Big Little Lies Director Jean-Marc Vallée on Why the Finale Gala Was the Toughest Shoot of His Career

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Zoe Kravitz in the Big Little Lies finale. Photo: HBO

Spoilers ahead for the Big Little Lies finale.

Big Little Lies ended tonight answering every question it presented: We know who the tiny bully is, we know who died, and we know who killed him. That said, the finale doesn’t provide answers in a linear way, cutting between past and present throughout to keep you in suspense as to what actually happened until the very end. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, who spoke with Vulture at the beginning of the series, took our call again to discuss his filmmaking process, what it took to shoot that extravagant Trivia Night gala, and whether there’s any hope for a second season.

Let’s start by talking about the very beginning, the opening of the episode. It zooms in on an air-conditioning vent, and we just hear Celeste gasping and there’s this clicking sound.
You mean the clicking sound of the lighter? The detective has a lighter that she is always playing with because she would like to smoke again, but she doesn’t. And when she is in her interrogation room watching the people being interrogated, she has the cigarette that she plays with, and there is always the sound of the lighter. So she has a lighter that she is playing with in her car at the very, very end. She plays with the lighter at the funeral, at the cemetery, we hear the lighter again, and the final, final shot of the series, as she watches from a distance the girls on the beach with their children, we hear the sound of her lighter again, this Zippo lighter.

Why did you blend that in the beginning with the sounds of Celeste gasping for air?
The very opening [of the series] is the same editing as the very ending, except at the end in episode seven, you have the close-up of Celeste and we know who’s watching. We didn’t want the audience to know that Celeste was alive because the whole trick of the series is to wonder who did it and to wonder who is dead. So we started the series giving this impression to the audience that someone was watching, and we hear someone breathing, and then when we cut away from that POV, that perspective, we cut away with the detectives and we follow the two detectives, the female detective with her partner. Then we realize that the female detective is playing with a Zippo lighter, that’s the sound. And then we cut to this flashback, it all started with blah, blah, blah. And we have the Greek chorus characters, always talking about our five leads and their husbands. And then at the end we have our five leads in the interrogation room having their turn, but then we don’t hear them and that’s the beauty of it. The detective doesn’t want to listen to their lies because she feels that they are lying. It feels too much like the same language.

I see the connection. But it’s a very mysterious, scary opening. You are scared to see what is happening or has happened to Celeste.
This is from the kid’s perspective. So when we start episode seven on this air [vent] and we wonder what is this? What’s this long zoom in on the air [vent]? And what it is is the kid’s POV, one of the twins, probably Max, is hearing something from the vent trap, but he is playing a video game. And we can hear music coming out of it. And then when we cut to what’s going on, the beating is already done and she is on the floor and there is music playing in the room from Neil Young — Neil Young is associated with Perry ’cause Perry asks Celeste to dance earlier in the series to Neil Young. And now he is playing Neil Young as he is beating the shit out of her. And we will discover later how he beat the shit out of her when we see Celeste working on her new apartment that she will move to with her sons, and she remembers what happened as she is still suffering from the beating. And then when she meets with Jane, and Jane tells her that it’s Max. She drives back to her place and thinks that oh my God, they probably heard us. Now we see what this air trap meant — it was the kids listening to the beating as they were playing the video.

You also use silence a lot. Some of the moments in the actual killing of Perry are silent. Some of the interrogation is silent. How did you pick which moments you wanted to remain silent?
It’s all about perspective. The girls are being interrogated and we don’t hear them. It’s because we are seeing them from the detective’s perspective, from her point of view, and she didn’t want to listen to them. She turned the intercom off. And when her partner detective comes in the room and turns it on, she goes, “Turn that off, I’m sick and tired of these fucking lies.” “What do you mean, they’re lying?” “Yeah it’s too much the same language, they’re probably lying. I don’t believe it was an accident. Probably one of them pushed him.” “Nah, you’re wrong. Why? Why? Why would they lie?” And she goes, “Exactly, why would they lie? That’s what bothers me.” And then we realize later on that they are lying to protect one of them, and we wonder was it the right lie, was it the right thing to do? We’re not sure. But we’re sure happy that they are protecting one of them and happy that they did it. That’s all he deserved, this motherfucker!

When Celeste is preparing her apartment, it’s also very quiet.
When I cut to flashbacks, I cut to a flashback without sound and I keep the sound of the present. So when she is preparing the apartment and she remembers all these moments, I don’t use the sound of the past. And throughout the series it’s a device; it’s the approach. When we cut to flashbacks, we keep the sound of the present; we don’t use long flashbacks. It’s just quick visuals, just like we think when we think of something, we have images in our head. And that then forces this impression of seeing the world through their perspective, through the POV of our lead characters. So sometimes there will be silence, but it’s because we are in the room and the characters are not playing music, and therefore there is no music because I don’t use a score of music. It’s always about them playing music when we hear music or because they’re in the restaurant or in a café where they are playing music in the restaurant or the café. It’s always part of the story. The music becomes part of their lives, just like it does in life. That’s what I like to do when I start working on a project, to create a playlist for our characters, give them some backstory. What are they listening to? What kind of music am I gonna use? What kind of music are they using in their lives? And I decided to use Chloe [Darby Camp] as the main music freak.

In the episode, it feels like there is danger on every corner. Even in the scene where Celeste is just preparing her apartment and she’s by herself and is remembering what happened, I also felt like there was danger there, like at any moment Perry was gonna jump out of the closet or something.
Yeah, absolutely! Yeah, we wonder what the hell is gonna happen to this girl.

I’m curious about how you accomplished that in a simple scene where she is just cleaning and fixing the apartment.
It’s just about her being in an apartment by the ocean. We hear the presence of the ocean again, which is almost a character in the series, this angry, violent ocean by the Pacific up there, up north, which is a nice metaphor, a nice representation of how these women feel and how also Perry doesn’t realize that this is what he’s up against. He’s gonna have to fight these five women. He doesn’t realize that he is fighting the ultimate force of nature because they become one and they become as strong as this violent, angry ocean. Don’t fuck with us, motherfucker!

That was so beautiful the way you edited the actual fight and murder with the cutaways of the ocean — it was a very aggressive kind of ocean that you kept showing.
It’s cut on a very soft, beautiful, melancholy piano. All you hear is that soft piano, solo piano melody that Chloe likes to play with Maddy.

Right. And you don’t show us the fight from beginning to end — you keep cutting to that ferocious ocean.
That was the idea of what I just explained — that this guy is fighting against these women who represent the ocean, and that’s what they become and he’s gonna lose. There is no way you can fight this.

I talked to Alexander Skarsgård, and he mentioned it took two weeks to film the party.
Yeah, two weeks. Ten nights from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., shooting nighttime. It was the toughest shoot of my life.

Where in L.A. was that gala party shot?
I don’t remember the name. That was in a place next to a Frank Lloyd Wright building with these beautiful pine trees. That’s why we went there. We loved this exterior place that looked like Monterey, that had this Monterey feel because of the trees, and decided to create an outdoor gala instead of an indoor one when we found that place. That’s why we created a stage outside. It was written to be inside, in an auditorium, but we changed it for an outdoor location when we found that place with the trees and nature and the staircase. It was written like he was gonna fall from a second-floor balcony or third-floor balcony, but we changed that into the staircase when we found that staircase at that location.

Why was this the toughest shoot of your career?
Because shooting nighttime is very tough, particularly ten nights in a row. And because they were all there, all the characters, the five lead women. Get these five leads acting at the same time in one shot. I mean, it’s amazing. It’s incredible. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t want to favor one over another, you know? And the five of them together, as I said, they are like the ocean. It’s tough to direct five women at the same time. And plus the men, plus all this coverage from their different perspectives. I had so much coverage to do, so many shots.

And then the nightmare in the cutting room to figure things out: the pacing, finding the right rhythm, and the right emotional tone. And the singing and the lip sync! Adam Scott and James Tupper, this is not their real voices, ’cause they don’t know shit how to sing. They are so bad. They were so bad. So we had to hire great singers. So I went to Conor O’Brien, the singer of Villagers, to be Adam Scott’s voice. And I went to Chris Isaac to be James Tupper’s voice. But he had a schedule issue so we went with Daniel Agee.

There was so much going on in that scene, so many characters. You had the music on the stage, and all the drama on the grounds.
I know! And not only everybody is watching each other — there are a lot of Greek chorus characters, all these people commenting on the five leads and their husbands. So I had so much coverage to do and the reaction shots. And in only ten hours because it’s nighttime from eight so six, and then it starts to be daytime. And you gotta take one for lunch in the middle of the night and you are not hungry ’cause you wanna sleep, and then you try to sleep during the day and you can’t. And then you go to work and then you haven’t slept for two or three days and then you’re exhausted. Oh, God. And then you get sick and then you get … ay, ay, ay. Never again!

You mentioned that it was tough directing five women at the same time. Do you mean that it differs from your experience directing multiple men at the same time?
[Long pause.] Mmmm. Fifth amendment.

Oh my God, okay.
Laughs.

How long did it take to film the fight and the murder?
One night was spent on the staircase, to shoot the girls fighting with Perry, and then they push him in the staircase. But as you saw, you know, it’s very simple. Bonnie arrives, she pushes him, and he disappears in the staircase and we don’t see him. We didn’t want to see him fall. And then he is out of frame and you go what, what, what happened? And then they all look down and they’re all like freaking out, and then we see their POV and he’s fallen in the place where they were doing some renovation and there were some steel pipes, and bang, he’s dead.

That’s pretty brutal. Whose idea was that? Was that David E. Kelley?
We came up with this device of putting some construction in the middle of the staircase where he would fall and get a thing in his throat.

Jane’s reaction when she realizes it is Perry was one of the best moments of the episode. Shailene Woodley did such a great job.
It’s great, yeah. And the five women together there, it’s like wow. And also Madeline at the ocean, thinking about that, and Madeline with Bonnie, the aftermath, they talk, these two, they talk, you know. They’re so good, so powerful. They’re so beautiful. Particularly over that song with the lyrics and the way it’s performed by Ituana, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”

Did you pick that song?
Yeah. I pick every song very meticulously. That’s what I like to do. That’s part of my thing. I like to spin and DJ at the same time. There is no original music. It’s all about finding the right tracks to put in, to play it through the characters. And the song, this part, “You get what you need,” became the title of episode seven.

You mentioned the guys couldn’t sing. Why did you decide to have them dubbed and be really good singers? Why not have the characters singing terribly at this gala?
Because it would have been funny, and it’s not time to be funny. It’s time to be emotional and to be touched and, particularly, for Ed to sing his love for Maddy. He knows something happened, but he doesn’t wanna talk about it. And despite that, he is singing that she’s the wonder of him. And you get so emotional. So put a bad voice there and you don’t have this, you have like, Oh, it’s funny. And the same with Nathan. Nathan is singing to Madeline, How is the world treating you? So she’s got two guys singing for her that night.

Zoë Kravitz was sensational.
Zoë, are you kidding me? She’s it. She’s the ultimate. My God, this girl has everything. Good singer, the looks, the acting, the talent. Wow. And the way she performed, “Don’t,” this version, that’s her voice. Of course, it’s her voice. And her dress. She was spectacular. She’s more of a supporting character throughout the series and then, whoops, in episode seven, she becomes a force and she becomes so important and so spectacular. It’s amazing what she does in seven. Very subtly also, all these close-ups, these looks and the way she acts. This girl is so gifted.

I know it was not designed as an ongoing series, but everyone wants a second season. Is it possible?
No, no, this is the perfect ending. There is no way; there’s no reason to make a season two. That was meant to be a one-time deal, and it’s finishing in a way where it’s for the audience to imagine what can happen. If we do a season two, we’ll break that beautiful thing and spoil it. I mean, I’d love to work with Reese [Witherspoon] and Nicole [Kidman] and all these women again, but not to make a season two. I loved it. It’s a great show, and I’m so happy and excited to have been the chosen one to do this.

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