Jean-Marc Vallée was nearly ready to give up filmmaking before a 2005 project turned the tides on his career, a colleague recalled days after the Québécois director and producer died.
Vallée, who went on to direct a string of high-profile films and series after his breakout C.R.A.Z.Y. — winning an Emmy for the hit HBO series Big Little Lies and multiple nominations for the 2013 drama Dallas Buyers Club — died suddenly in his cabin outside Quebec City over the weekend, his representative Bumble Ward said Sunday.
He was 58.
“We didn’t have enough money, we were struggling to do everything we needed to do and Jean-Marc was saying: ‘Pierre, you don’t understand, this is going to be my last film,” Even said Monday in a phone interview from Montreal.
“And I was telling him: ‘I don’t know if C.R.A.Z.Y. is going to be good or not but I’m sure of one thing — you’re going to make other films.”
Vallée wrote, directed and co-produced the coming-of-age Quebec drama about a young gay man dealing with homophobia in the 1960s and ’70s.
The movie, which earned $6 million in box office revenue in Quebec alone, was Vallée’s first feature film to be both written and directed by him.
Even said Vallée, who had dreamt of creating the project for years, put “tremendous” pressure on himself to make it work. When they saw the reception of the film’s premiere in Montreal, Even said they knew they had made “something special.”
“It was always a film about somebody that feels different and wants to fit in, and that’s a universal theme. But we were surprised how much the audience took the film and (it) became their story,” Even said.
“During the premiere we had people coming out of the theatre in tears saying ‘that’s my life.”’
Even said Vallée was already a successful director in Canadian film circles, but C.R.A.Z.Y. made him a global name as it screened at other festivals.
He said agents in Los Angeles were soon calling Vallée, wanting to meet him and discuss potential projects.
“I think it made people realize not only was he a good director but he could tell a story that people would want to see and that would catch audiences all over the world,” Even said.
Vallée, acclaimed for his naturalistic approach to filmmaking, directed stars including Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal over the past decade.
He directed Emily Blunt in 2009’s The Young Victoria and became an even more sought-after name in Hollywood after Dallas Buyers Club, featuring Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, earned six Academy Awards nominations, including best picture.
Producing partner Nathan Ross said in a statement that Vallée “stood for creativity, authenticity and trying things differently.”
“He was a true artist and a generous, loving guy. Everyone who worked with him couldn’t help but see the talent and vision he possessed,” the statement said. “He was a friend, creative partner and an older brother to me.
“The maestro will sorely be missed but it comforts knowing his beautiful style and impactful work he shared with the world will live on.”
Vallée was born in Montreal and studied filmmaking at the College Ahuntsic and the Université du Québec à Montréal.
Vallée received the Directors Guild of America Award and the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing in 2017 for the HBO Limited Series Big Little Lies, which he also executive produced. The series won eight Emmys and four Golden Globes in total.
He also directed and executive produced the HBO limited series Sharp Objects which was nominated for eight Emmys.
HBO called Vallée a “brilliant, fiercely dedicated filmmaker,” in a statement.
“A truly phenomenal talent who infused every scene with a deeply visceral, emotional truth,” the statement said. “He was also a hugely caring man who invested his whole self alongside every actor he directed.”
Even said Vallée demanded much from those who worked with him, but he was also very loyal, often bringing in Québécois crews to work on other projects. He also edited many of his projects back home in Montreal, building a state-of-the-art editing suite in his home.
“He was so passionate,” Even said, adding that Vallée’s crews needed to work hard to achieve his vision. “But even if he’s asking for the moon, let’s get him the moon because we know it’s going to be great.”
Cameron Bailey, CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival, referred to Vallée as a “prodigious talent” on Twitter, adding that Vallee is the only filmmaker to both open TIFF, with Demolition in 2015, and close the festival, with The Young Victoria in 2009.
“I’ll miss his fire,” Bailey said in the tweet.
Celebrities also took to social media to honour Vallée on Monday.
Canadian actor Jay Baruchel said on Twitter that Vallée was “a profoundly gifted artist whose passions and efforts have advanced the medium of cinema.”
Witherspoon posted a photo of herself and Vallée on her Instagram account with the caption: “My heart is broken. My friend. I love you.”
Vallée is survived by his sons, Alex and Émile, and siblings Marie-Josée Vallée, Stéphane Tousignant and Gérald Vallée.
Even said Vallée’s impact on Canadian cinema will continue to be felt for years.
“Jean-Marc had such a personal way of filming that it’s not something you can copy,” he said. “There’s only one Jean-Marc Vallée and when you watch Big Little Lies or Sharp Objects or C.R.A.Z.Y. or Cafe de Flore or Wild you’re going to see it’s a Jean-Marc Vallée movie.
“And that quality of filmmaking it’s so rare and so precious.”
— With files from The Associated Press