‘Sharp Objects’ Director: Making Drama and Murder Mix

Posted July 8, 2018 10:29 p.m. EDT

For the HBO series “Sharp Objects,” which debuted Sunday night, the Montreal-born director Jean-Marc Vallée brought viewers into a starkly different world from the coastal California portrayed in “Big Little Lies,” his last major project for the network. Based on the gothic thriller by Gillian Flynn, it trades the opulent mansions, private schools and bourgeois coffee shops of Monterey for the rundown houses and dive bars of small-town Missouri. In place of murder, new money and helicopter parents, it’s murder, old money and hog slaughterers.

Still “Sharp Objects” puts Vallée in a familiar spot for pursuing his vision: He is the series’ sole director, just as he was for “Big Little Lies,” which last year won eight Emmys, including best director for a limited series. (He is currently directing that show’s second season.) His other advantage is Amy Adams, who plays Camille, the self-destructive reporter at the show’s center. As an executive producer on “Sharp Objects,” she helped bring Vallée on board, and the two worked closely to tackle what was perhaps their biggest challenge: How to convincingly surface the rich interior drama of the novel’s first-person narration while also hooking viewers on the central murder mystery?

In a recent phone interview, Vallée, 55, discussed his close collaboration with Adams and answered questions about the premiere, digging into what it means for him to explore stories about strong but insecure female characters. These are excerpts from that conversation.

Q: A lot of TV shows of the past 20 years or so, from “Twin Peaks to “True Detective,” are centered on the murder of a young girl. How is “Sharp Objects” different?

A: This one is so different, and it’s all because of Gillian. It all came from her imagination. This heartbreaking story between these women, hurting each other in such a fashion — it’s disturbing. I’m not tackling a project by entering it and going, “Oh, I want to be different than this show and this show and this show.” You just know when you first read when you’ll have something singular and special.

Q: The series opens with a scene showing young Camille waking up her older self. Why did you choose that sequence to come first?

A: We’ve got to give credit to Marti [Noxon, the show’s creator and an executive producer], who came up with this plan, beautifully blending the past and the present and wondering, sometimes, what’s what. We pushed this concept even a little bit more on the set and then in the cutting room, always to accentuate and to give a sense of perspective, going into her head — what she sees is what we see, and it’s unclear whether it’s real or if it’s a fantasy, a dream, a flashback from the past.

You get a sense of when we are because of the political graffiti of Bush and Clinton and Gore, and then she gets to the house. Again, we’re wondering what this is, as the sound design is a little off and has this ghostlike quality. When we discover Amy sleeping, we realize when she wakes up that it was all a dream, and that’s why we were listening to this music from only the left — because as she was sleeping, she lost her right earbud. Right at the beginning, we tell the audience this is going to be a story told from her perspective: what she sees, what she hears, what she dreams of. And there’s this image of a fan turning with someone out of focus in front of it. We don’t know why yet. That’s what we like to do, this kind of storytelling where you don’t have the answers right away.

Q: Amy Adams’ character describes Wind Gap, Missouri, where the show is set, as “old money and trash” — which is very different from the setting of “Big Little Lies.” What was it about this setting that drew you to the story?

A: The town was just a blast — the contrast between the small town and the house and where Camille comes from, you know, rich people. She describes it and defines it very well! [Laughs.] Her mother is like the queen of the place, of the county, also owning this pig farm. We tried to capture that, and we tried to create this feeling of a small town, of people knowing each other, with the barber shop, with the cops, with this bar. There’s gossiping, and everybody’s watching each other. I’ve never tackled this kind of material, and I was so happy to have this invitation from Amy to accompany her into this very special singular project.

Q: People know what Amy can do as an actress, but this is her first credit as a producer. What was it like working with her in both of those roles?

A: She knows when to put on her producer’s hat, but she mainly wears her actress hat. She focuses 95 percent, if not 99 percent, on her part. I went through this experience with Reese [Witherspoon, who starred in “Big Little Lies"] and Nicole [Kidman, also in “Big Little Lies"], being, again, great actresses while also being producers on the show. It’s beautiful and impressive to see what they do and how they’re ready to defend and to support a project, mainly when there are strong female characters, like this one. No wonder they want to be there as a producer, too — to serve these stories and to defend them and get them out there: There’s not enough of them.

But all this to say that Amy was just spectacular. She gave herself so much to portray this singular character. I always feel grateful and thankful to be the first one to witness these actresses and actors on the set. It’s a blast. I’ve got a beautiful job, man. Q: “Sharp Objects” and “Big Little Lies” are also both about women who have recurring issues and insecurities. Are these the kind of stories and you find most interesting?

A: Absolutely. I mean, over the years, I look back and I see that I seem to be attracted to these stories and to underdog characters where the humanity, the beautiful humanity, is dark. You know, it’s presenting a human being in its whole. It means not being afraid to expose flaws, and not being perfect.

And this one maybe more than the others was really, really special and challenging in that respect, where we follow a character that is so wounded and that is hurting herself and numbing herself with alcohol. Her internal monologue is what’s so powerful in the book, and we get to care for her because she’s so damaged. She has a way of talking about herself, a way of describing the world, her family, her sexuality, her cutting; you rarely meet someone who talks so openly about herself or himself. I guess that’s why I respected and cared for that character as I was reading Gillian’s book, and why I wanted to be part of it.

Q: With everything that we’ve seen transpire with the #MeToo movement, has your approach changed when working on sets? Whether it’s the decision making, your practice while you’re shooting, or in choosing what makes it to the screen?

A: I don’t think so. I think I am what I am — and thank God — and I do what I do, and I respect the people around me and these women. I’m not afraid of strong, intelligent women. I’m aware that it happened, and we all have some sort of responsibility to acknowledge it, and to respect it, and even to do something about it if we can, and the way we’re doing it is by embracing these stories. We have so much to do, but these stories are a very good start. And I’m glad to be part of it.

Q: Do you see yourself continuing to work on limited series like this in the future?

A: Well, it’s funny because the most satisfying is also the most challenging. To do this as one single director, directing all the episodes, it’s a marathon. It’s so tough physically, and emotionally. I’ve shot 180 days in 20 months with “BLL” and “Sharp Objects.” But doing it on a daily basis and being creative with this bunch of other people who love their work so much, and who are so passionate — it’s very, very rewarding.