AT LACMA Wed 11.12.2014

Reese Witherspoon Shares the Travails of Making the Heart-Wrenching Film, Wild

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 12.00.21 PM

With awards season rapidly approaching, experts and fanatics everywhere are already placing bets on who will be bestowed with upcoming nominations. One of the year’s big, buzzy performances is that of Academy Award Winner Reese Witherspoon, who is said to be a shoo-in for another Best Actress nomination for her portrayal of international best-selling author Cheryl Strayed.

Strayed’s acclaimed memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is brought to life by  Witherspoon (who also produced). It’s the latest film by director Jean-Marc Valee (Dallas Buyer’s Club). Last night, Film Independent Members packed the house for a free screening of the emotional drama, followed by a conversation with Witherspoon, co-star Laura Dern and producer Bruna Papandrea.

Film Independent Curator Elvis Mitchell sat down with the three talented women to discuss Valee’s unique directing methods, shooting racy sex and drug scenes, and avoiding the studio system in order to ensure Strayed’s memoir was adapted in a way that would do the book justice and make its author proud.

Mitchell started the conversation by commenting on Witherspoon’s southern accent, which led to her and Dern hilariously imitating their mothers and how they reacted to seeing Wild for the first time. The banter got the audience to erupt in laughter—no small feat, as many people had just finished wiping tears from their eyes after such an emotional film.

It all started with the book. Witherspoon admitted to reading—and sobbing through—the entire manuscript in 24 hours, after Strayed sent it to her in 2011. She said she felt an urgency to connect with Strayed and detailed the many reasons she felt her memoir was so cinematic. After years of reckless behavior, a heroin addiction and the destruction of her marriage, Strayed set out to hike more than a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail on her own. Strayed’s brutal honesty in exposing the very dark, intimate details of her life captivated Witherspoon, who made it a passion project.

Before the book hit shelves, Witherspoon and Papandrea met with Strayed and their admiration of her rose. Throughout the evening all three women spoke of how brave and amazing she is and how important it was to them to make sure Strayed’s voice wasn’t compromised by the adaptation.

When the book hit #1 on The New York Times Best Sellers list, Witherspoon called Papandrea to discuss her “Oh Shit” realization that the pressure was on. It’s one thing to recognize good material, yet another animal entirely to execute it in a way that will meet the kind of high expectations that come with a project that’s achieved such popularity. She says, “It’s a crapshoot. You can have the best director and the best DP and everything…and the movie just doesn’t make any sense.” Witherspoon told her producer, “Bruna, we can NOT fuck this up!”

Being the “gatekeepers” of Strayed’s story, the duo discussed the importance of bringing on the perfect team–especially in choosing their screenwriter and director. After seeing Dallas Buyers Club, they were inspired by how director Jean-Marc Valee took a story packed with such dark, emotionally intense subject matter and brought it to life without it being “maudlin or corny.” Valee was immediately on board, setting his next project on pause.

Since it was important to Valee to shoot as much as possible in sequence, production was put into place rather quickly, as the cast and crew were preparing to actually hike parts of the PCT and were fighting against the weather.

Witherspoon compared Valee’s shooting style to being in a documentary, as the entire film is shot hand-held and digital, allowing them to film countless hours of material. She said some of the takes would go for as long as 45 minutes, and she would be left to improvise her way through certain scenes and have to react the same way Strayed would in that situation. For example, Witherspoon didn’t know where to start putting a tent together and Valee wanted her to figure it out on her own, while being filmed. They said Valee always wanted to be filming, regardless of how irrelevant it seemed.

Witherspoon, sans makeup and without much of a crew, spent a major chunk of the film in solitude, having no other actors to play off of. Aside from Valee, her main companion was Yves Belanger, the film’s director of photography, walking ahead of Witherspoon wearing backpack with a 40-pound camera inside.

The film utilizes various editing techniques (for both picture and sound) to enhance the element of memory. Much like the memoir, the story on-screen unfolds in a very non-linear form, and much is revealed through flashbacks and voice-over work that is meant to bring Strayed’s internal struggles to life. “That’s how memory is,” Witherspoon said, noting the human tendency to remember bits of things and our memories don’t play out in sequential order.

The trauma and emotionally catastrophic events in Strayed’s life made the portrayal challenging for Witherspoon, especially when it came to shooting the scenes involving sex and drugs. She said, “It was really hard to do it. I didn’t wanna do any of it.” Witherspoon knew what she was in for after seeing Dallas Buyer’s Club and that Valee would stay true to form in capturing this material with authentic, raw intensity.  Witherspoon laughed, recalling the time she called Strayed and confessed her anxiety over a sex scene with two different guys in an alley, to which Strayed replied, “I’m sorry I was such a slut in the nineties.”

Dern and Witherspoon praised Strayed’s real-life persona, noting her vulnerability and truly unapologetic nature. “She does not give a shit what anyone thinks.” Witherspoon said. Dern poetically described the memoir as her “cracked-open heart.”

Given Witherspoon’s Hollywood status, it was important to the film’s authenticity that it be developed outside of the syste, with private money. Witherspoon herself admitted that studios would have wanted to alter and eliminate the rawness of the story. For instance, they would not been keen on the idea of mainstream audiences watching her shoot heroin and have sex with multiple men.

Witherspoon and Papandrea refused to make changes to Nick Hornby’s screenplay, stating in meetings “We’re not changing a word. This is the movie we’re making, take it or leave it.”

Dern explained how every department and person involved in making the film was influenced by Strayed’s voice, including Valee. Strayed was the most important person Witherspoon and Papandrea would show the first cut to, as it was their mission from day one to ensure they produced something that she would love. After watching, she hugged Witherspoon and told her, “I saw my words written on your face.”

Chris Lombardi / Film Independent Blogger

Wild hits theaters December 5.