From author Gillian Flynn, showrunner Marti Noxon and director Jean-Marc Vallée, HBO’s eight-episode limited drama series Sharp Objects follows what happens when Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) returns to her small hometown to cover the murders of two pre-teen girls. Trying to understand the crimes puts her in the direct path of her own past and forces her into the line of fire of her disapproving mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) and her impetuous 15-year-old half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen).
While at the Television Critics Association Press Tour presentation for HBO, Collider got the opportunity to chat 1-on-1 with Vallée (who directed and co-edited every episode of the series) about directing Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects back to back, that he feels privileged to work with so many talented women across the two projects, why he likes to take a naturalistic approach to shooting, how the imperfections make a story feel more personal, how they approached shooting the scripts, and that he’d like to take a break and shoot a movie before returning to TV, for a project that he’s hoping to do with Demolition writer Bryan Sipe.
Collider: It’s great to talk to you about this show. It’s such difficult subject matter, but I just think it’s absolutely gorgeous to watch.
JEAN-MARC VALLEE: Thank you!
Between Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects, how has it been for to direct all of these hours of story, back to back?
VALLEE: It’s been a rough, tough ride, physically. I’m very tired. We work so hard and it’s a marathon. It’s really tough. And with this one, on top of that, it’s dark content. To live with it for that long and deal with dead girls and this family, with this history of abuse and violence, it’s tough. But at the same time, it’s great. I love my job. I feel like I’m such a lucky, privileged human being, at a great place. Here I am, talking about what I love. It’s part of the job, and I love it. We talk about what we love to do and create with this bunch of creative people. They all want to do good and they’re all funny. It’s great. It’s powerful. In this art form of storytelling – whether it’s literature, or film, or TV, or theater – stories are great.
We’re in a time when people are really begging for more diversity and inclusion with storytelling and characters, and you’re working with such a wide array of women, of so many different ages and backgrounds.
VALLEE: Yeah. It’s a matter of circumstances, and I’m the privileged one. They’re great actresses and women and people, and it’s beautiful to see them all embracing and developing these projects, as a strong force. They’re the ones behind it, pushing and developing these projects. Amy [Adams] came on board and she came to me. I didn’t pick her, she picked me. She invited me. I feel grateful and thankful to be part of great projects like that and to accompany them in their journey of expressing themselves, in a time when we need it.
Chris Messina told me what an adjustment it was for him to get used to how you work without marks, without lights, without rehearsals, and with only a few takes of each scene. Why is that something that you think works?
VALLEE: I think it’s because there’s a feeling of freedom in the space that we create on the set, without the lighting, handheld, and asking the crew to get out, in order to use the space. That’s one aspect that can put them outside their comfort zone sometimes, but most of the time, it’s the contrary. And since they don’t have a mark, they don’t have to hit the spot to feel the light where they’ll be perfectly lit. The idea is not to have something that feels fabricated, and I think they love that. They love the aspect of just focusing on storytelling and the acting part of storytelling. They’re focusing on acting and reacting to the other actors, instead of reacting to the cameraman that is there. There are only three guys on the set that are not actors – and when I say guys, it could be a woman. There’s the cameraman, the focus puller, and me. Sometimes there’s a fourth guy, who’s the boom guy, but often, we ask the boom guy to get out and we use just the small mics. I’m behind the cameraman and the focus puller is next to me, and we just react to what they do and they learn to react to where we are. We rarely cut. We shoot the rehearsals, which become Take 1. Sometimes, it’s not good, at all, and we start over, with either them or us in different places. We start a scene, and if it’s a three, four page scene, we’re just going to go for 30 or 40 minutes, non-stop. If it’s a shot with Chris, we’ll shoot him, and then we’ll shoot Chris’ POV from behind him. And if he’s with Camille, we’ll respect the difference between the two of them. If I cover the scene from Richard’s perspective, I won’t go close on Camille, unless Camille comes close to Richard, or unless Richard goes close to Camille. We respect the distance. We just do it non-stop, until the cameraman goes, “I need a break,” and until there’s no more memory on the card.