Reese Witherspoon Jean-Marc Vallée Wild

Jean-Marc Vallée depicts an emotional journey in Wild

“I lost my mom to cancer and I want to pay tribute to these strong female characters and to my mom.”

“Let’s start this the right way.”

Jean Marc Vallée has barely just stepped into the hotel room where the TIFF junket interview is being held when he whips out his phone and starts playing Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa,” a significant song for the protagonist of his latest film, Wild. “Just to get you ready,” he says.

Vallée’s been ready for a while. Earlier this year, he won the Breakthrough Director prize at the Hollywood Film Awards — a bit of a surprise, considering he’s 51 years old and has eight features under his belt. Already a major talent here in Quebec thanks to his film C.R.A.Z.Y., Vallée is shaping up to be a major Hollywood player. His previous film, Dallas Buyers Club, won universal acclaim and contributed to the juggernaut that is the McConnaissance. His latest, Wild, is based on a memoir by Cheryl Strayed (adapted to the screen by novelist Nick Hornby). Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed, a young woman who loses herself in drugs and sex after the death of her mother Bobbi (played in flashbacks by Laura Dern). In order to get her life back on track, she decides to hike the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Oregon to the Mojave desert. This real-life story of personal redemption focuses almost entirely on Witherspoon, with periodic flashbacks to her life with her mother and her mother’s illness.

For Vallée, the choice to make Wild came as a bit of a surprise. He originally met with Reese Witherspoon (who also produced through her production company, Pacific Standard) because she shared an agent with Matthew McConaughey, star of his last film. “Reese sent me both the book and the script. I read both and I went ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to make this film. (…) I called the producers and I said, ‘It’s so beautiful, I’d like to tell this story to the world.’ I lost my mom to cancer and I want to pay tribute to these strong female characters and to my mom.” The character of Bobbi reminded Vallée of his own mother, a free spirit who “said all the things about love that annoy you when you’re young.” (Vallée’s mother was also paid tribute to in his breakout film C.R.A.Z.Y., which he co-wrote.)

When asked about the particularities of shooting a film that’s simultaneously an interior and exterior journey, Vallée says, “There was a lot of work done in prep with Nick to find the right emotional journey,” he explains. Vallée wanted to use the narrower scope of the film to focus on the mother-daughter relationship. “It was clever what he did, right from the beginning, when adapting the book. A girl, walking on a trail, with a voiceover and some flashbacks. I think it was important to have the voiceover because those are Cheryl’s words, and they’re powerful and beautiful.”

Reese Witherspoon Jean-Marc Vallée Wild
Reese Witherspoon and Jean-Marc Vallée on the set of Wild

“There’s no enemy in the film,” he continues. “There’s no villain, so we had a film where the main character was not only the hero, but also the villain.” The film is told through voiceover with no diegetic music or score; the only music we hear are “ghosts” of songs Strayed has stuck in her head, muffled or stretched out accordingly (including the aforementioned Simon & Garfunkel jam). “What she sees is what the audience sees. What she hears is what the audience hears. It’s really from her point of view.”

Vallée is also earning notices for putting his A-list star in less-than-flattering situations. After showing an emaciated McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, he shoots a make-up-less and dirt-smeared Witherspoon with harsh, unflattering lighting. “I thought, ‘Let’s make it raw, let’s make it dirty, let’s serve the thing. It’s a story with such humanity — we want to be in service of that. It’s not that it’s a signature touch, it’s just serving the thing,” he explains. “I did have a bit of resistance from Reese; she’s from Tennessee and she has an intolerance to cold. There are some scenes, we couldn’t avoid it: there are goosebumps. We’re wearing winter coats and hats and scarves and gloves and she’s in a t-shirt and shorts — it was cold!”

In addition to the personal connections that Vallée brought to the project, he also had help from Cheryl Strayed herself. “She became such a great ally. Without it being in her contract, she became some sort of technical advisor for the trail part, because she loved to come on the set. I mean, think about it: you’re alive, and there’s a film made about you. You’re curious, so you go ‘Can I watch Reese, please?’” he laughs. “She didn’t interfere with the emotional content, but I liked all of her input on the trail.”

Vallée has already completed shooting on his next film, Demolition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts (the shoot was pushed back to free up the schedule for Wild) and is now gearing up to make Get It While You Can, a Janis Joplin biopic set to star Amy Adams. If it isn’t a breakthrough, I think we can safely say he’s going the right way.

Wild opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 19.

Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

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