Spoilers ahead for the Sharp Objects finale.
Before Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated director Jean-Marc Vallée entertained the idea of turning Big Little Lies into a TV sensation, he had already committed to directing HBO’s Sharp Objects. The Canadian filmmaker thought it would be his first TV series, and he signed on out of a desire to work with actor Amy Adams, but also because of his emotional response to Gillian Flynn’s original novel.
“I’ve never seen, read, met, heard anyone like Camille Preaker,” Vallée told Vulture in an interview. “Gillian Flynn’s world is something so dark, and yet something beautiful about the humanity behind this. These women trying to love, and they don’t know how. They just have such a bad history of abuse, and it’s sad. It’s heartbreaking to see how much they try, but they’re sick. I had never tackled this kind of dark material, so I wanted to work with this wonderful actress to honor this book, this world, and this piece of imagination that is so unique.”
But before production began on Sharp Objects, actor Reese Witherspoon — who had collaborated with Vallée on Wild — offered him a chance to direct Big Little Lies, which went on to win eight Emmys last year. “I thought I might become a zombie directing these two whole things back-to-back, but I said, Let’s cross our fingers and see if I’m a superhuman being with a lot of energy and support,” Vallée said. “Apparently, I do have all that and lots of good help, but I’m dead now. I’m too tired.”
In an extended conversation about Sharp Objects, Vallée explained why he chose to bury the lede, as reporter Camille Preaker might say, and not reveal the Wind Gap killer’s identity until the very end of the finale. He also discussed his musical choices and his bond with Led Zeppelin, why he added fans to so many scenes, and why he wants Amma Crellin (Eliza Scanlen) and Wind Gap’s cool kids to travel on roller skates.
I want to start at the very end because it was insane. Why did you decide to show us the crucial evidence after the credits rolled?
It was written to be at the end, before the end credits. It didn’t make sense to cut to these flashes from Amma’s perspective, suddenly, as we’re with Camille. The whole series was designed through Camille’s perspective. So she’s the one discovering the teeth and the floor made out of teeth. We’re with her and she sees Amma arriving, so of course, she wasn’t there when Amma killed the girls. That didn’t make sense to cut to these images from Camille’s perspective, and it didn’t make sense to cut suddenly to Amma because, of course, Amma is not thinking about, Oh, let me think about how I killed this girl. It wasn’t good storytelling, you know?
The writers put it in there and we shot it, but we thought maybe we don’t need this at all. Maybe we just finish on “Don’t tell mama.” Which is what I did. And then, suddenly when we were editing, I went, Wait a minute, why don’t we just give it away later on? We explained with these quick images and glimpses of what happened — we now officially know, Oh my God, it was Amma. And not only it was Amma, it was Amma helped by her two friends. So now we have the conclusion. We have the official answer to our questions. You know who killed and why, and so it made sense particularly using this song [Led Zeppelin’s “In the Evening”]. There’s no time for any images there. The song goes on and as it’s about to finish, Robert Plant sings, “Oh, I need your love” and — bang! — we cut the music and we go to this moment with the first song that we ever used in the series, Sylvan Esso’s “Come Down.” Which is a song that refers to mama: Hey, mama, won’t you come down? And continued the end credits until we reveal the real woman in white.
Are you nervous that people might not watch that whole sequence?
Not at all. A lot of them will stop before seeing it, and then it will become a thing on the web. And they’ll go, Oh my God, go back if you haven’t seen it.
What did you tell Eliza Scanlen in that moment when Amma says, “Don’t tell mama?” I found her reaction funny in a way, like she got caught stealing candy.
She just got caught by her sister and her first reaction is like a kid. She’s nervous. We discussed the sense of the guilt. You just got caught doing something naughty, like a teenager being caught by his parents doing something stupid. But that something stupid is more than stupid. It’s the worst. It’s evil. But I said, “Don’t go evil. Just go like you’re a stupid teenager.” [Laughs.] There’s a hell of a smile, there’s half of a breath, and then delivering the line Eliza has such good instincts. She just nailed that part. When you have good actors like this, there’s not a lot to say or do. You just witness. You’re there. You capture and you say “cut” and “thank you.”
You won an Emmy for directing Big Little Lies, you were nominated for an Oscar, and you’ve become renown for your shooting style. No marks, no rehearsals, no shot list. How do you get actors who have never worked with you to be comfortable working in that fluid style? Especially with someone as young as Eliza.
Well, it’s not just the young actors. Most of them are used to working with marks, spots, track, dollies, lights here and there, flags. We don’t do this. When they arrive on set, they see it will be different. But it’s easy to make them feel comfortable because there is no crew, so they don’t feel like they’re being observed — except by the cameraman, the operator, the focus puller, the boom, and myself. I often ask the boom guy to get out because there’s not enough room, and we just use hidden mics in their wardrobe.
And it’s about doing the scene over and over. We rarely cut. I like to just keep rolling and doing another take. Even between shots, we’re moving handheld. The camera is on the shoulder of the DP or the operator, and we move from one actor to the other, designing the shots. They’re just redoing it and redoing it and redoing it for maybe 30 minutes until we cut, so there’s something challenging and interesting for them to keep trying. They feel it. They bring something new. They try something less. They try something more. They can move a little bit more. They can use the space wherever they want and so it creates this space of freedom, of trying and not being afraid to mess up and to make a mistake.
We don’t change lens, also. Ninety percent of the time, we’re using the same 35-millimeter and that’s why we like to create this sense of distance between the audience and the characters. It’s not because we changed lenses that we go tighter on an actor. It’s because they walk close to camera or because we walk close to them. We won’t start walking with the camera unless there’s a motivation to follow a character, so they love it because it’s like a big playground to experiment and work and play at the same time. The nature of their job is to play and act.
How long does it usually take before actors stop questioning it and can just freely work in that space?
The first day, the first scene maybe. I remember Eliza asking Chris [Messina] and Amy, “Is it always like this?” And they said, “No, so enjoy it.” Since we don’t wait for the technique, we just explore the storytelling and the acting. This is what I love as a director, to tell stories with great actors. This is the priority. Let’s get these great actors and give them the space to do their magic, and let’s capture the magic without being spotted. That’s how we’re moved. We’re the first audience. I’m there as the director and I’m moved. I’m in it and I see it and I love it, and then I design the shots based on what they do.
I know that music is also very important to you, and it’s important in the lives of these particular characters, especially Camille and Alan. Why did you select Led Zeppelin as Camille’s soundtrack?
Well, there are a few reasons, but I think the main one is the nature of their sounds. Which is rock — vintage. It’s not modern. There’s something about Led Zeppelin that suits this character. It’s the nature of rock and roll to make noise and to be loud and say, I’m gonna do it my way. It’s confirming in a loud way that you’re different. Camille doesn’t use a loud voice, but she is so different. She is so rock.
There are only four Led Zeppelin songs that we use. We keep using them over and over. She likes to listen to them over and over. [Alice], the young woman that she meet at the rehab center, is a nice way of introducing music into Camille’s world. She uses music to escape from within, from inside, like Alice taught her. She tells her in episode three, “I can get the hell out of here whenever I want,” and she puts her an ear bud in Camille’s ear. And so, that is what Camille is doing learning to deal by using music.
We use music in our lives not necessarily to define ourselves, but it does. It does that. We use music to live, to love, to feel happy, to work sometimes. I always like to find characters in a project that will do that. It’s great to design scenes and tell stories with this music element.
Your music supervisor Sue Jacobs told us that Led Zeppelin was important to you growing up. How so?
I’m 55. I was born in 1963. So the ‘70s were my teenage years. As a teenager, I was into rock and roll — Bowie, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, even more progressive music like Genesis, and I was into a lot of British rock and roll. But I loved also American rock and roll. CCR, Jimmie Hendrix, The Doors, Patty Smith and Bob Dylan. Rock was my thing. It influences me and moves me, and it’s music that gives me ideas or wings to fly and to make films. Once I get into a project, I start to listen to music, and of course I go through my music library. It starts there. And then I do research. On Sharp, I ask Sue for a big list of rock and roll songs with the term “mama” in it, and came up with 100 songs or so. Amma’s listening to these tracks, mainly. At one point, she plays “Dear Mama” from Tupac. That was just something we tried on set. It was nice to see this teenager play this track and go to her mother and, despite the abuse, show unconditional love and just hug her and start to dance with her. No dialogue. Just the moment.
What was your favorite use of a Led Zeppelin song in the show?
Oh my God, I love them all. But the ultimate is the end of episode eight when we use again “In the Evening.” This track was chosen because of its nature. The 45-second introduction with no lyrics, this moody music with the feel of danger and mystery, and then suddenly, it explodes into the rock song that is “In The Evening.” We use that introduction from episode one to episode eight, just those 45 seconds, as a score moment here and there. We can hear what [Camille] hears in her head with her ear buds in her ears. So this 45-second intro that explodes into the rock part after we hear “Don’t tell mama” is a moment that I really enjoy.
How hard was it to get the rights to Led Zeppelin’s music?
Thanks to our great music supervisor, Sue Jacobs. She just knew how to make the sale there. She likes to say that she reunites music lovers and artists that have similar visions. Using Led Zeppelin as one of the most important sounds of the series was a blessing. It took time to get the deal, but it’s great to offer to new generations what these guys did. It’s not classical music, but it’s classic music in a way. This rock and roll will never die, you know? It’s so special. Even today, when you revisit Led Zeppelin’s library, there are so many tracks. There’s a track called “Tea For One,” that I rediscovered recently. And I went, Oh my god, this is so amazing.
What about Alan? What were you thinking about in terms of his musical tastes?
Classical music. Solo piano. When you hear a solo piano, there’s a solitude about just one instrument playing. It can be beautiful, it can be sad. He’s into crooners — Engelbert Humperdinck, Perry Como, Robert Goulet, old-school Hollywood. He likes to listen to French music, romantic songs. He’s a man who’s not satisfied with his personal life and his relationship with his wife. He’s using music to dream and to be romantic in his head.
I realized I used a lot of my father’s songs with Alan. I work with what I’ve been listening to through the years and in my life in different projects. The songs bring you back to what you just saw in the story, or it brings you back to your own memory ‘cause the music has this power to generate emotions and to trigger stuff in your brain. It’s very powerful. Music is a subjective thing in every story. It’s such a beautiful art form and I owe so much to all these musicians and I respect their art so much. I love to offer a playlist to the world, almost like being a deejay.
One aspect of the book that had to be tricky to figure out was Camille’s obsession with words. The show doesn’t use voice over, but hidden words appear and disappear on the screen, which I believe you came up with in editing. How did you decide to use the words in this way?
The whole idea came as I was shooting, but it was in the editing room that we really found the concept and how we were going to use it visually. This is just Camille’s thing: Whenever a word is burning on her hip or back or stomach or leg, it’s appearing in her reality, but when it’s somebody else’s perspective, you don’t see the word. So we had to be selective in the shots that we were using to add these words. It had to be shots from Camille’s perspective only, and not like Adora’s POV on Camille. Of course, we weren’t gonna put a word in there, in reality. It’s just her imagining these words as they’re burning her body. Her obsession with words was so great in the book. To read her talk about it was amazing in the book. Gillian and Marti [Noxon] decided not to use a voice over, so I just felt, Why don’t we bring this obsession with words into her reality?
In the book, there are 74 words on her body, so with the visual effects team, we decided to put 74 words in the eight episodes that are words burning on her body. Although we don’t hear her say anything about the words, at least we go into her head, and we have this feeling, Oh, okay, there’s this word again. If you haven’t read the book, then you wonder what these words are. But you get it pretty soon that it’s just from her perspective.
There were an extraordinary number of fans in the series. That was your idea, right?
It’s an element of trying to find sharp objects and focus on sharp objects. Same as the barbershop. The barbershop wasn’t in the book or in the scripts. I asked Marti and Gillian, Why don’t we add some scenes in a barbershop where we’ll see this guy with blades, and characters getting their beard cut with these dangerous blades, and hearing the sound of them?
The fans are everywhere because it’s the South. It’s hot. And we created this scene where we see a young Camille getting her finger closer and closer and closer to her fan. We said, Well, that’s probably the first time she cut. And then, this fan thing is becoming an obsession also in her head. They’re everywhere. She remembers this moment when she was playing with her sister Marian in her mother’s room in front of that fan. It became a visual element that was nice to use here and there, and the sound of it also was great. It’s a dangerous element. It’s a sharp object, these blades.
Since we’re talking about the things you added, what about the roller skating? Eliza said she had to learn to roller skate for the show, and Amma doesn’t roller skate all over Wind Gap in the book.
It’s again trying to create visuals and use sound to create atmosphere. I just love the sound of those roller skates on the pavement. There’s a feeling of having seeing these girls all together, the three of them thinking that they’re the coolest. Amma has learned a lot from Adora and the town about Camille and that she used to skate around town. There is that first flashback, the first scene of the whole series where young Camille is roller skating with Marian in the ‘90s. And then, there’s a crazy, wild scene with Camille and Amma as they are totally wasted on drugs and alcohol, skating through Wind Gap. So it was a great tool to create moments and visuals and sounds.
Your locations manager told me that Barnesville, Georgia, the town that was used for Wind Gap, wasn’t even on his list of finalists, but you drove through it and fell in love. What was so special about Barnesville?
It has a feeling of Americana, of nostalgic America. There were these murals of a tire man, there was a red wagon, a red train car next to a vintage train station. There was something about this place that it got stuck in time. As we were passing from one small town to the other, they didn’t stop there because we were looking for this square architecture — like in Back to the Future, where there’s the mayor, there’s a town, there’s a square at the middle of the town with the city hall, you know.
When we were in Georgia, we passed through Barnesville. These elements — the red train car and the vintage mural of the tire man, and the feel of the place — I just went, Let’s go back and check this out, guys. I think there’s something there. We went on the main street and I looked at [production designer] John Paino and Greg Albert, the locations scout, and I went, I think we got it, guys. And it became Wind Gap.
Last question: Would you do another season if HBO asked?
Uh-oh. Oy. I was asked the same thing on BLL and my answer was no. [Laughs.] Then BLL two is coming out. I would have loved to do it, but at the same time I couldn’t. I’m glad Andrea Arnold took over. Would I do season two? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe. It’s meant to be a limited TV series and I have other projects, so I think I’m gonna be somewhere else. No, I won’t. I’d love to work with all these people again. Every one of them. But let’s do something else.