After seeing his eight features and speaking to him only briefly, one gets the sense that if director Jean–Marc Vallée gathered $100 million for a tentpole project, $90 million of it would go toward getting the most extravagant soundtrack in history. The filmmaker traffics his character-driven narratives in fluid ideas of music and memory, but none so expertly and audaciously than in his latest film “Wild,” which stars Reese Witherspoon as an American woman who seeks spiritual relief by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Dipping in and out of Cheryl’s divorce from her husband, her past with addiction, and the ordeal of her carefree mother’s (Laura Dern) cancer battle, Vallée still keeps the soundtrack — which includes Leonard Cohen, Lucinda Williams, and Portishead — from doing all the heavy lifting. As seen with “Dallas Buyers Club” (which earned Oscars for both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto), he’s targeted a unique, stripped-down shooting style that somehow provides a direct line to emotion and character. Other actors since have been drawn to the challenge of working with him, including Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts for Vallée’s upcoming “Demolition”; we recently talked to Vallée over the phone as he described charting darker territory with Witherspoon in “Wild,” his wrap gifts for cast and crew, and more. `
What was the most unexpected influence you found while making “Wild”?
It would probably be the wide shots of the landscapes with Reese — this woman very small in the frame, and these huge amazing wide shots in front of her. Initially I was in the cutting room trying to use these shots in the first act, but I realized that they weren’t needed until we knew what was going on. When I shot these scenes I was emotional; my DP and I were like, “This is so powerful.” But it was because I knew the story behind these shots, that Cheryl was divorced and her mother died, and she’s wondering, “What the hell am I doing, what the fuck am I doing, why did you die so early?” Then we knew. They became something else in the second and third acts, they became as emotional as a closeup of Reese, just natural and completely in the moment.
The film sees Reese tackling a volatile, highly sexual, and addictive character – seeing as she’s shied away from those types of roles in the past, how did you approach these scenes with her?
Well, she was nervous — I was nervous too — but she found this project and was willing to get out of her comfort zone to serve and honor the story and book. Even when Cheryl’s dressed she’s still naked — tired, dirty, no makeup, just there on the trail. The sex scenes — they’re always delicate things to shoot, and of course when there’s nudity involved you have to tackle it with a restricted crew. The scene involved this guy in a hotel room where he had to take her sometimes in a violent way. She knew sometimes it was going to be challenging, but we did it one step at a time — a small crew, no tracks, no dollies, handheld with available light, same as ‘Dallas.’
What were your days like because of that approach? The trail sequence would have such a small window of time to shoot, I’d think.
I personally don’t like long hours anyway. I like to shoot what I call “six-four” where we shoot six hours, break for lunch, then shoot four more and go home and relax. On this film we were waking up very early in the dark at 4am, going on the set where sometimes it took an hour, hour and a half to get to. The sun rose, we would shoot, and then we’d end when the sun set.
It’s my understanding that in “Wild” that you only wanted to use music that the characters themselves would hear.
Yeah, always. I did that with ‘Dallas,’ with “Café de Flore,” “Wild,” and now with “Demolition.” I don’t use original music or a composer, only source music. When I’m rewriting a script I make a playlist for each character — what they’re listening to, where they are listening to it, and how it could be used. I don’t want it to be just a track playing over action just to be a cool track; it has to be part of the story. The characters have to hear the music.
I cheat every so often, for instance with [Simon & Garfunkel’s] “El Condor Pasa.” It’s the one track that’s used as score where only the audience hears it. It’s the theme song, linked to Bobbi the mother, who’s accompanying her daughter in a mystical way on the trail. It has such a beautiful, mystical quality, like a ghost, and also a lot of melancholy to it, so it was the perfect thing to use as Reese’s character comes to accept the song, after her mother annoyed her by always signing it.
The transitions between the tracks are unique as well, with the characters humming the tracks before moving into the actual song. Did you just have an album’s worth of your actors singing?
At specific points during filming and in post I asked Laura and Reese to hum “El Condor Pasa,” and then later I had Reese hum other tracks and songs that I used here and there. It was an easy decision not to put any music on the trail, except when she’s humming or singing, trying to remember a song. As she’s trying to remember we hear the ghost of the song, the ghost of Bruce Springsteen or Portishead. But it’s not played out loud, there’s a lot of reverb to it; it’s coming from her head, her mind. Then we can cut to a flashback where it’s coming from a car radio or turntable, or her apartment.
After the success of “Dallas” your approach is well known now. Did the actors in “Demolition” come in with that knowledge as a specific attraction?
Well, I think it started for them with the beautiful script by Bryan Sipe, and then I suppose it made a difference for them to know it’s the director from ‘Dallas’ who’s doing this sort of approach. I think they loved it, to shoot 360 degrees with no cutting, shooting the rehearsals and using the space in the moment very creatively.
Did you find that “Demolition” required a major tweak of that approach?
Not really, still one grip, one electric, my set dresser and production designer lighting the film. We shot with Jake and Naomi on the streets of Manhattan so we had a lot of unexpected extras. That was about it. I also make a playlist for each film and their characters, a double CD playlist with 30 tracks. I did it on “Wild,” and I just did it last week with “Demolition”.
What are each of the characters listening to in “Demolition”?
Jake’s character isn’t really into music, but Naomi Watts has a 13-year-old kid and she and her son have a particular playlists. So the music in this film comes from these two characters and they contaminate Jake’s world with their choices. The kid is into old funk and Cave, a newer rock band; Naomi Watts is into French music like Charles Aznavour as well as Curtis Mayfield and soul. I like to offer playlists at the end of my shoots because it makes a great gift, finding the characters with the music and then offering it back to them. It’s a way of seeing the world, embracing it through music. “Tell me what you listen to, and I’ll tell you who you are.” It defines us in a way.
If money or rights didn’t factor into the decision, what song would go into one of your films?
I would start with Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” That hasn’t been licensed yet for film, I tried to get it for “Cafe de Flore,” Cameron Crowe tried to get it for “Almost Famous,” everyone is trying to get it and no one’s succeeded. I can’t wait to see who’s the first to make it happen. It’s going to be so magical.
How did you come to take this musical approach to film?
My dad was a radio DJ first and I grew up with music. When I turned 19, 20, I decided to study film, but my thing was always music. But now I wish I played guitar or sung. I’m really a frustrated musician, I would love to perform. Every time I see a rock concert I wish I was up onstage.
So we can expect a rock-n-roll film from you in the future?
It’s coming soon. I’m starting editing on “Demolition” now but next year I’ve got a rock-n-roll film happening. I can’t talk about it, though.
When was the first time you realized the stripped-down approach was the best way for yourself?
It happened on “Cafe de Flore.” During the Parisian section of the shoot with Vanessa Paradis, I started to shoot digital with a RED camera, without lights or crew. In order to naturally capture the child actors with Downs Syndrome I needed to move with them wherever they went. Afterwards I watched the dailies and I was having a cinematic experience, like “Oh my god, I’m watching a film. It works.” So I thought this is how I’m going to work from now on. Fuck the worrying about flags and the lighting. Of course not every one is suited to that but I’m aiming for projects that do.
“Wild” opens in theaters on December 5th.