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Jean-Marc Vallée, naturalistic director known for ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ and ‘Big Little Lies,’ dies at 58

Reese Witherspoon and director Jean-Marc Vallee while filming the 2014 movie “Wild.” (Anne Marie Fox/Fox Searchlight/Everett Collection)
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Jean-Marc Vallée, the Oscar-nominated Canadian director known for the films “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild” as well as two HBO miniseries, died suddenly on Dec. 26 at his cabin outside Quebec City. He was 58.

Bumble Ward, his publicist, told The Washington Post that he died “suddenly and unexpectedly.” The cause of his death is unknown.

“Jean-Marc 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,” said Nathan Ross, his partner at his production company Crazyrose, in a statement to The Post. “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 directed A-list actors — including Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Amy Adams, Matthew McConaughey and Jake Gyllenhaal — with a naturalistic style, often avoiding rehearsals.

His movies often focused on people struggling in society, particularly his two most well-known films: 2013’s “Dallas Buyers Club” and 2014’s “Wild.”

“I have a thing for underdogs, where they’ve got to put up a fight to find their happiness and to find themselves,” Vallée said in an interview with the Directors Guild of America.

“Dallas Buyers Club,” which starred McConaughey, Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner, followed the true story of Ron Woodroof, a Texas electrician who was diagnosed with HIV in 1985 and began smuggling unapproved medication into the state and distributing it to others in what became known as the Dallas Buyers Club.

McConaughey lost more than 40 pounds to portray Woodroof, and Vallée shot the movie primarily without a grip crew, electric crew or artificial lighting.

“We were using a handheld camera and just trying to be raw and serve the story of this underground, underdog guy. At the same time, the challenge was to serve the emotional content, to be there and try to tell this beautiful emotional story,” he told Collider.

It was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture. It also caught the attention of Witherspoon, who reached out to Vallée and asked him to direct “Wild,” a movie based on the memoir of the same title by Cheryl Strayed.

It follows Strayed (played by Witherspoon) as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail following a series of tragic events, including the death of her mother (played by Laura Dern), a divorce and a descent into drug use. Both Witherspoon and Dern received Oscar nods for the film.

“It’s no surprise that the versatile Vallée, who recently directed two Oscar-winning performances in ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ has elicited from Witherspoon an intensely committed turn that, in its blend of grit, vulnerability, physical bravery and emotional immediacy, represents easily her most affecting and substantial work in ... years,” film critic Justin Chang wrote in Variety.

The Oscar-nominated director surprised fans and critics alike when he directed the whole of two highly lauded and wildly popular HBO miniseries: “Big Little Lies” in 2017 and “Sharp Objects” in 2018. Though many originally questioned his move to the small screen, Vallée insisted there was no difference between the types of media.

“You know, I was asked: ‘What was your transition to television?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? There’s no transition to television. It’s the same thing,’ ” he told Deadline. “I approach this like a long feature film — just another project, but it’s not for the big screen, it’s for HBO. But I do it as if it was for the big screen. … It hasn’t changed, the way we frame, the way we use music and silence.”

Jean-Marc Vallée was born in Montreal on March 9, 1963. He studied filmmaking at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Like many of his contemporaries, he began his career by directing music videos for bands such as Wild Touch and Park Avenue.

He earned critical interest with short films in the mid-1990s, receiving Canadian film awards in 1996 for “Les Fleurs Magiques” (“Magical Flowers") and in 1998 for “Les Mots Magiques” (“Magical Words”). He made his feature film debut in 1995 with “Liste Noire” (“Black List”), a thriller that was nominated for several Genie Awards.

His breakthrough came in 2005 with the coming-of-age film “C.R.A.Z.Y.,” the story of a young man exploring his sexuality in the 1960s and 1970s. It was the year’s top-grossing Canadian movie, and it launched Vallée to Hollywood — four years later, he directed “The Young Victoria,” a film about Queen Victoria’s first years on the throne, starring Emily Blunt.

Vallée is survived by his sons, Alex and Emile, and siblings Marie-Josée Vallée, Stéphane Tousignant and Gérald Vallée.

Tributes to the director from colleagues, collaborators, fans and critics poured in following the announcement of his passing.

“My heart is broken. My friend. I love you,” Witherspoon, who worked with Vallée on both “Wild” and “Big Little Lies,” wrote in an Instagram story.

“Beautiful Jean-Marc Vallee. The world has lost one of our great and purest artists and dreamers. And we lost our beloved friend. Our hearts are broken,” tweeted Laura Dern.

“He was always kind to me and someone I looked forward to seeing,” tweeted actor and director Jay Baruchel. “He was a profoundly gifted artist whose passions and efforts have advanced the medium of cinema and he leaves behind treasures of sincerity.”

“Can’t believe it. Jean-Marc Vallée was a prodigious talent, and the only filmmaker to both open (DEMOLITION) and close (THE YOUNG VICTORIA) the Toronto International Film Festival,” tweeted TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey. “I’ll miss his fire.”

“My heart is broken by the news of Jean-Marc Vallée’s sudden passing. He was a soulful artist, an extraordinary filmmaker, a wonderful father to his two wonderful sons, and a treasured friend to me and to so many,” Strayed wrote on Instagram. “ ‘Now we have each other forever,’ we said to each other as we came to the end of the intense time during which we made Wild and became like family. And it was true. He will forever be in my heart.”

“Jean-Marc Vallée’s passion for filmmaking and storytelling was unmatched — so too was his talent,” tweeted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “Through his work and with his art, he left a mark in Quebec, across Canada, and around the world.”

Read more:

Review: How HBO’s ‘Big Little Lies’ transcends the usual rich-mommies drama

Review: In ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ Matthew McConaughey triumphs

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