Matthew McConaughey calls him ”a sensitive anarchist.” Laura Dern compares him to Hollywood New Wave director Hal Ashby. And Reese Witherspoon says he’s the only director she would trust with ”her baby,” an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. Jean-Marc Vallée may be one of the best directors working today, and it’s possible you don’t know his name. That’s about to change.
The Canadian, 50, first broke out with 2005’s French-language film C.R.A.Z.Y., but he emerged as a phenom with last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, especially after McConaughey and Jared Leto took home Oscars for their roles. Now comes Wild, featuring Witherspoon (who also produces) as a nature newbie who hikes the Pacific Crest Trail after the sudden death of her mother (Dern). ”I don’t know if there is anyone else who could have made this movie with such respect, grace, and love of these women,” says Dern. As with Dallas, both of Vallée’s stars seem bound for Oscar nods.
What is piquing the interest of actors — and audiences — is Vallée’s moviemaking style, closer to documentary than to traditional features. He favors natural lighting, a skeletal crew ready to capture spontaneous moments, and no rehearsal. ”The actors don’t feel the light coming from the hot spotlights; they don’t have to hit a mark on the ground,” Vallée says. ”They just use the space. I’m there trying to have the right lens, be at the right spot to capture it. Once I’ve got a great script like Dallas or Wild, I want to honor the script and not show off — even though I have a big ego.”
Vallée’s approach gave Witherspoon the confidence to pursue Strayed’s gritty story, which includes scenes of graphic sex and drug use. Even moments on the trail had a doc-like authenticity. ”When you see me constructing the tent in the movie, that’s the first time I’ve ever put up the tent. When I’m trying to light the stove, I really had never lit the stove before. When I got fire and was able to make a meal, I was actually excited,” she says. ”He really pushes you to be in the most authentic places you can be. You shed all your bad habits because there is nowhere for you to hide.”
McConaughey recalls the director’s willingness to listen to his most off-the-wall ideas during nightly Skype sessions prior to filming Dallas. And Dern says Vallée urged her to improvise for her character, Bobbi. ”’Laura, Laura,”’ she says, imitating Vallée’s Québécois accent. ”’Come here. We are going to make up a scene. Say something that Bobbi says.’ And it’s in the movie. Every. Single. Time. There are no three minutes wasted.”
He doesn’t waste time in his narratives, either. For most of Wild, Witherspoon’s character walks alone in the mountains, but her real journey is internal, as she grapples with memory and grief. A lesser director would have employed long flashbacks to communicate that, but Vallée preferred fragments of image, sound, and music. Jumping off Nick Hornby’s script, he combined snippets of Strayed’s childhood, shot at different camera speeds in different locations, and inserted them into the film at different moments. ”Jean-Marc chose a style that created the way we understand memory,” says Witherspoon. ”Sometimes memory comes in a flash. Sometimes it slows down. Sometimes it’s violent and abrupt. And sometimes it’s a full scene. He did a great job capturing that.”
Music plays a big role in all of Vallée’s movies. ”Making a film is about finding the right playlist to accompany the story,” says the ex-DJ (and son of a DJ). ”I like to find tracks that help define the characters. That’s why I don’t use a score. Never.” As it happens, Vallée grew up in a Montreal household with ”more records than books” and turned to filmmaking in college. ”I thought I was going to be the next Orson Welles,” he says. But he spent a decade making C.R.A.Z.Y., a coming-of-age story that was Canada’s top-grossing movie in 2005. He followed that with 2009’s The Young Victoria and the 2011 romance Café de Flore.
Actors soon noticed his ability to tell emotional stories without sentimentality. Vallée is now directing Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts in Demolition, set in the aftermath of a fatal car accident. ”I’ve found my niche, my voice, and there are some people in the industry that understand and like the voice,” he says. ”I go to bed at night and I think, ‘Yeah, you are living your dream.”