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Television Jean-Marc Vallée dives deeper, and darker, into prestige TV with new HBO limited series Sharp Objects

The eight-episode HBO limited series stars Amy Adams, a newspaper journalist investigating a series of murders in her rural Missouri hometown.

Jean-Marc Vallée is something of a changed man.

A few years ago, talking with the Quebec filmmaker revealed an artist who, while not exactly an enemy of the promotional process, was far from a fan of discussing his work.

“It’s part of the job and the process, but it’s not my favourite part, promoting the thing,” Vallée said in 2016, while preparing for the release of his Jake Gyllenhaal-starring drama Demolition. “I’m a writer and director, and I like to do that, but for some reason it’s become part of the industry and part of the job to go, ‘Alright, let’s talk about it!’ I think we give too much importance to artists talking about the art, and the film, and the books, and the plays, and the music. It’s done, the material is there. But we talk about it, because it’s part of the game.”

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Vallée may have once preferred letting his work speak for itself, but today, over the phone from Los Angeles to discuss his new HBO limited series Sharp Objects, the man cannot stop himself. Art, film, books, music − he is eager to dissect it all.

“The novel here that Gillian [Flynn] wrote, it’s so special and singular, and I wanted to serve it,” says Vallée, 55, whose usual carefully clipped sentences are replaced by enthusiastic, bordering-on-giddy reflections (well, “giddy” for Vallée, an eternally intimidating conversationalist whose chit-chat is still as sharp and intensely conceived as his images). “I wanted to be a part of it: to work on it, to transform it for the screen − and to promote it.”

If Vallée himself has evolved, so has the nature of his work. A few years ago, the Montreal-born director was competing with Denis Villeneuve and Philippe Falardeau for the title of Hollywood’s favourite Quebec import. While Vallée made his name at home with such acclaimed, albeit typically small, Canadian dramas as C.R.A.Z.Y. and Café de Flore, his U.S. projects offered instant industry credibility. With 2013′s Matthew McConaughey vehicle Dallas Buyers Club, and 2014′s Wild with Reese Witherspoon, Vallée delivered a one-two punch that turned him into the star-whisperer: the man who could single-handedly revive a fading performer’s credibility. (Both McConaughey and Witherspoon earned Oscar nominations for their performances, with the former winning.)

But then Demolition, conceived as awards bait for Gyllenhaal, made a tepid debut at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, and disappeared into theatres when it was released the next spring. And the market for the star-hooked, intense character studies Vallée specialized in seemed to be shrinking.

Which is when Vallée made the leap that so many other prestige filmmakers − Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Jane Campion − have taken as the major film studios, and even the independents, inched away from the kind of original, adult fare that interested them: He directed a television series.

Jean-Marc Vallée wrings a devastating and haunting performance out of Adams, the likes of which her big-screen audiences have never seen.

Calling Big Little Lies a mere TV series, though, seems like an undersell. The seven-episode production quickly became a zeitgeist-shaking juggernaut upon its HBO premiere last spring. A slick and dreamy adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel, Big Little Lies was a ratings smash and quickly sparked its own cottage industry of cultural chatter, from theories about its central murder-mystery plot to its representation of motherhood to whether its marquee stars (Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and familiar Vallée collaborator Witherspoon) indicated an industry shift from the big screen to the small. The series won five Emmy Awards (including best director for Vallée, who helmed all seven hours), and is readying its second season (starring Meryl Streep, in case anyone was still wondering whether that aforementioned big-screen versus small-screen landscape had indeed shifted).

On the surface, Sharp Objects seems like a facsimile of Vallée’s blueprint for Big Little Lies: the eight-episode series again airs on HBO, is another adaptation of a bestselling murder-mystery page-turner (in this case, from Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn), focuses on a strong woman played by an actress accustomed to headlining major films (Amy Adams), and has Vallée directing the entire production. (Also like Big Little Lies, which was written by David E. Kelly, scripting duties here are in the hands of another small-screen veteran, Marti Noxon.)

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“It’s pure coincidence, though,” Vallée says with a laugh. “I was attached to Sharp Objects before Big Little Lies, actually. I know it’s crazy how you can draw a line from there to here, but it’s such a matter of circumstances and life. I’m happy, though, to be involved in a project with all these strong and intelligent women.”

In tone, at least, Sharp Objects veers far from Big Little Lies’ Southern California pulp. Focusing on an alcoholic newspaper journalist Camille (Adams) as she heads back to her rural Missouri hometown to investigate a string of murders and perhaps reconnect with her distant mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), Vallée’s latest is prestige soap opera crossed with True Detective-esque gothic horror.

Sharp Objects was scary, unknown territory for me. I wouldn’t pick this kind of material to direct if you just gave me the book. Amy Adams was the force that drove me in,” Vallée says of his star, who he previously tried to collaborate with on a now-abandoned Janis Joplin biopic. “But I was also scared because, I was asking myself, what can I do to help her? What am I going to tell her, to help her get where she needed to be? It’s scary, but this is our job, let’s do this.”

Acting as his own editor (just as he did on Wild, Dallas Buyers Club, and Café de Flore), Vallée splices Sharp Objects with quick-burst flashbacks, cutting back and forth between Camille’s alcohol-soaked reality and her traumatic youth, evoking the fractured reality of Woodley’s Big Little Lies character. He wrings a devastating and haunting performance out of Adams, the likes of which her big-screen audiences have never seen. And he continues to boldly experiment with music, again dropping a traditional score in favour of whatever tracks his characters happen to be listening to in their cars, on their iPhones, or through their home stereos.

“That’s become my thing, and I found my language without realizing it,” Vallée says, noting that he’s used the soundtrack method on every film since C.R.A.Z.Y., with the exception of his 2009 period piece The Young Victoria. In his mind, music is not the “thing” but the “thing that gets you to the thing.”

“The idea is to put the music in the centre of the characters’ world, just like we do in life,” he adds. “Tell me what you’re listening to, and I’ll tell you who you are. … But the intention is not to show off. I want you to be moved with the help of music, and it creates a feeling and an atmosphere, but I’m not the one suggesting it. The characters are.”

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Patricia Clarkson plays Adora, Camille’s distant mother.

Despite Vallée’s back-to-back adventures in television, he views his work only as a filmmaker − just a filmmaker making extremely long movies.

“I don’t see any difference except the length. Since I’m the only director, the whole thing is like shooting a feature film. There’s one crew, one schedule,” he says. “That’s the attraction. I don’t believe in being able to leave it, and leave the actors with other directors. I feel like these are both whole productions. I was supposed to do only one or two episodes of Big Little Lies, but I realized I couldn’t just step away.”

It is also that inability to step away, and in the sheer exhaustion caused by taking on series with the scale of three feature films, that resulted in some production tensions.

“On Sharp Objects, I felt that I wasn’t ready when we started to shoot, and I needed more time to prep and do my homework, but we had to shoot, and I got pushy,” Vallée says. “I wanted to push the schedule back, and Amy was pushing back, and I was pushing and pushing and we started off with a little bit of a fight. But then we learned to work together, to dance together.

“Directing on a 90-day schedule, whether for a TV series or a feature film, it’s crazy, it’s a marathon,” he adds, noting he’s now planning a six-month break, and that his next project will be one of two films he has in development that come with only a 35- or 40-day shooting schedule.

Not that he’s letting the small-screen world slip away. Despite once saying that Big Little Lies had the “perfect ending. … That’s all, thank you, goodbye, no more Big Little Lies,” Vallée is an executive producer on the show’s second season (although directing duties have been handed to Andrea Arnold).

“I thought it was perfect letting one season live by itself, but it became something else. The actresses loved their characters so much, so let’s call Liane, let’s call David, and see what we can do. Then Meryl Streep dropped in,” Vallée says. “I’ve read the first scripts and I watch the dailies where I can.

“I’m sad I’m not the director,” he adds. “I think if they would’ve waited a year, I would’ve done it even though I said, ‘Nah, let’s leave it there.’ I would’ve changed my mind and directed the whole thing again.”

Fair enough. There is nothing wrong, after all, with being a changed man.

Director Vallée splices Sharp Objects with quick-burst flashbacks, cutting back and forth between Camille’s alcohol-soaked reality and her traumatic youth.

Sharp Objects premieres July 8 at 9 p.m. on HBO Canada

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