'How Wild It Was to Let It Be': Jean-Marc Vallée and Laura Dern on Adapting 'Wild'

Director Jean-Marc Vallée on location while filming Wild.
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Jean-Marc Vallée walks into the room and plops his phone onto the table. A few of us film writers are gathered at the Fairmont Royal York to discuss Vallée’s latest film Wild at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the great Québécois director (Café de flore, Dallas Buyers Club) is the first to speak. Vallée puts his phone next to the recording devices we’ve all placed before him, but instead of turning on a microphone, he turns on a song.

"El Condor Pasa" rises from the phone as Simon & Garfunkel play the same powerful guitar riff that forms the central theme of Wild. All of us at the table sit transfixed as the music, powerful for something coming from such a small device, fills the room and puts us in the mind of Cheryl Strayed, the character played by Reese Witherspoon and the author on whose memoir Wild is based. The music also puts us in the mind of Mr. Vallée as his passion for the song and his beautiful film becomes immediately palpable.

Vallée at the TIFF Wild press conference.
Photo: Wireimage / Getty for TIFF.
The character of a soundtrack is a hallmark of a Vallée film and the director himself sets the tone for the discussion by opening with a question, or experience, that everyone at the table clearly wants to savour. How one introduces music in a film with as natural a setting as the Pacific Crest Trail that houses the bulk of Wild is a tricky task, for few, if any, diegetic sources exist for injecting Simon and Garfunkel into the film. Cheryl can’t turn on an iPod since Wild mostly occurs in 1995 and Vallée admits a dislike for instrumental scores that might otherwise bridge silence in a film. Vallée, after he stops the track at the precise second at which it stops during the film, astutely notes that Strayed’s mind and memories create the soundtrack of Wild, which uses pre-existing music in lieu of a conventional score. The lyrics don’t appear in Wild; instead, the music situates Cheryl’s own words within her cinematic journey. “How wild it was to let it be,” Vallée quotes from Strayed’s memoir as he lets her words echo the sentiment of the song.

The words Vallée recites from the author’s story—an immensely popular book that brings high expectations that the film gamely meets—offer fitting words to summarize how best to approach an adaptation of such high esteem. How wild it must have been for the artist and his cast to create a way to be respectful of Strayed’s work while also being loyal and true to the film experience. The result is a beautiful memory mosaic and arguably the film of the year.

Vallée talks about Wild with the same fever of excitement that we do, so the conversation easily slides into Wild’s delicate balance of form and character following Vallée’s introduction with the song. “Sometimes that’s a ghost song. Sometimes she’s humming it, sometimes she’s singing it,” Vallée says of “El Condor Pasa” as he explains how Cheryl provides the key source for music in the film. The song has a “mystical quality,” Vallée says as it accompanies Cheryl’s mother, Bobbi (a radiant Laura Dern), along the trail.

Strayed’s memoir provides a valuable origin for the soundtrack itself, for Vallée notes that her pages are rife with song references. Vallée explains that the soundtrack for Wild is a mix of songs that inspired Strayed and some choices of his own inspiration: “Cheryl mentions many songs in her book and I tried to respect that,” Vallée notes. “I want define the characters through music and through their reality, and they sometimes interact with it,” he says. Cheryl, Vallée jokes, is “contaminated by her mother’s taste.”  Vallée elaborates that Bobbi’s fondness for Simon & Garfunkel and, quite effectively, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” builds depth of character through song.
Reese Witherspoon and director Jean-Marc Vallee filming on location for Wild.
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures
The influence of Bobbi on the music, both for Cheryl and for Vallée, rings throughout the film and the conversation as Vallée discusses how his rapport with Dern shaped much of the film. Dern, whom Vallée praises as the most experienced member of the Wild team, vibrantly infuses the film with Bobbi’s vitality for life as she and Vallée form a character through improvisation and synergy. Wild makes Bobbi such a tangible character even though she appears largely in the fragments of Vallée’s kaleidoscopic aesthetic that forms the film.

 I ask Vallée about my favourite part of Wild--the editing--and he explains how he shoots the film with the cutting in mind. (Vallée edits the film under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy along with collaborator Martin Pensa.) He says he explores ways on set to create a language for the story using the fluidity of the camera and the bodies of his actors. “I knew I was going to have fun with the editing. Cinema is a big toy and we’re all kids,” he says. The element of play largely permeates the film through the camera’s rapport with Laura Dern, and that the element of the mother following and accompanying Cheryl on the trail furthers the mythical quality of the music and memories that fuel Cheryl along her journey.

Vallée adds that the improvisation with Dern came naturally during the shoot. In fact, he recalls that he and Dern first brought Bobbi to life when Dern came for a make-up test while he was shooting with Witherspoon on the PCT, and he invited her to film some material while they waited for Witherspoon. “Maybe I’ll use your ghost on the trail,” he recalls saying to Dern as they ad-libbed ten to twelve shots throughout the shoot that appear in the final cut of the film. Many of these haunting cutaways to Bobbi make Dern’s character an ever-present guardian angel throughout the film as her relationship with Cheryl brings the film to its ultimate catharsis. “It’s nice to be creative on the spot,” Vallée adds. “You gotta plan, you gotta structure, but you know that that fuckin’ thing has to be as emotional as the material.” He cites one particular flashback scene where Dern jumps in a puddle and splashes the kids as one scene they improvised while waiting for Witherspoon and it’s one of the candid moments in which Bobbi’s effusive lust for life gives Wild its heart.
Laura Dern as Bobbi in Wild. Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Dern, sporting a cup of peppermint tea (with honey), joins the party after Vallée moves to the next round of festival speed dating. Dern brings to the table the same warmth and spirit that she injects into Wild, and the conversation flows like a group chat at over coffee. The actress speaks as warmly about Vallée as the director does about her, referring to her Wild helmer as a “gentle giant.”

Dern says she relishes shoots like Wild in which the creation of a film and a character plays out as something collaborative and spontaneous. She recalls the moments where Vallée excitedly invited her to shoot some footage while they waited for Reese to get ready (a happy trend, it seems…) and she reminisces about the Wild shoots in her best Quebecois accent, playing the role of Jean-Marc Vallée, laughing, “Oh, Reese isn’t ready. We have five minutes. Let’s go shoot with Laura!”

Dern praises Vallée’s active collaboration with the cast and crew, especially cinematographer Yves Bélanger, “the great duo from Montréal!” she laughs comfortably before sipping more tea and elaborating about the experience of working with a filmmaker who is both a director and an editor. "It’s one thing to have a great director, she says, “but it’s another thing to have a great editor and director. The way he weaves memory and in a non-linear way—because people like stories done bald with a beginning, and a middle, and an end—but that’s not the way memory comes to us. And he played with that so beautifully and cut together a majority of everything I did with the kids. It’s in pieces and you really feel the mother.”
Laura Dern (left) and Reese Witherspoon (right) star in Wild.
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Dern also cites Strayed’s openness and accessibility as a tool for bringing Wild to the screen so richly and vividly. She contrasts the experience of her other heartbreaking performance of 2014 in the adaptation of John Greene’s The Fault in Our Stars, saying that a different degree of responsibility comes when one tackles such beloved yet disparate adaptations because, as she puts it, “the only difference is that John was giving gifts of his imagination and this was Cheryl’s life, and so the responsibility you have [is] to honour someone and never betray what is their story.” Honouring a work is just as essential for actors as it is for filmmakers, for the adaptation process draws on different sources, like books, characters, memories and, in Dern’s case, mothers.

“You get very protective,” says Dern as she explains how taking on characters both real and imaginary surely sets the projects apart. “All our improvisation was to get to a line Cheryl said,” notes Dern, as she recalls parts of the film such as Bobbi’s query about “zipless fucks” or the splashing scene Vallée remembers as part of their process of finding Wild and Bobbi through their own journey with the character. “If I didn’t spend as much time with Cheryl as I did,” Dern continues, “and hadn’t combed over the book, and the same with Jean-Marc, it would not have been fair to do what we did… To implant yourself into that experience… you just want everyone to feel that love and gratitude that she [Bobbi] seemed to find in life.”

The mother roles of Wild and The Fault in Our Stars couldn’t be more different, but Dern laughs loudly and infectiously as she recalls the wildly disparate mothers she’s played throughout her career. “The only time I’ve been a mother in a movie, I’m, like, high on spray paint and pregnant with my kid and I don’t know where they are,” she jokes while mentioning some of her memorable characters in Citizen Ruth and Rambling Rose. “If I’m pregnant, it’s a disaster. I’ve never really had it together. I’ve always played girls, even arrested development girls. Even on the show I did for HBO [Enlightened] it was like playing a 19-year-old. I feel like it’s the first time I’ve played women and mothers, and that was a beautiful experience.”

Dern, who has two children herself, says that her work this year with Wild and The Fault in Our Stars really marks a shift in roles in her career. Playing such strong mother characters in both films, Dern says, informed each other in ways of considering how herself as a mother. The gift of being a mother both onscreen and off, she says, is “offering the wisdom that we get from knowing this particular kind of love that is like nothing else. Such different people and places and spaces, and when it came to Wild it came desperately trying to be her mother.”
Cheryl Strayed and Laura Dern at the Wild Red Carpet at TIFF.
Credit: George Pimentel, WireImage/Getty for TIFF
The success of bringing Bobbi to life—and as tangibly and humanely as Dern does in her award-caliber performance—clearly hit a note with Strayed. Strayed’s daughter Bobbi, named after her mother, plays the younger Cheryl in the film and she shares the screen with Dern as the grandmother she never knew. Dern recalls a moment where Strayed spoke openly about seeing her interact with Bobbi during the shoot. Strayed, Dern says, said that her great heartbreak was that her children never got to meet her mother. Thanks to the film, however, Dern quotes Strayed with a candid mix of pride and heartfelt emotion, recalling the author telling her, "Now they’re knowing her through you.”

Dern speaks very passionately about the mother-daughter relationship of Wild and talks excitedly about seeing the film as an addition to a changing landscape of films with strong female protagonists. There’s an understandable hint of frustration amidst the enthusiasm, though, as she notes that films like Wild are part of a cycle. “It’s interesting for all of us movie lovers because we know it existed before,” Dern says of a filmscape with strong women. “The only sad news is that we have to keep circling back to where Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck were. We had it in the 30s and 40s and we lost in the 50s, and then we got it again in the late 60s and 70s. You know, people were in line for Klute and An Unmarried Woman and we fell in love with those women with no judgement… and then we lost it again! So, clearly, we’re getting it back. The good news/bad news is that it took commerce to get it back because those movies made money…” Wild handily has commerce on its side as the megahit book almost inevitably guarantees a ready-made audience. If audiences respond to the film just as strongly as they do the book, which they seem to be judging by the enthusiastic reactions at TIFF, then Wild joins fellow 2014 films like The Fault in Our Stars, Maleficent, and Gone Girl to show that there is indeed an audience for female-driven films.

Dern’s candid take on Wild echoes one of the thoughts that Vallée offers during his portion of the conversation. Dern says she looks forward to the day when films like Wild are merely films and not solely “women’s movies,” and Vallée makes a similar point when a journalist at the table asks what it was like making a female-driven film after the comparatively male-driven films of his career. “No, I’m not a girl,” he observes with good humour before joking that the inevitable reaction of making Wild might be a question that he’s coming out. “I related to the material, just like the actresses,” he says openly and honestly.

Vallée continues and says that he lost his mother to cancer two years prior to making Wild and that the film was a way of paying tribute to these strong women. “I just wanted to be a part of it and tell this great story… Cheryl’s mother was just like my mother, [imitates character] ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to work out, trust God, trust life,’” he muses while conveying that any material is essentially accessible to any artist, reader, or viewer, regardless of gender if one gets to the universal essence of the story.

The importance of Wild’s place in the journey of bringing strong female characters to the screen couldn’t be more evident in the parallels that Vallée and Dern offer while reflecting upon the adaptation's accomplishments. “For women, I couldn’t be prouder,” says Dern. “I’ve never seen a women—nor been part of a film where it ends with a woman—with no man, no job, no money, no family, and it’s a happy ending… and that’s such a paradigm shift, which is great but it isn’t always the ending.” Vallée makes a similar sentiment as the conversation returns to the mystical chords of Simon & Garfunkel that offer an overture to the session and guide Bobbi and Cheryl’s spirits through Wild. He remarks on why he didn’t include the first line of the song, saying, “Her words were the best way to end the film, ‘How wild it was to let it be’. And if you think about it, this film is about a woman, who has no man, who is not defining herself by a man and their relationship. She has no money, no job, and doesn’t know shit what to do. That’s the book. ‘How wild it was to let it be.’”

Wild opens in theatres beginning December 5th from Fox Searchlight Pictures.
(It opens in Ottawa Dec. 25th.)

Read the 5-star review from TIFF here.
(And enter here to win Wild prize packs!)