The algorithm for successful movies is famously unknowable, but the French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée has one he likes to rely upon: If he breaks down into tears while reading the script, the film will likely resonate. "I don't cry often," he said. But he did shed tears on the pages of 2013's Dallas Buyers Club, for which Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won Oscars, and 2014's Wild, for which Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern both got nominated. And he did again while reading Bryan Sipe's Blacklisted screenplay for Vallée's latest film, Demolition, out April 8.
In the film, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a man sleepwalking through each day with a beautiful young wife, a shiny Modernist home, and a Wall Street career he won, without much pain or effort, through nepotism (his father-in-law founded the investment firm). Then a car accident takes his wife, and Davis suddenly wakes up. He begins to question, and then disassemble, and ultimately smash apart—both literally and figuratively—the comfortable life he had known. He even takes a sledgehammer to his house. "I've done that, just smashing walls with my fists," Vallée recalled. "I was 14 or 15. It just made me feel stupid after, but I do relate to the character."
Naturally, a girl (played by Naomi Watts) comes along. But the swoon of new love isn't what really got Vallée's tears rolling. Instead, it was a simple scene near the end of the film, as Davis is jogging along a boardwalk; there is some small measure of redemption imbued in the moment, but not much obvious heartstring-pulling. "It's easy to make people cry with music, with death, with sadness," Vallée said. "But why was I crying at this guy running? I was like, 'What the f—k?'" He made the movie to find out.