‘Wild’ Director Jean-Marc Vallée on Reese Witherspoon’s “Comeback” and Paying Tribute to Parents
There’s a narrative about Jean-Marc Vallée that’s both true and false at the same time. It’s certainly true that Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both won Oscars after starring in Vallée’s ‘Dallas Buyers Club.’ And both of these wins were considered career comebacks—with Leto’s coming kind of out of the blue after focusing on his musical career, while McConaughey’s was more of a culmination of a focused three-year effort to do better movies. It’s not like Vallée cast either of them as reclamation projects, hoping that they would both win Oscars... but, still...
And, as Vallée admits, he doesn’t dislike this narrative.
Which brings us to Vallée’s new film, ‘Wild,’ which stars another actor, Reese Witherspoon, who is seeking a reclamation of sorts after a high-profile arrest and spending the last few years in rom-com hell. Witherspoon already has an Oscar for her performance in ‘Walk the Line,’ but, other than that added twist, we are hearing the exact same things about a Vallée movie that we did last year.
‘Wild’ is an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir, recounting her 1100-mile walk from the Mojave Desert to Washington state following her divorce and the death of her mother. Witherspoon has garnered hefty praise since ‘Wild’ premiered earlier this year at Telluride and Toronto.
Last year, it seemed like everyone involved with ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ was getting accolades—the two acting wins, plus a Best Picture nomination—except for Vallée (though, he did get an editing nomination under a pseudonym he uses, for reasons he explains ahead). Did Vallée feel left out or, to use official Oscar vernacular, “snubbed”? When I spoke to Vallée and posed this question, he predictably shrugged this off, but didn’t exactly convince me either.
I’m not an “outdoorsy” person, so I wasn’t sure this was a movie for me. There’s obviously a lot more going on here.
Yeah, I feel the same, man. I can relate to what you just said. I’m not an outdoorsy person at all. Mosquitoes love my blood. I avoid going into the woods because they eat me and I hate it. I’m comfortable on concrete in the middle of Manhattan and Montreal.
Are you worried ‘Wild’ will be a tough sell to people like us?
Is it a tough sell? We’ll see. I think Fox Searchlight is doing a great job and they’re probably addressing this: It’s not just a movie about hiking—although 65 percent of the film takes place on the trail with a girl, alone, hiking and walking. But, there’s more than that, it’s about following a girl and her journey into self-discovery and trying to find peace.
There’s a lot of drama in this movie, but it doesn’t cheat. Reese Witherspoon doesn’t have to fight a bear.
Yeah, I know. That’s what I like, too, about the book and the screenplay. It’s simple; it looks real; it looks authentic... particularly the mother-daughter relationship: how amazing; how strong. I mean, who says in one’s life, “My mother was the love of my life”? I’ve never read this. I’ve never heard anyone say that besides Cheryl. It’s very particular. It’s very special. And I thought about my own mother and I went, “Oh my God, maybe she’s right? Maybe my mother was the love of my life.” I think it’s beautiful to pay tribute to your parents like that—particularly when they left too soon and particularly when they gave you so much like this. And I related to that because my mom gave me so much and left too soon. So, my God, yeah, I wanted to be part of this project.
You’re making me a little teary-eyed. That’s a beautiful sentiment.
Yeah, yeah, it is.
Laura Dern plays Reese Witherspoon’s mother, but Dern is only nine years older. Is this a case where the actors are just so good that the ages don’t matter?
No, no! We cared about the age difference. It was important and we knew that we had to maybe help Laura, aging her a little bit. And we knew that we had to help Reese and help her look younger when she was next to Laura. But, Cheryl had a young mother. Bobbi had Cheryl at a young age, so it was perfect. It was good. And Reese looks so young. So, it was a factor—it was an important thing that we addressed and were taking care of and we didn’t want the audience to go, “Oh my God, that’s totally impossible.” They have only nine years difference! So, it’s crazy when you think about it and know it, but it works in the film.
With the narrative that you directed two “comebacks” last year who won Oscars, and now with that same narrative again this year, do you like that?
Yeah, I guess. I mean, I don’t hate it. It’s not that I like it, it seems to be talk, but what can I say, man? It’s just a matter of circumstances. I don’t feel bad about it [laughs].
Do you take pride in the fact you directed two people who won Academy Awards?
Absolutely. I’m part of this. I’m part of this, just like my fellow producers and writers and cinematographers. They went up there because it was such a great example of team effort and they know it. And this film was a special one that we made almost sweating blood—with a very low budget and 25 days of shooting. It was tough, but we all loved it so much and believed in it. So of course I take pride and I’m happy and excited.
Did you feel left out not getting a director nomination?
Hey, what can I say, man? I don’t know. I don’t know what to say to this. You never know. You never know. One year there are so many films, so many directors; so many great films, great directors. You’re part of it; you’re not part of it. I love my life so much, I love what I’m going through. I love the films that I’m doing, If I’m not nominated, what can I do? What can I say? I’m not going to start being miserable about it. I don’t think it’s the attitude to have. It’s just you’re there or you’re not and I’m still the same guy and I still feel very fortunate to do what I’m doing. And I’m living the dream right now and I’m enjoying the ride.
Why do you use a pseudonym for editing?
Well, it started with ‘Café de Flore,’ that I co-produced, directed, wrote and edited. When the film got released, I looked at the end credits and I thought it was ridiculous to have my name up there so many times. It’s too much. So I went, “OK, I’ll have my name once. If I do other stuff, I’ll try to use pseudonyms.” I started to do it on ‘Dallas,’ and I kept it until now. I’m keeping it, but maybe... I don’t know what I’m going to do with this.
Now that you went through all of this last year, is it easier this time?
Yeah, I think so. Since I was shooting ‘Wild’ until December, I didn’t participate in the promotion of ‘Dallas’ like they would have liked me to and I would have liked to. I wasn’t that present. Now that I’m done shooting ‘Demolition,’ I can give some time and I can be there to support ‘Wild’ and be there with my fellow filmmakers.
‘Demolition’ stars Jake Gyllenhaal. There’s a guy on a roll.
Yeah, I know. Man, I loved him so much. And he did an incredible job—wait until you see what he did in ‘Demolition.’ I just saw ‘Nightcrawler’ two weeks ago and it blew me away what he did.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.