Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman, Gaby Hoffmann, Kevin Rankin, W. Earl Brown, Mo Mcrae, Keene Mcrae
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Running Time: 119 minutes
Synopsis: In Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), Academy Award® winner Reese Witherspoon (Walk The Line) and Academy Award nominated screenwriter Nick Hornby (An Education) bring bestselling author Cheryl Strayed's extraordinary adventure to the screen. After years of reckless behavior, a heroin addiction and the destruction of her marriage, Strayed makes a rash decision. Haunted by memories of her mother Bobbi (Academy Award nominee Laura Dern) and with absolutely no experience, she sets out to hike more than a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail all on her own. Wild powerfully reveals her terrors and pleasures -as she forges ahead on a journey that maddens, strengthens, and ultimately heals her.
Release Date: January 22nd, 2015
'How wild it was to let it be." - Cheryl Strayed
Thinking she'd lost everything, Cheryl Strayed walked out of her broken-down life and into the deep wilderness on a 1,100-mile solo hike that would take her to the edge. Cheryl Strayed's experiences became the beating heart of an inspirational, best-selling memoir that was about more than just an inexperienced hiker's crazy, grueling experience walking from the Mojave Desert to the Pacific Northwest via the rugged Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). With its mix of punk spirit and vibrant honesty, it also became something rarely seen: a portrait of a modern, messed-up woman coming-of-age by embracing the call of the wild in her own way. On the trail, Strayed faced down thirst, heat, cold, feral animals and all of her worst fears, but even more so, she faced up to change: pushing through to carve her own path out of grief and a haunted past.
Now Cheryl Strayed's acclaimed book comes to the screen directed by Academy Award® nominee Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), adapted by critically lauded best-selling author and Oscar®-nominated screenwriter Nick Hornby (An Education) and starring Academy Award® winner Reese Witherspoon, who optioned the book as soon as she read it. Together, they set out to capture a story that unfolds largely inside one woman's head –a flood of memories, fears, ideas, songs, poems, anger and awe – but travels a vast distance.
Wilderness epics have been around since the beginning of cinema. But from the 1912 silent film The Conquest Of The Pole to Jeremiah Johnson to Into The Wild to 127 Hours, nearly all have traced the paths of men far from civilisation. But the fact that Wild takes a different, less expected direction drew a devoted group of filmmakers.
Says Reese Witherspoon, who produced the film with her partner Bruna Papandrea: 'Wild is about so many things that touch people. It's about life, love, loss and family. It's about how a woman who thought she was completely broken, but found a way to reconstitute herself."
Director Jean-Marc Vallée adds: 'Wild is the story of a woman who wants to change her life and decides to do it in a very drastic way by going on this hike on the PCT. It becomes quite a journey, a journey of discovering herself and facing life and asking herself all the hard questions. But it's also a journey of redemption – that's the thing."
'If your nerve, deny you
Go above your nerve." - Emily Dickinson (as written by Cheryl Strayed in the PCT Trail Register)
Wild began with Cheryl Strayed's own personal story – that of a woman still reeling from the sudden loss of her inspiring mother, a wrecked marriage and a headlong dive into unabashed self-destruction who decides to put a halt to it all and takes a seemingly preposterous adventure. With zero outdoors experience, a monstrously heavy backpack and fueled by little but her own ragged will, Cheryl Strayed set out to hike the PCT, the longest, toughest and wildest through-trail in America, completely alone. Barely a few minutes into her trek, she considered quitting. But she persevered and during those few months, she found reminders of joy, courage and beauty amid the fear, exhaustion and peril. It was an adventure that helped her put her life back together again and emerge with a raw but remarkable story.
Recalls Cheryl Strayed: 'It was a huge physical undertaking for me to hike the PCT for 94 days, but it was also very much a spiritual journey. I turned to the trail as many people turn to the wilderness - at a time when I felt lost and desperate, when I was in a place where I didn't know how to move forward. In many ways the trail taught me to literally just put one foot in front of the other again."
Cheryl Strayed's story meant a lot to her personally but she couldn't have foreseen how deeply her writing would tap into other people's longing for a transformative experience. As soon as Wild was published in 2012 it hit the best-seller lists and drew critical raves, as much for its irreverent yet movingly candid style as for its adventurousness. The New York Times Book Review called it a 'literary and human triumph" and The Boston Globe said Wild is 'an addictive, gorgeous book that not only entertains, but leaves us the better for having read it."
One person who read the book several months before it was published was Reese Witherspoon, the Academy Award® winning actress and producer who was just starting up her own film company with producer Bruna Papandrea. Though streams of manuscripts were passing through her hands, Reese Witherspoon's reaction to Wild was instantaneous and fervent.
'I read the first half of the book on a plane and I was just in tears," Reese Witherspoon recalls. 'Then, I just couldn't wait to get back to the book and I read the rest on the flight back. I said, -I don't know who Cheryl Strayed is, but I need her number immediately.'"
Reese Witherspoon called Cheryl Strayed and told her how deeply she related to the memoir and how much she believed the book could touch many different lives. 'I told Cheryl Strayed this is a rocket ship, so hold on – you are going to go so far with this book," she remembers. 'I found her to be every bit the spiritual and emotional person that you'd expect. She's no nonsense, cuts through all the b.s. and just tells it like it is – the same things that people really responded to with her book."
Reese Witherspoon asked Cheryl Strayed if she could option the film rights – and she and Bruna Papandrea soon began the process of trying to develop the story in a way that would do it justice. They knew they were headed into rough territory, not just to the PCT with its infamous harsh passages, but also into an emotional wilderness that many people who have never hiked a step have journeyed through.
'It was essential to us to maintain the purity of Cheryl Strayed's book," says Bruna Papandrea. 'The book was so popular because whether you're from a broken family or you've lost someone close to you or you've struggled with hardships, this is a story that reminds us we can save ourselves. Cheryl Strayed gets her life back because she chooses to walk back into the world. We wanted to tell that story."
They joined together with Bill Pohlad (12 Years A Slave, Into The Wild, Brokeback Mountain) and River Road Entertainment to develop the script. 'Bill Pohlad and River Road gave us the ability to then find the best home which was Fox Searchlight," says Bruna Papandrea.
As the project came together, executive producers Nathan Ross and Bergen Swanson came aboard. 'I really loved the book," says Nathan Ross, who also produced Dallas Buyers Club, echoing the response of so many. 'It's a physical journey but it's just as much a very emotional journey and Cheryl Strayed comes out of the whole thing a better person in every way."
For Bergen Swanson, whose recent films include Shame and The Kids Are All Right, the film also hit a personal note. 'I'm a native Oregonian and the movie is set in a world I grew up in, one you don't see often in film," he says. 'For Oregonians, Wild becoming a best-seller nationwide has been really special because it illuminates how meaningful our natural environment can be and what it's like to really get in touch with the wild."
To adapt the material for the screen, the filmmakers turned to a writer who had also fallen for Cheryl Strayed's book: the English novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby. Nick Hornby is best known for his own funny, poignant and deeply popular novels about contemporary life and love – including High Fidelity, About A Boy and A Long Way Down. He also garnered an Oscar® nomination for his adaptation of the memoir that became Lone Sherfig's acclaimed An Education.
He was drawn to Cheryl Strayed's style as soon as he turned the first page. 'There were several things that electrified me about the book when I read it," says Nick Hornby. 'Tonally, Cheryl Strayed writes in the way that I most identify with: she's never humorless, but she's also serious and passionate and she speaks directly. I loved her candor and her ability to talk about the various messes she'd made without self-pity or self-loathing. I loved her optimism, her determination to find the light even though its source seemed a long way away. I loved her very deep connection to the arts, to music and books. For me, Wild felt like a Springsteen song, specifically a song from -Darkness on the Edge of Town,' and I wanted very much to try and capture that sound in the script."
As he dove in, Nick Hornby hoped to distill Cheryl Strayed's mix of heartache and irrepressible bravery. 'I think the big thing was the rawness - of the pain, the loss and of the journey itself, the loneliness of it, as well as Cheryl Strayed's unshakeable sense that this insane project will somehow pay off. There's a kind of magic in the book, too," he points out. 'The bad stuff is buried in the past, but the trail itself is peculiarly beneficent, despite all the physical pain and the relentlessness of the difficulty. And there's redemption, of course. We're all looking for that."
Intriguingly, Nick Hornby is not an outdoorsy person – which he says only helped him relate to Cheryl Strayed's absurdly unprepared state as she took on the PCT. 'I have no experience of the wilderness. None," he confesses. 'But one of the things I loved about the book was that it was written for someone like me: the shock of it all, Cheryl Strayed's unpreparedness, speaks directly to those of us who spend all our time – I refuse to say too much time – thinking about writing, books, music, movies. That was my way in. One of the reasons the book works for so many readers is that it's not a book written for trekkers... and I figured that it was Jean-Marc Vallée and the crew who would have to deal with the scary stuff. I could look at the trail on the internet and think about it in my North London office."
Nick Hornby structured the film to bring all of Cheryl Strayed's memories, doubts and past experiences with her on the trail, seeping into what she's experiencing in the present tense. 'I think the book is less internal than it looks. Stuff happens," he notes. 'It's unusual, to say the least, to find a book about nature which contains a lot of sex and drug abuse! And Cheryl Strayed meets people along the way, and those meetings are themselves transformative."
He goes on: 'But I needed to mess with the structure a bit. I wanted to unravel the back-story in a different way. In the book, Cheryl Strayed talks about the death of her mother right at the beginning, and everything springs from that. That makes perfect sense because her prose is so compelling, and you want to go anywhere she wants to take you after that. But without the prose, I decided that we had to create a kind of mystery in the story - what has messed this young woman up so badly? So we spool back from the divorce, until we get to the wellspring of everything, Bobbi's death."
Cheryl Strayed was exhilarated to have her story in Nick Hornby's hands. 'I really can't think of a writer I respect more than Nick Hornby," she says. 'I'm such a fan of his work. He's funny, smart, wise and he's also got a really good heart. I think he was the exact right person to undertake the transformation this book had to go through to become a script. He wrote a beautiful, brave screenplay."
Reese Witherspoon was equally impressed. 'Nick Hornby did an incredible job of really capturing Cheryl Strayed's voice and structuring the film into a non-linear narrative," she says. 'He created it as a mystery that unfolds, as you figure out why Cheryl Strayed's on this long journey. He has an amazing ability to distill human relationships down to their emotional essence."
Bruna Papandrea notes that Nick Hornby was able to get under the skin of a female character as well as any he has explored. 'Nick Hornby writes so brilliantly about modern men," she muses, 'but An Education is very much a female-driven coming-of-age story and that was equally wonderful. So it's interesting that he has been drawn to women's journeys in the cinematic space."
Meanwhile, as Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea began talking about a list of potential directors for Wild, one name resonated with them: Jean-Marc Vallée. At that time, he was still in Early Stages Of Post production on Dallas Buyers Club – and the hoopla surrounding that film was yet to occur. But they were riveted by the energy of two previous films: C.R.A.Z.Y., the suspenseful story of a gay man growing up with a conservative father in 1970s Quebec, and The Young Victoria, an intimate look into the early reign of Queen Victoria. Both featured radiant performances. After ongoing conversations with Bruna Papandrea, Fox Searchlight and Nathan Ross, Jean-Marc Vallée read Nick Hornby's script and they were off to the races. Jean-Marc Vallée was so taken with the story and its potential, he was eager to make it his next film.
Says Nathan Ross: 'Jean-Marc Vallée is really great with the kind of storytelling where an individual is going through a multi-layered transformation. Dallas Buyers Club was a similar kind of situation in the way he followed a character through intense physical and emotional changes."
'Choosing a film to direct is choosing your lifestyle. When I get involved on a film, I want to wake up in the morning with a smile on my face and happy to do my job. The way to make that happen is to choose the right project. Funny enough, I don't think that I chose Wild. Wild chose me. That's how privileged I feel to be part of the Wild team, and like everyone else, how lucky I felt to be at the service of an amazing story to tell the world: Cheryl Strayed's story that humbly reminds us, despite how tough and cruel life can be, we can always put ourselves in the way of the beauty. -Yeah right', you're probably thinking. -Double f*cking yeah right', I'm telling you!" says Jean-Marc Vallée.
As soon as he came aboard, Jean-Marc Vallée plunged into the creative end of things. 'Jean-Marc Vallée and Nick Hornby worked together for two months transforming the script into Jean-Marc Vallée's vision of the film," says Reese Witherspoon. 'It became full of visual metaphors. Jean-Marc Vallée is such a thoughtful, emotional filmmaker – and he really focused on creating an evocative atmosphere."
'From the moment I read the script, then the book, I wanted to be friends with Cheryl Strayed. That's how I felt as a reader, and even more as a director. I wanted to hang out with her and hear more about her journey on the PCT, hear more about her way of telling herself. With no censorship at all. How does she do it? Mankind ordinarily tries to blame it on the others first. It's always other people's fault, right? Not with Cheryl Strayed. Her humanity made me feel good. Her story made me cry and laugh and think about how small we are in the whole picture, how small we are on this planet, how small we can be in the wilderness, but how grounded and connected we are at the same time, to nature and to each other, how big and powerful and beautiful we can be. Cheryl Strayed picked the perfect word to describe herself, to describe her journey, her life," notes Jean-Marc Vallée.
Jean-Marc Vallée's affinity for finding beauty in unlikely places and not flinching in the face of darkness was especially important to Reese Witherspoon. 'It was as important to Jean-Marc Vallée as it was to me to really show every element of Cheryl Strayed's journey, high and low," says the actress and producer. 'We wanted to show both how extraordinarily physically and spiritually challenged Cheryl Strayed was, while at the same time, to show how inspiring and beautiful her experience was."
'How do I get this film to be as emotional as the book that it's based on? I guess the answer was to try to be truthful and faithful to the material, to Cheryl Strayed's voice. That voice is the strength of the book. It had to be the strength of the film. Cheryl Strayed has such a way of talking about herself – her take on life, on death, love, her cruel honesty, her compassion, her desire to embrace life, to heal, to grief, to try to understand, what the hell is wrong, 'what the f*ck am I doing?" she wonders after just taking her first step on the trail," says Jean-Marc Vallée.
Jean-Marc Vallée says he came at the story first through where it intersected with his personal life. 'It was such an emotional story for me," he explains. 'I lost my mom in 2010 to cancer. She was 72, not 45, but I really related to how Cheryl Strayed wrote about grief and her process of mourning. I also come from a very humble background with really strong women in my life, so Cheryl Strayed's life resonated with mine. It was an easy choice for me to be in service to this story."
Jean-Marc Vallée continues: 'How wild I was going to be as a director was something else. Wild enough to honor Cheryl Strayed's words, her life, I guess, but humble enough also to let it be, to be simple and not overdo it, to be at the service of her story. That was the ultimate challenge. This project was appealing to me because of its strong, emotional content but also because I knew that I had the kind of material in my hands that allows a director to have fun with the medium, with the language, the editing, the music, the sound design, the shots, from the widest spectacular landscapes to the most intimate close-ups of Reese Witherspoon's face and body."
'Wild's story was told through the point of view of a strong female character on a solitary journey, no way was I going to make it different. What she sees is what we see. What she hears is what we hear, what she thinks and dreams of is also what we see, and what we hear, since we decided to use a voice over. Cheryl Strayed's thoughts and comments were going to accompany us through her journey. I loved that. I have always been a big fan of voice overs," says Jean-Marc Vallée. 'And I have always been a believer in the use of source music in film rather than score music. To my great joy, Cheryl Strayed was a music oriented girl. That would allow me to have fun with music, try to find the right tracks to spin as a director-dj wannabe who tries to tell a story with existing songs that are part of the world that we're trying to depict, that will help defining the characters. There was no doubt in my mind: Wild was for me. I wanted to direct this film badly.
Working again with Dallas Buyers Club cinematographer Yves Bélanger, the two brought their distinctively minimalist cinematic style – utilising hand-held digital cameras and natural light – for the first time to a wilderness setting. These raw, unadorned visuals would later be woven into a tapestry of present-tense encounters – human and otherwise – with ghostly flashbacks and stream of consciousness to recreate a story that heads inward even as it explores the outdoors.
'What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if all those things I did were the things that got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?" - Cheryl Strayed
For Jean-Marc Vallée it was impossible to imagine anyone other than Reese Witherspoon portraying Wild's lead character and driving force. 'As with Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, she just connected with the character so deeply," he says. 'Reese Witherspoon's love for the book was so clear and deep, she really had a profound grasp on who this woman was. She was also up for an incredible challenge, ready to go completely out of her comfort zone. She came at it with a very moving humility. There was no ego, just a desire to get inside this woman alone."
Though Cheryl Strayed has an array of human encounters, both eye-opening and frightening, for much of the film she is on her own – which meant Witherspoon was on camera in nearly every frame. Bruna Papandrea says she knew Reese Witherspoon would give it everything she had.
'I think there are a lot of similarities between Reese Witherspoon and Cheryl Strayed in that they both have a toughness but also an incredible generosity of spirit," she observes. 'And they're both very open and not afraid to talk about the hard stuff in life. One of the things that really excited me as a producer was the chance for people to see Reese Witherspoon in a way they have never seen her before. She is stripped bare here – physically and emotionally – and I think she's magnificent."
Reese Witherspoon came at Cheryl Strayed as someone who takes a seemingly naïve, possibly even ridiculous, go at the PCT trail because, no matter how far she has fallen in her life, deep down she still believes she can kick-start her own salvation.
'She could have made other choices. She could have just become a drug addict, gone down that rabbit hole and never returned," the actress and producer points out. 'But she decides not to. She pulls herself out and that is incredibly inspiring for anyone who is struggling with their life in any kind of way. So many people feel that they are alone and have no one to help them. This story gives voice to the idea that you can save yourself and that's a really powerful thing."
There was little doubt that the role would bring with it extreme athletic demands as Cheryl Strayed navigates across rock, river, ice and snow. Witherspoon brought a love and respect for the outdoors that helped her to tackle them, but even so, playing Cheryl Strayed meant encountering the wild – in the harsh deserts, high mountains and also her own head – in all kinds of new ways.
'If I would have been a person who didn't love the outdoors, this role would have been impossible," she laughs. 'As it was, it was extremely challenging on every level, and far more physically challenging than I ever anticipated. There was climbing up the side of a mountain and balancing in river crossings and marching through chest-deep snow and falling into a freezing river. I had no idea it was going to be as hard as it truly was. But it was also very, very rewarding."
Many of those rewards came from moments that took Reese Witherspoon into the darkest corners of her psyche. Shooting the moment that opens the film – when Cheryl Strayed disastrously loses her boot on a high pass – felt like approaching a major life crossroads to Reese Witherspoon.
'I have to say the spot where we shot that scene is one of most beautiful places I've been in my life," she recalls. 'Being on the edge of that mountain while contemplating all that was happening to Cheryl Strayed in that instant was intensely emotional. It's the first moment when she decides nothing is going to be able to tear her apart. It seems to her that the universe keeps trying to shred her to pieces. And now she decides she just absolutely will not let it."
The heart-stirring vistas rife throughout the shoot were a constant inspiration for Reese Witherspoon, and a reminder of why the untouched spaces of wilderness called so strongly to Cheryl Strayed, even at rock bottom. 'It fills you up," the actress says. 'To see the incredible beauty of our world makes you believe everything might really be OK. I think that's how Cheryl Strayed came to feel."
Having Cheryl Strayed herself on the set also helped. 'She was a real touchstone for me," Reese Witherspoon explains. 'Sometimes the only thing that gave me a toe-hold in a scene was looking over at Cheryl Strayed and seeing in her face that she lived through this. You see all that she's been through in her eyes. And you hear it in her voice. And following that was the biggest gift to me as an actor."
In fact, Reese Witherspoon became so embedded with the character that when someone would call out 'Cheryl Strayed" on the set, she would answer simultaneously with Cheryl Strayed.
Strayed was impressed with the way Reese Witherspoon brought her own perspective to the role. 'Before shooting began we spent a lot of time together just talking about our lives, and I think, like any artist, she was figuring out how to make this role her own. I shared with her all kinds of stories from the trail, from my life, and she did the same with me. We really, really got to know each other. I'd describe Reese Witherspoon as a seeker. She's a very down to earth person, but also very smart and wise."
On the set, Cheryl Strayed was taken aback by how real it became. 'When we shot the scene where Reese Witherspoon falls to her knees and cries, I was standing behind the monitors watching her do four or five takes and I cried with her every time," says the writer. 'It was such a strange thing because I knew exactly who she was in that moment because she was me – but, at the same time, she was also Reese Witherspoon in her own moment where the universe has brought her to her knees. That's the power of art."
Reese Witherspoon notes that while Cheryl Strayed took a lot from the solitude she found, she took just as much from the people she met along the way, encounters that become key to the film. 'I love how all kinds of different people come into her life on this solo trek," she says. 'It reminds me a little of Bergman's Wild Strawberries, where she's on this journey and she keeps meeting people who bring up something she needs to address in her life."
The way Jean-Marc Vallée shoots, using hand-held digital cameras that move continuously through 360 degrees, was also a revelation for Witherspoon and sparked even more risk-taking in her performance. 'I've never done anything like it before. It's very unorthodox," she comments. 'As an actor, it helps frees you of old patterns. You feel like you're always in the moment and anything is possible. We could be in a wide shot one minute and a close-up the next, just as I might be sobbing one moment and ecstatic the next. It was a really exciting kind of process."
Ultimately, as she entwined deeper and deeper with the character, Reese Witherspoon found that Cheryl Strayed's infamously weighty backpack and ramshackle boots became a part of her own soul. While the backpack is often a source a comedy in the film, it also became a metaphor for Cheryl Strayed learning to shoulder the weight of the past and keep walking on.
'The boots and backpack became a part of me," Reese Witherspoon notes. 'The backpack came to feel like it was my arm or leg. Sometimes I would forget between scenes it was even on my body. Sometimes the prop master would have to say -you can take it off.' As Cheryl Strayed says in her book, there's something amazing about realising that everything you really need in life you could carry on your back. It is so liberating. It's a beautiful idea."
Throughout production, Reese Witherspoon's feet were chewed up, her body left aching and, much like Cheryl Strayed had, she passed through some dark and fearsome interior places but was constantly invigorated by the hard-won transformation she was projecting. 'It was never easy, but it was the kind of thing where when you get to the end of the day, you just feel like you've accomplished something," she concludes. 'I felt so lucky to be able to tell a story like Cheryl Strayed's."
Casting The Past And The Future
While Cheryl Strayed is the core of Wild, the film is populated by a diverse group of characters, both from the life Cheryl Strayed has just left behind and those she meets on the path forward.
Among them, the one person who has impacted Cheryl Strayed in the most shattering and enlivening ways is her mother, Bobbi, whose brief, sudden battle with cancer sends Cheryl Strayed's existence into a steep nosedive. Taking the role is Oscar®-nominated and three-time Golden Globe® Award-winning actress Laura Dern, who recently won a Golden Globe for HBO's 'Enlightened." Known for her versatility and commitment, Laura Dern came up on the radar for Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea early on.
'This role was the most important casting, because Cheryl Strayed's deep connection with her mother is so essential," Bruna Papandrea points out. 'We were looking for someone with the rare qualities Bobbi had: a free spirit with an enormous amount of love, but also a woman who has come through being abused. If you've ever met Laura Dern, you realise very quickly she has that kind of spirit. She's very open and we also felt there was a likeness between her and Reese Witherspoon that could work brilliantly."
That likeness became a profound rapport on the set. Reese Witherspoon was stirred by what Laura Dern brought to the role. 'Laura Dern completely transforms herself in every role, and this is no exception," says Reese Witherspoon. 'She spent so much time trying to learn about Cheryl Strayed's mother. And then I think she tapped into what makes her such an extraordinary life force, so that you understand why Cheryl Strayed feels like she'll never be okay again without the love that her mother gave her. Laura Dern was just incredible at portraying that ferocity of love."
'What a presence. What a voice, what a laugh. Contagious. Even though Laura Dern has so much experience in front of the camera, it feels like she's acting for the first time when she hears action. She looks so excited, so thrilled to do her job, to try something new, something different, something crazy, something emotional, you name it. Laura Dern is such a trooper,' say Jean-Marc Vallée. 'Not only did we shoot all of her scenes, but we managed to create new ones to try to give more presence to Cheryl Strayed's mother in the film. Improvised scenes that we shot on the fly, between sets, during a makeup test, or a break. And every single one of them is in the film. Thanks to the great Laura Dern."
Laura Dern consulted Cheryl Strayed's other writings about her mother, especially in her book Tiny Beautiful Things. She also talked with Cheryl Strayed who said she always felt that Wild was a mother-daughter love story, an idea to which Laura Dern relates personally. 'I am very lucky because I have an extraordinary mother to whom I am very close, and I have several times even played the daughter of my actual mother. So I've considered the mother-daughter relationship in many different ways, and it's one that means a great deal to me," Laura Dern says. 'I'd never seen on the page before the kind of devotion Cheryl Strayed carries for her mother and that interested me a lot."
The more Laura Dern got to know Bobbi, the more she was awestruck by her. 'I think what moved me most is that through all of the challenges of self-discovery and an abusive marriage and raising children on her own in poverty, she had no sense of martyrdom," says the actress. 'There was no victim in her at all. She felt blessed to be alive and to have the chance to redefine life for herself and her children, and to find joy in the unknown. And that is so powerful and inspiring to me as a woman. Just to get close to her through Cheryl Strayed's memories felt like a great privilege."
Laura Dern knew instinctively Reese Witherspoon was the right person to play Cheryl Strayed. 'When I heard that she read the book and overnight knew she had to make it into a film, I understood how impassioned she was," Laura Dern explains. 'She knew this was the right moment in her life that she was ready to explore this kind of role and story, and that is really exciting."
Still, Laura Dern says she didn't always envy what she saw Reese Witherspoon weathering. 'I was often watching Reese Witherspoon in the freezing cold, carrying the heaviest backpack in the world, totally cut up, bruised, in physical agony, thinking -I'll be over here when you're ready for a flashback.' It all looked so exhausting and scary and cold, I don't know how she did it."
Laura Dern faced her own challenges trying to encapsulate Bobbi's huge presence in the brief space of Cheryl Strayed's memories. 'We set out to capture several different eras of Cheryl Strayed and Bobbi's lives," she points out. 'So there are the years after Bobbi separated from her husband and the college years and then the brief period when Bobbi was sick. All of it was essential to understanding Cheryl Strayed, and Jean-Marc Vallée was so creative at coming up with ways to condense Cheryl Strayed's entire childhood. We were recreating a lifetime of experiences, and that was a wonderful, exciting kind of challenge."
Other key figures from Cheryl Strayed's troubled past include her husband Paul, played by Thomas Sadoski, who drew acclaim in the theatre before being cast in Aaron Sorkin's 'The Newsroom." As Paul, Thomas Sadoski plays a man still enthralled by Cheryl's spirit despite his dismay at her behavior.
Thomas Sadoski was drawn to being part of an authentically tight and loving relationship that, nevertheless, might be damaged beyond the point of return. 'These are two people who love each other very much but can't really be together anymore," he notes. 'I think sometimes in life you have to let go of a great love to become the person you're supposed to be."
He especially enjoyed forging the contours of that relationship with Reese Witherspoon. 'Reese Witherspoon has this unbelievably easy presence and an honesty that seems so effortless," he comments. 'It's amazing how available she is, how open she is, how trusting and generous she is as a scene partner."
Jean-Marc Vallée loved watching the two of them together. 'Thomas Sadoski' face says so much," relays the director. 'He doesn't have to say much to give a very, very strong performance."
Playing Cheryl Strayed's younger brother Leif is Keene McRae who realised that his character and Cheryl Strayed had very different reactions to their mother's terminal illness. 'Leif basically is just not around, he doesn't want to deal with it emotionally, which leaves Cheryl Strayed as the one who is right there with her, watching it all happen," he says.
Rounding out the characters from Cheryl Strayed's Minneapolis life is her best friend Aimee, portrayed by Gaby Hoffmann, recently seen in Obvious Child and in the HBO series 'Girls." Gaby Hoffmann says of her character: 'She's really the most stable person in Cheryl Strayed's life. They're friends three to four years after her mother passes when Cheryl Strayed is at the bottom of a spiral. She's just really lost and Aimee's trying to do anything to help get her back on track."
Like so many people, Gaby Hoffmann found herself relating to the book, despite having a very different life from Cheryl Strayed. 'I certainly have never taken such an adventure at that level, but I did spend most of my 20s feeling lost and attempting to retrieve or discover or expose myself to myself," she says. 'That kind of spiritual, psychological journey resonates with me and I think with a lot of people. It's something so many women and people in general go through."
Among the people who change Cheryl Strayed while on the road is Jonathan, a chance encounter who brings a moment of connection when she emerges from the woods in freewheeling Ashland, Oregon at the time of Jerry Garcia's death. Taking the brief but pivotal role is Michiel Huisman, the Dutch actor known for World War Z and Jean-Marc Vallée's The Young Victoria.
'Reese Witherspoon and I loved him in Young Victoria," says Bruna Papandrea. 'He's perfect as the first person Cheryl Strayed has been sexual with sober in a very long time. We really wanted someone who could reflect the free spirit of that time and place. And Michiel Huisman is also gorgeous."
Says Michiel Huisman of Jonathan's reaction to Cheryl Strayed: 'He's intrigued by her presence. She's very direct and he likes that." He continues: 'I really liked Jonathan but it wasn't just his character that drew me to Wild. It was this funny, sad, beautiful story. I loved being part of it."
Another person who helps sustain Cheryl Strayed when she most needs it is Greg, a fellow PCT hiker with far more experience. Kevin Rankin, known for his work on television's 'Breaking Bad," 'Trauma" and 'Unforgettable" and who also was in Dallas Buyers Club, takes the role.
Kevin Rankin acknowledges that when Greg meets Cheryl Strayed – as he's emerging bare naked from a dip in the river – it seems unlikely she'll ever finish her hike. 'Greg has been planning for years to do this hike, so for Cheryl Strayed it's sort of a moment for her to see how deep in over her head she is, how unprepared she is juxtaposed with someone who is fully ready," he says. 'But that all changes."
The nude scene unfortunately had to be shot in Oregon in near freezing temperatures. 'It's supposed to be a hot California summer but it was maybe 40 degrees, maybe," recalls Kevin Rankin. 'I had to get mentally prepared for that!"
The very first person Cheryl Strayed encounters when she's desperate and starving in California near the start of the trail is Frank, a man working in a remote field who makes a dangerous-sounding offer to take her home in his truck. Taking the surprising role is W. Earl Brown, a renowned character actor best recognised as the hotheaded Dan Dority on HBO's 'Deadwood."
W. Earl Brown says the role came naturally to him. 'I know this guy. I'm related to this guy; I grew up on a farm in Kentucky. It's actually why I became an actor because when I was hauling hay at 12, I thought -I can't do this the rest of my life.' So, ironically now I'm playing a farmer," he muses.
For W. Earl Brown, Frank's encounter with Cheryl Strayed is an omen of what is to come: a facing down of all her fears. 'That's what her journey is about," he says. 'In the beginning, I think she seems pretty naïve to undertake something so huge, with no preparation. She's jumping off the cliff, not knowing if she has a parachute. But previously she was just anesthetising her fears and pain, just slapping a bandage on it with the drugs. Now, on this trip, she's facing it all in a very immediate way."
One of Cheryl Strayed's most surreal encounters disrupts her travels with comic relief when she is 'interviewed" by a man named Jimmy Carter, wanting to profile her as a 'lady hobo." Mo McRae, last seen in The Butler and the television hit 'Sons of Anarchy," had a blast with the role.
'Jimmy Carter is a very interesting person - one of many interesting characters that Cheryl comes across," says Mo McRae. 'He's a journalist who writes for The Hobo Times. And he mistakes Cheryl Strayed for a lady hobo, which is something very hard to come by. So he's pretty excited."
Mo McRae defends Jimmy Carter's enthusiasm. 'I mean, aesthetically everything about Cheryl Strayed screams hobo," he notes, 'and Jimmy Carter is a hobo aficionado. She tries to say she's not a hobo... but obviously she must be if she doesn't have a job or home and what looks like her whole life is in her backpack."
But Mo McRae also sees Jimmy Carter as a kind of reflective mirror for Cheryl Strayed. 'I feel like Jimmy Carter represents in a weird way the eye of society," he sums up. 'He immediately attempts to put her in a box. He wants her to be what he sees her as. And anything that she says that contradicts that - he's not receiving it. And that's kind of where Cheryl Strayed is in her life with everyone. She wants to be seen in a new way."
Earth, Wind and Fire
Life on the trail
From the beginning it was clear that Wild had to be shot on the road and trail to capture both Cheryl Strayed's disorienting immersion into the wilderness and her journey towards embracing all its revelations and unknowns. In many ways the production would come to echo her rites of passage.
Though the PCT winds from Mexico to Canada, the film would shoot primarily in Oregon, which features the full array of Western landscapes – and would ultimately become Cheryl Strayed's home – as well as in California's parched Mojave Desert.
'This film is about a woman in the wilderness and that's where it had to be shot," says Jean-Marc Vallée. 'We shot on the PCT as much as we could and in some other locations nearby, but we were always searching for that kind of beauty Cheryl Strayed writes about. We shot as early in the morning as we could to capture that morning light and we shot as late as we could to grab the sunsets."
Jean-Marc Vallée was especially intrigued by contrasting Reese Witherspoon's tiny frame against these monumental landscapes. 'Sometimes I had the impression that I was making a Western," he muses, 'a John Ford film but with a tiny female figure cast against these vast vistas."
Collaborating with Jean-Marc Vallée on those vistas was a close-knit team, several of whom worked with him on Dallas Buyers Club, including cinematographer Yves Bélanger and production designer John Paino. Yves Bélanger has been developing a unique, instinctive photographic style that creates a hyper-real experience – by using only handheld digital cameras and shooting without any artificial lighting. Now, however, he would be adapting this methodology to the great outdoors.
'We did this on Dallas Buyers Club, using only camera lenses, no lighting, no tripod, no dollies or cranes, just real locations and available light," Yves Bélanger says. 'But for Wild, the scope had to be bigger. We felt it could be really beautiful using this approach in these stunning landscapes. It's a trip to some really beautiful places, but it's also a trip inside the human soul."
He goes on: 'This technique is very liberating for everybody. The actors love it because once you start shooting you don't stop, and they feel a lot more connected because it's just them and the camera."
As he did on Dallas Buyers Club, Yves Bélanger utilised the Arri Alexa camera, but this time he added new Zeiss Master Prime lenses, which he says gave him unprecedented detail both for up-close faces and panoramas. He also used just a few mechanical lights for sequences that required it, such as shooting in the pouring rain. 'We still kept it very, very raw," he explains.
Everything was shot in the same way, from Cheryl Strayed to the mysterious fox that follows her. 'Jean-Marc Vallee and I never underline anything as important," says Yves Bélanger. 'We shoot it all very simply. So with the fox, we shot it as just a fox in the world, although it might be a metaphor."
'Shooting outdoors most of the time, in the wilderness, in the cold, or in the heat, was obviously a challenge. Nature was Cheryl Strayed's main obstacle during the first weeks of her hike. Nature was the obvious enemy. But Cheryl Strayed's ultimate obstacle, Cheryl Strayed's real enemy, was herself. Shooting one main character that represents the hero and the villain at the same time was a thought that I was concerned about. The major obstacle that Cheryl Strayedencounters during her journey comes from her mind, from her past. As she's hiking the PCT, she remembers different moments of her life, moments that got her on the trail and that slowly reveal her. They represent about 35% of the film. The rest takes place on the trail. A woman alone on a trail with a backpack and her thoughts, how do we capture this, how do I film her? I wasn't sure at the beginning of the shoot. What was the right way to shoot Reese, the right lens, the right distance?' asks Jean-Marc Vallée. 'Handheld was the way to go, no doubt about it (except for the final scene that we shot with a Steadicam operator). Finding the right distance between the main character and the audience is something that I discovered in the cutting room. Are we waiting for her on the trail as she passes by? Are we following her with a hand held dolly back? Are we behind her and walking with her with a hand held dolly in? Are we seeing her from behind and stay there as she walks by and becomes smaller and smaller in the frame, in the wilderness?"
Jean-Marc Vallée continues. 'Since we weren't sure about the right distance yet, the cinematographer, Yves Bélanger, and I covered our backs on the set. We shot most of the scenes in different ways in order to allow us in the cutting room to find that distance. The hand held dolly back won. Most of time, we're close to Reese Witherspoon and we're walking with her. We're close to her face, we can easily see what she's looking at, and get a feeling of what she is thinking of. And sometimes, it was as important to see her 'small," far away from us, see her among the wilderness, among the beauty. And it's funny how I get emotional when I see these wide shots of nature among which there is this tiny girl, with a back pack as big as her on her shoulder, slowly walking her way to God knows where, God knows why. The power of storytelling, I guess, that's what gets me emotional, knowing more and more of Cheryl Strayed's story, of Cheryl Strayed's character, touches me even more when I see these beauty shots of nature."
The way Jean-Marc Vallée and Yves Bélanger work together set the tone for the entire cast and crew observes Bruna Papandrea. 'There's a looseness and a fearlessness where they're willing to try anything," she says. 'They're not wedded to anything but able take opportunities for shots as they go. There's such freedom – and for a film that is about a woman finding her own freedom in the wild, that was great."
Executive producer Bergen Swanson adds: 'The way Jean-Marc Vallee and Yves Belanger shoot is based on this idea of really removing the encumbrance of a big movie-making machine. They try to get it down to the essence of a director working with the actors and recording what they see on camera."
For production designer John Paino, Jean-Marc Vallee's style is alluring. 'What appeals to me about Jean-Marc Vallee is that I would call him a poetic realist," he comments. 'He deals in reality but he edits it down, he likes to take away everything superfluous to the themes of the story."
John Paino says his main goal throughout was to blend Cheryl Strayed's past and present worlds. 'You have the beauty of the natural world against the world of cities where Cheryl Strayed has come from," he explains. 'But we didn't want it to be that one was entirely gritty and horrible and the other was beautiful and transformative. We wanted them opposed a bit but also meshed in Cheryl Strayeds mind."
He goes on: 'We embrace the artificial colors of the city. In the natural, there are so many blues and greens so we stayed away from those in the city. But there are blues and greens and yellows in Bobbi's house, because for Cheryl Strayed, that was a very warm, sunny time."
John Paino did a lot of photographic research – first with the PCT and its environs to make sure every location, whether on the trail or not, appeared authentic right down to the trail markers. But he also took up Cheryl Strayed's offer to share personal photographs with him.
'Cheryl Strayed was very generous with pictorial references of her early life and she didn't hold anything back and it was very informative," he says. 'We had some snippets of the homes where she grew up that were really, really helpful. They helped us decide where to push certain things like colors and textures. It also really hit home how poor they were. Cheryl Strayed even lent us her breadbox – which her father made for her mother – for the kitchen scene which was amazing."
The PCT became a character in and of itself –embodying the rough-hewn allure of the American West. Winding through some 25 National Forests and 7 National Parks, it rises to 13,000 feet in the Sierra and dips to sea level at the Columbia River, passing through such diverse and inimitable territory as the Mojave Desert, Sequoia National Park, Tuolumne Meadows, the volcanic terrain of Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier, the forests of Crater Lake – all the way to the Bridge of the Gods, the cantilever bridge that crosses the Columbia River from Oregon into Washington state.
Some locations were so remote that the production had to hire donkeys and horses to haul in equipment, but it was all worth it. 'Crater Lake is something you can't double," notes executive producer Nathan Ross. 'There were a number of iconic locations where it was critical that we be able to shoot and that you couldn't possibly green-screen. We had to be at the Bridge of the Gods because that is such an emotional high point in Cheryl Strayed's story and it had to be authentic."
The production had the cooperation of the Pacific Crest Trail Association and worked with several consultants affiliated with the trail, who provided everything from location advice to maps. 'When it comes to the Pacific Crest Trail and information about the Trail, we're it," explains Liz Bergeron, Executive Director and CEO of the Pacific Crest Trail Association. 'We have a number of staff who have hiked the entire Trail or large parts of it, and staff who work on the Trail everyday as part of their job. So there's really nobody who knows the Trail like our organisation does."
She goes on: 'What really surprised us on Wild is how hard everyone on the production was working to really make this experience feel very authentic and real."
That authenticity went right down to the clothes, which fell to costume designer Melissa Bruning (Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, Let Me In) to explore. Melissa Bruning also worked closely with Strayed, poring over her photographs from the PCT and even borrowing some her mother's actual jewelry for Laura Dern to wear. For Cheryl Strayed's hiking outfit, Bruning manufactured most of the items to match what Cheryl Strayed wore at the time. 'We created many different versions of her vintage shorts – in various stages from new to wet to grungy and dirty," the designer says.
Cheryl Strayed's boots were a coup. 'The boots that appear on the book cover have become iconic, so it was important for us to recreate those," Melissa Bruning notes. 'I approached Danner Boot Company here in Portland, and they were able to recreate for me that same boot. They had a bunch of them manufactured within ten days. It was something amazing that I didn't even think was possible."
For Cheryl Strayed's backpack, the inspiration was also the real 'monster," which Cheryl Strayed still keeps as a memento. Since that time, packs have become more high-tech and lightweight, so the production had to custom-make several copies of the original because that style isn't sold anymore.
The authenticity went right down to the skin, as Reese Witherspoon engaged the same tattoo artist who did Cheryl Strayed's divorce tattoo two decades ago to draw the same designs on her.
The tone of the clothing also subtly shifts through the film, with the young Cheryl Strayed starting out in light, colorful, playful dresses that give way to more sensual look during her marriage giving way to a dark, grunge look when she starts experimenting with heroin, which is then all stripped away when she leaves for the PCT with nothing but shorts, fleece pants and some basic tees.
'I approached it as if the trail was always reality and the flashbacks have that kind of slight fantasy of nostalgia, of remembrance," Melissa Bruning explains.
The mixing and melding of reality and flashbacks became especially vital to the editing process. As he has on Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée oversaw the editing. 'Martin Pensa and I have a way of challenging each other," says the director. 'I like that he's 20 years younger than I am, so he has different references to draw on and he's always pushing. For us, it is always about finding the right level and quality of emotion, that right rhythm."
Going through the footage, Martin Pensa recalls being astonished by Reese Witherspoon's performance. 'She is amazing in this role," he says. 'And she really went through it. It wasn't smoke and mirrors. It was a truly tough physical and mental experience during which she evoked so many different emotions, many of them unspoken. I was really impressed with what she did."
The crux of the editing was staying inside Cheryl Strayed's head throughout, mirroring the way a person's mind moves back and forth through time and memories when they are alone. 'We wanted the film to reflect how people think. We don't think continuously, but we have these little moments of flashing back to a memory, of humming a song, of talking to ourselves, of going from one thought to something completely different," he points out. 'So that's what we were trying to re-create."
'Cutting Wild was the most emotional cutting experience I ever had. I have never cut a film with a box of tissues next to me. Tears falling on the keyboard, Jesus, you should have seen me, a mess in the cutting room. But a happy mess. I was crying and smiling and laughing at the same time, happy to cut this film, to discover ways of cutting it to make us feel like we're in Cheryl Strayed's mind, working with it in mysterious ways sometimes, wild and disconnected like the brain can work, trying to gather all the different pieces of the puzzle, and also, just trying not to interfere with the magnificent performances of Reese Witherspoon and Laura and the other actors, trying to let the shots breathe and live as long as they did, trying not to cut but to show what we captured on the set," Jean-Marc Vallée says. 'That how I feel today as a director, like the guy who's job is to capture what's going on in front of him, not interfere, not influence, just witness and capture…beauty. I want to capture beauty. Thank you Cheryl Strayed."
Martin Pensa says that he loves the constant creativity of working with Jean-Marc Vallée. 'Jean-Marc Vallée is a very passionate man, a very, very strong artist. I deeply respect his choices, his way of seeing things. To him, it's never finished until it feels right," he explains.
Part of what had to be right was the music. 'When I asked myself how I was going to use music on the PCT, the answer wasn't that obvious. Since Cheryl Strayed didn't listen to any music while hiking in 1995, since she had no music device on her, why bother to change that? There will be no music on the PCT, just like her reality. But I found myself in the cutting room wanting to cheat sometimes, to go beyond that concept. I wanted some music other than her singing or humming. But I didn't want to use score music. I didn't want to give the audience this impression of 'film watching", you know, that's often how I feel with score music, I become aware of it, aware that I'm watching a film, that someone is playing music that the characters don't hear. I try to avoid that in every film I direct and I wanted to avoid it badly in Wild, and here I am in the cutting room trying to use source music as score music, trying not to be spotted by the audience, trying to keep this impression of realism that source music gives, trying to get away with it. So I played music on the trail in a ghostly fashion, with a reverb effect, very low in the distance to give the impression that it's coming from Cheryl Strayed's mind, as if she was trying to remember a song, or some parts of a song. And it became some sort of a convention to slowly introduce a flashback scene and to slowly get out of it," says Vallée 'But the main direction with music was to use it only during flashbacks. When there is music, it's because it's playing in the scene from a sound device, a car radio for instance, or a CD player. What Cheryl Strayed is listening to in her life, is the music that we hear during the film."
'Music is a way that marks special moments in Cheryl Strayed's life and her memories," Jean-Marc Vallée notes. 'Since the film takes place in 1995, we tried to pick some great songs from that period. The Simon and Garfunkel song -El Condor Pasa' is also something that is a contant presence with Cheryl Strayed on the trail. You hear her humming bits and pieces of it, but you don't hear Simon and Garfunkel singing it until near the end."
Those kinds of sudden rushes of feeling is what Jean-Marc Vallée most wanted to bring to the film in the design and through Witherspoon's performance – to get to what readers experienced when they first picked up Cheryl Strayed's book and were transported to a visceral, primal world where just taking another step could be a rousing triumph.
'There is something about being in the wilderness," sums up Jean-Marc Vallée, 'becoming part of nature, learning to see it not as an enemy but as a friend, experiencing the beauty and the quality of the air that can be life-changing. Cheryl Strayed went into that and kind of lost herself for nearly 100 days. She was alone with her demons, her dreams and her past and it led her to ask: -What do I really want to do with my life?'"
Release Date: January 22nd, 2015