By Shirley Li
July 09, 2018 at 01:55 PM EDT
  • TV Show

Ai yi yi yi yi.

It’s a late May afternoon at the end of a long day of interviews about HBO’s Sharp Objects, and the series’ director and editor Jean-Marc Vallée is thinking back to the sweltering summer days he spent in Georgia shooting the dark drama, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s first novel. Just the memory of filming is exhausting him — hence the exasperated utterance. “The heat and humidity…” he begins, rubbing his temples. “I was sweaty. I was bitten by all these critters. I hurt myself.” He points to scars on his skin. “I was out of my comfort zone. It was the worst shoot of my life.”

But don’t worry: He’s saying this with a smile on his face. After all, the result of all the literal blood and sweat (and maybe even tears) that went into making his second TV drama is a series that’s already drawn raves for its slow-burn style and gritty substance.

Not that Vallée, sitting with EW two months ago, knew what the reaction would be. He’s smiling because he’s just relieved — or rather, amazed — to know that Sharp Objects is finished, given all the speed bumps along the way. They’re largely self-imposed, he admits: He was the one who hadn’t wanted to do the drama the first place, not until leading lady Amy Adams convinced the French-Canadian director to follow up his first HBO venture — Big Little Lies, for which he won an Emmy — with another, and with no break in between. “I would never pick this kind of project,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I was tired after Big Little Lies, and I wanted more time to prepare, to do my research, and to do my homework. But because Amy offered the invitation, I said, ‘Yes, okay. I’m doing this.'”

Anne Marie Fox/HBO; Inset: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

RELATED: Amy Adams talks how Sharp Objects helped her ‘work some sh— out’

But honestly, he adds, he just didn’t quite see why he should be the one behind the camera: “I mean, I would watch this kind of series, but to do it? Me?”

Yet it’s not that much of a stretch, given his résumé. Sharp Objects covers generational violence and emotional abuse, like Big Little Lies. It centers on mothers and daughters and anger and grief, like Wild, Vallée’s 2014 adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir. And it’s a character study at heart, akin to, say, 2015’s Demolition. When EW points this out to Vallée, he laughs. “I gotta ask my therapist what’s going on,” he jokes. “It’s true. [Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies] share DNA, but, I mean, it just happened like that.”

What worried him more about Sharp Objects was whether he’d be able to pull off the task of telling the sensitive story in, well, a sensitive way. Showing the scars for the first time in the pilot stumped him in particular: “I was concerned,” he recalls. “The first time we see the scars, we need to see them properly. It’s gotta be moody. That was a tricky one.” Showrunner Marti Noxon also remembers an anxious Vallée, who often requested tweaks to scripts, to her consternation: “His process is to have everything on the page, but he also wants a lot of space to fill it out visually, so we’d cut it down and then he’d be like, ‘No, it’s too short,'” she says, laughing. “And then we’d add scenes and see those scenes go away! But all my fears at the time, that the essential qualities of the language might get lost, went away as soon as I saw [the final product].”

Most of all, Vallée says he regrets not having enough time to build playlists for all of the characters on screen. A notorious fan of incorporating music into his work — not in terms of scores playing over scenes, but of having characters interacting with and selecting tracks on their own — Vallée says he wished he could have given everyone on screen a specific sound. But, he says, at least he found the right one for Camille: that of Led Zeppelin.

In fact, he’s so enthusiastic about the choice, he pulls out his phone to play the song he says represents Camille’s rebellious nature: the band’s “What Is and What Should Never Be.” “It’s the violence, the explosion of the rock,” he marvels. “They knew how to play this sexy rock and roll.” He moves his head to the beat, then drops his hand as the guitar kicks in, about 25 seconds in. “Come on!”

But just then, it’s time for him to move on to his next interview. Vallée sighs, pauses the song, and tucks his phone away. Ai yi yi yi yi.

Sharp Objects airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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