There are very few reviews out there for Dallas Buyers Club that don’t make mention of its stars’ Oscar chances. The movie is a real showcase for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s two larger-than-life performances, to the point where the Academy could use virtually all of their scenes for their nomination clip. Our Kate Erbland described their performances as the best from Tiff, saying that “Dallas Buyers Club lives and dies on the strength of its two lead performances, and it’s a solid pairing of both good luck and pure talent that McConaughey and Leto bring their absolute best to a film that requires nothing less.”
It also lives or dies on director Jean-Marc Vallée. The filmmaker behind C.R.A.Z.Y. knows how to capture those quality performances on an exceptionally tight deadline. Speaking with Vallée, he expressed appreciation for his two leading men, while also delving into how exactly he shot McConaughey, Leto, and co-star Jennifer Gardner’s performances.
Here’s what Vallée had to say on the subject:
Vallée: Film School Rejects…how you doing?
[Laughs] Good. How about yourself?
I’m good. Film School Rejects? That’s a good title.
Thank you. Did you go to film school?
No, no, I went to film school, man. I went, but I didn’t graduate. I left after two years.
Was it not for you?
No. It’s not that I quit, but I finished the first two years and I could’ve gone the third year to get my paper, but I didn’t. I just went out there. I wanted to shoot. I couldn’t stand still at a desk for another year. I wanted to go out there and make films.
Would you recommend that path?
No, because I loved my studies, analyzing films, and cinema movements. It’s a time I really loved. For me, it made me a film lover. I think it’s a plus to have this background, but it’s not a must. Every road leads to Rome.
Was there anything you recall from your studies that applied to making Dallas Buyers Club?
Well, I like doing some winks to films I really love. I remember when I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life, and in this film, there’s an obvious reference to the “show me the way” scene at the bar with Jimmy Stewart. There’s a moment with Ron in a strip club where he’s praying and asking for God to give him a sign, which is an homage. No one has to know that, though. Of course, if you’re a film lover, then you’ll notice it and a few references to Cuckoo’s Nest here and there.
Would you say deadlines in film school braced you for the 25-day shoot?
[Laughs] Maybe, yeah. What really helped me there was the approach of no lighting, no electric crew, no dolly, and handheld. That was really helpful.
Were those creative or budgetary decisions?
It was both. I’ve done that before with Cafe de Flore. There’s a part of the film with Vanessa Paradis and children with down syndrome, and I wanted to free them and be able to capture the truth from these kids. I asked the crew to leave that set and I was with them, the cameraman, and the focus puller. It was tough for the cameraman and the focus puller, but after that experience, I thought, “I want to do this again.” I love the dynamic it creates on the set and when you watch the dailies, so I wanted to do it for Dallas. When we decided to make it for four million dollars instead of eight and only 25 days, it was obvious it was the right decision. Already I wanted to do it, but then it became a necessity.
You had to shoot around five pages a day. On that kind of schedule, how many takes can you get?
The way I shot was shooting the rehearsals. I was not necessarily telling the actors where to go and what to do. I told them we’d find out where they should go, but I’m going to start from the camera over there with the 35mm lens on. I shot most of the film with a 35mm lens on, and I’ll tell you why later. I’d shoot the first rehearsal and sometimes it did suck and it was shitty, but maybe we’d find it out on rehearsal two or three. I’d do three on a master, but then I’d want to get more coverage on Matthew. I’d say action and then I wasn’t cutting until 10 minutes later before I was doing take one, take two, and maybe take three on Matthew. Once I was done with that, I was moving with the cameramen and doing Jared’s coverage. Then we’d get take one, take two, and take three with Jared. Once that was done, without cutting, I was doing Jennifer’s coverage. Often I wouldn’t need three takes.
For three shots and two takes per shot, I wasn’t cutting and no one could interfere and do makeup touchups. We don’t need that. The actors love it, unless there’s a detail you need to fix on a shirt or something. That’s how we managed to shoot the film and make our days. You wouldn’t hear cut from the director until 10 or 15 minutes.
Do you hope to always work that way?
I’m doing it right now. I’m shooting a film, Wild, with Reese Witherspoon in the desert. I’m done with my first week on that and I’m doing the exact same thing.
How do actors generally respond to that way of working?
They love it.
Do you think there’s an element to that method you can’t get doing 15 or 20 takes?
Absolutely. They don’t feel they’re acting, because there’s no mark and they don’t feel the heat of the lighting. Also, I’m not a continuity freak, so I don’t mind if the cigarette isn’t in the same place or if they’re not exactly at the same place. I think it creates a dynamic with the actors and the crew. We’re always ready to move, so often the script supervisor would have to hide, no matter where we were moving.
As I was saying about the 35 lens, I used it because I was scared of the guys at the beginning. I’m from the less is more school, and that’s what I like and what I tell actors. I’ll always say, “Let’s do less on the next take.” They’d give me more is more, so I’d think, “I gotta step back. This is too big.” So, I was stepping back and using a 35 lens, trying to find the right distance between the actors and the audience. Sometimes you find that in the cutting room. Although I would ask for those less is more takes, most of the time I chose their more is more take.
Dallas Buyers Club is now in limited release and expands in theaters this weekend.