“Writing is a Muscle,” Brian Sipe Discusses ‘Demolition’

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In Demolition, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Davis, an investment banker perched atop the corporate ladder, whose seemingly perfect life is shaken when his wife Julia (Heather Lind) dies in a car crash. Numb and unsure of his next move, Davis begins to dismantle his life, beginning with the materials around him, believing, “If you want to fix something, you have to take everything apart.”

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, (best known for Dallas Buyers Club and Wild), Demolition also stars Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper, and Judah Lewis. Written by Bryan Sipe (The Choice), the film touches on aspects of the writer’s background and even feelings of scattered anguish, from a story ten years in the making.

Can you tell us about your background and how you got into screenwriting?

I’m from New Jersey. I didn’t know how to do anything else. I couldn’t do math. I wasn’t good at science.

When I went off to college, I gravitated towards classes that dealt with words—creative fiction and literature. That was where I really felt the most comfortable.

I was the kid in elementary school who didn’t read the book but could read the back cover and still get an A. In that regard, it came easier to me than swinging a hammer or doing math.

Where did the idea for Demolition come from?

I actually did some demolition work when I was younger, working for my father, tearing down houses. When you tear everything apart, you can see how it’s been put together—the framework of the house. That was an analogy that I latched onto.

At the time, I had no ambition of being a writer, but I do remember processing that information,  with the mindset of someone who didn’t know how to build anything. That was a reservation that I made. I still couldn’t build it, but I understood how it was put together.

Working these dark, dingy, burned down houses, in the middle of summer in 95 degree heat, while wearing work overalls and a mask was a really depressing part of my life. I felt really disconnected and alone.

I felt like there was something bigger out there for me but I was nowhere near it and I had no idea how to get near it. I felt stuck in that place. It brought me to a feeling that I had never felt before. I refer to it as darkness, but it was probably depression or apathy.

Eventually, I was able to crawl myself out of that when I ended up in Los Angeles—only to find myself in the same position half a dozen years later. I was working in a bar rather than working as a screenwriter. I was failing in my life and my relationships.

I had the same feeling that I had when I was twenty years old, standing in that burned down house. The dust and the debris was  now metaphorical  but out of that came this voice, the voice of the lead character.

This guy questioned his life and questioned what he really loved. He came to discover that he thought he didn’t love anything…and that was me.

For him, he lost his wife. For me, I lost myself. That was the voice that I followed. It was the purest experience that I ever had in writing. I didn’t map it out. I let him take me where he was going to take me. He introduced me to the other characters and this world of relationships.

What were some of your literary or cinematic influences? Either from Demolition or that led you into screenwriting?

So many different things; I was that kid who would pretend to be sick to stay home from school to watch movies.

Early on, I think I fell in love with those early 80s Spielberg movies. I would watch anything that I could get my hands on. But the movie that made the industry feel realistic and possible was Good Will Hunting.

It was seemingly so simple. Maybe it struck me at a point in my life where I needed to hear  that message. Now I realize how difficult something like that is to write, but at its base, it was just about people and friendship. The way that they presented it and the themes in the movie really grabbed me and made me want to be a writer.

Right around that same time, there was American Beauty and the stuff that Alan Ball was doing. I really loved The Weather Man by Steve Conrad, and he later wrote The Pursuit of Happyness. Those were major influences for me.

Those are just movies about human relationships. They all have humor and they all have heart. That’s the stuff I enjoy the most and that’s how I try to write.

Demolition definitely has that feel of American Beauty or The Weather Man, where there is an unusual growth of the lead character.

The Weather Man was actually really important to me. It was probably the first thing that I read. When I first moved out here, you get sent a lot of scripts and people tell you, “This is what sells” or “This is what you need to be writing” and everything is about writing for the talent or writing for the market.

That’s certainly the way I started out, trying to write those movies to make the big spec sale. Then I found myself lost. I tried the big comedy. I tried the big action, kids movie, but nothing was working.

Then I got sent that script and felt like I had permission to write like that. People were excited about it. People were talking about how great it was and it was something I really connected with.

Some of the scenes in Demolition almost feel like they present a conclusion before the cause. We see Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) come to Karen’s (Naomi Watts) door in a dirty suit and then later we find out that he was doing some demolition work. This occurs again later with some army surplus gear. Was this an effort from editing or did it come about in the writing?

I think it was all within the script. Basically, I have those moments somewhere on paper and I’m trying to make them all work.

The good thing was that I had this reference tool in the letters. They were a narrative device to guide me through each scene, like a connective tissue. I felt like I could play with chronology and I could back myself up into those moments so they could happen within the story for the most dramatic impact.

It did get tricky and I remember having to map everything out like a math equation to determine the logistics of “how,” but because I had the letters and because the movie itself exists on a level slightly above reality, it worked.

Or, at least, I hope it worked…

Did you spend a lot of time outlining? Did you have the ending in mind? Did you always foresee such a jolt in the beginning?

There was a voice. I never sat down with the intention of writing a movie about what I used to do when I was twenty. I didn’t want to write about slinging a sledgehammer—that wasn’t it. I never thought I was going to do that.

I stumbled upon the voice of a character that was giving me a cathartic outlook out of my own pain. The only thing that could resemble what I was feeling was the loss of a human being. Davis describes the incident almost like he was a witness.

So once he was in that car accident, I just wanted to follow those little moments. That’s what I was interested in.

I wasn’t interested in the grandiose moment of a funeral or a viewing. We’ve seen those things over and over again. I wanted to see the guy walking down the hallway or eating a bowl of cereal. You’re still hungry after a tragedy. You still have to put one foot in front of the other.

That was the moment, when he was walking down that hallway—that was fascinating to me. I knew there was the curiosity that had been ignited and I wanted to throw logs on that fire. That’s when I saw the vending machine in my mind’s eye.

The vending machine is the crux of the whole story. I watched him put the money in the machine and then the candy got stuck. That wasn’t something I had planned out. So I thought, what do you do now?

From there, it seemed so interesting and irreverent for the guy to try and get his money back; this guy that just lost his wife. So he gets the address of the vending company and as soon as that happened, I knew I had my relationship. That was the biggest log on the fire and I knew everything was going to open up after I met her (Naomi Watts). Then I met her kid and all of these new relationships and complexities.

In terms of mapping the story out, that all evolved as I was going. I was putting it up on notes cards and putting those on the wall. I’ve got eight notebooks about this story and then you just have to get it all out.

Writing a script to me is like building a house, where you begin with the foundation and the manual labor—concrete, sheetrock, and finally, painting the trim. Then, someone tells you that you’ve built it on the wrong side of the street. That’s a story.

You have to take it apart and mix up the pieces. All together, it was probably a year and a half of writing before I was ready to show anyone.

Davis does seem like a vessel for the audience that invites you to see yourself within him. There are also some grander thoughts within the story about a man who has it all but lives a mundane life. Were those thoughts meant to provide any contemplation about society?

I suppose. Like a statement on wealth or materialism?

Either that or perhaps the definition of what many consider successful.

There’s nothing really in here where I’m trying to make a statement, but I did want to give him a position that he could fall from. The higher up he was, the further he was going to fall. I liked the idea of a very comfortable life and then he could look back and think, “Well, what does any of this mean if I don’t love someone or something?”

Within that, there could be commentary on materialism and how much is enough. That could be a reflection upon what I was feeling at the time, searching for what might make me happy or what might pull me out of the darkness.

In reality, that was a world I knew nothing about. I come from Karen’s world: those suburbs in New Jersey where one chain link fence is backed up to the next and kids play hockey in the streets, attend public school, and smoke cigarettes behind the 7-11.

His world on Wall Street was completely foreign to me. When I first wrote it, all of the terminology was way off. I just wanted to get the vibe right.

I didn’t know exactly what he did but I knew it was about money, privilege, and nepotism. Once we got into production, I sat down with some investment bankers to iron out the language and build out the character in a more realistic way.

I have some more specific questions that may fall more within the realm of editing, but I wanted to either get your take on the origin or perhaps your viewpoint of the final product. It seems like all the movie in the music is live, rather than “movie music.” It’s playing and we hear it because they’re listening to it—

Right! That is Jean-Marc Vallée. That is his thing. He never wants to manipulate an audience. I’ve actually had this conversation with him many times and it’s something that I’ve since learned from him. He makes movies in a very realistic, naturalistic, almost documentary fashion. I was actually lucky enough to be on set every day and the way that he shoots is handheld.

We really got to collaborate in a way to discuss changes and I got a chance to be creative on set, but everything is handheld. There’s not one light on the set.

There are no lights, no marks, no storyboards, no shot-list, and only one camera. It’s either the DP or himself operating the camera on his shoulder. So he approaches these scenes in a way where he knows how he wants it to be, but he doesn’t know how he’s going to get there.

So whenever he goes in, he’s finding it. He allows for the actors to explore as they enter the scene and find the language, or find the character. All of a sudden, the scene comes together and he calls cut and everyone wonders how he does it.

His use of music is the same way. He makes playlists in pre-production and he seems to think in music even though he’s not a musician.

He has his own soundtrack in mind and he knows how to find his connective tissue. He knows how the music factors in and once it’s live—playing on someone’s radio—then, he can carry it into the next moment. He gives himself that license but it has to start from somewhere.

The only song written into the script was the song, “Crazy On You,” which was sort of a happy accident. That was the song in the jukebox as I was flipping through it in my mind’s eye.

I grew up in bars with jukeboxes and they all had Heart in there, Springsteen and Van Halen. I just wrote it down and it became a theme in the movie. There’s a moment afterwards when they’re discussing “Crazy On You.” Then you see this high-power, Wall Street businessman in a meeting with ten other people, talking about billions of dollars and he says, “Do you think ‘Crazy On You’ is a sad song?”

 

Along with the shot of Gyllenhaal moving forward as the crowd moves backwards—which I assume they shot in reverse—there’s another scene that involves kids running in a similar fashion. How does that idea work into the story?

The shot is all Jean-Marc, but the kids running was in the original script. That was just the purest thing that I could ever thing of, and, in a way, his character regresses in this movie and becomes childlike.

This guy is having this awakening and part of the scary thing is his realization of feeling numb and when you don’t care about anything, then there are no consequences. That’s childlike.

You are free to do these things, not caring who’s watching or who’s listening. Then you get these moments in her house where they are building a couch-fort. She’s playing therapist and, as a writer, you start to wonder, “What is the most important thing?”

When you’re a kid and there are no consequences and no concept of money, love or debt, then you just want to be good at something. For me—thinking of that childhood moment—that involved running. It felt cinematic and pure.

Within that moment, I knew there was some payoff. It was a fun payoff, because you have a grown man racing a bunch of 10-year-olds on a boardwalk. Of course he’s going to win, but it’s more about the journey that he’s been on rather than the race.

You mentioned doing some rewrites on set. When did Jake Gyllenhall come onto this project and did you begin to adapt the character in anyway once he came signed on?

I don’t remember anything changing specifically for Jake once he came on board. That said, he certainly had things to say about the character but they were never things like, “You have to do this” or “I’m not saying that.”

It was more of a relationship between him and Jean-Marc and then Jean-Marc was the channel between Jake and myself. I was the guy behind the scenes. In an effort not to get any wires crossed, he was communicating everything with Jake and we would discuss how to make the film better.

Somewhat parallel to the movie, Jean-Marc pulled the script apart and then we all put it back together. I had some tiny payoffs littered throughout the script and he untied some of those.

There were so many of those and I took great care in making these things and he said, “No, this is not life. Life is messier than this. These things are too tidy. Let’s mess this thing up.” I’m grateful he did that.

The other thing he did was to make Chris (Judah Lewis) the musical element in the movie. He wanted music to be the conduit between Chris and Davis, which evolved that relationship.

We discussed him playing an instrument, sharing music, and then dressing like a mini Mick Jagger. Then we had the idea that Jake should dance in one of the scenes. Once that idea formed, I went back to the script and wrote, “Davis gets off the train. Davis Dances,” and that was it. He was like, “I got the rest.”

There’s a scene in Donnie Darko, where Donnie describes a Graham Greene story called ‘The Destructors,” which involves some kids destroying a house because, “Destruction is creation.” I’m just curious if that ever came up on set or perhaps led Gyllenhaal to want to play this character?

That’s a good question. I don’t know. I probably haven’t seen Donnie Darko since it was released. It’s not something that he ever brought up, but that is interesting.

You also wrote The Choice this year. How did that come about and what’s it like writing your own story versus an adaptation?

My agent represents author Nicholas Sparks and I wrote it like a spec script, which is what’s actually called deferred payment.

We shot the whole thing in Wilmington, North Carolina. At the time, Demolition hadn’t been made and I needed to get a movie made. It wasn’t really something I considered in my wheelhouse, but I took a crack at it and it ended up getting made.

On the feature side, they can be a little easier at a certain point. Something like Demolition feels infinitely harder than an adaptation. There are so many choices and so many roads you can go down.

Every time you turn the page or every single word becomes a decision about the character—what he’s going to say or what he’s not going to say. The options are limitless and it’s all on your shoulders. You can do anything you want. That freedom can be scary.

From my own experience, I could freeze up because I didn’t know where that choice was going to leave me. I found that I had to make difficult choices and follow the road even if it led to a dead end. You can always go back, but maybe you could also pick up something along the way that you could use.

With an adaptation, there is a foundation. There is source material. I tend to change a lot, but you do have some help with those decisions. The main plot is there. The main scene of the story is there.

What did you find to be the most difficult step in writing Demolition?

Obviously there are difficulties within the labor of writing, but for me, the most difficult step was trying to get the movie made after the script was complete. It was ten years in the making. It was on the blacklist. People talk about it and they pat you on the back and tell you that you wrote a great script, but you’re still standing there holding your script wondering who’s going to make it.

It took a long time before someone stepped up and that was the producers and Jean-Marc. I would be lying if I didn’t say that there were times when I lost confidence and thought about bailing out. You’re losing money, losing confidence, and running out of money. There were times when I was ready to throw it all away.

Is there anything else you would like to add about the film or any advice you’d like to pass along to upcoming writers?

I think it comes back to what we were just saying. Don’t be afraid to go down those roads, even if you don’t know where they’re going.

There are so many days where I stared at my computer, afraid to make the wrong choices or write the wrong words. You can’t be precious. You have to be willing to fail. It’s a relationship.

Writing is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger you get.

 

This article was originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.

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