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Girls Gone ‘Wild’: Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern Push Boundaries Bringing a Beloved Memoir to Life

Girls Gone 'Wild': Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern Push Boundaries Bringing a Beloved Memoir to Life

There’s a moment in “Wild” when downtrodden hiker Cheryl Strayed (played by Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon in a career best performance) assumes a male tractor worker offering her help might be a seedy rapist. To Cheryl’s surprise, the man ends up being a loving husband with a weakness for Twizzlers. Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation of Strayed’s bestselling memoir plays out in the same vein as this misconception. Similar to his award-winning “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Wild” finds director Vallée taking what could have been an emotionally manipulative story and exposing the grounded, layered humanity underneath it. The result is a drama film that feels more stripped than over-sentimental, more cerebral than spelled-out. Bolstered by two resonant performances from Witherspoon and Laura Dern, “Wild” is a spiritual trek of self-discovery that should have no problem getting its stars to the Dolby Theater in 2015.

At a members-only Film Independent screening held at Los Angeles’ Landmark Theater, Oscar hopefuls Witherspoon and Dern joined the film’s producer Bruna Papandrea and Film Independent Curator Elvis Mitchell for a Q&A on the making of “Wild.” Witherspoon and Dern play a mother and daughter in the film despite being only nine years apart, and their maternal bond carried into the discussion as the two radiantly bounced off one another in a protective manner while talking about turning Strayed’s emotional book into a film. After kicking off the evening with a humorous impersonation of their mothers’ reactions to the film, the actresses got down to business in a honest chat about the drama. 

Here are the major highlights from Film Independent’s “Wild” screening and Q&A. 

READ MORE: Telluride Review: Reese Witherspoon Finds Nature, Catharsis in Sentimental ‘Wild’

Development for a “Wild” film adaptation began long before Strayed’s autobiographical novel hit shelves.
Surprisingly, the book-to-screen adaptation of “Wild” got started before the novel even hit bookstands. Strayed had sent the Oscar-winner a manuscript for the book in November 2011, four months prior to the novel’s publication. “I read it in 24 hours on a plane to New York and was sobbing,” Witherspoon explained of her first experience with Strayed’s text. “I got off the plane and called my agent and
said, ‘I don’t know who this woman is but I have to meet her. I have to hug
her.'” When the actress finally got in contact with the author over the phone, she outlined not only the reasons why she wanted to bring “Wild” to the screen, but also why she had felt the book was so cinematic by design. “I loved that it wasn’t sentimental and it wasn’t
saccharine, it was just her being so honest about her life. I’ve rarely
read a woman, or a man for that matter, writing about his or her life with such
brutal honesty.”

The writing was so strong that by the time Witherspoon and Papandrea finally got to meet Strayed in person during a breakfast date, they felt as if they had already known her for years. “People always ask us what we fell in love with,
and we fell in love with the writing first and foremost,” proclaimed Papandrea. “Many people could have told this particular tale, but
Cheryl just told it so beautifully.” The producers decided to move forward with production after coming to the realization they both felt very protective of being faithful to the spirit of the book and to the spirit of Strayed’s life in general. “That ended up being our job as producers: to make sure the gatekeepers
that we choose would look after Cheryl’s story. We were very careful in our choice
of getting the screenwriter first and then the filmmaker for this reason,” Papandrea explained.

The novel’s chart dominance and popularity made Witherspoon nervous.
When “Wild” finally was released in bookstores on March 20, 2012, it became an instant #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List and even drew massive praise from Oprah Winfrey, who used the novel as the inaugural pick of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 relaunch. Strayed had actually known about Oprah’s prestigious selection before the novel was released but couldn’t tell Witherspoon or Papandrea for embargo purposes. Regardless, the enormous popularity of the book made the adapting process an unnerving period for Witherspoon, especially since it was around the time when another blockbuster book was making its way into the actress’s producing life. “I remember walking into the producing office and ‘Gone Girl’ was #1, and we had
just optioned that, and ‘Wild’ was #1, and we had just optioned that, so I called
Bruna and said, ‘Holy shit!’,” Witherspoon said with excitement. “It’s one thing to identify with good material, but
it’s a whole other thing to execute it at that level. As everybody in this room knows, it’s a crap shoot. You can have the best director and the best DP but
the movie might not make any sense.” Witherspoon’s nerves forced her to approach Papandrea with a resounding, “We can not fuck this up!.” Considering the strengths of the “Gone Girl” and “Wild” film adaptations, this might be one prosperous year for the actress-producer. 

Laura Dern was attracted to the film’s perspective on wisdom and memory.
“Wild” plays out like a 115-minute memory montage, with Strayed’s main voyage across the Pacific Coast Trail interspersed with hypnotic, non-linear memories of the crumbling life that led to her ambitious trek. It would be unwise to refer to these scenes as merely flashbacks since they are carefully constructed pieces of Strayed’s memory that don’t always make sense upon their entry into the story. The way the script played with memory was one of the biggest selling points for Dern, who joined the project after most of the cast and crew was in place and who felt privileged to get to know Strayed’s mother by playing the part. “It was a beautiful opportunity to get out of one’s
own way,” Dern explained with sage-like guidance. “Wisdom is so extraordinary when it’s passed along to you, as this film
I think lays out so beautifully. Sometimes only with memory do we find the great
wisdom that’s been given to us.”

Many of Dern’s scenes are rather banal and don’t become moments of wisdom until Strayed realizes their power on her life later in her journey, so the actress wanted to play her maternal role with as much subtlety as possible. “The mother’s wisdom is given while she’s cooking dinner, or while she’s in college with her daughter or while she’s running from an abusive husband, but it’s
not imparted as, ‘This is the lesson I want to teach you,'” Dern advised. “Reese was the most amazing partner. I could
look into her eyes and easily keep it truthful and simple, so that only in reflection my scenes would
hold the weight that these great gifts do, or only later do we remember they
do.” Also helping Dern explore memory was the on-set presense of Strayed’s daughter Bobby, who actually plays the younger version of Cheryl/Reese in the film. “It was a very moving and amazing thing for all of
us to have her there and to have her playing out this story with us.” 

Jean-Marc Vallée’s Oscar-winner “Dallas Buyers Club” sold Witherspoon on the director. 
Witherspoon not only admitted to being a fan of Vallée’s “Cafe de Flore” and “C.R.A.Z.Y,” but she also revealed that it was her husband who first proposed Vallée as a potential director for “Wild.” But it wasn’t until the actress and Papandrea saw a cut of “Dallas Buyers Club” about a month before the film’s November 2013 theatrical release that she realized why getting Vallée would be so integral to the success of the project. “It was the way he dealt with spirituality in the movie that really drew me in,” said Witherspoon. “He dealt with a topic that could have been maudlin or
corny and instead made it into this movie that you couldn’t pull your eyes away form.” After sending Vallée a copy of Nick Hornby’s script, Witherspoon said the director was blown away by the material and decided to hold off on the project he was developing so that he could get working on “Wild” immediately. 

Weather and the U.S. Government made production a tad difficult.
Another reason Vallée jumped to work so quickly on the project was because weather was proving to be quite the on-set difficulty for the crew shooting on the Pacific Coast Trail. “We sort of had to beg him to join asap because it was about to
snow on the PCT, so we had to start pretty fast. We missed the snow
on the PCT by 7 days!” Witherspoon recalled. Weather ended up muddling the film’s shooting schedule, but not as much as the United States government. Although it was very important to Vallée to shoot all the hiking scenes in chronological order, the Government shutdown ended up closing national parks and shooting locations, forcing the crew to start filming the hike in Oregon and not in Mojave where the journey begins in the novel. For the Australian Papandrea, realizing national parks were owned by the government came as quite the surprise. “Who knew all the parks were controlled by the
government? I was like, ‘What?'” Papandrea shouted to audience howls. 

READ MORE: Reese Witherspoon Enters the Oscar Race With First Trailer for ‘Wild’

Witherspoon and Dern’s stripped performances were a result of Vallée’s artistic sensibilities.
As emotionally manipulative as the film’s log line may sound, one of the drama’s biggest strengths is how understated Witherspoon and Dern are in these roles. Neither actress ever calls attention to herself, not even Witherspoon during her more emotionally vulnerable moments, and the resonant humanity displayed on screen is a direct result of Vallée’s docudrama approach to filmmaking. Witherspoon explained how the entire production was shot with handheld cameras that would follow her hiking or setting up a tent for up to 45 minutes to an hour. “It was kind of like being in a documentary,” she noted. “I
didn’t have any makeup on, I didn’t have any costumes to hide behind and a lot
of the time there weren’t many actors to work with. So I would just get lost
and the camera would be there, so you really didn’t feel the camera at all.” This recollection provided a humorous anecdote where Witherspoon talked about how when the crew filmed her character setting up a tent, Vallée made sure no one on set would help her. “When you see me shaking the shit out of the tent
and throwing and kicking it, it’s because I literally had no idea how to put
together the tent. It kept blowing away. It was awful,” she said with a laugh. Dern also added how the director never stopped filming, not even to take a three or four minute break. Even in downtime, he would ask to film Dern walking in the yard or playing with the horses, and those shots would then become important visualizations in the movie during the editing process. 

The film’s power is all in the editing.
Witherspoon was in absolute awe of Vallée’s skills as an editor, claiming she was absolutely blown away the first time she saw a cut of the film. Many moments of the film find Witherspoon hiking and mumbling under her breath, but the actress revealed that Nick Hornby had written entire scenes of dialogue that Vallée would then make external or internal in the editing room. “Vallée would have
me run all the dialogue in my head and then say the last line of it, or sometimes
I’d say all of it,” Witherspoon explained. “Then he would take a lot of the dialogue that we shot while I was
struggling with the backpack, all the effort noises and such, and bridge that into another scene. The way the film speeds and slows down to create
memory is its power. Memory isn’t linear and it’s not at one speed in your life.” The pacing of memories is certainly the backbone of the film’s editing style, and it allows the narrative of the film to possess a stream of unconsciousness. 

For Dern, the editing allowed her to see how Cheryl’s cracked open heart was translated by Vallée’s vision. “It was as if he implanted this experience of
watching a little girl watch her mother
grow into the woman she wanted to be. You feel this daughter trying to take off from where her mother
was sort of left. How Cheryl informed that through her writing, Jean-Marc was able to inform that through the editing and the music, etc.”

Cheryl Strayed is the scariest role Witherspoon has ever tackled. 
“It was really hard to do it. I didn’t want to do
any of it,” Witherspoon confessed. The role of Strayed demanded Witherspoon to involve herself in scenes of nudity and drug abuse, all of which scared the actress. She knew, based on “Dallas Buyers Club,” that Vallée would be bringing these destructive actions to life in the realest, most natural way possible. Before shooting one challenging scene in an alley way where Strayed has sex with two strangers, Witherspoon ended up phoning the author and asking why she had done such terrible things. “I’m sorry I was such a slut in the 90s, ” Witherspoon bemoaned in her best Strayed impersonation, “but you’re going to have to do it. Is it going to be just a hiking
movie? That’s just stupid!” Strayed’s words to the actor motivated her to leave all her worries behind. “The way Cheryl talks, the way she feels and the way she
doesn’t give a shit about what people think about her allowed playing the part to be really liberating,” Witherspoon concluded. 

It was integral for “Wild” to be an independent production.
One of the things Witherspoon loved most about Strayed’s writing was how the author would always go a little too far and push some boundaries during the last sentences of portions of the book. For the producer and actress, this meant the only way to be faithful to Strayed’s risqué writing style would be to make the film outside of the studio system. “We were insistent that we make the film outside of the
system so that we didn’t have to shortchange Cheryl’s voice,” Papandrea said proudly to audience applause. Witherspoon remembered trying to develop real-life stories in the past at major studios only for executives to intercede by not wanting any curse words, sex scenes or moments of drug use. Given the nature of Strayed’s book, all of these components were necessary for telling an accurate depiction of her struggles. “I knew Cheryl had told the whole truth in her novel, which meant I had to be
brave enough to tell the whole truth too,” said Witherspoon. “We developed it outside the system, we had Nick Hornby write it and we had private money. When we took it to the studios
we told them this was the movie we were making and we wouldn’t be changing a
word. Take it or leave it. But we got three offers that day. That was awesome.”

Strayed’s reaction to the final cut was all that mattered.
As is the case with many biopics where the subject is still alive, getting Strayed’s approval during a post-screening dinner meant the world to the actresses. As Dern put it so wonderfully, “She’s the greatest champion of it. I wanted to
honor her mother very specifically, so it was great to know she felt that we
had been as protective of her mother as she would have been.” As for Witherspoon, the success of the film came down to one moment in which an emotional Strayed hugged the actress and proclaimed, “I saw my words written on your face.” “She’s a beautiful person,” Witherspoon concluded in quiet gratitude.

“Wild” will have a limited theatrical release starting December 6 before expanding throughout the remainder of 2014.

READ MORE: Reese Witherspoon Wows in ‘Wild’: First Reviews

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