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‘Big Little Lies’ Finale: Director Jean-Marc Vallée on the Long-Awaited Answer to the Mystery

Variety logo Variety 4/3/2017 Sonia Saraiya
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Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched the finale of “Big Little Lies,” which aired April 2.

The mystery is finally solved: Not only do we know who did it, we also know who the victim is, too. And we know who the father is of Jane’s son, Ziggy — the man who assaulted her that horrible night seven years ago. And thanks to director Jean-Marc Vallee’s visual storytelling style, it was all delivered without a single word spoken.

It was justice a long time coming for Celeste’s abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) who suffered a fatal fall at the hands of Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz). The women bonded together to keep the secret, refusing to tell the authorities the truth — but they’re each finally unburdened of the painful, deep secrets they’ve been keeping all series long.

Vallée and writer David E. Kelley nudged the significance of the ending to be a slightly different takeaway from Liane Moriarty’s novel; there, it’s revealed that Bonnie had an abusive father, which compels her to act when she sees Perry attacking the other women. Vallée explains, “We didn’t need it.” Vallée and Kelley relied on Kravitz’s acting and the narrative arc of the group to deliver the final moments.

Variety sat down with Vallée, who is currently shooting the HBO adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects,” to talk about the choices he made throughout the series, the buildup to that finale, and the surprising news that Adam Scott’s singing is “so bad!”

Variety: You’re very busy!

Vallee: Yeah, what am I doing with my life? Two TV series back to back. I’m a living zombie. [“Sharp Objects” is] eight episodes now, 96 days of shooting. Big Little Lies was 90. A lot of fun, but a Herculean marathon.

I watched the “Big Little Lies” finale this week. I had to keep pausing because I was so emotional.

You know what? Recently I was doing some final work on the color grading. No sound. I was working on episode seven about three weeks ago. I got caught at the end with no sound. I became emotional, crying. Jesus, these women. They touched me. F—k, it’s emotional at the end!

Tell me about the end. We’ve spent the whole series getting to this climactic moment. But even when it does happen, you skip around. You show us Perry appearing on the landing of those stairs, and then you cut to right afterwards where all of the women are testifying, and then you go back to show us what happened. Why was that fragmentation important to you?

It felt like it was the right way, to tell the story in a non-linear way to have the best emotional ending. It wasn’t about death. Of course we’re wondering — when Perry recognizes Jane and goes, Oh my God. Oh shit. What’s, what’s … What am I going to do?

Then we dissolve to the opening of the series, which is the aftermath where the cops, the detectives arrive. We use the exact same opening, same editing, except we added the shots of the person who’s watching, which is Celeste. All we took out from the opening starts with Celeste, because we didn’t want the audience to know that Celeste was the one watching — was the one that was alive — because that was the trick of the series.

It’s a whodunit, but it’s also who is dead? It was interesting still to wonder, and to get the audience at a place where, What the hell happened again? Wait, wait, wait. Wait a minute. Then you see them in the interrogation room. Finally, our five leads, you see them like the Greek chorus, but you don’t hear them. You don’t hear them and you go, Why? Why? Wait a minute. Then you hear someone breathing, and then you realize that it was the detective (Merrin Dungey_ that was looking at them, trying to find a clue because she’s clever. She seems to get that they’re using a very, very similar language.

Her instinct tells her that these girls are lying. Her partner goes, Wait a minute. No, no, no. It’s obvious. Why lie? Why lie? It makes no sense. “Exactly,” she goes. “Why lie?” The answer is the most touching thing of the series. They lie to protect one of them. That is the ultimate big little lie.

Then you realize after, once you know who pushed, what happened. Because of Perry. Maddie, Reese’s character — and all the others probably —they went, We’re going to shut the f—k up. It’s an accident. Let’s shut the f—k up.

And you go, oh my God, is this the right decision. Is this good? I don’t know. I’m not sure. But, at the same time I go — Yes, shut up. Shut the f—k up. That’s all they deserve, this f—king asshole. We’re caught into this, and we’re rooting for them and at the same time we go …Hmm.  Then, there’s this long shot point-of-view, and we hear the lighter:  The detective doesn’t let go.

Like her partner was saying, “Let it go.” But she doesn’t. She doesn’t, and she’s still wondering if one of them is gonna make a mistake one day, and we’re gonna find out the truth. But that’s the end of the series and We don’t care after that. That is for the audience to have fun with it and to picture and to imagine what they want to imagine.

Was that last note of discort something from the book?

It’s something David and I wanted to put in, yeah. We wanted to put in this long, this binocular P.O.V. She’s watching them, and we hear the lighter, and we love the song. The lyrics of this amazing rock ’n’ roll song from The [Rolling] Stones, “You can’t always get what you want / but if you try sometimes you get what you need.” This is the title of that episode seven, You Get What You Need. It’s coming from that song. Yeah, it’s at the same time, the song gets so emotional, the lyrics, you can’t always get what you want. Yeah, yeah, but sometimes you get what you need.

The music on this show is so memorable and exacting, and it clearly means a lot to you. Beyond that, the soundscape of the show is so engaged — that interrogation room scene at the end makes wonderful use of that neutral buzz of the intercom, before it’s switched on. Tell me about creating this atmosphere.

I’m a frustrated musician-slash-DJ, and that’s what I do when I make a film — or a long format film like this one, seven hours. I meticulously choose every single track. There’s no score. I don’t like to use original music and compose. I like to put the music in the center of the lives of the characters — where it becomes part of their lives and their story, and they decide what they’re listening to and when and how and the cut in and the cut out. Of course, sometimes I cheat a little bit and the music becomes score — but it’s those [songs] that becomes score, and it defines them.

You tell me what you listen to, and I’ll tell you who you are. This is what we do in our own lives. There’s a lot of us. I’m such a music geek, a music freak. I wake up in the morning, I press play. I just pressed pause to make this interview. I go to bed at night and I press stop — sometimes I even sleep with the music on. Finding the backstory of these characters, music-wise is what I like to do — and it helps also nailing the tone and the emotional level. In this one, Chloe (Darby Camp) — Madeline’s daughter, the 7-year-old — became the music influence, the music source. She’s the one who’s contaminating everyone around her, because she’s always playing music. At seven, she’s already a music freak and she knows a lot.

She was probably influenced by her older sister — she’s just a phenomenon and you’ve got to go along with this. Of course, it’s a little far-fetched and it’s rare, but it’s possible. There’s some kids that are artistically, very percussive and very special. This kid is like that, and that’s one her lines. “What do you want to do?” To Ziggy the first time. “What do you want to do when you grow up?” “I want to run a massive label.” She wants to run a massive label. She’s into music and she’s giving music to her mom, to Ziggy, she’s playing music all the time. Madeline (Reese) is always saying, “Chloe, can you?” And she doesn’t have to go, “Lower the music.” We know. “Chloe, just.” She lowers the music.  That’s a funny line for Madeline where she goes, “Well, now is the time to play your goddamn loud music!”

It speaks to your point about how music gets into the heart of these characters. Chloe is uncannily perceptive about the adults and their relationships.

Yeah. She has this gift to feel the music, and to use it to help people around her. When she uses “River” from Leon Bridges, she wants Ziggy and Anabella to make peace, to make up. Madeline says, “Make up, honey, not make out, c’mon.” Then Madeline listens to the song playing in the car, and Madeline uses that song later to make peace with her husband, and try to make up with him. She thought it was such a beautiful song that she uses it at her turn. And it becomes score and you still hear the music over Nicole who’s by herself in her room, with the ocean. Then, she thinks of her husband and she Skypes with him and she makes an erotic dance for him, some sexy dance. Of course, she’s doing it with no music, but we’re using the music to just go over with it. That’s her way of making up.

Every episode, the series was so nice to be creative with the music aspect and the sound design too — as you were saying, sometimes the absence of music and the absence of sound is powerful. When there’s no music playing, what I like about this approach is that it doesn’t take the audience by the hand, saying, This is what you’re going to feel, and we’re going to compose something with silence that will be emotional to help you feel what they feel.

I don’t want to try to do this. I just want the music to play. It’s there and it feels like it’s coming from their room, it’s not us playing it loud to be clever and try to be emotional. It’s there, it’s part of the reality and it’s not forced into … It’s not meant to be and to look like, oh, we’re trying to touch you. But, it becomes almost more emotional and looks more real, sounds more real cause they’re using it.

And sometimes there’s absolutely no music cause that’s the way it is. We’re in a therapy session with a therapist and of course there wouldn’t be any music there. These scenes are among the most emotional of the series. It’s just dialogue, just talking heads and with some quick flashbacks. When you cut to the flashbacks we keep the sound of the present. We don’t use the sound of the past cause we’re in [Celeste’s] head.

These images are very quick. It flashes. We’re with them. Madeline is driving and she’s thinking about the affair she had with Joseph (Santiago Cabrera). And she’s pissed and we hear the sound of the car driving, and we hear the sound of the music she’s listening to. She’s thinking about her daughters that just moved away to go to her dad’s. And she plays “Feelings” from Alabama Shakes because her daughter put it in her phone. Then, she listens to it and there’s a beautiful moment where the singer goes, “It’s gonna be all right.” It’s nice, and it’s part of the story. Madeline convinces herself that it’s gonna be all right, and that comes from what? From a 7-year-old.

One of the things that struck me about the finale is that Ed (Adam Scott)’s performance is so vulnerable and striking. Bonnie and Nathan (James Tupper) have really emotional performances, too.

I know. I used the most emotional voice, male voice. Conor O’Brien from The Villagers, Irish band. He’s the one performing and Adam Scott is doing the lip sync over. Adam Scott sings like a bird … He’s so bad. He’s so bad. There was no way I was gonna keep his voice on there. Same with James Tupper playing Nathan. He was worse than Adam Scott. We had an amazing singer. I approached Chris Isaak to do the voice of Nathan, and it was going to work, and then he had a schedule thing. Then I got a guy who sounds like Chris Isaak to perform “How’s the World Treating You.”

Is Zoë Kravitz performing as herself?

Yeah. Yeah. Zoë sings like God. The voice of this girl, she’s like her dad. She’s got it all, the look, the voice, the talent, the acting. This girl.

In the show you chose not to explain that Bonnie had an abusive past herself, which led her to help with Perry. Why was that?

It would’ve been nice, but we didn’t find a way to put it in. [In one idea], the detectives were explaining it in the room and we finally went  — we didn’t even shoot it. David and I and the producers, we all went, Nah. We all knew that too, ‘cause we read the book and we were like, Is it a must? Should we put a thing earlier in one of the episodes where we find out? When Ed visits her studio, we are hinting that something might have happened in her past, because she’s interrupting Ed and saying, we all have our history, we all have our past. she has her moment where she’s about to confess, and then we move on. And we realized we didn’t need it. The finale is bigger than giving a justification for Bonnie to push [Perry]. Whether or not she’s been abused in the past, this girl can be strong even if she’s tiny. This can girl can help someone else, even though she doesn’t have anything for Maddie. And — whoops. It becomes bigger than her thing, her ego. She didn’t want to kill him, but oops, and it happened.

[At the end] we see them all together with the kids on the beach. This representation — the ocean over there is so angry and violent. It’s such a great metaphor. [Perry] doesn’t realize that he has the worst enemy in front of them. The women together are a force of nature, they are like the ocean in that moment. And he is not going to get away with this. And the fifth one arrived, Bonnie.

That is why we cut it in this way — every shot is not more than 10 frames and there are like 40 cuts. It wasn’t about seeing what he does to them, it was about seeing — this is violent, this is crazy, and the ocean is all part of this. It’s a maelstrom.

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