“Let’s start this the right way.” Before my interview with Jean-Marc Vallée, the Canadian director of WILD and DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, even begins, he plops his iPhone down on the table and plays the intro to Simon & Garfunkle’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”. The song is featured prominently in his latest film and when he cuts it off just before Paul Simon starts singing about how he would rather be a sparrow than a snail, it was very unclear as to whether this was my cue to speak. This would explain my elongated, “Soooo …” before I get to my first question.
WILD is Vallée’s 8th feature film and, in this humble critic’s opinion, his best work since his breakthrough film, C.R.A.Z.Y. Based on the best selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, and featuring the best, darn Reese Witherspoon performance since WALK THE LINE, if not since ELECTION, WILD tells the story of one woman’s journey back to herself. As Cheryl traverses the Pacific Crest Trail, which starts at the US border with Mexico and goes all the way to the US border with Canada, she leaves her troubled past behind her, including a divorce, addiction to drugs and sex, and the grief of losing her mother to cancer at a very young age.
Sooooo … how did WILD land in Vallée’s hands to begin with?
“At this point, I was finishing DALLAS BUYERS CLUB; Reese wanted to see it,” Vallée confides, before explaining that both Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey, who won an Oscar for his work in DBC, are represented by the same agency. It was the shared agency that thought Vallée might be the right fit for WILD, which Witherspoon had the rights to. “She watched Dallas; it wasn’t released yet; it wasn’t the official final thing. Then she called me and sent the script and the book. I read both. And I went, oh my god, I’m going to make this film. I got to do this.”
Speaking with Vallée is never dull. He is a passionate man who gets lost in the pictures he makes. When he talks about them, it sounds at times like he still might be lost in them, as he rambles on about technique and approach and style. When he gets to his point though, he almost always catches you off guard. This is perhaps best exemplified by his explanation of what spoke to him most about Cheryl’s adventure.
“I was going to make DEMOLITION. We weren’t quite ready yet. I called the producers and said, ‘Would you mind if I made a film before DEMOLITION because it’s so beautiful?’ I’d like to tell this story to the world. I lost my mom to cancer and it was a way to pay tribute to these strong female characters and to my mom. She was really, she, she, she, she was a little bit like [Cheryl’s mother] Bobby, so optimistic all the time and ‘We’re rich in love’ and ‘Put yourself in the way of beauty’, y’know, things that are annoying when you’re young. She was such a powerful force in my life, just like Cheryl, so I wanted to be part of it.”
(DEMOLITION was shot and wrapped this past fall and stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts.)
Vallée doesn’t stop there either. “There’s no enemy in this film; there is no villain. We had a film with a character that was not only the hero but the villain at the same time. Yes, for the first 30 minutes, nature is her main enemy on the trail and she has to evolve and learn to become part of it and accept this and accept her mother’s words and accept the fact that life was fucking tough on her. And her mother died so young, and she became a drug addict and a sex addict and got divorced and no money and I don’t like what I am and I’ve got to change and I’ve got to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was. I think I’m going a little bit away from your question.”
When you stray with that much emotion, getting away from the question hardly matters.
WILD strikes a very delicate balance between the vastness of the trail and the intimacy of Cheryl’s journey. Vallée spent a great deal of time in pre-production trying to sort out how to get this just right, focusing mostly on the script itself with screenwriter, Nick Hornby (AN EDUCATION). “We were conscious that we had to make a film that takes place on a trail with landscape and a girl on a solitary journey. How are we going to approach this? The main thing though was the emotional content,” Vallée explains. “My challenge and my concern was, my god, yeah, I want to make this film but, Jesus, I hope it will be as good as the book. I hope it will be as powerful and as emotional as the book. The first thing I did was talk to Nick Hornby. Let’s go through the script; let’s take as much material, as much emotional material from the book, try to put this in the film, everything related to the mother daughter relationship. It was a lot of work done with Nick in prep to find the right emotional journey.”
In the end though, despite all this work, Vallée found the actual balance in an unexpected place. “It’s in the cutting room that I found the distance.”
Speaking of distance, the real Cheryl Strayed was often on the WILD set, which could have led to a fair amount of conflict but fortunately was rather the opposite instead.
“She was such a great ally. Without being in her contract, she became some sort of technical advisor for the trail part. She loved to come to the set. Think about it; you’re alive and there’s a film made on you. You’re curious. ‘Can I watch Reese?’ Then she watched Reese play her and I go cut and look at her and she’s crying; she’s emotional. She didn’t interfere with the emotional content but I liked all of her input on the trail and all of her input reading the script and what we were doing to her book.”
According to Vallée, Strayed adopted the following philosophy, “’It’s your thing. I know it’s a different art form; make it yours.’ But we wanted to be respectful of her.”
Vallée is building a reputation for himself in Hollywood as the go-to director to transform actors, or at least our perception of them. This is not something he takes credit for though.
“These two, Matthew and Reese, they were in a mode to get out of their comfort zone and change the perception. Let’s show the world that we love acting and that we’re ready to look vulnerable, feel vulnerable. It’s not about us looking good.” Vallée’s part in this is the insistence that every decision made on set serves one thing and one thing only, the story. “It’s not nice. It’s not supposed to be. We didn’t do the thing where we let the sun hit her hair and it will be glowing. It’s just raw, dirty; it’s not show off. Let’s serve the thing and the thing to serve is the amazing, touching story with such humanity. We want to be at the service of that.”
But does he get any resistance from these big celebrities when he pushes them the way he does?
“I do have a little bit of, yeah, really, resistance but it goes away. I didn’t have any resistance for makeup or hair. The thing with Reese, there was a little bit of resistance because she’s from Tennessee and she has an intolerance to cold. We shot in the cold. So the resistance was, really, ‘I’ve got to be in shorts again? Really?’ She had goose bumps pretending it was summer in California when it was really fall in Oregon.”