Family Portrait: Interview with ‘Wildlife’ Director Paul Dano

Paul Dano has delivered several memorable performances in his career thus far—from the brooding older sibling in the feel-good comedy Little Miss Sunshine to the zealous and ambitious Eli Sunday in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. It should be no surprise therefore that Dano’s directorial debut, the big-screen adaptation of author Richard Ford’s Wildlife, is a film that has already been lauded for the dramatic performances of its lead characters. The film follows teenage Joe (Ed Oxenbould), the only child of Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), as the family struggles to settle into life as new residents of a Montana town in the 1960s. Joe’s and Jeanette’s lives are turned upside down when Jerry loses his job and decides to join a local effort to control nearby wildfires. Joe experiences the struggle to redefine the family home firsthand in this coming-of-age drama, a film that premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Boxoffice spoke with Dano about his directorial debut, and why a film like Wildlife is the sort of movie best enjoyed in a theater.

How did you come across Richard Ford’s novel? And what about it made you dedicate years of your life to getting it made into a film?

I had actually just read a book of short stories by Richard Ford called Rock Springs. I had read another book of his, The Sportswriter, but Rock Springs had a slightly different style of prose, and I’ve always loved when something appears simple but is actually quite complex. The prose in those stories was very poetic, even though it’s sort of spare.

I went looking for another book of his like that and saw Wildlife. I read the first paragraph and was like, “Oh, this.” The first sentence and first paragraph of Wildlife are probably some of my favorites, ever. I immediately fell in love with this book. Around 20-something pages in, there was a passage about this kid watching his mom teach swim class. Something about how everybody else looked like, “There’s a woman who’s happy” or “There’s a good-looking woman” or “There’s a woman with a good smile”—he knows something’s wrong at home. Something about that duality was very beautiful and moving and profound to me.

I thought about the book for about a year and read it many times. When I thought of the final scene, the final image of the film—which is different from the book—that’s when I was like, “Okay, I think I can make a movie of this.” 

The film doesn’t cover a lengthy passage of time, but there’s a lot of emotional development—for all the characters—within its time frame. And the characters’ interiority, something you can glean from Richard Ford’s prose, can present a challenge when it comes to expressing it visually in a film. How did you approach that challenge?

The book is interior, it’s future tense looking back at this experience, and it’s largely internal. That doesn’t necessarily make a movie. So a lot of what I was asking while trying to write the screenplay with Zoe [Kazan, Dano’s long-time partner] was asking, “I love the feeling that’s here. How is that an image or an action?” In small ways, even a kid fixing a toilet is a way to communicate through an image or an action. This film is a family portrait, so the language of the film is largely about images, moments. It doesn’t lend itself to a lot of camera moves. That was the part I looked forward to the most when making it: where to put the camera and why. My director of photography, Diego Garcia, is a very special guy. I worked with a wonderful production designer and costume designer.

What were some of the visual references you used in creating a period piece like this? 

One of the nice things about making a period film is that you get to control everything. We get to create every second of the film. Some of the exteriors you have to find, because we just don’t have the money. But the interiors—the colors, the textures, everything—we make that. That’s so fun and expressive. It’s such an important part of the audience’s experience, especially just on a level of unconscious detail. We didn’t have a big budget, so that was a challenge—one that in pre-production is driving you crazy. Once you’re there, it’s great. The most important thing is to get the feeling of it right, wanting to be period accurate but also focus on what feels right. 

Did you take visual cues from other films or artists?

Certainly paintings or photography—Stephen Shore, for example. There’s something there in the images and in the colors. Of course, Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper.

Then just think of family portraits, something Zoe and I have always collected—have you ever gone to a thrift store or just somewhere in some town, there’s a bucket of old photos sometimes? We always go through those. I just think they’re beautiful. We usually end up buying a couple. So even stuff like that, where you’re trying to imbue a slight sense of myth or nostalgia. Hopefully that can help express the emotion in the present tense.

As an actor, how did you approach the performances in the film? 

I’m very lucky to have Carey [Mulligan] and Jake [Gyllenhaal] and Ed [Oxenbould] and Bill [Camp]. The film relies on them. The way that I wanted to make the film would not work without actors who are really giving you not just a piece of themselves, but a real internal experience. The space between the lines is just as important as what they’re saying. That’s part of that duality I’m interested in. You can look at the world and smile at somebody, but also have something that you’re struggling with. I think that’s true for most of us at some point in our lives. You hope the script is there to support them as a foundation, and I think it was.

Working with the actors felt like parenting a little bit, where you’re just trying to create an environment for that person to be the best version of themselves. Be their cheerleader and push them when you need to. It was very fun to re-look at acting as a director, appreciate it and go, “Wow, I am, as a director, living through Carey or Jake right now. They’re my extension to the audience.”

I tried to give them the experience I would want as an actor, which is just the chance to really go to work. We shot it fairly economically, so we got to do enough takes. Sometimes on a really tight schedule you try to clip through things. That’s an absolute no for me. I really believe that once you’re there, you only get to do a scene once on film. You’re not going back the next day to that location, so you have to take the time to get it right. I was lucky that they gave me so much trust, that they went all-in on their characters.

Are you looking forward to getting back to directing?

Definitely. I can’t wait to make another film. I don’t know what it will be, but I would guess and hope that it’s going to be something different than Wildlife for sure. This was something I’ve dreamed about for a long time, this type of film and filmmaking that I love. It would be fun to do something a little more playful. .

How was it for you and Zoe making a movie together, both as a couple and as professionals, dedicating years of your lives to a single project, as opposed to being on set and then moving on to the next project?

I would say it was pretty easy; she would probably say it was hard. I wrote the first draft of the screenplay and gave it to her to read. I secretly thought it was pretty good but she just tore it apart. There were notes on every page. It was my first time writing something; it was the first person ever reading something I wrote, so it was especially debilitating. We didn’t get very far in the notes and we were fighting. She said, “Why don’t you just let me do a pass? I see what you’re trying to do.” 

Then we just traded it back and forth. We would sit down and bang something out, then talk about it for two or three hours, do a notes session. Then one of us would take it and do some work on it. We never sat at a computer together and wrote dialogue or anything like that. I think that was a good way to work for us, creatively—and as people who live together. There were challenges, for sure. But to get to share something that we both love? We can’t do it all the time, but it’s cool that we’ve been able to do it.

You go to Sundance and the film gets great reception. IFC picks up the film, a company that has experience with both theatrical releases and day-and-date VOD rollouts. How important was it for you, in your debut film, to have a theatrical release through IFC?

It was very important, simply because it’s the type of film that is best appreciated when you give it the time that it’s giving you. Maybe there are different kinds of films that would be good on a streaming platform, but this is a movie where I would really love for somebody to sit down with the characters and fall in with the film for 104 minutes. It’s my first film, and I wanted to make a film. Any kind of release these days that is not a franchise film requires a great amount of care. I’ve been around enough films and worked with most distributors at this point. The difference is really when people care about the film, and I think IFC feels that way about Wildlife. I don’t have anything against [streaming], but a theatrical release is definitely what I wanted for this film in particular. .

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