It’s been a banner year for several high-profile directors. David O. Russell is reaching the apotheosis of his mid-career resurgence with “American Hustle.” After a series of well-regarded but little-seen art films, Steve McQueen is garnering attention as the man behind one of the most acclaimed race-themed movies ever in “12 Years A Slave.” Alfonso Cuaron is credited as inventing a new cinematic language in “Gravity.”
Even Martin Scorsese, blamed by more clucking types for ruining our morality, is given laurels for having more vibrancy than directors half his age in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Yet Jean-Marc Vallee, the director of “Dallas Buyers Club,” a rigorous and scrappy movie about the often-forgotten early days of the AIDS crisis, is little seen on this list. As his film has racked up nominations — “Dallas” is one of only two this season to be shortlisted for top prizes by the SAG, PGA and WGA guilds, while stars Jared Leto Jared and Matthew McConaughey are Oscar and Globe favorites for their portrayals as the transgender Rayon and the real-life homophobe-turned-AIDS crusader Ron Woodroof, respectively — himself has been less visible. Ask even relatively attuned filmgoers who directed the film and they might not know, or know the French Canadian auteur's previous movies (they include “The Young Victoria” and “C.R.A.Z.Y.”).
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Part of that has been Vallee’s absence on much of the circuit this fall as he shot “Wild,” the outdoorsy tale of redemption starring Reese Witherspoon based on Cheryl Strayed's bestselling book, in Portland, Ore. Vallee wasn’t supposed to start that for a while — he was supposed to spend the past few months largely promoting “Dallas Buyers” and also begin preparing a finance-world drama called “Demolition” that he will now shoot this spring — but when a window opened in Witherspoon’s schedule, he quickly headed to Oregon.
We caught up with Vallee by phone from his home in Montreal, where he has returned to begin cutting “Wild.”
Movies Now: So unlike some of your counterparts, you’ve actually been toiling on set these last few months. Has it been weird to be out of the spotlight? Most directors of award-season movies don’t have that experience.
Jean-Marc Vallee: “I’ve had a taste of the light, doing promotion in Toronto and some junkets in L.A. But I have missed some moments. When you gotta shoot, you gotta shoot. It’s a funny life as a filmmaker — when you write you’re very alone, and there’s a beautiful solitude, then you’re shooting with a lot of people and it’s very social. Then it’s editing, which is solitude again. Usually you’re back with a lot of people in promotion. I guess I missed that last part this time.
MN: A movie about AIDS is one that a lot of producers said the American public just isn’t interested in. Do you feel that that’s been true?
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JMV: I don’t. I mean, that hasn’t been the reaction. I think the film touches something that’s so human. It’s a story with such a potential to transform, to hit people in the right way. You’re watching someone who’s told he has 30 days to live and then he lives seven years. It’s a transformation that’s unique, because Ron doesn’t even realize he’s going through it until he’s already very into it. And I think that’s how most transformations happen.
MN: You seem to be interested in that theme lately: “Wild” has a similar idea, with Cheryl, the demons she faced with the death of a family member and the addiction and then this form of extreme-hiking as a way out of it.
JMV: There are similarities, man. They’re about getting to a point in life where it’s so tough that you think about dying and is it worthwhile to continue. And both of them — Ron and Cheryl — are being destructive, whether it’s with drugs or alcohol or sex, but at the same time the desire to fight and survive. And maybe that idea was appealing to me. I went through the loss three years ago of my mom to cancer. She was in her 70s, but she lost her mom when she was in her 40s, and you begin to see in all of that flaws and strengths and how crazy and nuts this life can be, and that’s what I wanted to capture with these two movies.
MN: It’s hard not to notice that both films also feature movie stars who seem to be at an interesting crossroads themselves.
JMV: Matthew and Reese have similar lives, Everything’s going well — healthy kids, amazing career, good fortune. So what’s next? And I think they’re looking for something challenging, something special. They’re also trying to transform.
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MN: “Dallas Buyers” had a mythic back story and a crazy production schedule, just 25 days moving at a breakneck pace so you can come in at budget, just $8 million. Is the acclaim sweeter because of all those challenges?
JMV: It is. There was something fun about doing it that quickly — no lights, all of that. But it was nice to shoot “Wild” with a longer schedule. I mean, it was only 35 days, man. But that’s a little easier.
MN: This film seems to be getting a lot of attention for actors but not as much for some other elements. Is that ever frustrating, given that it of course takes not only great acting but also sharp directing and editing to elicit those performances?
JMV: We’re enjoying what’s happening at the moment. If we were just sitting around waiting for nominations we’d be miserable, man. It’s part of a system and I get that bit. We also have to take it with a grain of salt. And Matthew and Jared, I don’t want to take credit for what they did. I feel a satisfaction because we worked together. It’s a tricky question, I don’t want to sound pretentious or arrogant. There’s recognition for their work and I’m very, very happy. They did an amazing job. And directing is directing. It is teamwork. But this is their thing right now.
MN: On set it was noticeable — you’re certainly a vocal director, but you let takes play out too.
JMV: Exactly. You saw it — there are a lot of long shots. There wasn’t a lot of interference. I mean, of course you direct, and of course you edit. But a lot of this movie is sitting back and trusting the performances.
MN: In that vein, your films have gained a reputation for a kind of low-key humanity. They seem to be very interested in intimate journeys of the character rather than flashy directing or out-sized personalities. People would not confuse the tone of your films with, say, a Scorsese or Russell.
JMV: I think I’ve found a comfort zone, where it’s about emotion and making people laugh or cry or [about] family or doing a movie that’s touching. Right now I’m trying to serve what’s there, man.
But yeah, man, I got big dreams and big projects. I’m working on a movie called “On the Proper Use of Stars,” based on a Quebec bestseller [by Dominique Fortier]. It’s a $60-million period film, from the 1800s like “Master and Commander" about an expedition in the Arctic and the parallel lives of families back in London. So yeah, I found something that works, especially with “Dallas Buyers” and “Wild.” But I want to do something different too. I’d like to have different kinds of movies. More fun with the medium. Look at Soderbergh. He’s the model. He can adapt. He can do very different projects.
MN: Some transformations of your own?
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