Directors & Their Troops: Jean-Marc Vallee on His ‘Wild’ Bunch

Jean-Marc Vallee wanted “Wild” to reflect Cheryl Strayed’s book: not “pretty” but raw and real. “And how were we going to get this film as emotional as the book? I was scared. The book is so beautiful, with too many details for a two-hour film. We needed to have a experience that’s emotional, that’s powerful.” He said star Reese Witherspoon, her fellow producer Bruna Papandrea and everyone on the artisan team were in synch with what they wanted to capture.

Cinematography, Yves Belanger
“We decided on the same approach (as ‘Dallas Buyers Club’): hand-held and natural, available lighting. It was relevant to use this approach to serve this story. It’s a non-showoff approach. It’s raw, dirty sometimes; it’s sometimes shooting rehearsals. Cassavetes used to do this a lot. There are no marks (for the actors to hit), so the focus-puller has to be dead-on present, always in the moment, following what’s going on. It’s not about being perfect with technique and light. Sometimes the actor would make a sudden move and it was a tiny bit out of focus, but the take was so amazing, we’d say, ‘It’s all right, let’s keep it.’ Reese understood (the approach) right from the beginning. We were trying to tell the story from her point of view. What she sees is what the audience sees.”

Editing, Martin Pensa, John Mac McMurray
“The structure was in the script, so the credit goes to Nick Hornby. But we took that and went wild in the cutting room — respecting the structure, but adding some tracks and using flashbacks at different moments. That was a thrill for a director to have the possibility to have fun with the medium. There are all these quick flashes, quick images. I want the audience to feel this is like a brain functioning (he snaps his fingers quickly several times): ‘Wow, was that a finger in her mouth?’ That shot is only 12 frames. And you’re like ‘What the hell? What did I just see? Who is this girl?’ I wanted to not interfere, just capture it like a documentary with these great actors. I had more fun in the cutting room; it was the best editing experience I ever had.” (John Mac McMurray is the name that Vallee uses when editing.)

Sound design, Ai-Ling Lee
“Ai-Ling Lee did an amazing job. Our goal was to tell the story from Cheryl’s emotions and her point of view, and let the audience experience what she did on the trail. The audience hears what Cheryl hears, but sometimes it’s coming from inside her head — sometimes a ringing in her head. Then she remembers this song from when she was doing drugs, from her childhood, and then she’s back on the trail. Sometimes all we hear is voiceover with a subtle reverb effect. Then suddenly something from nature brings her back to reality. Ai-Ling played with insect and crickets at different pitches. The hotter it is, the higher the pitch of the insects. Sergio Leone did that, using crickets or water drops, using sound design to create reality.”

Casting director, David Rubin
“David had a good understanding of the script. He’s very clever, intelligent, and introduced me to a lot of great actors. I think 75% of my job is to pick the right actors. I believe in the process of auditions; I even discovered things: I found music of some lines of dialog, and found if some of the dialog is not working. It was hard to find (the character of) Cheryl’s brother; we needed someone who physically looked like the other actors (Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern). And it was hard to find ‘the young bucks.’ We needed three young actors to play the guys Cheryl meets. It would have been easy to go comedy, but we needed to find the reality and not overdo it. It’s tricky.”

Production design, John Paino
“We had done ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ and we created some sort of family. The main challenge was to re-create meticulously the Pacific Crest Trail in the state of Oregon. We shot 50% of the film on the real PCT, but then John had to do meticulous research of everything we needed and see where he and his locations department could reproduce that — and bring in greens, foliage, Joshua trees, posts and signage. We shot only one day in the Mojave Desert; the rest is in Oregon. They don’t have Joshua trees there, so we had 15-20 in the foreground, and the visual effects guy did the rest over green screen in the middle ground and background. So there are a lot of wide shots from Cheryl’s POV, looking at hundreds of Joshua. John’s other big challenge was to serve the d.p. with natural light — so John and his team were helping to light the film with their lamps and other practical lights.”

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