For Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and the woman Witherspoon portrays in “Wild,” writer Cheryl Strayed, Wednesday night’s Los Angeles premiere of the film was more than just a glitzy industry event; it was a family affair.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the ‘Wild’ family,” director Jean-Marc Vallee exclaimed after inviting a lengthy procession of the film’s cast and crew onto the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater stage.
It’s certainly not a rarity to hear creative collaborators describe one another as family, particularly after enduring the peaks and valleys of a rigorous production shoot (or in this case, the peaks and valleys of the Pacific Crest Trail). But as the project’s matriarchs took the stage and clutched onto each other — Dern embracing on-screen daughter Witherspoon, Witherspoon latching onto Strayed, Strayed entwined with her own daughter, 8-year-old Bobbi Strayed Lindstrom, who plays a young Cheryl in the film’s flashbacks — it became clear that a durable and abiding bond had formed.
“We just wanted to protect her,” Dern said of Strayed, whose mother she plays in the film. “We needed to make sure her story was told as fiercely and honestly as her voice proves in her writing.”
Produced by Witherspoon, Bill Pohlad and Bruna Papandrea, “Wild” is based on Strayed’s book “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” and details the writer’s 1,100-mile journey up the coast in an effort to break a vicious cycle of addiction, grief, promiscuity and loneliness. Witherspoon optioned the book under her production single, Pacific Standard; Fox Searchlight later acquired the worldwide rights to the film, which debuted in Telluride.
“I said to them, ‘Listen guys, you really have some responsibility here,’” recalled Strayed, who was present for much of the production. “‘You need to honor my life, to honor the essence of my story.’ I wanted to make sure I was portrayed as someone who, even at her lowest moment, had strength and knew how to gather her strength at the final hour.”
“Cheryl is gritty and honest, more honest than I’ve ever seen a woman write, and I wanted to take that same voice to the screen,” said Witherspoon, whose producing partner Pohlad said had “become one” with Strayed over the course of the production. “I think you know who these characters are. We know interesting, nuanced, dynamic women, but we don’t see them very often on screen.”
That was the crux of the producers’ motivation in securing the rights to Strayed’s book (not to mention, the motivation to adapt Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” which was also produced under the Pacific Standard banner). And while it’s easy to qualify the film as a story about a strong woman, the cast and crew almost unanimously spoke to the desire to break free of a gendered characterization.
“It’s unfortunately noteworthy in our society, because we haven’t quite gotten there yet,” said Thomas Sadoski, who plays Strayed’s ex-husband in the film. “It’s unfortunate that this stands about because it’s about an imperfect and broken woman who finds her way back to an imperfect and broken health. Because it is noteworthy, it is worth celebrating, but this is a human story. We all have our 1,100-mile journey, and that’s what makes this story so profound. It transcends our bullshit identities of sex and gender.”
Hornby echoed Sadoski’s message as he puffed on an e-cigarette, a bit weathered from the hike down the lengthy (and particularly boisterous) red carpet.
“I want guys to come to this movie,” he said. “It will really irritate me if guys ignore it because they think it’s a film for chicks. It’s just not; it’s a film about tough people.”
Dern referred to one male audience member in particular who was touched by the tale: her father, actor Bruce Dern.
“My father saw the film and said, ‘Oh my god, they made a movie for me,’” she recalled. “And he’s a 79-year-old man. It’s really for everybody, because it’s about how we heal and survive grief.”
The premiere’s audience — including Jim Gianopulos, Ted Danson, Nia Vardalos and Cheryl Hines — followed Witherspoon first on her 1,100-mile hike, and then on a brief trek from the theater to the lobby, where they found a feast worthy of the “Wild” odyssey. A Pacific Northwest-inspired menu featured drunken braised short ribs cooked with beer and juniper berries, Oregon mushroom bread pudding, heirloom apple croustades made with fruit sourced from the Northwest, and even a “hot mush” (a.k.a. risotto) that resembled the sustenance Strayed fed on for her three months in the wilderness.
And to top it all off, Portland’s famed purveyor of ice cream, Salt & Straw set up shop to dish out Oregon Rocky Road ice cream. Having loaded up on such rich delights, the crowds were fueled for a hike themselves, if only just to their cars down Wilshire Boulevard.