On November 18, the KCET Cinema Series screened the biographical drama, "Wild," starring Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon.
The film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) and written by Academy Award nominated screenwriter Nick Hornby (An Education), chronicles one woman's 1,100-mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from a recent catastrophe. After the film, KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond joined Vallée and Hornby, along with actor Laura Dern, who played Witherspoon's mother in the film, for an enlightening Q&A discussion. The three shared with Pete and Cinema Series members the process of telling this incredible story, which was based on Cheryl Strayed's novel, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, into a movie adaption, including their time while filming on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Listen to the enlightening conversation between Pete, Laura, Jean-Marc, and Nick below.
Audio Q&A Transcript:
Pete Hammond: There has been a buzz about this movie. It started with the book obviously, Cheryl Strayed's book. How do you take that book which is so internal and turn it into what you did? It's a tribute both to you and Nick in terms of figuring out how to make this work as a movie, can you talk about the challenge of that?
Jean-Marc Valle: You first need the screenwriter to adapt four hundred pages and decide on a structure. It started there and we knew we had this challenge. When I came in it was the ultimate challenge to try to be as emotional as the book and be faithful to the full story. Tell the full story on a trail with one character where sixty-five percent of the film is taking place on the trail and then there are a lot of flashbacks. The voiceover is one element that helped a lot. Nick came up with the idea of writing this voice over that he called the Mixtape Radio in present tense. It is not about someone talking about her past. It is someone who is talking to herself, humming, singing, and then remembering stuff. My thing as a director is to try to tell the story from her point of view as much as possible and use the silence and the sound and music to give this impression to the audience that we are in her head.
PH: Nick, that challenge of adapting this book, what was that like for you when you sat down to do this? What was it that sparked you to make you want to spend time with this character, with this story?
Nick Hornby: Well, I wasn't offered this book to adapt. I read a review, I read the book, and I devoured the book. The moment I finished, I set about finding out who owned the film rights, I knew that they had gone. I badgered them into giving me the gig, they hadn't appointed a writer. I thought tonally it was fantastic. In my experience as a reader, as a general reader but also someone who is looking to adapt material, most things kind of wobble into a groove and stay there. Cheryl's book is angry, then it is funny, it's very painful, it's wise, and it really felt like all of those different tones were a part of the emotional journey that we go on. It feels like we travel so far because there are all of these highs and lows in there. I thought she spoke very directly and she has this fantastic cast of major and minor characters as well. The first thing I did was highlighting all the things I wanted to see in the movie. It struck me that you can make a good and powerful two-hour movie out of that book that doesn't go anywhere near the trail because there is divorce, there is grief, there is drug addiction, there is promiscuity. I think, "Ok I am gonna cut the walking stuff and just do this back story." Then you realize that people would probably be disappointed if they came to see the film Wild and it wasn't set outside one of our major cities. Then you have to find room for the walking stuff and then when you go through that you realize that so many of the scenes that you want to include involve other people but then you realize that it is actually a movie about a young woman on her own. It's all a question of boiling it down, reducing, reducing, reducing. The two ideas I had before I started were that I wanted to reorganize the backstory so that it became an emotional mystery so Bobby's death doesn't occur until halfway through the script.
PH: That's different than the structure of the book.
NH: Yeah, the book starts with Bobby's death and that powers you through. Whereas, I didn't know if I'd be able to do that in the cinema, whether that would make the backstory feel deader in the film if we did start with a death. I wanted to show this damaged young woman and the things that she was doing and for us not really to explain what she was doing till a later point. There was that plus what Jean-Marc said, the Mixtape radio. The idea that we clearly needed to make Cheryl's voice external but I didn't want to do it with that kind of recollection in tranquility and a smooth wise voice over the top. I wanted it to be this jumble of songs and advertising jingles and bits of poetry and curse words. As the movie goes on, she becomes more coherent until you get to the last voice over, where she is beginning to make sense of what happened. What is interesting is that An Education was a memoir as well; you realize you have to chip away the wise adult who is narrating the story because that is not dramatic. The drama comes from this person having to fight those demons in the here and now. To have the wisdom and insight in the way that Cheryl had to have in order to write the book, you have to take that away in order to make a film really live, I think.
PH: You're a perfect writer too because you are a novelist. You write a lot of books that have been adapted by other screenwriters. You know the tricks of that trade from your own point of view I imagine.
NH: I wish I could say that it helped in some way to have adapted before or to have been adapted but as we all know every single movie is year zero. It is a different group of people, it is a different set of challenges, different financing from different producers who want different things. You start again every single time. I guess if we did learn from previous experiences there wouldn't be any bad movies.
PH: Ok, Laura such a great performance by you and an interesting one too in the way it's told, in the structure of the film, peeling away the layers of mystery here. For you too it was a real challenge because we are seeing the whole scope of a lifetime essentially with Cheryl. Talk about the challenge for you as an actor in doing this.
Laura Dern: Well, I feel very privileged to answer that question with the gentleman on my left and right because that tapestry of fitting in a whole other lifetime as a guide to the central story, which is this woman trying to find herself within this story, is extraordinary to me. It was spoken so beautifully by Nick about how to consider that and the choice to delay her death. It allowed all of us including myself and including Jean-Marc, both on set and in the editing room, the freedom to create and weave through Cheryl's memories this experience, not only of her mother and therefore what she was losing but more importantly, the thing I feel so blessed to have been able to consider as a person, let alone play as an actor is this question of earned gratitude. So as you allow the room for us to learn about Bobby we watched her life story reveal itself and how she could have such innate wisdom from all that she had walked through. It creates a weight to what she had offered her daughter that is very different from someone who just wakes up and pretends she is happy. She really was that extraordinary gift to her daughter that got her daughter on that trail and determined to find this person that she believed her mother knew she could be she said. I couldn't have done it without that. Then Jean-Marc's guidance to make sure within the scenes that Nick adapted that those moments of such incredible pearls of wisdom that were written that they never felt like moments where your in front of the person you know they are pearls of wisdom. That they feel perhaps as the child, perhaps even not that essential or even something new would remember until you have lost your mother which I think was painful and beautiful in Cheryl's book and then our goal to make them happenstance memory. The weight comes from where she is in her life and how desperately she needs that lesson now. So it is a wonderful opportunity to hopefully be pure, honest, and carry the beauty of that incredible woman that I feel is such a incredible gift and muse to me now and all of us.
PH: It is amazing too. I wonder how much of your own life you bring to a role like this. You've obviously acted with your mother Diane Ladd and of course Bruce Dern's your father. You have that relationship, in fact I saw your mother yesterday at a luncheon but does that come into play at all, your own relationships and your own life in playing this mother daughter relationship here?
LD: Sure, I am sure in so many ways. I am just thinking, Matthew McConaughey was hosting a screening of Wild last night in honor of Jean-Marc's incredible work with Dallas Buyer's Club. He was at this luncheon yesterday and he was like "I met your mom, everybody was talking about the movie business and she gave me a crystal and talked about the heart." I was like "Well, I guess I learned about Bob from Diane Ladd."
PH: I saw her do that actually. She came over at that moment. Yeah, she is amazing.
LD: Yes, she is a great inspiration for this, which I am very lucky to get to say.
PH: Jean-Marc I have to ask you the technical aspects of shooting this. Did you shoot actually on the trail? I mean were you allowed to go to the actual locations where Cheryl did. I know how you shoot movies, a hand-held digital, extraordinary thing for actors too. A very natural kind of light, not all this movie stuff we are used to.
JMV: Yes, we shot ninety-five percent of the film in Oregon but maybe just ten to fifteen percent on the actual trail. Everywhere the scenes were taking place on the actual PCT we had references. He looked with his team to find places in Oregon to play for the real PCT. Yeah, it was shot in Oregon, the way just like you said available light. Particularly for this kind of story, it is the story that is the center of the film the main thing. We want to feel real and authentic, same thing for the actors and everyone. It is an approach that encourages that, where there is no light, there is no flags, there is just the space and the actors can use it we can move around. Instead of staging, it becomes almost like just capturing the moments. Yes, sometimes we need to stage and we have marks but most of the time, it is just following the plan, following the script but also trying to be as real and as true as possible.
PH: Are you outdoors guys here, let me just ask you Nick as a writer. Is this something when you are sitting there in your apartment wherever you are writing this, something where you go "Yeah, I relate to this?"
NH: As far as I am concerned this is an entirely North London movie. I didn't set foot outside my office. I have never set foot outside of my office unless it is to go to the cinema, a pub, or a football match. So, no, I am not an outdoors guy. I think one of the beauties of the book is that it was really written from the sensibility of someone like me. It is kind of like an urban liberal arts sensibility. There is a lot of movie references and music references and then this sense of "oh my god what have I done? I have never done this before. I have this enormous backpack on my back. I have packed too many books and I don't know how to light a stove, I don't know how to put up my tent." I think that is one of the reasons the book has been such an enormous success because most of us are not hikers. In fact, most book readers are book readers not hikers and we have all read this book about hiking because Cheryl knows what it is like to be us as well as to be her.
PH: I love the scene by the way where the guy just says "you don't need this, you don't need this, you don't need this." That's my favorite scene. That is what I would have done, in that backpack I would have put everything I needed.
NH: It was one of the things that really hooked me into the idea of the book as a movie. It made me laugh so much. When I was writing it, I could just hear Reese's voice and see her face, this kind of embarrassment. I loved the condom scene with the guy saying, "do you really need this entire role of condoms for your hike?" Then she sneaks one and sticks it in her pocket. You have more of that stuff Jean-Marc is that right? You filmed quite a lot of that?
NH: I would love to see the whole of that.
JMV: Deleted scenes, you can see it on the DVD