Screenwriter Bryan Sipe developed the story and script (included on The Black List) based on his own stunted creative journey.
The explosive Demolition tells a mind-blowing story of a man whose life unravels and starts to rebuild it, beginning with the demolition of the life he once knew.
The film is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild), from an original screenplay written by Bryan Sipe, who dropped out of college just a few credits shy of graduation when he decided that the best education as a filmmaker was to dive in headfirst.
“I sold a script pretty early in my career and then realized how hard it was to actually get anything made,” says Sipe.
Jake Gyllenhaal is in top form as a a successful investment banker who struggles after losing his wife in a tragic car crash. Despite pressure from his father-in-law (Chris Cooper) to pull it together, Davis continues to unravel. What starts as a complaint letter to a vending machine company turns into a series of letters revealing startling personal admissions. Davis’ letters catch the attention of customer service rep Karen (Naomi Watts) and two strangers form an deep connection that becomes a saving grace for them both. With the help of Karen and her 15-year-old son (Judah Lewis), Davis starts to rebuild, beginning with the demolition of the life he once knew.
At its core, the story of Demolition explores themes of loss, grief and reinvention. Facing his own crossroads, young screenwriter Bryan Sipe developed the story and script (included on The Black List) based on his own stunted creative journey.
“I sold a script pretty early in my career and then realized how hard it was to actually get anything made,” says Sipe. “I tried different characters and different stories and different genres and I got to the point where I just didn’t know what worked. And I quit. But out of that experience came the character of Davis, a guy who couldn’t feel anything anymore – he was numb and apathetic.” Through the character of Davis, Sipe was able to articulate the loss he felt for his creative self. Upon his wife’s death, Davis becomes a person who acts without consequence. He is reckless, unapologetic and brutally honest.
He also develops an obsession with physically destroying things as he searches for emotional awakening, which came from Sipe’s experience as a teenager where he had a job demolishing houses.
“It was the idea that once you tear everything down, you discover things. I was processing that that’s how life works. I feel to understand something that is complicated — relationships, loss — you need to take things apart, to see what holds it together and then you can put it all back and make it stronger,” explains Sipe.
Over five years ago, the Oscar-nominated producing team of Lianne Halfon and Russell Smith (partners with John Malkovich at Mr. Mudd Productions) approached Sipe about his script for Demolition.
As Halfon recalls, “We were given the script in 2009 as a writing sample for a book we were thinking of adapting. I remember reading it and thinking, ‘Whoa, we should make this!’ The writing was so specific and the character pressed the plot forward, not the other way around. Everything about it seemed so raw.”
As Russell further explains, “We reached out to Bryan’s people to see if he would be open to working with us on the script. He was, and about six months later, we started to send it to directors.”
Halfon and Smith reached out to executive producer Nathan Ross to gauge the interest of French Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée. Vallée, convinced, and agreeing on the strength of the material, knew he was the guy for the job. Vallée and Ross soon joined the team.
Halfon and Smith continued to develop the project and eventually met with producers Molly Smith and Trent Luckinbill of Black Label Media (at the suggestion of co-producer Jon Schumacher).
As Molly recalls, “This is one of those scripts that we had been tracking for years. We were lucky enough to get the project as a potential script for financing.” Trent concurs, “We were really excited about the project when it came around through our agency. We knew how good the writing was and how great the script was and with Jean-Marc attached, it was something we couldn’t pass up.”
Executive Producer and SKE President of Production Carla Hacken became a fan of Demolition when Sipe’s screenplay appeared on The Black List in 2007.
After Molly Smith (with Black Label Media) attached director Jean-Marc Vallée, Hacken reached out to Smith about SKE’s interest in becoming involved with the project because of the Company’s desire to work with Black Label Media as well as a long standing relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal.
As Gyllenhaal was being cast, SKE joined Black Label Media and Mr. Mudd Productions as producers and co-financiers. Recalls Sipe of his initial creative meetings with Jean-Marc, “Our conversations began over Skype because he is based in Montreal. You could tell very early on that the script meant something very personal to him.” Sipe understood that Vallée has very specific criteria for how he chooses the projects that he wants to be a part of.
Agreeing to make Demolition was a solid indication to Sipe that his script had a profound affect on Jean-Marc.
As Vallée explains, “My producing partner Nathan Ross was sent the script of Demolition from Russ Smith and Lianne Halfon, after they saw Cafe De Flore at Tiff three years ago. I have long admired the films they’ve produced, and after I read the script, I knew that it was for me. I try to find the right stories with something beautiful in them — a humanity and great characters. I want to be moved when I read a script, I want to be impressed. It’s one of rare quality, the kind of material that hits you at the right place, that makes you stop for a moment and think about life, how special it is, how precious, how beautiful it can be. This script had that effect on me. It was a pageturner. It was so unexpected, unpredictable, so fresh and fun, irreverent, intelligent and, yet, deeply moving.”
According to writer Bryan Sipe, Jean-Marc’s fresh directorial approach to filmmaking brings an organic authenticity to his work.
“He doesn’t have a shot list. He doesn’t storyboard anything. He feels out the space and he feels out the actors and the script and by the time he’s done shooting, he’s got it five different ways.”
Demolition celebrates the organized chaos of the universe and the ability for one individual to find a way back to life’s path and rediscover the capability to love unconditionally. “Under the guise of a meditation on grief, a study on loss, Demolition is a film that celebrates life and reminds us to simply take the time to live and love. I related to Davis a lot. I, too, forgot how to love at one point in my life. I was too busy trying to ‘make it’ – earning money, paying the bills…I was busy creating a life and forgot that I could also enjoy that goddamned life. I felt numb. I did so many things because they were easy,” explains Vallée. ”
In Demolition, I had to create a different rhythm, different pace of storytelling than previous films…to always capture the attention of the audience with something new, always stimulating their brain and feelings so that they don’t have time to think, therefore, they don’t have time to judge Davis in his strange journey. I hope the audience will receive Demolition as more of an emotional experience rather than a cerebral one.”
“TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN…” – THE LETTERS
As the story progresses, Davis writes a series of complaint/confessional letters as a result of a mishap with a hospital vending machine on the night of his wife’s death. It becomes clear that these letters are cathartic and liberating for him.
As Molly Smith reflects, “The letters to customer service become Davis’ outlet, and the first time the audience understands the tone of this movie…that it’s going to be a wild ride. It’s going to be irreverent and you’re going to go on an interesting journey with this man.”
Sipe and Vallée relay the contents of Davis’ letters through voice overs, something Smith concedes can be tricky. “Bryan used voice over in the writing of these letters as a brilliant tool facilitating this journey in a really unconventional way. You realized he’s a guy who was kind of going through the motions in life. He’s a little bit numb and really hasn’t found himself and doesn’t know himself.”
Gyllenhaal further explains, “In the process of writing the letters, he ends up sort of spilling his guts to the vending machine company. Over a number of weeks, he starts up an imaginary relationship with this company, telling them all the things that he’s feeling. Little does he know there’s actually someone reading them on the other side and Karen contacts him and they develop a friendship. The universe brings them together as they meet at a similar point in their lives where the ground underneath them is very shaky, it’s almost like looking in a mirror. This strange letter writing that he does ends up comforting someone else. My father always said to me that the job of art is to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. Davis decides he’s going to be honest and that he has nothing left to lose, really.”
Halfon reflects, “Karen doesn’t have many of the luxuries Davis has enjoyed. We get the feeling that things just fell into place for Davis early on, while Karen’s life seems very loosely scotch-taped together. She is clearly overwhelmed — her kid is struggling, her boyfriend is a matter of convenience, dinner barely makes it to the table and she’s a major stoner. But a failure to feel is not her problem — and she is a big part of Davis’ re connection. If she doesn’t call Davis when she gets his letters, if she doesn’t make that unusual gesture of reaching out to him — our story doesn’t happen. “