Breaking up

Bryan Sipe on Demolition and the visceral pleasures of destruction.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Demolition screenwriter Bryan Sipe with Anne-Katrin Titze
Demolition screenwriter Bryan Sipe with Anne-Katrin Titze Photo: Omar Gonzales

Jean-Marc Vallée's rockin' Demolition stars Jake Gyllenhaal with Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper and introduces Judah Lewis as an impressive teenage mix of Kurt Cobain, Mick Jagger and David Bowie. Paul Valéry, Michael Almereyda's take on Stanley Milgram's "Familiar Stranger" in Experimenter, a Joy Division T-shirt, costume choices by the Dallas Buyers Club and Wild director, a nail in the foot and an ache in the soul, what it means to "deserve", heightened reality in Café De Flore, starring Vanessa Paradis, plus a mini-manual of how to creatively destroy a house - all came up in my Essex House conversation with screenwriter Bryan Sipe.

Bryan Sipe on Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal):
Bryan Sipe on Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal): "All of a sudden, the most odd things are catching his attention."

Unlike his protagonist, investment banker Davis (Gyllenhaal), who unravels after losing his wife in a car accident, Sipe said the idea for the script emerged while working on a demolition crew. "The oddities, curiosities, these observations," are personal, he said. "I was experiencing them right along with him."

Meeting with the screenwriter after he experienced a weekend of roundtables, I promised him that I would take our conversation into new territory.

Anne-Katrin Titze: What do you think of the word "grooming?"

Bryan Sipe: That was the first time! [to be asked that question which relates to a comment by Davis that he hates the word] It's a strange word.

AKT: You put the comment in the script?

BS: Yeah, it was a phrase I had heard, I had read. When you are being "groomed" for a job. That's where my brain goes with it. Grooming is what monkeys do, when they are picking each other, eating the thing … It's funny, these are the things Davis is experiencing. The oddities, curiosities, these observations and it's really because I was experiencing them right along with him. So when I stumbled upon a word like grooming - that's what animals do, that's what monkeys do - I should put that in there.

Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) Chris (Judah Lewis):
Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) Chris (Judah Lewis): "His idea for Chris was - this kid is Mick Jagger."

AKT: And you put it in the script.

BS: It fits right in there. Then he talks about carrying a briefcase. And it reminds me of carrying a lunchbox. So he says that. Do they still make those? I don't know if I've seen kids walking around with those cartoon character tin lunchboxes that we had when we were kids. That was a way in with him, was his curiosity all of a sudden. It's an awakening. This is a character who has been experiencing this apathy and this numbness. All of a sudden, the most odd things are catching his attention.

AKT: The numbness makes me think of the tale collected by the Brothers Grimm about the Boy Who Went Out In Search Of What Fear Was. It is a whole family of tales where boys feel numb and go out into the world to ultimately feel again. Nothing scares them, no ghosts or goblins, until finally they encounter something real. In one case, it's a bucket of fish, in another it's a weapon.

BS: It reminds me of the scene where he [Davis] stepped on a nail and it goes through his foot. All of a sudden he is writhing in pain and screaming out. That was something that happened to me. I was working on a demolition site and I was in this dirty basement and I stepped right down on a nail. It went through my shoe and up through my foot. I had to pry it out of my foot and out of my shoe and it was unbelievably painful. And then for some reason, there was this odd sense of feeling. When you feel something like that you do realise that you were numb.

"There are things that could happen but probably wouldn't. But that's the world that Jean-Marc loved."

AKT: People cutting themselves to connect to the real?

BS: Yeah, cutters, it's visceral. I suppose it lives in the same world as that.

AKT: It's an interesting way how you added the Paul Valéry quote. "The trouble with our times is that the future isn't what it used to be." It is said by Davis who is criticizing his father-in-law [Chris Cooper] for quoting that.

BS: He is not necessarily criticizing his father-in-law. It's more of an introduction to the father-in-law. At the moment, he is saying "Phil, my father-in-law, he is the kind of guy who would quote Paul Valéry." He would say something like that and it would actually have some meaning to it in this high-finance kind of world. There are men like that who use quotes like that and they have weight to them. That was the guy that Phil was.

AKT: I asked the actors earlier what the most interesting thing was they ever demolished. Nobody could give me an answer. You are surrounded by actors who don't like to take things apart. Do you?

BS: I like to destroy things. That was fun for me. There is the pulling the walls down stuff - which is not fun. Because it's basically sheetrock. But then there is - okay, we got to pull the bathroom out. So you've got like this porcelain toilet and you carry it out and put it in the dumpster and then it's like - what can we destroy this thing with? There's a bowling ball there! Why don't we destroy the toilet with the bowling ball? Let's throw baseballs through these panes of glass! Let's take the sledgehammer and just demolish this fireplace!

Demolition poster at Essex House on Central Park South
Demolition poster at Essex House on Central Park South Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Did you have the scenes with the stranger on a train always there as a parallel strand?

BS: Yes.

AKT: Did you see Michael Almereyda's Experimenter about Stanley Milgram? One of his experiments was about what he called the "Familiar Stranger", the people we see everyday on the train or the street but never talk to. Where did yours come from?

BS: It came from that. There's a million people like that in our lives, certainly in my life. It happens a lot when you keep your head down. We're living in an age of cellphones and social media, so everybody is looking down at their phone. But there's a curiosity. I would wonder about people and about their lives. What stop are they getting off, what their homes are like, who is there to meet them, what kind of life they have, what they're afraid of. [Davis's] conversation with this guy was a reflection of that. It seemed like a great place to be honest because it's like therapy. You can tell your thoughts to a complete stranger in therapy but you have a hard time telling your family how you feel. So him saying for the first time in the movie "I didn't love my wife" to this guy felt right.

AKT: And then his answer to the guy's question "What do you feel?" He pulls the emergency break! That's very strong, no?

BS: That's where the script is a little bit elevated above reality.

AKT: Slightly, yeah.

BS: There are things that could happen but probably wouldn't. But that's the world that Jean-Marc loved. That's the world he was interested in presenting. I'm glad because I think he did a great job. If you watched some of his earlier films like Café De Flore - that's a whole movie that exists in that elevated reality.

AKT: Were you surprised by some of the costume choices? That your characters were wearing certain things? The boyfriend of Naomi Watts' character is wearing a Joy Division T-shirt...

"It's funny, I remember a back and forth about what that word should be and we settled on 'deserve'."

BS: That's Jean-Marc.

AKT: The leopard coat for the boy?

BS: Again, Jean-Marc. His idea for Chris [Judah Lewis] was - this kid is Mick Jagger. That grabbed me because I'd never seen him in that way. We developed this idea that he would be our musical influence in the movie and that would be his connection to Davis. So he turned him into this young little rocker. And Judah plays the drums for real and he is really good.

AKT: He is terrific in that drumming scene. It says a lot about someone when they make a call at 2 o'clock in the morning to a stranger. This is how Naomi Watts' character [Karen Moreno, mother of Chris] is introduced to us. It is unusual that someone would be so interested in the writer of a letter of complaint. Is there a bond already between them , that these two could possibly help each other?

BS: I don't think so. Until she makes that phone call we don't know she exists. He doesn't know she exists - that is most important. Because these letters that he is writing, he figures that they are falling on deaf ears and that nobody is reading them at all. He started it, so a 2:00am phone call is right on par with that kind of stuff.

AKT: He is the perfect recipient of such a call. Everybody else would say what is this woman doing? For him, it's one of the most natural things that could happen.

BS: I think it catches him off guard and it piques his curiosity - it can't be just about my letters!

AKT: The phrasing of the letter - "I think you deserve the whole story." I like the "deserve" very much. It's the perfect verb.

BS: It's funny, I remember a back and forth about what that word should be and we settled on "deserve". I can't tell you why. It feels right and apparently you agree.

AKT: I hope these were some different questions.

BS: They were all different. Every one of them, actually.

Coming up - Judah Lewis, Chris Cooper, Jake Gyllenhaal and Jean-Marc Vallée on Demolition.

Demolition opens in the US on April 8 and in the UK on April 29.

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