Paul Dano on Working With Zoe Kazan on Wildlife

For his directorial debut, Dano says he and his life partner squabbled about toilet paper a bit.

Actor Paul Dano told SF Weekly that his debut film Wildlife — about 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) and his mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) struggling to survive in small-town 1960’s Montana after the family’s patriarch Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) leaves to fight a forest fire near the Canadian border  — was a long time coming.

Dano, best known for memorable turns in Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, 12 Years a Slave, and Love & Mercy, has wanted to adapt Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford’s novel Wildlife into a film for at least six years. He credits several foreign filmmakers  with opening him up to the prospect of one day producing one himself.

“The biggest beginning of inspiration came when I started watching a lot of foreign cinema, particularly Robert Bresson and Yasujirō Ozu, and stuff I didn’t know existed,” Dano says. “I saw a poetry in the images, camera placement, use of sound and quietness, and, of course, the cuts. There was a pureness to that kind of filmmaking that spoke to me. That’s when I really started reading about film and then suddenly you’re super deep in it.”

Dano spoke to SF Weekly about the poetic image that moved him to bring Wildlife to the screen, the highs and lows of working with his life partner and co-writer Zoe Kazan, and what he was trying to work out within himself with the movie.

You’ve said that after reading Richard Ford’s novel Wildlife, an image came to you that was not in the book, a final scene for your film, and that that’s what pushed you to proceed with this project.
Yes, so I read the book and had a very uncanny personal reaction to it. I just loved the characters, the themes, and the language. But I thought about it for about a year because not everything in it would work as a film. Then I thought of the final scene and the final image and then thought, “What if that was in the movie?” But yeah, that was what got me to start to try to option it and to write.

How did you first get your hands on Ford’s book?
I’ve read other stuff by Richard Ford, who’s a very good American writer. I had read The Sportswriter and a book of short stories called Rock Springs that’s written in a type of lean prose that I really love. I’ve always really responded to things like Ozu where it seems simple but it’s not. Rock Springs is kind of written that way, so I was looking for another book of Ford’s like that. I opened up Wildlife in 2011 and read the first paragraph and then took it home.

In 2012, I decided to make a film of this. But also Zoe and I had optioned it with our own money and we didn’t have anybody to answer to and it wasn’t paying our rent. So it was more like working on it, putting it away, and then working on it some more. We really tried to put the script through its paces.

What was it like working with your life partner, Zoe Kazan on your first script?
Zoe is a proper writer, so, in some ways, the question is better for her. I wrote the first draft, she tore it apart, and then she did a pass and then we just traded it back and forth. So we would talk for two hours, ask a lot of questions, challenge the script and be like, “This isn’t working” or “Why this?” or “Hmm, I think something here or there,” and then one of us would take it.

So if Zoe was acting in something, then I would do a pass, and if I was acting in something, she might do a pass. That’s actually a really healthy way to work. Acting together is a lot harder, because we might be on set together for 12 or 14 hours and then we go home together and there’s no toilet paper because both of us were too busy, and then you fight. So that’s harder. The writing, for me, because we never wrote together, in a way, I feel like we found our working rhythm.

Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal star in Paul Dano’s Wildlife, opening Friday (Courtesy of IFC)

Did you ever get your feelings hurt in the process?
I think you can get your feelings hurt, but it’s temporary. If you work on something and then the other person doesn’t respond, it’s like, “Fuck, that sucks.” But I think usually we were probably fighting on behalf of the characters or the film — not against each other, Paul and Zoey — and that’s an important distinction. I’m sure there are times when it becomes about ego or other things in the relationship or whatever, and I don’t think we were ever doing that. I think it was like, “No, I’m telling you, I think Jeanette needs to…” So it’s a healthy fight. It resolves itself.

You’ve said that Richard Ford gave you carte blanche to make your own movie without being impeded by the book. Other than the final scene, what did you change?
Not only was it a great sense of permission for us as writers, but also it was understanding that you’re not going to make something good if you just do a carbon copy. It’s supposed to be a film and a book’s a book.

I will say the challenge was that the book is all internal — it’s first person and somebody looking back on the past — and I didn’t want to use voiceover. So in making the film present tense, how do you turn internal dialogue into image or action because I didn’t want it to be all about the dialogue. It’s also about the space in between the dialogue. So it’s really reliant on the actors and their internal lives and complexities.

You’ve described the Brinson family’s immense love and turbulence in Wildlife as echoing some of what you witnessed in your own family growing up. Was there something you were trying to process and let go of by making this movie?
Kind of. I think that I was searching, and trying to understand the characters was like trying to understand a part of myself or my parents or a part of their marriage. I probably came up with the ending that’s different from the book as a means of acceptance and letting go, which might be a part of why I do what I do. Every time you make a film, you’re probably making contact with something that rumbles inside and kind of working on it almost. I really feel good, when it’s an experience like making Wildlife or Love and Mercy, where they actually give me something back that’s taken with me.

Wildlife opens on Friday, Oct. 26 at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema.

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