‘Wild’ director Jean-Marc Vallée related to Cheryl Strayed’s story in a very personal way

TELLURIDE – When Fox Searchlight's “Wild” landed Friday afternoon in Telluride, the Oscar fuse was instantly lit for star and producer Reese Witherspoon. But as our own Greg Ellwood noted in his review, after last year's “Dallas Buyers Club,” director Jean-Marc Vallée seems almost destined to again be the unsung hero of a film that leaves audiences talking about the power of its performances and the efficiency of its economy.

The most intriguing thing about the film to me was its structure, and that's what I wanted to get into with Vallée in particular when we spoke Saturday afternoon. A genre like this is so well-worn that there seems precious little originality left to be explored, but while Vallée doesn't blow the doors off its conventions, he makes the film more of an experience by playing with picture and sound in the editorial process (he edits his own films), making “Wild” a state of mind film in some sense. That goes a long way toward keeping things fresh.

You can read through our back and forth below. From here, “Wild” heads north of the border to the Toronto Film Festival next month before opening in theaters on Dec. 5.


HitFix: It's funny, when we were talking last year, I didn't even realize you were shooting this.

Jean-Marc Vallée: Oh, I didn't mention it?

No, but I'm not usually looking too far ahead when I'm in the middle of things. So when I got around to this year's stuff I was like, “Oh, damn, he's doing that, too.”

Yeah, and I'm shooting on September 15, man. The next one.

Do you like that, keeping them lined up?

It's just circumstances. These three films in a row. I think after this one I'm going to relax.

How does it feel being in the thick of a rush like that, though?

I feel great, man. I feel like I'm living the dream. I'm having a beautiful professional life. I'm enjoying it, meeting great actors and creators. I feel blessed.

So, softball to start, but what was it about Cheryl Strayed's story that made you want to explore it as a film?

I was finishing “Dallas” and I read the script and then the book, and I was so moved. I related to it so much. I lost my mom three years before of cancer. And I was just crying, man, like a baby, when I read the book. I thought, “I've got to make this movie and pay tribute to this woman,” who was my mom.” Who was, you know, so positive, and, “you can do it,” just like Bobbi. So I said, “Yeah, I guess this is for me.” Cheryl and Reese and Laura, we all met and we wanted to be at the service of this story.

It's interesting that you had such a personal reaction to the material, because I feel that sort of plays it out in the structure of the film. It's like you're putting the viewer in Cheryl's state of mind.

Oh yeah.

And then you're using flashback structure, but in a dynamic way, playing with sound to trigger memory, and then fleeting imagery.

Like the brain can work. Just a sound, a moment of a song appearing and then you think of something else, and then you have an image, and then you see this girl having a finger in her mouth during a sex scene for, like, 10 frames, and you say, “Wait, what was that?” It puts you in a zone where you have to pay attention and you're in her head. What she sees is what we see. What she thinks is what we see. What she hears is what we hear, and sometimes what we hear is not coming from reality, it's coming from memory. It was such an amazing project for a director, to play with the “toy,” to have fun with the medium and the language. And also I had to be humble and not interfere and not play too much. At the same time, I had to just be there: “The script is so beautiful, the scenes are great, the lines great, just capture this, don't overdo it, don't over cut.” There are lots of shots in the film that are very long. I'm not cutting performances. They're there. I was in the cutting room with a box of tissues just holding back tears and crying, just watching them, and where to cut? “I don't want to cut; this is so beautiful.” I had this problem.

How much of that structure was evident in the script?

I must give credit to Nick Hornby. It was there 100%. I just added more in the cutting room. We kept being creative, even though Nick was done with the writing. When we started to shoot, we wanted the film to be as emotional an experience as the book was. So we felt we needed to have more moments with the mother. So any time we had breaks or even during a makeup test, Laura [Dern] was always a trooper. She wasn't scripted on the trail. She came out for a makeup test and I saw her next to a tree and I went, “Oh my God. I'm going to do a dolly in with the camera here and I might use it…Let's shoot you in the middle of the trail here.” So it was like that. Every time Laura was on set, let's try to do something else with Laura.

Congratulations on your film editing nomination last year for “Dallas Buyers Club,” by the way.

Thank you.

Is that something you expect you'll keep doing? Cutting your own films?

Yeah, I like that. It's an extension. I think it belongs to directing. If I remember correctly from my film school years, it started – the editing belonged to the directors. And then the studio system was built and they created the job of the editors and then the directors could stay longer on the set. But when they all started, they were cutting their own thing. It's such a film lesson to be in the cutting room, to do it your own way yourself. I have a blast doing it and I learn so much. I think it makes me a better filmmaker and director of actors. The main thing that I'm trying to do, always, is getting the performances, what touched me the most, where I laugh, where I cry, when I'm shocked, when I'm pissed. Yes, the editing can make you feel something else, but that's also why I do it. It's a big toy.

This is your first Telluride trip. What do you think?

I love it. Mountains and the way people are here, it's so mellow. It's not “official.” No red carpet. It's something else when you have that, the glamor. But there's something so cool and simple and human. Look at us. We're in a school hallway with toys doing an interview, with the hands of Marcus, Marion and Annabella on the wall.

Finally, talk about what's next, this movie you're starting next month.

“Demolition.” It's not an action piece. It's a drama with Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts. Amazing script written by Bryan Sipe. I've been working on this for the past three years and we finally have the money to do it, with Mr. Mudd producing and also with Black Label media. It's about a guy in a crisis where, the beginning of the film, page three, he's in a car with his wife, they get into an accident and she dies. And he has nothing. He's at the hospital and the funeral and sees people crying and he has no emotion. So he's on a mission to find his emotion again.

That's interesting. I have to say it sounds similar to this one, thematically, anyway.

Thematically, yes. It's beautiful. Yeah, it's someone who loses himself and tries to find himself back, but very differently. It's more in an odd way. He kind of becomes weird, but we still like him, because he's honest, but he's doing things that we're not supposed to do in society.

Well I look forward to that and congratulations on this streak so far. Enjoy Toronto.

Thank you.