[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Sunday’s Big Little Lies finale.]
When Reese Witherspoon wants you to do something, you do it.
For Jean-Marc Vallee, Witherspoon wanting a reunion on Big Littles Lies with her Wild director led him to directing all seven episodes of the HBO drama written by David E. Kelley.
“She convinced me!” Vallee tells The Hollywood Reporter. Originally, Vallee was only attached to direct the first two episodes, but that all changed with a push from Witherspoon and others on the show. “Reese and Nicole and the kids I casted everyone went, “We want you to do everything.” I said, “OK, let’s try it.”
Keeping Vallee on board as director of the series also meant he’d be directing the finale, the final episode where viewers would finally find out who died and how. And it all went down in a deadly night of fundraising.
At the school’s trivia night that has been teased all season long Celeste (Kidman) tells Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) she is leaving him after countless acts of abuse which have now begun to impact their children. It’s revealed that Max, one of their twin boys is in fact the bully that has been hurting Renata’s (Laura Dern) daughter Amabella.
When Celeste runs to friends Madeline (Witherspoon) and Jane (Shailene Woodley) for help, Perry ultimately finds her. There Jane realizes that Celeste’s husband is in fact the man that raped her. In a scene of chaos, Perry strikes Celeste one again, but this time she’s not alone. Madeline, Renata and Jane team up to take the mad man down, but in the end Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) is the one to help push him to his death, literally.
“He becomes nuts again. But that would be the last time because he doesn’t realize he has the ultimate force of nature in front of him,” says Vallee. “These women are so powerful. Together, they are as powerful as the ocean and the ocean is f—ing angry.”
THR talked further with Vallee about the finale, the open-ended final scene and why the series should not return for a second season.
A lot of the cast has praised your filmmaking including your use of natural lighting and a handheld camera. Alexander Skarsgard said it was like filming a play. Can you talk about your approach as a director was for Big Little Lies?
It’s all about storytelling and acting. In the cutting room, I try to interfere as less as possible. I’m not cutting good performances. It’s all about them. They say, “Oh, we love Jean-Marc.” Because they know that it’s all about them. (Laughs.) It’s filming their faces, their envelope, their body and finding the magic in what they do. I try to give the audience the impression that we’re in their heads. Like when we’re in the car with Reese and she’s driving alone by herself, I use the sound of the present, which is her car driving on the road and then I cut to some quick flashbacks. I don’t use the sound of the flashback. I don’t use the sound of the past. I cut to what she’s thinking of. At one point when Laura Dern is going crazy and she’s like mad yelling, that’s ad-libbing. I didn’t tell the actors and the crew what she was going to do. I went to Laura and said, “I want you to go nuts!” Just turn and make everybody f—ing jump! (Laughs!) It shows how crazy she can be.
You were originally only going to direct the first two episodes. How were you convinced to direct the entire season?
It was Reese again. She convinced me! I was attached to do first, but the project wasn’t ready and I was attached to do all of the episodes and that’s what I’m doing. Of course, I didn’t want to kill myself and do everything of Big Little Lies so I told Reese, “This is an amazing project. Let me just start and you’ll find other directors.” And she said, “Alright.” As I started to cast and work, she said, “Are you sure you don’t want to do everything?” It was supposed to be eight episodes and David Kelley wrote seven and went, “We’re done with just seven.” And HBO just went, “Alright, let’s do seven.” And Reese and Nicole and the kids I casted, everyone went, “We want you to do everything.” I said, “OK, let’s try it. I guess I’ll be fine.” And now I’m directing Sharp Objects. Now I’m paying for it! What am I doing? Two TV series back-to-back? I’m a living zombie.
The series tackled the real-life issues of domestic abuse. What was your thought process on how to show this?
It’s capturing the actors and being there with them. It’s so well-written. I wanted to give the impression to the audience that we are with Celeste. We are in her head. We see what she’s thinking. And we feel for her. It was written this way. We have to give credit to David Kelley. The violence was tough. These were tough scenes to do with Nicole and Alex. She wanted to give it a shot and I had a double for the very violent scenes, but 80 percent of the time, Nicole did the violence with Alex. He was pushing her around and pretending to slap her and she was slapping him back. Even the sex was violent. It was about capturing and seeing what’s going on. You see the first time they’re violent and have sex in episode two, I think there’s two shots. And every shot lasts about 50 seconds and it’s not about cutting [the shot]. It feels so real. You feel like you don’t want to be there and you don’t belong there. It feels uncomfortable. It’s real. There’s no way there’s going to be music over that. It’s the direct sound of what’s going on. It feels more real. I’m not into score. Of course there’s some great score, but I prefer to create a backstory for the characters.
In the finale there’s music at trivia night with Bonnie, Ed and Nathan all having to sing. Did the actors sing at all?
No, no, no, no! (Laughs.) Zoe sings like a goddess and she was amazing and that’s her voice, but Adam Scott and James Tupper — they have the worst voices ever! They are so bad. I wanted this to be emotional and beautiful so I asked Conor O’Brien, the lead singer of the Irish band the Villagers, to be Adam Scott’s voice. When Adam in episode four or five is practicing in his living room that’s not Adam. It’s Conor O’Brien. And then I asked Chris Isaak to be be James Tupper’s voice and it was going to work until, “Whoops a schedule problem.” So I used Daniel Agee, who has a similar voice to Chris Isaak.
What was shooting trivia night and the final scenes like?
That was the toughest shoot of my life! We shot trivia night for two weeks, 10 nights from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. It was so tough first shooting at night time and then covering all of this coverage. It was designed to show everybody is watching each other. I had to shoot this whole party from Madeline’s perspective, from Celeste’s perspective, Jane’s perspective and Bonnie and Renata’s. And then we had to do the guys. And at the same time, all of these other characters wondering and watching and then Joseph and Joseph’s wife. There was so much coverage to do. It was tough, tough, tough. But at the same time the set was so amazing. The characters were dressed up as all of these different Elvis’s and Audrey Hepburn’s. That was amazing to do. To see Alex Skarsgard dressed as the leather version of Elvis, and Nicole’s outfit and Reese was so funny and drunk. In the cutting room, the real challenge with all of this material was finding the right rhythm and pace for the whole thing. Who is looking at who and when and how and then the discovery of the flashback of Jane realizing that Perry is the rapist and then he recognizes Jane.
It was nice to also finally see these five women in the interrogation room where you don’t hear them. You hear breathing and a buzzing sound and then someone is playing with a lighter and then click you hear Nicole saying the last part. And then “Turn this off. I’m sick and tired of these f—ing lies.” And then we wonder and we still don’t know what happened. And that’s the writing of, how are we going to discover this?
Can you talk about how you wanted this ending to play out?
David and I wrote the ending together to try and be as emotional as possible. We wanted to bring the audience to the ultimate big little lie. They are all lying to protect one of them that was the different one during the whole series. She was the one that was not accepted and now they all lie to protect her. And we wonder if they did the right thing. We’re not sure, but at the same time we go, “Shut the f— up. That’s all he deserved, this mother f—er!”
In the book, it’s revealed that Bonnie’s father used to abuse her and that led to her killing Perry in that moment. That didn’t make it into the finale, but was that something you were ever going to show?
We had a line from the detective and it was too much explaining. We decided not even to shoot the line. It’s not about that. Whether or not she has been abused, she is going to push this mother f—er. He’s beating the shit out of four women. This guy is f—ing strong. And then the smallest guy pushes him, not to kill him, but the accident happens. To give it a reason and justify that because she was abused and had a thing against men, it’s not about that.
What was the conversation with Skarsgard like about his fate and how to get there?
The guy is such a great actor. We all wanted this guy to be a good guy. He’s a good father stuck with these demons. And he’s sincere. Even at the end he says, “I’m going to change Celeste. Help me. I’m going to get over these f—ing demons. Please don’t do this.” But it’s too strong. And he becomes nuts again. But that would be the last time because he doesn’t realize he has the ultimate force of nature in front of him. These women are so powerful. Together, they are as powerful as the ocean and the ocean is f—ing angry.
The last scene with the women being watched on the beach is open-ended. and that author Liane Moriarty has some ideas of what that could look like. Would you want to direct a season two?
The detective doesn’t want to let go and that’s how we finish that. And we think, “Did they do the right thing? What will happen?” Now it’s up to the audience and their imagination to figure out. To do a season two, I’m not for it. Let’s move on and do something else! If there’s an opportunity to reunite with Reese, Nicole and these characters of course, I’ll be a part of it, but Big Little Lies One is a one-time deal. Big Little Lies Two? Nah. The end is for the audience to talk about. Imagine what you want to imagine and that’s it. We won’t give you a season two because it’s so good like this. Why spoil it?