Director Jean-Marc Vallée isn’t afraid to push his actors to the limit. In Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey dropped nearly 40 pounds to play cowboy turned AIDS activist Ron Woodroof, winning an Oscar for his brave portrayal. In Wild, the real-life tale of one woman’s soul-searching solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, audiences saw Reese Witherspoon as never before: without makeup and raw, with mussed-up hair to match her character’s messed-up life. And as with McConaughey, Witherspoon’s trust in Vallée’s vision paid off: The performance garnered a slew of award nominations, including nods from the Oscars and Golden Globes. During the shoot, Vallée covered mirrors in Witherspoon’s trailer and had her carry around an enormous 77-pound hiking pack – all in the service of believability.
“I’m trying to be real. I want the audience to know that my movies are about storytelling and acting,” says Vallée over the phone from his home in Montreal, shortly after wrapping up production on Demolition, his third picture in as many years. Slated to open this fall, it stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a New York investment banker whose life unravels after the death of his wife, and Naomi Watts as the woman who saves him. Next up is the much-anticipated Janis Joplin biopic, Get It While You Can, with Amy Adams in a lead role that will likely require another dramatic physical transformation.
Hollywood is clearly calling, and though Vallée is listening, he’s not planning to permanently decamp for the sunnier climes of Los Angeles. At 52, he’s succeeding on his own terms, proving that even as a member of the Hollywood elite, he can still make movies with the same integrity and heart that propelled him onto the international scene in 2005 with C.R.A.Z.Y., his beloved coming-of-age tale about a gay teen growing up in 1960s Catholic Quebec. Studios want to buy his movies, audiences want to see them and actors like Witherspoon – who handpicked Vallée to direct her in Wild after seeing a rough cut of Dallas Buyers Club – want to star in them.
Despite his strong ties to Canada, Vallée doesn’t see himself as an outsider in Hollywood: “I feel I’m accepted.” Nevertheless, he does talk up Quebec cinema whenever he can, and considers himself an ambassador. He also continues to support the local film industry, completing post-production on his movies in Montreal surrounded by long-time collaborators, notably VFX supervisor Marc Côté.
On set, too, he often rounds out his lean crews with hometown talent like cinematographer Yves Bélanger. Bringing the post-production back home is one of his trademarks – it’s where he’s most comfortable. “I’m a sucker for Montreal,” Vallée says. He’s also known to let actors act, putting them through long takes rather than pasting their performances together in the editing suite.
He wants audiences to feel what he feels on set. “When I’m filming and I yell Cut!, sometimes I’m still laughing out loud or on the verge of tears.” As a director, he isn’t heavy-handed: “I don’t want the audience to spot me. I want to be invisible.”
When I’m filming and I yell Cut!, sometimes I’m still laughing out loud or on the verge of tears.” Jean-Marc Vallée
Which is not to say that he doesn’t have a signature: If anything, it’s his quiet, selfless approach. Vallée is at his best when he doesn’t rely on big effects (artificial lighting, dolly shots or even score) to capture moments. Instead, he uses what’s available: the last glimmer of light from the setting sun, a handheld camera navigating the terrain alongside his actor and music playing from a radio that might actually fit in with his characters’ lives.
Some might say this philosophy is quintessentially Canadian – a humble, don’t-look-at-me attitude. But Vallée is no wallflower, and he recognizes that the ride he’s on is thanks in part to chance, but also to hard work. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time to receive great material. But the actors and the crew, we all agree to push ourselves, knowing that even though it’s going to be tough at times, the story is worthwhile.”
Although his next few projects are all English-language films, Vallée promises that he’ll return to Quebec to make another movie (since C.R.A.Z.Y. he has only made one other French film, 2011’s Café de Flore). In 2009, he bought the film rights to On the Proper Use of Stars, a novel by Quebecois writer Dominique Fortier about the ill-fated Franklin expedition. He also has three other French-language movies in the works.
Whether they get made might just depend on the Hollywood scripts that are sure to keep landing on his doorstep, and the long line of A-listers waiting to work with him. Regardless, if it took a while for Hollywood to discover Vallée, he’s more than making up for it now.