Interview: Jean-Marc Vallée

It takes a unique kind of talent to be able to command the attention of the room by playing a piece of music on his iPhone before the interview begins, but that’s the kind of storyteller that Jean-Marc Vallée is. Before he even says a word you know you’re in for something special and you know exactly the kind of mindset the artist finds himself in.

Wild (opening today in Toronto before expanding across the country over the next several weeks) is the story of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), a woman who finds herself adrift mother (Laura Dern).  She’s using drugs, having sex with anyone who asks, destroying her marriage, and straining the patience of even her most loyal friends.  She’s determined to get better and walk herself back to the woman that her mother knew she could be by walking the lengthy and dangerous Pacific Crest Trail alone and becoming a new person in the process.

One of Canada’s premiere cinematic auteurs, Vallée (who last year gained worldwide attention for Dallas Buyers Club and is best known in Canada for films like C.R.A.Z.Y. and Cafe de Flore) creates an emotional vibrant and unique cinematic experience from material created by noted author Nick Hornby and the real life memoir the film was based on. During the Toronto International Film Festival in September, I got the pleasure to talk to him about how he got involved with the project and his desire to keep the storytelling process as natural and emotional as possible.

Dork Shelf: Can you tell me a bit about how you first came in contact with this story. What was your initial reaction to it was and when you knew that you wanted to make this film?

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Jean-Marc Vallée: Well it was right when I was wrapping up Dallas Buyers Club, and Reese reached out to me because she wanted to see the film.  Both Reese and Matthew McConaughey have the same representation, and it was recommended that I might be a good fit for Wild.  So she watched a rough cut of Dallas, but she called me and sent me the script and the book – both of which I read – and I just said “Oh my god, I really need to be involved with this picture.”

I was going to make Demolition with Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts instead, but we weren’t quite ready to go on that one. So I called the producers and I asked, “Is it OK if I make this one first? Because this movie is just so beautiful that I really feel like I need to tell it to the world.”

I lost my mother to cancer, and for me this was a way to pay tribute to her and to these strong female characters.  My mother was a bit like Bobbi a lot of the time: being positive and having a good outlook trying to put her thoughts into the way of beauty, stuff that kind of annoys you when you’re young, but you really appreciate later on.  She really was such a force of nature in my life, just like Bobbi was for Cheryl. I just wanted to be a part of it.

DS: It’s such a unique film because it has such big, bold, and overwhelming emotions and settings to it at times, but it’s also so intimate and personal.  How hard is it while shooting on set or on location to be able to keep that delicate balance and make sure that those key character elements really push through in the story?

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JMV: Well, we worked on that and told ourselves that we are making this movie that takes place on a trail with this girl on a solitary journey in these huge landscapes, so how do we approach this and make sure that the emotional content stays true?   We wanted it to be just as good as the book, and we hope we can match that kind of power and emotion.  The first thing that I did was talk to writer Nick Hornby on Skype just to be sure that we took as much emotional material from the book as we possibly could.  Everything related to the mother and the daughter and their relationship.  We did a lot of work with Nick to find the right emotional journey, and Nick was so clever right at the beginning when he adapted this book to have the structure of this girl on a trail, with the voiceover, with some flashbacks.

We need the voiceover because they are Cheryl’s words which are powerful and beautiful and you can just FEEL her love of books and words, which is just so meticulous in what quote she’s picking to write down and what words she’s using.  It’s nice to hear her voice, and it allowed us to get the audience in a place where they could realize that it wasn’t JUST going to be this girl on the trail, with nature and all that but there is something going on and we allude to that.

I mean there’s no villain in the film, no kind of enemy at all.  We had a movie with a character that was both the hero AND the villain, which we learn when we hear the voiceover and we cut to these flashbacks.  So, yeah, for the first thirty minutes or so, nature is essentially her enemy on the trail because she has to be able to learn, and adapt, and evolve to become part of this, and to learn to accept her mother’s words that life was fucking tough on her. Which led her down all these roads of drug and sex addiction which destroyed her marriage, and she has to come to the realization that she just doesn’t like who she am and that she has to change; to walk her way back to the woman her mother thought she was.  I might be drifting away from your question a little bit, but it was a very conscious effort to make sure that we were being emotional and not letting it get lost on the trail.

At the beginning, I was wondering what the right distance was going to be between Reese and the audience.  I am going to have a still camera with this tiny girl in a wide shot and then she gets closer, or do I dolly back, or dolly in hand held?  I wasn’t sure how to get there and find the right distance to show this girl on the trail.  I know I didn’t want any music  to fit the reality of what hikers go through. I mean, maybe some music, but she didn’t need it, and it was just when she was singing and humming, trying to recollect something with this ghost of a song somewhere in her memory, and then it transitions to a flashback.  It really is in the cutting room where I found the distance that we needed, because about 80% was shooting on a handheld dolly from the back because we still had to convey how tiny she was in the grand sense of it all.  When we eventually get to know her story and we see everything that she has gone through, these shots of this tiny little girl with this huge backpack become so emotional.  We get wrapped up in this poor girl wanting to find herself, but she is struggling so much.

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It was a balance, but we were very aware to keep the voiceover of her in the past and the present very salient and in the moment, with some subtle tweaks in the sound design and the mix to make it feel seamless but different; like it was the recollection of a memory coming back to her while she is hiking along this unforgiving trail as she finishes the thoughts from her flashbacks out loud.  What she sees is what the audience sees. What she hears is what the audience hears.  It’s mainly from her point of view. It helps in order to get the audience into her headspace to really feel the journey.

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DS: How involved was Cheryl Strayed on a day to day basis during the production?  Were you concerned about keeping things as authentic as possible or was it a question of trying to distance yourself so you could tell your own story?

JMV: Both Nick and myself did create a certain amount of distance for ourselves, but she was just such a great ally through the entire process, and without it even being in her contract she became a sort of technical advisor for the trail portions of the movie just because she loved it that much.  I mean, think about it: if you are alive and there is a movie being made about you, curiosity will undoubtedly get the better of you and you’ll want to hang out and watch it if you can.(laughs)

Watching Reese play her was emotional for her, and she didn’t interfere in anyway, but I loved all the input she gave us on the trail, especially when it came to adapting her book into a script. She was very open to us doing our thing, but we wanted to be very respectful of her because she is alive.

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For Dallas it was just a lot different because, I mean, the main character passed away, but his family was still alive and we took some artistic license with it all. With Wild we kept it pretty close to the real thing.  I mean, when you are writing your memoir and you have 400 some odd pages that you have to squeeze into two hours of film with so many details, you have to nail a structure and make sure the story between the mother and the daughter is clear.

DS: In your recent projects you’ve been known to have your lead actors go through some transformations. Matthew lost 50 pounds for Dallas and Reese went makeup free for this entire shoot, so do you think this is something that is signature to your style and do you get any push back from the actors at all?

JMV: I don’t know if I would say it was something that was signature, but it came up for these two projects. Now that I think about it, I used that in Cafe de Flore with Vanessa Paradis, this iconic, beautiful women playing the plain, middle class mother of this child with Down Syndrome. It really comes down to the fact that I just don’t want to show off in any way. I love telling these stories that feel real, and authentic, so I try not to get too “Hollywood” with it all when I am shooting.  I just say, “Let’s get rid of this, go handheld, use natural light,” and there is a real difference which is so unconscious.

I mean, if were in this room right now, the first reaction would be to put you in one corner so we could give you the back light and make it look nice, but my thing was to actually make it harder to see you.  I mean, we made a concerted effort to put the light in her face while on the trail, which really isn’t all that nice. We didn’t soften up at all and try and make it pretty. We made it raw and dirty in an effort to serve the story, which is so touching and emotional. We didn’t want to gimmick it up and make it feel unnatural.  Occasionally there is a little push back, but not really.

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I mean, the big thing for Reese was because she’s from Tennessee she can’t handle the cold, and we were shooting in the fall, so really the worst thing was just her not liking the cold and having to wear shorts and a t-shirt and trying to not have to wear the seventy pound bag, which we insisted on because you could tell with the other, lighter one. It sucked.

All of this frustration is, of course, perfectly human. Sometimes we just couldn’t get away with anything else, and we had to deal with it when she had goosebumps and it was supposed to be the middle of the summer but it was fall she was visibly freezing.  Ultimately both Reese and Matthew were ready to get out of their comfort zone and get back to the acting. It wasn’t about them being beautiful at any time and they were both invested in the stories that they had to tell and were open to being so vulnerable it was such a beautiful thing.

DS: I loved the device of the fox that kept showing up with her on the trail, were those challenging sequences to shoot and rope into the sort of dreamlike state that she had on the trail and was it a key cog in the book as well?

JMV: It was in the book, but not quite at the level that we had it as. I had asked Nick to increase the importance of the fox, and I wanted to bring that into the film.  In the book it was just in the snow but we added it on the mountain as well.  I added it to her guttural yell when she’s pissed and throws the boots away, but the fox doesn’t walk away; he just disappears and she wonders, which makes us wonder what is going on.  Then again we she met with the hunters and we added this out of focus fox in post and added it at the end.  I really like the Native American symbolism of this woman connecting with this fox and with nature like it was an animal protector, something to even be symbolic of her mother.  Even at the end of it we didn’t want to do any sort of dramatic close up or anything like that. We just wanted her voice looking back into nature and really when you think about it, this is a movie about a woman with no money, no man, no prospects and it is such a beautiful ending that we just had to end it like that.



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