Reese Witherspoon and author Cheryl Strayed may have been missing in action, but the bond between the two women, Laura Dern and producer Bruna Papandrea was palpable last night during a Q&A for their film “Wild” at Variety’s Screening Series.
The drama — based on Strayed’s memoir — follows Witherspoon’s Cheryl as she hikes more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone.
In an example of life imitating art imitating life, Dern, who plays Witherspoon’s mom in the pic, said the foursome will actually embark on a similar (albeit shorter) journey.
“I am told by Cheryl and Reese that we are going to be hiking, all of us together, a section of the Pacific Crest Trail,” she said on Wednesday at ArcLight Hollywood.
As the sisterhood between these women exemplifies, Witherspoon and Papandrea are slowly realizing their dream of creating more roles for women through their new production company Pacific Standard.
“It wasn’t powerful women so much as we wanted to put all sorts of women on our screens: complex, often not likable, flawed,” Papandrea said. “I felt very compelled to try and find more roles for women. Not just for Reese, but for lots of women. And I say that in front of and behind the camera as well.”
Strayed’s 8-year-old daughter Bobbi — named after her late grandmother — played a young Strayed in the film. Dern, who also has a daughter around that age, said she hoped that her onscreen relationship with Bobbi helped her feel a connection to her real-life grandmother, who passed away before she was born.
“I think Cheryl felt comfortable in knowing that I was caring for her daughter in this way,” she said. “And it was a very intimate and moving experience for Cheryl and for all of us to have Bobbi interacting in a way, if you will, with a grandmother she hadn’t gotten to know through these scenes.”
Although Strayed’s memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” divulged her mother’s death in the first few pages, Papandrea said screenwriter Nick Hornby decided to structure the film around that tragedy, instead of opening with the revelation.
“It was very important to Nick for dramatic purposes, for cinematic storytelling purposes, that we treat it more as an emotional mystery that you unravel with Cheryl,” she said. “As she hikes, you grow to learn what took her there. He really created that flashback structure that you see.”
Dern said the flashback technique Hornby employed stresses one of the central themes of the film: confronting painful memories.
“The thing that really moved me when I saw it was that they’re deeper than a flashback, they’re like fragments of memory that catch up to her, and as she grows and her clarity expands in terms of this healing she’s exploring, particularly with the mother, we get more full scenes to play out between the mother and daughter, particularly,” she said.
Despite a close adherence to the script, director Jean-Marc Vallée also captured unscripted moments with Dern (Papandrea joked that the director was obsessed with Dern) to further highlight the significance of the mother-daughter relationship.
“Often you’re called in to see the movie or you go see the movie without any warning and your part’s kind of not really there or scenes you care a lot about. It’s such a great experience working with Jean-Marc because I walked into the editing room, he very kindly was going to show me the film, and as I walk in, he goes ‘Laura, I used everything!’” an animated Dern said in her best Quebec French accent.