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‘Sharp Objects’ Director Jean-Marc Vallée on Amy Adams, Led Zeppelin and Episode 5’s Big Reveal

The Canadian auteur takes a deep dive into his latest HBO series and his signature style, spilling the secrets to working with big stars, playing with time and nailing a soundtrack

Amy Adams stars in "Sharp Objects." hbo

Amy Adams in 'Sharp Objects.'

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

HBO’s Sharp Objects, which just aired its fifth episode, is a classic kind of star vehicle for Amy Adams. She’s in nearly every scene (and other people tend to talk about her even when she’s not). Her character, reporter Camille Preaker, is perpetually drunk, a cutter who has carved a few hundred words onto her body, and has to confront the traumas of her own past even as she investigates a pair of child murders in her sweltering Missouri hometown. It’s a great performance, in a great miniseries.

It’s just as much of a star vehicle for the project’s director, Jean-Marc Vallée, who, as he did on Big Little Lies, helmed all the episodes and infused them with his trademark blurring of the lines between past and present, between reality and imagination. Adams is wonderful, as are co-stars like Eliza Scanlen (who plays Camille’s half-sister Amma) and Patricia Clarkson (family matriarch Adora), and the scripts by novelist Gillian Flynn (based on her first book of the same name), creator Marti Noxon and others are as well-honed as the tools Camille uses to scar herself. But it’s Vallée’s temporally fluid style, and the way it puts us right inside the head of this emotionally and physically wrecked woman, that elevates Sharp Objects into something more than another gothic murder mystery about another set of dead girls.

I recently spoke with Vallée about how he develops rapports with actors, the process of shooting and cutting together (Vallée also works as an editor on the project) all the scenes of adult Camille and her teenage self (played by It’s Sophia Lillis), why Camille listens to so much Led Zeppelin, and a lot more (with full spoilers for the season so far).

I recently interviewed Jennifer Garner, who you directed in Dallas Buyers Club. When I mentioned I’d be seeing you, she lit up and said, “Please tell him I said hello, I would love to work with him again.” Do you get that a lot? And even performers you’ve never worked with reaching out and saying, “Please put me in something?”
Yes, I think I’m known for this. I love actors and I love projects that give them space and room, and I aim for these projects where the characters are that important. So the actors will be attracted to that.

How do you develop that kind of rapport with actors, where they feel comfortable? When you sat down with Amy to figure out Camille, what did you guys do?
She does her homework, I do mine. The book was our bible. And then it happens on the set, whether it’s with Amy or with the women on BLL — Nicole, Reese, Shailene, Laura Dern — or the guys on Dallas Buyers Club. The job is to tell stories and find the right shot, the right lens, but mainly to capture great performances that I can believe in, and the audiences can believe in it, can relate to it, can be touched by it, laugh about it because it’s funny, or be emotional or be scared or feel the violence. I’m their first audience, and they can feel it. I can get as emotional as they have to, and I’m there on the set, I’m not behind the monitor, so it’s all about capturing the magic.

So with Amy, once we started to shoot, the process was to talk about it in a very cerebral way, because that’s how she is. She wants in the morning a discussion on what we have to achieve, what we have to do during the day, and there’s an intellectual conversation. And she challenges words, lines, intentions, where are we. We go back to the book, we go back to the script with the scene. And then she arrives later on the set and she stops being cerebral and it becomes instinct and it becomes spectacular. How natural she can be so easily and the way she understands the medium and where the camera is with the lens that it’s on — 95 percent we use a 35-mm lens that allows a respect of the distance between the actors. [He begins using utensils on the table to represent Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson’s positions relative to each other in scenes.] And when Camille is here and Adora’s here, there’s a distance between them. And I like to keep this. And if I’m gonna go tight on Adora, it’s because Amy’s gonna walk to her or it’s because Adora’s gonna come here.

And she got this kind of grammar language that we’re trying to do in the set so they can move freely. There’s no mark, there’s no spotlight, they don’t feel the heat of a cinema spot, so that’s different for them. To arrive in this environment and to be free, it feels more like a reality. So, that’s how it starts.

When you work with somebody new, how long does it take for them to stop intellectualizing and just go with it in the way you described?
I think it takes a day. Once we’re done with the shoot and they start working on something else, I get a call and they go, “Jesus, I’m waiting an hour for the light to be ready and the tracks, come back, I miss you guys.”

With Amy in particular, was there a point early on where you were shooting a scene and you felt, “OK, now she gets it”?
It happened on the first day, in a scene that’s not even in the series anymore. She got it right there. The way we shoot in the cars also — we don’t put the car on the trailer, we don’t put the camera outside, we’re with them inside. And we’re doing French overs [where the camera is placed over the actor’s inside shoulder] from the passenger seat, the back seat, or we’re on the passenger seat doing profile, or we put a smaller camera on the dash so you have a three-quarter frontal. So we’re always with them and we see what they see, the perspective. And then she gets that I see what she does, and I react to it with the [director of photography]. So she’s going to tell us how to design the shots. She’s going to move, and we’re going to move with her. She stops and she looks at Amma, we’re going to show her POV. Then I’m going to go back on her, because I want to see her face and her reaction. Then she’s going to walk to Adora, then I’m gonna walk with her and finish on Adora, and then I want to see her reaction.

There’s no shots lists. We’re designing on the day according to what the main character is doing. I’m going to cover the scene also from the other female characters’ perspective and in the cutting room, allow them some moments — but mainly it’s Amy. It’s Camille starring, it’ll be seen through her perspective. She’s the only one that has this privilege of allowing the audience to go into her head. So we see what she thinks of, what she dreams of, what she’s scared of.

Jean-Marc Vallee directs Amy Adams on the set of "Sharp Objects."

Jean-Marc Vallée with Amy Adams on the set of ‘Sharp Objects.’

Do you have to shoot a lot more material than normal in order to be able to cut all the past and present scenes together the way that you do?
I wouldn’t say a lot more, but I shoot more. We always take some time to think and to go, “What can she be thinking of right now, and what can we shoot, what can we add?” We have 20 minutes as we’re waiting for another actor or something else from the crew. We don’t wait for lighting, but sometimes you wait for actors, or wardrobe or [Amy’s] scars. And then, we get creative and we think about this. And then it happens in the cutting room. So for this one, this language, this grammar was created by instinct when I shot C.R.A.Z.Y. in 2004. And then I did it more and more on Café de Flore, with these characters where we were seeing what they were thinking and even more. And then I did it with Dallas, and pushed it further with Demolition. I love to tell stories by doing this and applied it to BLL. And it became very, very important in Sharp Objects — also because it was replacing the internal monologue. The writers decided to adapt the novel without a voice-over. At the beginning, I challenged them, and I thought, Really? Is this a good idea?

We loved the book and we love to hear her think and the way she talks about herself, her imperfection, her sexuality, her family, her mom. Her angle on the world is so sharp, so good, so unique. And then it’s not there on the first script that I read, and I asked, “Are we going to put a voice-over?” And they went, “No.” I said, “Oh, aye-aye” [laughs]. And then the other scripts came in and I went, “OK, I get it. I think we can do it.” And it’s in the cutting room that we really figured out this thing of all these quick flashes, without using the sound of the past, and we keep the sound of the present: She’s in her car and she starts thinking about Alice in rehab, because she just put a song on and remembers, that makes her think of Alice. So we keep that song from the present with the texture of her cheap speakers in her car. It’s not a perfect sound. It sounds bad and there’s some wind from the window that is down and it’s un-perfect — and that’s what I tell all the collaborators: “Let’s make it un-perfect.” Everything is raw and un-perfect and that’s the way we shoot. We shoot the rehearsals and blocking and the focus puller doesn’t have any rehearsals, so he’s discovering what the actors are doing and he’s pulling focus and trying to be sharp.

So in the cutting room, we realized that this thing was replacing the internal monologue and it was giving us, the first audience, this impression of, “Oh my god, we really see the world based on her, and her story, and her demons, her past, her memories and fears,” and then all these words. That was another thing where, we got this idea in the cutting room: Why don’t we put words in the reality where we’re going to see carved on a table, when she’s going to look down at a knife, we’re going to write down a word that is carved on the table that is burning on her skin. Gillian refers to 74 words in the book, on Camille’s body. We had to put more on her body because 74 wasn’t enough to cover all the skin, so we created 200 more words on her body. But these 74 words, we use them in the cutting room, in her reality. So for instance, if you’re Adora and you’re looking at Amy, and you see this table — Adora won’t see the “petticoat” carved on the table, but if I’m Amy, and this is her perspective, next to the knife here there’s a word, “petticoat,” she will see it. She will see it in one frame, in one shot, then she won’t look at it — and we’ll use the same angle and the word won’t be there. It’s just for a moment as its pulsing on her body. So this is another way of getting into her head and of adapting the book and the quality of the book, which was this woman having an obsession with words. She uses them to work as a journalist, she uses them to heal, she loves them, and she uses them to harm herself.

In the book, she just says, “The word ‘petticoat’ started to pulse on my leg.” Well, we’re not doing this. So how are we going to represent this and use this? We came up with this device. And sometimes it’s like in episode one, when she closes the trunk of her car, someone wrote the word “dirty” on her trunk. And it’s there for six frames from her perspective. When it’s not her perspective, it wasn’t there. When we see her going to her car, it’s not there, it’s just the objective point of view. Then we cut to her POV, it’s there. But it’s there for six frames, and we go “What? It’s hard to tell…” Then we revisit these moments when she’s thinking, and she has a moment where she’s reflecting on something. In that episode it was when she’s in her car about to go back to her mom’s place and then she puts on lipstick. She stops, she thinks, and she sees this word again. So we go back to what she saw, and we go into her head and are telling the audience, “See, you’re going to follow this girl and see the story through her perspective, and what she thinks and what she sees is what you’ll see — whether it’s in her head or not.” So it became the thing with all the team of editors: “Alright guys, let’s push this and let’s see how far we can go with it and how often.” And the more we tried it, the more we loved it, the editors, myself, and the producers. And we went, “I think we got something.”

The story is many things, but one of those things is a mystery, which is on some level about objective truth. You’re telling this story with so much subjectivity. Is the word really there on the car, are these memories really right? How do you find a proper balance of Camille’s subjective reality while still trying to tell this story and play fair with the audience?
I think to play fair with the audience is to be subjective and stick with Camille. She wants to be fair, she wants to solve the mystery, and we want to solve her. Because she represents a mystery too: What the hell happened to you? At the end of episode one we go, “Wait a minute, this is gonna be something else then just a journalist investigating a murder mystery. Who the hell is this girl?”

It’s fascinating to me that you come in without a shot list and you find all of this in the cutting, because I think of something like the moment in the first episode where you see teenage Camille floating in the lake and adult Camille is in the bath, and the shots fit together like it was planned all along.
That was planned, but without a shot list. I take every script and I do a pass as a director, I put my directorial approach in it. So when I’m there and I’m reading this scene, I go, “OK, I’m gonna connect these two with the way she’s gonna go into the bathtub at the motel and then the way she’s gonna get out of the water.” So I start to write how I’m going to use perspectives, without using technical language — without saying, “Close top shot on young Camille, tight shot on Amy.” I re-write in a way where it’s there, it suggests a shot, a visual. So the script becomes my base and my shot list, even though there’s no shot list and numbers. But I know how I want to cut it and it becomes second nature of how to transition, how to shoot.

The other thing that’s striking about that transition is that Sophia [Lillis], when you are just showing her eyes and her nose poking out of the water, she’s a dead ringer for Amy.
We did a prosthetic with her nose. Sophia’s real face has a different nose. So every morning, she had to go in the makeup trailer and have Amy’s nose.

There’s another sequence involving the two of them in the first episode, Camille is moving from room to room upstairs and you’re just going back and forth between the two of them and it looks seamless. How do you put something like that together so smoothly?
See that’s an idea on the set, right there when we started to do these flashbacks. I went, “Oh, why don’t we put them both in the same time zone.” So we’re in a flashback with young Camille, she gets out of the room very quickly, and then as soon as she’s out of the room, I ask Amy to come on the set and to be in the flashback, in this shot. And then she looks, and now I’m in the present time. The setup was the room in the Nineties, so I see young Camille getting out of the room, and as soon as she’s out, Amy’s cue is to do the same but stop. And now we see the room in the present time in the 2000s. It was the same downstairs when they’re on the bench: She just arrived home, she’s thinking of her young sister, and then she’s there having these flashbacks. We don’t see her face until the end, she stands. And when she stands, I told Amy, “Why don’t you come again? You’re gonna be in the flashback and then arrive at the door.”

Jean-Marc Vallee directs Sophia Lillis on the set of "Sharp Objects."

Jean-Marc Vallée directs Sophia Lillis (center, playing young Camille Preaker) on the set of ‘Sharp Objects.’

So it’s not even necessarily about assembling separate pieces — you’re literally shooting them at the same time.
Well, it’s playing with time. At one point it’s confused, and you go, “Wait a minute, these two elements shouldn’t be in the same frame.” But we’re in her head, so we can allow this fantasy and this kind of visual. And it makes us confused but a good confusion where we want to know more. And then when young Camille runs to the door, we hear Adora go, “Camille,” and then we cut through her POV to see Adora coming; when we cut back it’s adult Camille that is behind the door, and we skip this moment in the present where we see Amy walking from the bench through the door — we don’t need it. It’s all a thing that happened in the cutting room where we went, “This is gonna work.” And we don’t need to be specific all the time and to have a respect of the time zone very precisely. So every time we were doing a flashback, I was asking Amy to come or I was with Amy asking the young girl to come in the room.

This is a different kind of cinematic grammar. Most grammar has rules. Does this?
No, I’m always thinking about editing and how it’s going to cut together and the rhythm and the tone. I’m first a good audience, then I’m a director who loves to have fun with the whole thing, with this medium, with this toy. I feel like a kid, I’ve got all these actors pretending and we got this camera. There’s some magic and some instinct that comes in, but it has to be thought of. It might look or seem that it’s just happening and it’s there in the room, but every single piece of music — this is another thing where it’s part of the editing — it’s source music. And the music is in the center of their lives, just like our lives.

Music helps define it. Music defines us, defines me. And this is what I love to do the most, besides directing actors. It’s the use of music and putting it in the center and deciding who is going to be the DJ in this feature film or show. This one, just before we started to shoot, I couldn’t find Camille’s music background. And then it became, “Oh, fuck yes: She’s not a music person.” Which is rare, but there are some people like this. She’s going to listen to the music of someone else, her roommate that committed suicide, and her roommate is using music to escape, too. Not physically, but in her mind, to just fly away and feel better. And she taught Camille how to do this, how to use music to escape. And she uses her phone, and she has a broken glass phone — Camille loves to touch the broken glass, of course, she’s a cutter — but she plays this kid’s music and we discovered this kid’s music that will become Camille’s music. And that’s why Led Zeppelin came in and all these tracks on this iPhone that belongs to this young girl, it becomes Camille’s music. So Camille, Alan, Amma. These three characters are the main DJs of the series.

You wouldn’t necessarily think of Zeppelin, and especially some of the Zeppelin deep cuts that you used, as the obvious choice for somebody young like Alice. When you were coming up with that as the idea, did you have to decide in your head how this girl in this era discovered this music?
I’ve been wanting to use Zeppelin in a project forever, and I tried on Café de Flore, didn’t work out. It’s very tough to license and expensive. And I had a feeling that Sharp Objects was the perfect project to get a Zeppelin soundtrack, overall. To have this sound that is so sharp, that is so rock ‘n’ roll, that is so loud. And this voice that is so sexy — they know how to fucking rock and they know how to feel the sexiness. I’m such a Zeppelin and a Stones fan, but the Stones never got that sexy. And for Camille, and the way she expresses her sexuality, I thought Zeppelin was great, so I went, “Could [Alice] be a Zeppelin fan?”

And I went, “Why not?” [Alice is] 17. I’ve got a 21-year-old and a 26-year-old, and of course they’re into my music, because I wake up in the morning, I press play and sometimes, I go to bed I don’t even press stop. So there’s music all the time, and I contaminated my sons with my taste. So she probably got contaminated by either an older sister or mom or dad. To me, it’s seeing kids relate to vintage rock ‘n’ roll, British rock ‘n’ roll, and the sound makes sense. Particularly for a girl who wants to escape, Zeppelin is a great sound to escape. To feel like, “I want to rock.” And rock ‘n’ roll is to make noise and to tell the establishment to fuck off.

There’s amazing, beautiful, soft tracks that are part of their repertoire — but mainly, the energy of it, even in “What Is and What Should Never Be,” is very soft, when Camille is in the car. Like, “What is she going to do? Is she going to have another masturbation sequence right now like we saw her?” But when she had one there wasn’t any music. Now what is she going to do? And then suddenly, she starts to head-bang, and then we get out of there. And then in episode three, this is where we realize, “Oh, this music comes from this girl.” When [Alice] asked [Camille], “What kind of music are you listening to?” “Ehh, I’m not really into music.” “Really? No wonder you’re here girl, not enough music in your life.” “Uh, you’re here too girl, FYI.” And then [Alice] goes, “Yeah, but with this, I can get the hell out of here whenever I want” and she shows [Camille], and the song that she picks at this moment is “Thank You.”

It’s funny how it becomes almost a thing where, “Are these two going to have a love story? Is she going to fall for this kid?” And we’re not sure yet who is Camille. There’s a sexual tension there, because of Zeppelin. It’s a love track. And these two women are listening to it, are looking at each other and she goes like this on her eyes, shuts [them]. It’s tender, it’s soft, it’s two women connecting, and we’re not sure yet: Who’s this girl? How come she’s obsessed with this phone and with this girl? And we’ll find out at the end. And there is nothing sexual, but it feels like it a little bit, and it’s alright to feel like that because it’s the nature of the thing and the story and the song.

The fifth episode ends with Adora saying, “And it’s why, I think, I never loved you.”
Ay-yi-yi, the most violent scene of the film.

Tell me about filming that scene, working with Patricia and Amy, and what you wanted to accomplish there beyond what was already on the page.
We wanted a connection between mother and daughter, which from episode one through five wasn’t possible. And just when we think they’re having a moment, and they’re finally talking with a drink, softly, allowing each other to confide, to talk about how they feel — “I wanted to apologize,” y’know, “No mama, you don’t have to” —  it’s simple, and I don’t want to interfere. I just want to capture this and to respect the strength of the scene, which is the writing, and these actresses and these two characters. And just going tighter on Amy more than on Adora for the end part, where she receives this aggression: “I never loved you.” We had different versions of staying on her and at one point, the more we’re staying on her, it was powerful, but it was too long, and we started to have time to judge her and to think and to start, y’know, not appreciating the “I don’t love you.” By getting out of there sooner than we would love to, we’re still under the shot and went, “Wait a minute, I wanna kick the shit out of this mother.”

There’s this tactile quality to Wind Gap that’s palpable. Not just the sweat stains, but the way you can almost smell it, how you can always hear the crinkle of the Evian bottle when Amy squeezes it and the sound of the vodka sloshing around in it. How much effort had to go into creating that feeling?
Oh, man. When I got there for four weeks to shoot the town [Barnseville, GA], I got a shock of that because of the heat, the humidity and the fucking bugs. The junebugs and these insects that were there, and the ticks. But the sound of the bugs, you hear more bugs than birds. So I went, “This is the sound of the series: ‘Ssssss…’ ” They eat the birds, they’re so big and so present — and so many of them. We have a track that we call the 401, because scene 401 is when [Camille] is in the ditch, the beginning of episode four, when she picks up the phone that she threw away at the end of three. When we shot that early morning, the bugs were perfect, so loud. And the recording of them became the base of the whole series. So whether we’re at Bob Nash’s house, we’re in the middle of town, we’re at the pig farm — anywhere except at the Crellin house, [where] we can hear birds, because Adora is flowers and birds and it’s the perfect image of a perfect fucking house with birds, so we played the bugs lower — we used that real sound. So every time it feels un-perfect and real, and we love it.

I asked the editors to do a first pass of sound designing, and we have our sound designer working with us as we start to cut the shows. So we’re very, very meticulous with all the details of wind and the fans. So all these sounds — and the city looks like what it is. So you look, and the cars and the sound of the skates on the pavement — everything feels [like] there’s a lot of details, a lot insects, and it’s dense. I think you get this, and you feel like “Uhhhh.” It’s uncomfortable.

In This Article: Amy Adams, HBO, Led Zeppelin, RSX

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