French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée may be Montreal-born, but he’s an international citizen of cinema.
Ever since he made the widely heralded C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005), he’s become a hot commodity. The Young Victoria (2009), starring Emily Blunt, was filmed in England; Café de Flore (2011), starring Vanessa Paradis, was shot in Paris. He’s squeezing in an interview from his hometown before departing for Oregon to start filming Reese Witherspoon in Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of an epic one-woman wilderness hike.
His current film, Dallas Buyers Club, which hit theatres on Nov. 1, took him deep into the heart of Texas to tell the tale of unlikely AIDS activist Ron Woodroof (played by an alarmingly underweight Matthew McConaughey). Here’s the backstory on the Oscar-buzzed film:
How did this project come your way?
It was just as simple as I was working with Robbie Brenner, an L.A. producer, on something else and the project didn’t go. And she’d had this script for many years and said, ‘Read this. I think you’d be a good director for this.’ She had this instinct because we’d been working with each other for about a year on the other one. And when I read it I went, ‘Oh my Jesus. I wish you would have given me this one first.’ And that’s how I got it.
What struck you so much about it?
The humanity behind it, and I like underdogs and anti-heroes. And this guy appeared to me like McMurphy in [One Flew Over the] Cuckoo’s Nest. Ron was just another Randle P. McMurphy. Trying to do his thing and in his case trying to survive. So it was the humanity. That was it. When you’re told you’ve got 30 days to live, what do you do with this?
How did Matthew McConaughey get attached? His performance, which involved losing 40 pounds to play someone who’s dying, is a huge part of what makes the movie work.
The script had been around for 20 years when we shot in 2012. The screenwriter started in 1992 when he met with Ron [Woodroof], the real Ron, and then Universal bought the rights, and they tried to do it with different directors and different actors. Ryan Gosling was attached, Brad Pitt was attached, and then Matthew called Robbie and said, ‘Listen, I want to make this film, this is for me, I’m from Texas and I’d be perfect.’ And when I responded very positively to the material, Robbie said: ‘Well, Matthew wants to do this,’ and I went, ‘What? Come on, Matthew is too handsome, too sexy to play this guy.’ And I met with him and I saw he was at a place with his career where he wants to change perceptions and he wanted to take challenges, show the world that he’s an actor and not just a pretty face.
Can you tell me a little bit about how people are responding to the movie and how that makes you feel?
I’m especially happy and proud of the response to the odd couple, to Ron and Rayon [a transgendered character played by Jared Leto]. I mean they’re loved. I can feel it, I can hear it. The audience loves these two characters and the two performances that we got on screen. But it’s not only touching, it’s funny. That was important. We knew we were dealing with serious subject matter, with something dramatic and real, so we were aiming for realism, but we wanted to be funny. Can we laugh about ourselves? Showing our imperfections and how we cope and deal with them, and I think it’s really funny to see a homophobic, racist cowboy becoming some kind of a spokesperson of the gay community.
This interview has been condensed and edited.