Jean-Marc Vallée Directs Wild
By Anne Brodie
Montreal’s Oscar nominated director Jean-Marc Vallée makes films that are universal and human but they are also immensely personal in terms of his connection to the story, the music he uses and the way he relates to the actors. Wild stars Reese Witherspoon, in an award-worthy performance, as a woman mourning the death of her mother (Laura Dern). She sets out on a solo thousand mile trek to make sense of losing the “love of her life”, and figure out the future. Vallée’s films, including Dallas Buyers Club and Café de Flore reveal his understanding of human psychology but there was more at work in Wild. He had a profoundly personal tie to the story. We spoke during the Toronto International Film Festival.
Reese’ character goes on a solo journey to “find herself” following the loss of her mother. We don’t see women doing this in film much, so it’s good to see. How did you relate to it?
I’m not a girl; it’s not a chick flick. There are two strong female characters. Who is this guy!! I related to the material like Reese and Laura. What an amazing book and script. I lost my mom of cancer three years ago, so it was a way of being with her. It’s about strong women, one of them me. I just wanted to be part of it. It could be father and son, but I did that before in C.R.A.Z.Y. It was a theme that I was close to, with its strong female characters, one of them being just like my mother. Her mother was like my mother. We were positive. “It’s going to work out, trust God, trust life!” “Shut up mom” and here I am talking about it and being happy talking about it.
How was the shoot out there in the wild?
I tried to get as much as we could. When I was onset waiting for Reese or union breaks, I would shoot footage of Laura Dern to give her character more presence. The first time I saw Laura was at a makeup test. I was shooting Reese alone on the trail. We were going to do Laura’s makeup to show how sick she was and I went “Oh, that’s cool; let’s shoot you on the trail, maybe I’ll use you as a ghost”. She was fantastic. I’m on the trail and I called the director of photography and we shot her and we got a smile and bang! Every single shot we ad libbed with Laura Dern, ten or twelve of them we used in the film. You know the f*****g thing has to be powerful. See this mother with the smile. She goes there and splash. She’s the most experienced of us, she arrives onset and she gets it the first time.
The period music in Wild is wonderful. Music is important in all your films, so how did you find these songs?
In the book Cheryl mentions a lot of songs so I tried to respect that. So I had a playlist based on her taste but at the same time, I want to find the characters with music. In reality 95% of the time, the music is playing in the rooms, in the car, in the restaurants, and sometimes they interact and they sing. It takes place in 1999 but her references were contaminated by her mother’s tastes, Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen. It’s a beautiful place when Suzanne is playing in the background. I like Free’s Be My Friend, her husband’s scene, there’s nice psychedelic rock. I tried to go into California with Zeppelin, when she met with Frank in the desert and she goes to his place for a shower back from the trail. It’s so beautiful and Cheryl really loved it. She was so much into that pivotal moment, this book changed her life. She’s walking and singing, humming this ghost song but she doesn’t want to remember this f****g song that made her think of her of her mom. “Why aren’t you happy?” her mother would say. “Happy people sing.”
The ending is fairly radical as far as women in films go, even today.
This is a film about a woman who has no man not defining herself through the eyes of man, no relationship, no money, no job, no nothing, no home, doesn’t know shit what to do and it’s a beautiful end. Let it be.
What interests you enough to make a movie?
I’m moved by beautiful stories and believe choosing your life is choosing beauty. I want to wake up in the morning happy and serve something that is ultimately beautiful, not nice happy and cute, but cruel, tough and stupid and I like being it. I like underdogs, I like being right, wrong, bad but I like it when there is redemption even if there is nothing at the end, the thing I’m looking for is beautiful things.