Based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel, Wildlife marks Paul Dano’s first feature film as a writer and director. The call of Ford’s book was undeniable for Dano, who worked with Zoe Kazan to adapt it for the screen. Its tale of a family in turmoil in 1960s Montana is seen through the eyes of the 16-year-old son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould). As his father (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job as a golf pro and sets out to fight a ceaseless wildfire encircling their town, his mother (Carey Mulligan) craves the attention of an older businessman (Bill Camp) with little regard for the effect her affair is having on her boy.
Wildlife made its world premiere in Sundance and it will now open Critics’ Week in Cannes. That’s got to be a good feeling.
I’m so excited for Cannes, and to play at Critics’ Week. It’s definitely an honor, and you always want to aim high and hope for the best.
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I think Sundance had a certain amount of anxiety around it, because nobody’s seen the film and you just don’t know. You think, Well, I did everything in my power to make the best film I could. You hope that it’s going to move somebody or connect with somebody out there in the audience, that they’ll see a piece of themselves in it or something. But you just don’t know, or you feel like you don’t.
Now, I’m hoping that I can really allow myself to enjoy being there in Cannes and at Critics’ Week, and I know we’re super excited to meet up there and share the film for the first time outside of the States.
You told Deadline in Sundance that you weren’t sure, at first, what was inspiring you to adapt Wildlife. Many of the reviews out of the festival noted the character of Joe might have attracted you as an actor in your teens. Did you see that yourself?
Yeah, I think so. I have a little more perspective now. When you first get a hit on some piece of something creative, usually it’s a little more primal than intellectual. This book haunted me. I read it several times and was kind of obsessed with it. Probably the first reason was actually the Jeanette [Carey Mulligan] character. The mystery of who our parents are was the first thing that I felt. That feeling of learning my parents were people and seeing them for that.
The book has a tremendous amount of love, even though there’s so much struggle and pain, and that felt true to me. It might be the same in a relationship with your lover or wife, where there’s so much good, and then something heartbreaking can happen. It can happen in many different arenas, but family, for me, is something that I love and feel connected to.
It was a little later in the process that I saw the similarities with Joe. Actually, my sister is a costumer and she worked on the film. She pointed out that one of the jackets that we dressed Joe in is exactly like a jacket I have. I didn’t realize. I did start to go, “F**k!”
But you see through the eyes of Joe’s character, so that’s the person who you’re connected to emotionally or spiritually in the film. It’s not like I wasn’t aware of that, but I was surprised by how much of myself is either in there, or responded to that character in the book. I think sometimes when you’re close to something, it keeps revealing itself, and it does change. There’s always that initial seed, but it grows.
I didn’t realize this when we wrote it, but I didn’t decide to start writing the script until I thought of the ending, with the last scene and particularly the last image of the film. Then I thought, OK, I can do this. In retrospect, that’s also a part of why I made the film, in that it’s a means of letting go. Maybe it’s too early to say that, but I think that’s something that character is maybe doing. They’re looking back at something and then having to move forward. Capturing something and then having to press on.
As an actor you’re charged with understanding the psychology of a single character. As a director, telling a story, there’s a more holistic view to take. But did you see the similarities between these two roles?
I think that’s true. Zoe is a proper writer, and she helped me write this. This was my first time writing, but I do think that acting is similar in that you’re adapting; you’re putting your most personal self through something else.
Directing is totally different in terms of technique and what you’re doing, but I think my experience as an actor, working on characters and words, was helpful to me. And I know it was certainly helpful in trying to write for the first time. You’re still searching for that special moment. Even as a director, where you’re doing it through your actors.
Acting is lonelier, perhaps. You have your scene partners and collaborators, but a lot of the work is done on your own, and you come prepared. Directing, as much as you like to think you’re smart enough to figure it all out on your own, you’re really just the leader of the band. One of the best parts of it was trying to set up an atmosphere to bring the best out of people. To give Carey the best experience as an actor, or to work with Diego García, the DP, or any of the crew, on building a world.
You set the bar high with the challenges here. Beyond profoundly emotional storytelling, the story is set in the 1960s and the Montana town it takes place in has an almost mythic feel, with this endless fire burning on the horizon.
Capturing the feeling of the town and the fire—its mythic quality—was certainly a hope of mine. But I don’t think I knew what the challenges would be in realizing that [laughs].
First of all, when you do something period, one of the most fun things as a filmmaker is that you get to control everything. But also, one of the more challenging things about it is that you have to control everything. You can’t just point the camera anywhere. You see things in your head, but then you have to figure out the practical, logistical or financially possible way of doing them. Luckily, everybody showed a lot of hustle, but that was really challenging.
With that practical and logistical side of the process, it took me a while to get my sea legs, because it was the artistic side I was most excited for. I don’t feel compromised; I feel anything but that. I made the film I wanted to make. But you have to figure certain things out; you just do. It’s amazing, then, when things work out, because they don’t always feel like they’re going to.
They say you should never work with kids or animals, and here you are with a 15-year-old actor who is the eyes of the audience.
Oh, the kid’s hours was one of the more challenging things. Ed is a brilliant actor, and I got so lucky that he was a talented actor and not just a kid using his own experience. He really had thoughts and was working with the material. But he could only be on camera for five hours a day, and he’s in almost all of the film.
I did think, Oh, sh*t, why did I write this f**king film? You so badly want to get everything the way you see it, and you spend years writing it, on and off, and developing it. I worked with Diego for a long time on how we were going to shoot the film. And then you get there and you’re not always going to get everything you want to. I think you keep earning your stripes, and hopefully, on the next one, you’ll have that one more day of shooting, or whatever it is.
Did you ever find the struggle made things better?
That’s a great point. You don’t always know what’s happening until it does. You do struggle and then you find something even better. I think there are people who thrive on that chaos. With this film, it wasn’t like we were running around pointing the camera tons of different places. We were trying to be as honest and sparing as possible, which was also a part of what I wanted. And that’s really what I respond to.
What did you make of the experience of directing actors, rather than being directed?
I was surprised how much fun I had working with the actors. It’s funny to say that because I am an actor, but when I was writing it, I wasn’t thinking, I can’t wait to work on this scene with Carey or Jake. I was thinking about the images. Once we got into production, I realized these guys were so good and I was having so much fun nudging them, or throwing them pips to hit. The amount of surprises they give you as a writer and a director, that part was really fun. I understood what actors are for directors suddenly, because they’re you. They’re an extension of you. All of those guys—Carey, Jake and Ed—I love them because they were these characters. It’s really beautiful.
Was there something special about this book that spurred you behind the camera, or is directing something you’d hungered after for a while?
No, I definitely have wanted to direct for a long time. This was the first thing [where] it was just enough that I couldn’t let go of it. Because I still want to act, too, and writing and directing something is such a big commitment. But that’s why it’s so gratifying also. This was it, and it makes sense for me that it’s my first film. I think I’ll make different types of films in future, but this was the right place for me to start.
Do you have ideas about where you’ll go next?
I have a thought, but nothing that’s really on the burner already. I can’t wait to make another film. I’ll probably see what it’s like to play in a slightly different ballpark. One of the challenges of this film was just how restrained and subtle it is. So I might be curious to make something louder.
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