How Wild star Reese Witherspoon was stretched by director's stripped-down style

Jean-Marc Vallee's no-frills directing style gets the best out of his actors

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm

While filming Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallee set ground rules for lead actress Reese Witherspoon: she couldn't wear make-up, had to cover the mirrors in her trailer, and wasn't allowed to lighten the load in the comically massive backpack worn by her character, Cheryl Strayed.

"The film is called Wild, not 'Nice' or 'Sweet'," Vallee says of his stripped-down approach to filmmaking that relies on natural light and handheld cameras.

The 51-year-old Montreal native has worked as a filmmaker for more than 20 years in Canada and the US. But he's enjoying increased recognition in Hollywood recently as a director who shepherds actors through some of their strongest and most taxing performances, dexterously capturing the trickiest special effect: human emotion.

Dallas Buyers Club, Vallee's raw 2013 drama set during the 1980s Aids crisis, won Oscars for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, who showed audiences a new range beyond their heartthrob personae.

Wild stretches Witherspoon - nominated for an Oscar along with Laura Dern, who plays her mother - well beyond the chipper roles for which she's best known, including her Oscar-winning turn as sweet but steely June Carter in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line.

An adaptation of Strayed's bestselling 2012 memoir of her 1,760km solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from the US-Mexico border to that between the US and Canada, the film tracks its protagonist's inner journey as she recovers from the sudden death of her mother Bobbi, a painful divorce, and reckless experiences with sex and drugs.

Vallee shot the US$15 million film as a modern, female-driven western, with Witherspoon's tiny frame set against the wide vistas of California and Oregon, nature as her enemy, and Bobbi, appearing ethereally in flashback, as her greatest love. "I knew this was going to be a really hard movie, and I just didn't know if I was going to be able to do it, physically and emotionally," Witherspoon said at the Telluride Film Festival last August, after Wild's first public screening. "I also knew Jean-Marc wouldn't turn the camera away."

Strayed's agent had sent Wild to Witherspoon before it was published, and within days of reading the galley, the 38-year-old actress-producer bought Wild, enticed by the rare opportunity it presented her to evolve on screen.

The star and her producing partner, Bruna Papandrea, had seen Vallee's 2005 French-language C.R.A.Z.Y., about a sexually confused teenager in 1970s Montreal and The Young Victoria, his 2009 drama starring Emily Blunt as the British monarch, as well as footage from the then not-yet-completed Dallas Buyers Club. They were drawn to the urgency and fluidity of his direction, Papandrea says. She persuaded Vallee to read the script - and its maternal love story hit him with force: he was mourning his mother, who died of cancer in 2010. "My mom was like Bobbi, so positive," he says. "The book was so emotional. Who says, 'My mother was the love of my life?' Who says that? The love of your life is a soul mate."

The book was so emotional. Who says, ‘My mother was the love of my life?’ Who says that?

Strayed's memoir made for a tricky adaptation, as she interwove her experiences on the trail with recollections of the life that got her there. Vallee accentuated the mother story line by adding scenes for Dern along the trail, where she appears, like a mirage, from behind trees. In one improvised sequence, Bobbi jumps into a puddle with young Cheryl, who was played by Strayed's real-life nine-year-old daughter, Bobbi.

To get to the location of the film's opening scene in the shadow of Oregon's Mt Hood, where Witherspoon hurls a boot into a precipice in frustration, the crew had to take two ski lifts and hike a half-hour with gear and a live fox. Camera operators hung off the side of a mountain with belay ropes.

"Filmmaking is so heavy, there are so many people and trucks and teamsters and costume people and hair people and make-up people," Vallee says. "I try to make it light and as simple as possible. It's great for actors. It puts the story upfront. It's not about shots and dollies and lighting and sets."

Some scenes required a fine touch emotionally, as in the sequences where Witherspoon portrays Strayed's lonely, desperate sexual encounters. The actress says she was so nervous she'd sought help from a hypnotist to prepare.

"We got to set and Jean-Marc said, 'Let's talk about the sexuality. I think we need to push it a little bit more' and I was like … 'Don't make me do it!'," she recalls. "Can't we make Laura do it?"

Vallee's staging and editing of those scenes and his focus on Strayed's perspective lend them an unusual, honest quality, Dern says. "As a woman having also done love scenes, you put your vulnerability, most often in my experience, into the hands of a male director. It's a vulnerable partnership, and in every single scene I only see her longing to be somewhere else, like she's out of her body, it just kills me," Dern says.

Much of Vallee's impact as a director unfolds in the editing room, where he finds a sense of creative solitude. Vallee edits his films under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy, a partial reference to Jack Nicholson's character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

The filmmaker cut Wild with Martin Pensa, with whom he was nominated for an Oscar for his editing on Dallas Buyers Club.

An Oprah's Book Club pick and a New York Times bestseller, Strayed's tome has inspired a bumper crop of women to take to the trails. Among Vallee and screenwriter Nick Hornby's important contributions was preserving Strayed's distinctive voice in the film.

Vallee is increasingly sought after in Hollywood. Amid promoting Wild, he shot and will edit the project he was working on when Papandrea titled Demolition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as an investment banker who unravels after the death of his wife. Then he will turn to Get It While You Can, a biopic about Janis Joplin starring Amy Adams as the charismatic singer-songwriter. Although most contemporary, effects-laden tent-pole movies hold little allure for Vallee, a James Bond film would be fun, he admits. "I'm on a very good ride right now, living the dream."

Vallee's producing partner, Nathan Ross, who began working with him as an agent at ICM talent agency after he saw C.R.A.Z.Y. at the Toronto International Film Festival, says Vallee is navigating his newfound access with a sense of humility. When he received a prize for breakthrough director at the Hollywood Film Awards recently, Vallee accepted it with an amused reference to his grey hair.

"Jean-Marc doesn't read any press," Ross says. "He won't read this profile you're writing. He'll be in hibernation mode. It's good to know when to leave him alone. Now that he's in the Hollywood system, there's a certain business aspect to it, but he feels most comfortable when he's off with his actors in some remote place."

Los Angeles Times