An Interview with Bryan Sipe, the screenwriter of “Demolition”

 

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On Sunday, March 20th, I was invited by Fox Searchlight Pictures to attend their press junket day for Jean-Marc Vallée’s new film Demolition starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts.  I was also able to see the film the night prior in anticipation for what was in store for me that day.  Because the invite was more sudden than it could have been, the studio PR’s could only schedule me time with one person, and that person ended up being the film’s screenwriter Bryan Sipe.  Here is the fully transcribed interview conducted over the course of 20 minutes between him and I, one on one.

 

ZM: So the premiere’s Monday?

BS: The premiere’s Monday, and I was just talking with Jean-Marc.  What we were discussing recently was that how, *pauses* it really is a movie that you get more out of the second time around, you know?  The things you pick up on that, there’s so many little moments and nuances, um, that’s, uh, that he was able to capture.  There are so many scenes and moments that catch me now after, you know, seeing it a dozen times already.

Yeah.

I look forward to seeing it, you know? So we got the premiere Monday night, my folks are coming into town.

Oh, that’s fantastic!

Yeah they haven’t seen it before so I’ll be able to sit and watch it, you know?  I just, *pauses* it’s a cool experience sitting in a movie theater with an audience.  With an audience, emotion is contagious, and I love being a part of it.

When was the first time you saw the movie?

The first cut, uhh, jeez *chuckles,* it was at the end of last year, I suppose, like right before TIFF.

Nice!

We, uh, we screened at TIFF.

You guys were opening night, right?

We were opening night, yeah, which was pretty special!

Yeah!

A long time away from our release, but um, yeah! I saw an early cut and I knew in that cut, even though you know as first cuts go [there’s a long ways to go] that we had something special, you know?

Mhm.  I totally agree!  Seeing the movie last night, I was just like, man!  And I wasn’t sure if this was based on anything and then I saw it wasn’t, and I was just like “This is original?!  That’s awesome!”  I also sort of related to it, a lot, um.

With what?

I, like, being a teenager, well more like a college student, just walking around being like “What am I doing with my life?” just seeing this guy who is having a hard time coping, because I actually just attended a funeral last week, and I wasn’t full-on emotional about it, like the way Jake was in the movie.  I was just like, you know, coping, but not in the way people would normally perceive.

Yeah!

And plus I also just loved how it was sort of a story about rebellion, you know?  Getting outside of your comfort zone and doing whatever you want to do, you know?

Right, yeah.  Was it someone who was close to you?

Yeah, it actually was.  It was a relatively close person.

I’m sorry about that.

Thank you.  Yeah it was a close friend of my parents and grandparents, and I actually took her to a couple of screenings in the past, so yeah. *pauses* I didn’t really shed a tear, I was more like “wow, this is emotional.”

Yeah, grief is strange, you know?  And it hits you when you least expect it.  When you are expecting it, um, emotion in general, I think, you know I mean, this movie, I remember, uh, cause this thing is my baby, you know?  I’ve been working on it for, I mean it was ten years getting this to the screen.

Wow!

And it’s very very personal for me, and the way things finally unfolded getting the movie made, and all of the sudden, going to New York, you know? The director saying, “You’re coming with us,” you know? Like “you’re a part of this ride; you have to be there; you’re along for the ride.”  Coming to New York for a month and a half to shoot a movie with this director and these actors and you’re staying in the city, you’re walking to work and you’re walking past these huge trucks, and you’re looking at them going like *pauses* “This is crazy!”

“I made this!”

 

“This is because of me!” Exactly, like this used to not exist, you know, before this story.  Before there were no words, and then there are words, and I remember thinking the first day that I had a friend who had this similar experience a year earlier.

Who’s the friend?

His name is Graham Moore, uh, he wrote T-

The Imitation Game, yeah!

So he was like “you know, the first day on set, I just wept.  I had to go and, *laughs* I had to go into the bathroom and excuse myself,” and I was prepared for that.  But, *laughs* the way Jean-Marc works is, it’s just so quick, it’s like you just start shooting first thing, and if you’re an actor on set you’re in the scene.  You’re working; there’s no down time.  It’s like, all cameras are rolling, meaning one camera, *pauses* so I didn’t have time, there’s no time, I got there and I was getting pinballed around, like where do I stand?  You know, finally finding my place then all of the sudden, we’re in the middle of the day and I’m going, like I didn’t really emote the way I thought I was going to.  And that was true for the first couple weeks, few weeks, of shooting, where I just felt like it was such a hurricane.  Finally, we were at this scene where we’re shooting the carousel.

Oh yeah!

It was when they’re (Jake and Naomi Watts) on the boardwalk in the old warehouse, and it’s like the broken down carousel.  So we shot that on a soundstage, actually where they show them going into it that’s really where it was!  And it’s this huge cavernous warehouse, and it’s like, the way they had the set decorated with all of these old carnival toys, and they slide the big curtain across and there is this carousel that’s built in like, um, two-thirds of it was built or something like that, and, *pauses* that’s when I lost it.  There was something so beautiful about being in that warehouse on the boardwalk with those porcelain horses just the way I had written it.

Yeah.

That was just really special to me growing up, I mean, the boardwalk I grew up on, you know?  That was, uh, it’s a memory.  Not so much riding the carousel but it’s such a, a fixture on that boardwalk, and we lost it in the hurricane a few years ago.

Oh wow.

Yeah.  But um, it was just amazing and that’s when I was like “ok, ok I gotta go outside guys” *laughs*

Like, like “I saw this, I need this, it’s alive!” *both laugh* Like a “Frankenstein” moment.  So where did the first idea for this movie come from?

Well, originally I did demolition work when I was a younger man, you know, like 16 through the summers till probably 20, 21 years old.  So, um, you know when I was doing that it’s like you go in there and you, uh, it, it was working for my father who did insurance, so if your house burns down the first thing you do is demolish everything that was burned and then they rebuild it.  So I was working with the demolition crew that pulls everything out after the fire, you know, after the hoses soaked everything, so you’re ripping the walls apart.  You’re working the ceilings down.  The insulation’s getting in your lungs.  And you’re also finding things that people left behind, that they had hidden in the walls, you know what I mean?

Mhm.

You’re finding secrets, you’re finding family photographs, and then you’re digging through personal clothing and all this shit, you know?  So you get it all out and it’s all empty, and THEN you start to pull the walls down.  Then you pull the ceiling down and then you rip everything down to the studs; and then I just remember thinking “Ah!  This is how it’s built!” you know?  Like I don’t know how to build this shit.  I don’t have a mechanical mind like that same thing with engines and cars.

Yeah like an architecture type.

I don’t, I just don’t.  It’s a lot of math, you know.  But I remember processing that analogy, like, this is life, you know?  If you wanna figure out how things work, like sometimes you just gotta rip it all down.  See it in front of you.

I really liked that analogy in the movie, it’s just like sometimes you gotta tear shit down in order to build it all up again.

Right!  Now I was a teenager at the time, you know, about 19 years old, so I wasn’t a writer.  I don’t even know if that was an aspiration at the time.

Mhm.

But, I think we all have that “artist brain,” you know what I mean?

Yeah!

It’s whether you access it, you know, throughout your life that is really the question; But we all have it, and I think mine was working and it was processing that bigger metaphor and filing it away.  The other thing that was happening to me at the same time was I was super, *pauses* I, I, arrived at this dark, dark place because, *pauses* I’m in there sweating, you know, swinging a sledgehammer, stepping on nails that are going through my feet, like in the movie that’s a real scene, that was a real moment for me.

It was funny with that scene, I just loved how Jake reacted to that, it was just like he stepped on it but it wasn’t like, you know, in agonizing pain, it was just this, exhilaration.  He was finally feeling something and I just like “Yes! Yes, I understand you!”

That was actually what happened to me.

Wow!

Yeah, it’s pain at first, but I remember because what had happened was, I had become so numb to what I was doing.  I’m like, I’m one of those people, man.  I’m working on the Jersey Shore, just swinging a fucking hammer, you know?  And I don’t see any out, like “how did this happen?” and I just looked around at the debris around me, and I brought it inside of me, and that became the darkness, that became like this depression.  Finally, I got out of it, but years later I felt that same way.   There was this, this time where I was just failing, you know, in Hollywood now, as a young screenwriter, and I’m looking around at my life going “what, what do I have now?  My relationships are failing, I’m in debt, I have no money, I’m working in a bar, I’m drinking too much, and I’m writing shit that nobody gives a damn about that really isn’t from my soul.”  And that’s when I heard that voice.

The voice of Davis?

Yeah!  Suddenly that voice of apathy was calling me, and his loss was my loss.  My loss of myself, you know?  I hadn’t lost a human being but what I lost was my sense of my creative self, and until that happens maybe you won’t understand what that means, but it feels like a death, you know?  Especially when, at a time you’ve been so passionate about what you wanted, so confident that you were gonna get what it was that you wanted.  And then all of the sudden, years have passed, you know?  And you’re standing around with those same people that have those same dreams, and it’s like you’re watching it pass you by, and then that voice and his loss, and I just followed him, he led me to the hospital and that led me to that vending machine, and that vending machine opened up the entire story.  That led me to Karen.

I love how something so mundane like Peanut M&M’s can just, lead into something a lot more, like, when I was watching the movie, I saw a bit of Louis Bloom from Nightcrawler in Jake Gyllenhaal, but a more empathetic version of him.

I will tell you that both of, these two characters are similar and he feels, very much, like these characters are as close to him as a real person.

And then when he met Karen I saw, like, aspects of Silver Linings Playbook.  You know, just like two crazy awkward, kind of messed up people who just find this commonality and they, they just mesh,

Yeah

and I was just like “Yeah! Yeah, I love how sort of refreshing this is compared to all of these Hollywood sequels, reboots, yadda yadda ya. It’s just like, “Yeah, like it’s a real story.”

Yeah, yeah, and you know it’s harder now.  I mean look, the business has changed since the ten years ago when I wrote this.

Oh totally!

It’s not like I just wrote this and put it down, ten years ago.  It was quite a development once producers came on, and then Jean-Marc came on, and um, lots of ideas, a confluence of ideas, and then finally up to pre-production, then it’s like “Ok let’s tear up the entire script and really get ready for the camera, you know?

Yeah.  I was looking at your IMDB page last night after seeing the movie, and I noticed that you had written and directed two other movies, Alpha Male and A Million Miles.  I also saw you had a screenplay credit on The Choice, which I haven’t seen but I can’t talk about.

Yeah, yeah. *laughs* Can’t talk about it?

Well I mean, sorry, I can’t talk about it because I haven’t seen it.

Right, right.

I can only judge based on what other people have said about it.

*laughs* Well let’s not then.

*laughs* Yeah, exactly!

Well you know Alpha Male was a little short film that I did; a little comedy short that was fun.  Again that was something that I think I found wasn’t necessarily my voice.  That was straightforward, broad comedy.  A Million Miles was probably closer to my voice.  That was that movie I made when I was like 21 years old, 22 years old.  Shot that on the Jersey Shore, raised $100,000,

Wow.

somehow just lied, cheated, and stole funds.  I directed the movie and co-wrote it with a friend of mine, and *laughs* you know when the script was done it was like, “Uhhhh I’ll direct in it if you wanna act in it.” “Okay.”  He was the lead and I was the director, you know, and that movie was like my film school.  It’s, for all intensive purposes, that entire process through to the end was my film school.

Being a screenwriter and having another director like Jean-Marc Vallée who’s done amazing movies like Dallas Buyers Club and Wild,

And then you’re not even approaching his French-language movies which are gorgeous.

Oh!  Well, I haven’t seen them, but I was about to mention his French movies, which I have heard are great.  I was gonna say, um, like being a screenwriter, writing all of this stuff down and just imagining it, what’s it like giving it to somebody else to put their spin on it?

It’s um, *pauses* It is, *pauses* It’s it’s it’s a daunting task to hand off your child to someone else and say “Take care of my child,” even with someone like Jean-Marc Vallée.  When we started, our relationship on this movie, he hadn’t done Dallas yet.

Oh wow!

Yeah, it’s pretty wild.  So all I knew of him was, I actually knew nothing of him until the producers said to me “Hey we got this director that we love.  He’s French,” you know, and I immediately went “Ahh,” you know?  I always felt very strongly that it needed to be a very American movie because of, you know, just the language, to know what they’re saying to each other, so I don’t want something to get lost in translation.  But they said “Ok we’re gonna set up a screening for you of Café de Flore.  Go watch that movie, tell us what you think.”  I went and watched that movie, and it was me and Jason Reitman sitting in this screening room at Paramount.

Wow, that’s crazy!

Yeah, because he’s a producer on the movie.

Yeah, with Mr. Mudd and John Malkovich, right?

Correct, yeah.  It was Jason and his partner, Helen Estabrook.  So anyway, so we’re watching this movie, and it just sucked me in, you know?  I mean he wrote it and directed it, and he’s also his editor.  So I’m watching this movie, and I’m seeing this kinship between the two lead characters in his movie and my movie, and the way that he handled the subject matter and the way that he handled the camera and the way he presented this world that was slightly elevated above reality which was exactly what Demolition was, you know?  Because there is this element of magical realism.

Yeah!

I’d say “magical realism” more so in Café de Flore.  In Demolition, things are elevated just a tiny bit above reality.  It’s a little bit in your imagination, you know?  But that’s, that’s what it was, like some of the stuff is like “What IF you could do those things that are in your imagination if there’s no consequence,” and that’s the journey that Davis is on and that’s why people look at him like he’s fucking crazy!  But I watched this movie and I walked out and I called the producers and we’re like “Yes!  That is the guy!  Yes.  I see it.”  And so we started our conversation, you know, he was in Montreal and I was in Los Angeles so it was all over Skype, and our relationship evolved through music actually, because he’s a big music guy.  We were introducing each other to music, sending emails back and forth every day with 2-3 songs saying “Listen to this, Listen to that.”  And, what had happened was, we were creating a rhythm for the movie and I didn’t even realize it.  It was still three years away from the start of the shoot, but we were starting this rhythm, this language.  Maybe he didn’t know it either, but we were compiling the soundtrack, so to speak.

Was there any specific song from the movie that was always in your script from the first draft?

Crazy on You was from the first draft.  I mean, that was sort of like the Peanut M&M’s, you know?  When I arrived at the vending machine in the scene and he pushed “B2,” it’s like you’re looking with your mind’s eye wondering what is the candy he’s going to get and it’s Peanut M&M’s.  It comes from somewhere inside of me that I like Peanut M&M’s.

I mean how can you not?

Exactly.  Same thing with the jukebox, the baby jukebox in the diner, you know, when he goes to meet her for the first time and he’s on the phone with her and she said “I was sad so I left.”  Then he says “You were sad?  Well, what song were you listening to?”  She says “Crazy on You by Heart.”  It’s not like I had that planned, you know?  It’s just sort of your mind’s eye goes through those jukeboxes, you know?  I grew up in bars since I was 16 years old, I was working in a jukebox bar on the Jersey Shore, and I flipped through that thing in my mind and saw that song and, obviously, I didn’t have what followed that planned out.  The moments that that song plays into the movie, it became so organic because once the song is there, I was like “Crazy, this is a great metaphor for this character, and now the song is in his head and it’s gonna follow the movie around,” and it just worked so well.

I guess my final question since they’re wrapping this up, is, um, are there any screenplays that you’re working on at the moment, or anything that’s coming up from you?

Sure, I just finished a book adaptation, um, but the thing I wanna write next, I’m a little superstitious about talking about the things that I’m writing.  Especially the original ideas because once you get into that and you don’t have everything solved, you end up going like “Ah, I can’t remember!  I don’t know where…”  So all I would say is this: I just wanna do something that’s important.  I wanna write something I care about, something that other people care about.  Making this movie was an amazing experience for me.  I think it taught me that *pauses* time is precious, you know, and you can either be that hungry writer that takes rewrites on movies that you don’t so much care about or chase after those jobs that might pay you a lot of money but the heart isn’t there, or you can get down and dirty and do the work, and the fear of writing something that might go nowhere, and I wanna go down that road like I totally did with this and, you know, it led me here, sitting here with you.

Yeah.  Well, thank you!  Yeah, I really appreciate this, thank you so much, man!

No problem.

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Demolition opens in select theaters on Friday, April 8th, 2016 

 

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