Joshua Stecker is a freelance entertainment journalist based in Los Angeles. His bylines include The Hollywood Reporter and Death & Taxes Magazine. Stecker is the former west coast/web editor of Script Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @joshuastecker.
Bryan Sipe was lost.
Ten years ago, he was living the out-of-work screenwriter life. Tending bar, drinking too much, staying out too late, sucking the marrow out of Hollywood while losing track of why he moved from New Jersey in the first place. His artistic passion was waning. Nothing was moving him and he began to feel numb to everything that he used to find inspiration in.
Fortunately, Sipe was getting a bit of writing work here and there (writing “bad comedies” as he describes it), but he feared he had lost his voice, which is the death knell for any writer. But, as Sipe will describe in our interview, for reasons he really can’t explain, he found a muse in the character of Davis in what would become the screenplay for Demolition.
Using his experience as a demolition guy back in New Jersey, Sipe developed the story of Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal), a successful investment banker, who struggles after losing his wife in a horrible car accident. He becomes distant with his in-laws, especially his father-in-law (Chris Cooper), and unravels through random acts of devastation. He soon finds comfort through Karen (Naomi Watts), a customer service rep of a vending machine company he makes contact with through complaint letters that turn into personal revelations. Karen and her son Chris (Judah Lewis) help Davis rebuild his life through the wreckage of what he once was.
Demolition, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and also screened at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Conference and Festival, where Script caught up with Sipe about his personal journey in developing this screenplay.
Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the inspiration behind this script?
Bryan Sipe: I did demolition work as a younger man. I was tearing apart burned out houses so that a construction crew could come along and put them back together. It’s easy to swing a sledgehammer and smash windows and rip apart ceilings and pull walls down. It’s fun sometimes too, you know? But putting things together is a totally different thing. And I didn’t have the faculty for that. My brain couldn’t process in the same way as an engine or a computer. I don’t know how to build things.
Right, but you knew how to destroy it.
Yes, I know how to destroy things. But once you pull it all down, you see the frame of the house and you see the studs and you kind of get it. It doesn’t mean that you can do it, but you understand the concepts. And I think that even though I was far from a life in the movie business or from being a writer, calling myself an artist, I think that my artist brain, my creative self was filing those connections, those parallels, those analogies, you know? And pushing them to the back of my head. And the other thing that was happening at the time was just darkness for me. I was getting older. I was starting to feel like I didn’t belong in [New Jersey] anymore. What is here for me? I don’t know. I know that I have something that I want. And I know that there’s something that I have to say.
New Jersey is a very blue-collar place to grow up. And most people grow up and do what their father did or you become a cop or a plumber. It wasn’t for me though. And it brought me down. Standing around among the debris and the dirt on your hands and on your face, I just fell into a dark hole with that. I can remember the highlight of my day was going home and taking a shower and watching the dirt come off my body and swirl around the drain. Just to see how dark and black it can get.
[Those feelings] came in handy. Then I started feeling them again, six or seven years into my Hollywood experience where I was failing. I’m working at a bar. I’m drinking too much. I’m staying out too late. And you take your eye off the prize. You forget what you’re here for and you become complacent. I had this stimulating experience that brought me back to that place when I was swinging that sledgehammer, and then I didn’t care about anything anymore. And I thought, when did this happen? This is new. I don’t give a shit about watching whatever is playing in the movie theater anymore. How can that be? This is what I want to do with my life, but I don’t care. I don’t want to read a screenplay. I don’t want to read a book. Not interested in going to see music or listen to music. And it’s a really scary feeling. It feels like you’re losing yourself.
It sounds like you were just going numb. Like all the artistic stimuli wasn’t fulfilling you anymore.
It’s apathy. It’s exactly that. I was going numb and I didn’t know why and I hit the panic button because I want to feel something. I want to be passionate about things again. And I was writing these scripts that were for [Hollywood], you know? Writing bad comedies. I didn’t know if I was a writer anymore. What my real voice was. So I got this sense of loss now, like I lost my true creative self. And that felt like death to me. Mind you, this stuff is in retrospect now (laughs). I didn’t know that this was happening as I was doing it. There was nothing calculated about these feelings. I wasn’t able to put these pieces together. I just felt numb and blank. Then this voice started talking to me, and he was also experiencing loss. I followed him and he showed me what that loss was. And it was his wife.
You’re talking like a metaphysical type, an internal voice?
Yeah, exactly. I’m saying [the screenplay] began with this voice. And I followed the voice.
That’s some muse.
I didn’t give a shit anymore about what Hollywood wanted me to write or what agents were telling me would sell. I just wanted to talk to this guy. I wanted him to talk back to me and I followed him through this tragedy of his. I was there with him and he was there for me.
There’s a crucial moment when he comes upon this vending machine [in the film]. I really just wanted to experience those small moments that happen after a tragedy because they have to happen. We have to put one foot in front of the other still. You’re still thirsty, so you still have to get a drink of water. But how do you do those things knowing that this person is gone forever? [The accident] only happened an hour ago. So he’s walking through and there’s this vending machine, and I thought, okay, I’ll just follow him, and he puts some quarters in it, presses B2 for M&M’s, and it gets stuck because that’s happened to me before. It gets stuck. And now these wheels are turning. Now what does he do? He bangs on the machine. Goes over and asks for his money back, which is a really fucking odd thing to do when your wife died an hour earlier (laughs).
And I suppose, just like an audience would be receiving this, I’m thinking, what is he doing? This is so strange. And then in my mind’s eye you see that little metal thing that says for questions and comments. And as soon as I saw that, I went ah! I have another character now.
That was it.
And in that way they were able to start a relationship with each other… That’s the way I was experiencing it. I’d never experienced writing in that way before. It was scary, because you don’t know if this scene or this road that you go down is going to be a dead end. Am I wasting my time? Am I making a fool of myself?
Right. It sounds like writing this screenplay was a very visceral experience for you.
It was. It really was.
It sounds like a deeply personal movie for you, as well. The film has so many levels to it. It reminded me of that Michael Douglas film Falling Down a lot. But in this film, you wrote a character that takes an arbitrary route when it comes to mourning. Everything you would expect this character to do, you would think his character would go through, he doesn’t, which was a very fascinating choice to watch. But from a writing standpoint, you told me how it started, but how did you, say… get to act three?
That’s a great question… because there is no real natural thrust to this story.
It really is about a guy who is wandering around in a bit of madness for a while, and part of that is fun to watch because it’s unpredictable. He’s from a world that is very predictable. So there’s irreverence to the things that he’s saying, the things that he’s doing. And they’re also elevated slightly above reality. So the question is how did I get to act three? I felt like I needed to build to something. I needed there to be something to look forward to. Even if it was something that you think, holy shit, how is he going to deal with this? So that became the foundation that they wanted to create [in Davis’ wife’s name]. That was really the only track that I laid that I wanted to keep the train running on, that they were creating this foundation in her honor. It was going to be something that helped kids with tuition and stuff like that, in his wife’s field. I just felt like if I could pack everything in between the moment where his father-in-law presents him with this idea and the actual memorial dinner, then there can be fireworks. There needs to be some shit that goes down. So that was my act three.
But he needs to hit rock bottom before we get to that moment. And that moment actually is rock bottom… and then one more stop.
Right. And we’ll spoil the movie if we say what that is.
Let’s talk more about the demolition metaphor, which you brought from your personal life into the film. It’s an interesting progression because he doesn’t begin to destroy things. It’s meticulous at first. And it all stems from a quote he hears his father-in-law say early in the film.
Right. There needed to be a natural progression for the demolition. That was something that I had some of in the original script. But the development with the two producers, Russ Smith and Lianne Halfon, helped me get to that. Let’s start small, they said. I think I had him destroying stuff early on, and it made it so that there was nothing to really progress to. So you’re on this journey with him and it’s like the drugs aren’t working anymore. Just taking this one thing apart doesn’t make him feel the way it felt yesterday. So he just wants to crush it now and see it all spread out on the floor. It was also something that I was experiencing at the same time. I was just oddly seeing these metaphors in nature and my environment on a daily basis, and I was calling it out in my own head. Like, I would see a dead deer on the side of the road and I’d be like, that’s a metaphor for whatever. So I put that in, I sort of transposed that into his character and thought maybe I can get away with these heavy-handed metaphors if he calls it out. If he calls it out, maybe he can get away with it. And I was very aware of how heavy-handed those metaphors were, but I love them though.
So did I. I think the heavy-handedness and self-awareness of it saves it.
Right. As long as you’re aware of it and you just know you’re not fooling anyone.
How long did it take you from initial idea to production?
You mentioned you had two of your producers come in and help you massage a little bit of the script. How important was that to have other people come in and work your vision?
So important, because you’re suddenly in this vacuum and you lose perspective of what is working and certain things become precious. Or certain things you just get tired of. You start pulling things apart, and is it because it’s not working? Because it’s bad? Or is it because you’re tired of looking at it? So having people like Russ and Lianne come in and remind you what is working and then challenge the things that aren’t working that you had no idea weren’t working. They presented these ideas with me in very intelligent ways. It was never you should do this or that. It was questions. Why did you do this in this scene? I’m curious, why does Davis need to go there? They helped shape some of the other characters like the father-in-law. You don’t like him, do you? Why don’t you respect him? I would read some of the scenes and think, they’re right. He’s a bit of a caricature. And I went, you guys are right. He’s going to be so much more human if we soften him up and you understand that he had a relationship with Davis, as well. And he loves this guy, so it’s painful for him to watch Davis’ fall. But he also wants to respect the memory of his daughter. And how many times can you get punched in the stomach before you say that’s enough?
Are you pleased with how the film came out?
I love it. I realize that there’s probably a hundred ways to make a movie out of anyone’s script. This movie probably is as far away from what I thought it would be as I was writing the words. If I projected what was in my head on the screen, it wouldn’t look anything like that, and I’m so happy for that because Jean-Marc brought this beautiful film to life that I really learned from.
Demolition opened in theaters on Friday, April 8, 2016.
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