There aren’t a lot of people out there who can count the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, Richard Linklater and Denis Villeneuve among their previous colleagues, but Paul Dano makes the cut. With almost two decades of acting experience under his belt, he’s quietly become one of Hollywood’s most interesting performers, and in his directorial debut Wildlife, proves he’s as at home behind the camera as he is in front of it.
Adapted from Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, Wildlife is a tender portrait of a family falling apart in 1960s Montana, anchored by beautifully nuanced performances from Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. Dano adapted the novel for the screen with his wife and fellow actor Zoe Kazan, and as far as debuts go, it’s pretty exceptional. We spoke to Dano ahead of the film’s UK premiere at the London Film Festival, where he was thoroughly jetlagged, but charming and insightful all the same.
LWLies: You started acting when you were 10. Have you always wanted to make films too?
Dano: First I wanted to be an actor in theatre, but then when I was 16 I did my first film called L.I.E., and that exposed me to not just film but independent film, which I didn’t really know existed then. I went to Sundance, all these festivals, and suddenly I discovered a whole world I didn’t know about. Around that time too, in high school, outside of school, I took a couple of classes: I took an animation class, an editing class, one 16mm film class, thinking I might go to film school – I’d already started acting, but I didn’t want to be around all actors. But then I decided not to. I just went to school as an English major. My exposure to independent American film meant that I ended up watching films from all over the world, and so around 19 or 20, when I started to really watch a lot of films, is when I thought, ‘Okay, I want to make a film someday’.
Who were the directors who particularly inspired that revelation?
Certainly a big turning point for me was seeing [Robert] Bresson and [Yasujirō] Ozu. They were filmmakers that were working at a slightly different pace and using silence in ways I wasn’t familiar with – using the space off-camera, composition. Something about that sort of stuff blew me away.
You’ve worked with some incredible directors, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen and Bong Joon-Ho. Did you find yourself studying them?
I’m sure I picked up a bit via osmosis, but I think when you’re acting on a set, you’re kind of a horse with blinders on – or at least I am. So, no. Just by reading their scripts and working with their material, being around them and their crew and the actors – the integrity, the focus, the details: there’s certainly a lot to be inspired by. In terms of looking at what they’re doing with the camera, probably a little less. I’m not trying to be in my own head as an actor, I’m trying to lose myself in what I’m doing.
Jonah Hill said he asked Martin Scorsese for advice about directing before he made his directorial debut, Mid90s. Did you go to any of your previous directors for advice?
I think I probably collected advice along the way a little bit, just by talking about movies with people like that. So I don’t think before making it… I mean, my friend Oren Moverman, who’s a producer on my film, a writer and a filmmaker – I went to him for advice a lot. But he’s my producer, I could call him any time I wanted. It was great to have someone like that in my corner, so to speak.
Carey Mulligan’s performance in the film is outstanding. Did you always have her in mind for the role of Jeanette?
Zoe [Kazan] and Carey did a play about a decade ago, and shared a dressing room, and so they’ve been friends for years. I thought seeing her get the chance to do something messier might be exciting for her. I think when actors get the chance to touch something else in them, something really good comes out, and luckily she felt the same way.
When did you and Zoe decide that this was the story you wanted to tell?
I probably read the book in 2011, and I was immediately taken by it. The mystery of who our parents are felt really intoxicating – it reminded me about my parents, my grandparents. There’s something archetypal yet personal about it, and I just felt it was really rich and universal. I spent a year thinking about how I could make a movie out of it, and when I thought about the end of the film, that was when I knew we could do it. So we optioned it, and then I wrote the first draft.
Then I gave it to Zoe and she pretty much tore it apart. It wasn’t screenplay formatted, and she just thought it was a mess. And it was a mess – though the guts were there. Then she said, ‘Hey, we’re fighting, why don’t you just let me do a pass?’ That started the process of us writing it back and forth. She brought a great sense of structure to it, how to use structure to help the drama, and to help it scooch a little further away from the book and follow the characters in the film. We’d talk for a few hours and just trade the script back and forth.
The dialogue in the film feels so fluid. Was there any improvisation, or was everything scripted?
It was all scripted. We put a lot of work into the script. We had a lot of room on set, even though the frames are composed, it’s still all about the actors, the movement inside of them. They had freedom, but it doesn’t mean they have to change the words. You could do different takes, but usually, it was pretty written. I like when language is specific.
The visual look of the film is so distinctive as well, it conjures up a sense of time and place beautifully. Were there any reference points for that?
I think something about film that’s really fun as an audience member is stepping into a world, being invited in. Doing a period film you get to create your frame, choose the colours and textures and I was so excited by that part of it. I had a wonderful team – my cinematographer Diego Garcia is very special, production designer Akin McKenzie too. With such a small budget, they made this period film happen. And Amanda Ford, my costume designer, again with such a small budget, did a great job. Of course, I was inspired by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, but most of my references for the film actually aren’t from that period – they’re more spiritual references, modern Taiwanese films but also people like Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Edward Hopper, Norman Rockwell. I wondered what would it be like to peel back the layers behind the idyllic image. The book is set in the future looking back, and we wanted it in the present tense, but to give it a feeling of memory.
The ending scene is one of the most heartbreaking moments in film this year. Where did that come from?
There’s one sentence in the book. Something like, ‘Joe got a job at a photo studio’. But that’s it. For months after reading that, that’s what floated up into my head. Once I thought of that, I really felt like I had something to say, something about this sense of letting go or acceptance. I think people get different things from it, but it was just the right way to go.
My parents got divorced when I was a kid, and I’ve felt that sense of just wanting to push them back together. There’s this feeling of wanting an image that correlates with what’s in your head.
I think, also, for Joe, it’s a case of, ‘Could that be the last time that they get this chance?’. The future is not clear for him anymore – it’s completely unknown. I think as a kid, everything feels so much more known. You’re in this safe world, and then as an adult, you’re out there on your own.
Wildlife is released 9 November. Read the LWLies Recommends review.
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