy represents. As a director, to have this material and to get to direct it, it’s the best, it’s something else. I wanted to be a part of it and to honor Bryan’s guts.

Discussing a bit about his directorial style here and how it plays well with the actors

Well put! It’s funny, another journalist had said something similar, in different words, that I was under the impression of watching the making of the film as I was watching it, seeing the fabrication and it all being connected. Experiencing the process. We actually found the film in the process, in the cutting room, in the mixing room, and it’s totally true. A good example is the first 20 minutes, it cuts every four or five seconds, and I never do that, but I did it here because it didn’t work, what I usually do. I like to let the scenes breathe, not interfere with the actors and the storytelling, that’s where the magic happens. I don’t cut performances, I capture them. But in this case, at the beginning it didn’t work, because these long shots were giving you the time to think and to judge this character and to condemn him, with his reaction to the death of his wife. You’re not supposed to react this way, it’s bad. What the fuck is wrong with you? You just lost your wife and you do nothing? Your face is always the same and you make fun of it? Fuck off man. So, I was like a little bit panicked in the cutting room, thinking what the fuck am I doing with this? Then, we started to cut very quickly, so the new information that the brain gets, you don’t have time to think, your brain is too busy gathering information from the new shot. The guy doesn’t do anything, isn’t expressing anything in his face still. That was the courage of Jake too, to attack this character and have him do nothing for 20 minutes. I mean, he didn’t act. It was a less is more situation, and an exercise in humility. He trusted the whole process, and I didn’t know that I was going to cut the film like an action piece in the first 20 minutes, but it just happened and it worked. Then, the shots start to breathe and get longer, and by the end some are as long as two minutes, and it’s all about Jake. It’s funny how there’s a lot of him in Davis.

What’s next for him

It’s about who I want to work with. I hope it’s going to happen, I just need to find the projects, so we’ll see. Now I have this beautiful project with Janis Joplin, it came first with the desire to work with Amy Adams, but then something happened and it wasn’t ready. She got offered another project called Sharp Objects, based on Gillian Flynn’s book, as an eight episode TV series, and she called me and asked if I wanted to do this before Janis. I read the book and was so impressed that she wanted to play that dark character, the story is so dark and different from what she’s done. So, if she wants to go there, I want to go there with her.

There you have the best bits from my brief yet enjoyable talks with Cooper, Lewis, Sipe, and Vallee. Again, Demolition is open this weekend, so don’t miss it!

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!