Directing your first feature is always a daunting experience, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone has ever been better prepared for that particular challenge than Paul Dano. Familiar to audiences as one of the most compelling and accomplished actors of his generation, the 34-year-old New York native has spent the last two decades attending the greatest film school on Earth.
Only the Criterion Collection has collaborated with more of modern cinema’s top auteurs: Richard Linklater, Spike Jonze, Ang Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, Kelly Reichardt, Steve McQueen, Bong Joon-ho, Denis Villeneuve, So Yong Kim, Rian Johnson, etc. He’s the only person on the planet who’s done a stint on “The Sopranos,” worked with Tom Cruise, and starred in an unexpectedly emotional movie about a farting corpse (“Swiss Army Man”).
Needless to say, Dano had plenty of experience to draw from when it came time to step behind the camera, and so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that “Wildlife” — a tender, gorgeous, and understated drama about a young boy named Joe (Ed Oxenbould) who watches his family (Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan) burn down and rekindle itself in 1960s Montana — is told with a master’s touch. Dano has wanted to direct something for decades, and it’s no accident that he’s always put himself in a position to learn how.
And yet, speaking with IndieWire as part of IFP’s “My First Time” discussion series, he insisted that he never accepted a movie with some kind of ulterior motive. “As I excited as I was to work with somebody like Paul Thomas Anderson on ‘There Will Be Blood,’ when you’re on set your focus is all on the scene at hand,” he said. “I’m not often looking at the camera position or interrogating why the director is using which lens. I’m an actor, and I do love acting.”
Judging by his upcoming roles in the Showtime series “Escape from Dannemora” and a new Broadway production of Sam Shepard’s “True West” (opposite Ethan Hawke), it’s safe to say that Dano still loves acting. Be that as it may, even a quick glimpse at his filmography suggests that he’s always been pretty selective about the acting that he does; his career has been shaped by the same intentionality that’s evident in every shot of “Wildlife.” “I’m just drawn to projects where I feel like I’m going to participate in an invigorating collaboration,” he said. “Even some of the bigger movies I’ve done have given me that. I did ‘Knight and Day’ because James Mangold is a good filmmaker, and Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise. Doing ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ with Jon Favreau and Daniel Craig and Sammy Rock? I mean, I knew I was going to get something out of that.”
He was drawn to the craft side as well. “There are times when, in a dorky way, I just get excited by working with the DP, and then the next thing you know you’re talking to Roger Deakins about Jean-Pierre Melville,” he said. “So I wasn’t necessarily studying to make a film of my own, but a love of the whole thing was a big factor in my choices.”
Despite a lifetime preparation, “Wildlife” is only a great film because Dano embraced the idea that he was challenging himself, as well. There’s evidence of that in many of the specific decisions that he made along the way, such as hiring thirtysomething “Cemetery of Splendor” cinematographer Diego García instead of calling Deakins or Roger Elswit or any of the legendary DPs towards whom he would have been too deferential on set. And there’s evidence of that in the big picture as well, especially when you consider how Dano’s maturation as a director trying to make his debut feature parallels his protagonist’s maturation as a kid trying to keep his family in focus.
Dano launched his acting career on Broadway at age 12, when he acted opposite George C. Scott in “Inherit the Wind.” Making “L.I.E.” when he was 16 began to open his eyes to what film had to offer. “I wasn’t a huge moviegoer at that point,” he said. “I didn’t know the breadth of the type of work that was out there, or the experience that you could have making it. I didn’t realize you could just go make a film with a small group of people and have it be such a personal thing.”
After playing “dorky kids who wore glasses” in movies like “The Emperor’s Club” and “The Girl Next Door” (the latter of which continues to resonate on cable TV), Dano got to play someone unlike himself, and that’s what ultimately broke the doors open. “People think the most famous movies are the ones that are most important for your career,” he said, “but for me, Rebecca Miller’s ‘The Ballad of Jack and Rose’ was something I really needed. That was when somebody believed in me as the kind of actor I wanted to be, and that made me feel like I belonged in film.”
That’s also when Dano fell in love with the movies as a medium, and became enamored by the notion of directing. He can still remember the flashbulb experiences that forever galvanized his budding auteurism: Taking a film class based around Paul Schrader’s book, “Transcendental Style in Film.” During that time, he watched films such as Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped,” Yasujiro Ozu’s “Early Summer,” which “really perked my senses up,” he said. “It was so empowering to know that someone could make a film like that, and that people even have permission to make a film like that. There’s movement and sound in both of those films, but I was truck by how still and quiet they were, and how that made all of the little things feel huge.” That led to a new revelation. “I found myself wondering what my voice might be,” he said. “That was it. I was like ‘oh shit, I want to make a film.’”
Fourteen years later, he finally did. Of course, the wheels were set in motion long before “Wildlife” premiered at Sundance last January, but Dano — a self-admitted neurotic who couldn’t fathom the idea of making a film he didn’t fully believe in — had to wait for the stars to align. “It was the material,” he said. “And if I had the material sooner, I would have made something sooner. There were times when I wrote down images or something, but nothing grew on its own. I got a little frustrated, like: ‘Fuck! Am I ever going to make something!?’ But then I read this book.”
Richard Ford’s 1990 novel “Wildlife” grabbed Dano from its evocative opening paragraph, and it still hasn’t let him go. More than that, the book tapped into the same visual language that Dano saw in the films of Ozu and Bresson; the imagery that popped out at him from its pages was as lucid and clean as the movies he’d always seen in his mind’s eye. “If I could be a writer,” Dano said, “I would want to write the way that Richard Ford does. There’s something so lean and spare, and from that comes complexity and poetry. That’s the form of filmmaking I really aspire to — that reflects my natural self.”
And so, after sitting with the idea for over a year and thinking it through from every conceivable angle, Dano decided to pull the trigger. He wrote Ford a heartfelt email, and the author was receptive to the idea; he even encouraged Dano to make the movie its own thing, and not feel slavishly indebted to the source material. That encouragement inspired Dano to think of a powerful new ending for the story, and it wasn’t long until he was done with his first draft… which promptly ended up in the trash.
Dano still remembers the day he confidently asked his longtime partner Zoe Kazan — a brilliant actress herself, but also an accomplished playwright and screenwriter — to read his first draft. He remembers where he was sitting in their Brooklyn apartment, and where Kazan went to digest what he’d done. Most of all, he remembers what she said when she came back. “I was thinking ‘Okay, this is actually pretty good! And then Zoe came out and was just like: ‘Actually, it’s not,’” he said. This story gets more dramatic every time they tell it, but the ending is always the same: Dano wanted Kazan to offer some feedback, and Kazan’s feedback was basically: “I need to write you a whole new draft.”
Whatever wrinkles that may have caused at the time, they were ironed out before long. “It became a very healthy working relationship,” Dano said, “and I’m so lucky I had Zoe as a proper writer, because it was my first time and I needed her help.” The two of them share the official screenwriting credit on the film.
But when Dano got to set, his wealth of experience came into play. He may not have been actively taking notes from the various auteurs with whom he worked as an actor, but he still managed to glean some crucial lessons from them.
On the subject of setting a tone, he cited Ang Lee as a favorite teacher. “As an actor, you can always feel when the crew is in tune with the project — when they’re actually excited about what they’re making — and all of the great filmmakers can make that happen in one way or another,” he said. He accepted one scene in “Taking Woodstock” just to get close to Lee. “I remember how much time he took to do this one insert shot that didn’t even feature any actors,” he said. “In a lot of films, that kind of stuff gets passed off to a second unit, but Ang knew he was going use the shot. …I remember just being so excited, being like, ‘Yeah, that’s how you do it!”
On the subject of finding his voice, Dano’s curriculum included a specific moment from the set of “12 Years a Slave,” in which the actor played his cruelest part to date. “That film was about a pretty serious subject matter, to say the least, but I remember after a certain take Steve McQueen was bouncing around like a fashion photographer, just happily shouting ‘genius!’ and stuff like that,” he said. “You need the director to be the cheerleader and the fucking force guiding the spirit of the thing, and it was invaluable for me to learn that that’s okay.”
And on the subject of earning the trust of his collaborators, Dano recalled a memory from the set of “Prisoners,” where he learned that blind support can be its own form of betrayal. He admired the way director Denis Villeneuve was willing to acknowledge when a scene wasn’t working. “To just go through with something out of fear or time is a huge mistake, because at the end of the day the film is going to be the film,” he said.
As a former child actor himself, Dano was uniquely well-prepared to direct a coming-of-age story that hinges on a make-or-break performance from a 14-year-old boy. “I was treated well as a young actor,” Dano said, “but I had to learn not to be afraid of my own voice.”
Directing Ed Oxenbould, Dano drew from his own experiences. “The most important thing for me was just making sure that he knew he was a genuine collaborator — that his voice was a part of the film,” Dano said. “The best place we can find ourselves in is a place where we’re comfortable failing, so I let him know that he should never be afraid to ask a question or say if something didn’t feel right.” Epitomizing how his work as an actor is ultimately inextricable from his grace as a filmmaker, Dano, now a new father, likened directing actors to parenting children: “It’s all them, and you’re just trying to set up the atmosphere for them to be their best self.”
Oxenbould is a revelation, while Gyllenhaal and Mulligan are both remarkable. Mulligan, as the more present of the two, is particularly hard to shake. Her frayed performance resolves into a sad and strong and immensely powerful study of reinvention; her character may be vulnerable, but the actress finds something fierce and brave in how she seizes hold of her future. Asked how he guided his stars along such rocky shores, Dano insisted that the currents went both ways. “I earned their trust by trusting them,” he said. “For me, that meant shooting fewer setups and more takes so that the actors could search and mess around and hopefully have a real experience.”
As Dano spoke about what he learned by making this film, he might as well have been describing what young Joe learns by surviving it. “It’s hard to find the balance between compromise and putting your foot down,” he said. “Discovering that compromise doesn’t always have to be compromise is so important.” Those words call to mind the movie’s indelible last scene, the one that took Dano only a few days to write, but several long years to earn. Joe, tired of being an active witness to the conflict swirling around him, asserts the value of his vision by literally stepping behind a camera for the first time. Presumably not the last. We may never know where Joe goes from there, but Dano knows where he’s heading next. He ended the conversation on a conclusive note: “I really can’t wait to make another film.”
“Wildlife” is now in theaters.