A young gay man struggles to overcome prejudice from his four homophobic brothers and conservative father in C.R.A.Z.Y. A teenage monarch faces overwhelming political pressure and family instability in The Young Victoria. A single mother raises a child with Down syndrome in Café de Flore. And a Texas electrician refuses to succumb to AIDS after being given 30 days to live in Dallas Buyers Club.

Strong-willed, independent, rebellious, soul-seeking, and redemptive: These are the characters depicted in films by Canadian writer/director, Jean-Marc Vallée. Vallée was a student of film at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and worked as a film editor long before making his feature debut with Liste Noire (1995), an erotic thriller that won nine Genie Awards (Canada’s Oscar equivalent) and became the highest grossing film in Quebec.

This week, Vallée continues his underdog theme in Wild as a young woman goes on a journey of self-discovery after a series of personal setbacks. Based on the best-selling memoir of the same name (subtitled From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail), and adapted to screen by Nick Hornby, Wild stars Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, a brave, vulnerable woman searching for inner peace. As a testament to her will, she hikes the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail while carrying a monster backpack and battles both the forces of nature and the demons of her past.

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in Wild.

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in Wild

Witherspoon has called Wild the most difficult movie she’s ever made, just as Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto described similar physical demands in their transformative performances in Dallas Buyers Club. (The result for those actors? Oscar gold.) Other actresses rounding out the cast include Laura Dern and Gaby Hoffman.

In our interview, Vallée says his biggest challenge on Wild was finding “the right distance” between camera, character and audience, editing with precision, and getting the most out of Reese. Wild has the Vallée signature: It’s a soulful, spiritual, and uplifting triumph.

Mark Sells, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You studied moviemaking in college in Montreal. What really piqued your interest and made you want to become a moviemaker?

Jean-Marc Vallée (JMV): I liked analyzing films when I was younger and I liked the idea of telling stories and creating images using music and sound. I really loved watching films by Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Stanley Kubrick – they used music in a very special way. And there’s just something cool about it.

Ultimately, I wanted to become a filmmaker because I liked the tool and the toy that it represents. It’s a big toy, man! Big cameras, editing studios, and you get to play with all kinds of music and sound. It’s great.

And when you look at a film like Wild, it’s the kind of material that allows a director to have fun with the language and the medium and all of the toys.

MM: A lot of your films seem to have strong-minded identity seekers.

JMV: What can I say? I guess I like underdogs [laughs]. They don’t have it easy and I relate to that. They’re rebellious and they’re trying to find their voice and their way in the world. They’re trying to be happy and they’re trying to find peace.

Jean-Marc Vallee framing the distance on the PCT.

Jean-Marc Vallee finding the right distance on set

MM: What are the most important qualities you look for in a script or a set of characters?

JMV: When I read a script, it’s not just about these types of characters, but how I’m seeing myself for the next two years. Do I want to wake up and make this film? Am I going to wake up happy in the morning, happy to work, and happy to share this story with the world?

Choosing your film is choosing your lifestyle. I’m 51 and I’m being more meticulous when I choose a film. It’s so hard, it’s so complicated, and it has to be worthwhile. I didn’t always make good decisions in the past, but I hope I’m making the right ones now.

MM: When reading Wild, did you have any reservations early on about the logistics of the story and how to shoot it?

JMV: Not about logistics, but more about how to shoot Reese, i.e. how to not be repetitive when 65 percent of the film is with a girl alone on a trail. My god! So, I had a concern there. I was scared of the challenge because I didn’t know what the right distance would be between the camera and the actors and, therefore, between the audience and the characters.

“How to not be repetitive when 65 percent of the film is with a girl alone on a trail? My god!”

MM: How did you find the right distance?

JMV: Finding the right distance is something that doesn’t happen on the set. It happens in the cutting room. So, the first two weeks, I asked Reese to be patient because I wasn’t sure. I was asking her, “Listen, I’m going to do this shot in four different ways.”

(1) “I’m going to follow you with a hand-held, medium close-up, and do a dolly back hand-held following you so I can see your face. Then, when you stop, you stop, you look right, I’m going cut to your POV. If you look left, I’m going to cut to your POV.”
(2) “Then, I’m going to follow you from behind. I’m going to do a hand-held dolly where I’m not going to see your face. I’m going to see you from behind, I’m going to see the trail, and I’m going to have this impression that I’m walking with you.”
(3) “I’m also going to do a still shot where the camera is hand-held and doesn’t move, you’re very far in the distance, and there’s this huge landscape, and you’re walking toward the camera and exiting out of the frame.”
(4) “Then, I’m going to do this still shot where you’re not there at all. We see this magnificent landscape, you enter the frame in the foreground and then, disappear or walk away from the camera.”

Reese Witherspoon, alone with nature in Wild.

Witherspoon alone with nature in Wild

I shot all of these different ways and after two weeks realized that the hand-held dolly back, medium close-up was the way to go and it was confirmed in the cutting room since it was such an internal journey.

MM: Did you use any of the other shots?

JMV: Yes. I kept doing some wide shots because we needed to see her. We needed to see her in nature. Nature is such an important part of the film because for half of the film, nature is the enemy. Slowly, but surely, she becomes one with nature and nature becomes her friend.

There were different ways to represent this. But the way I chose was to shoot her, tiny, in wide, wide shots with her backpack on, so the way she walked, her rhythm, would become as emotional as the medium close-ups of her face. When you find out about her past, when you find out about her back story, how her mother died, from the middle of the film to the end, you start to see her differently. You start to be moved by this little girl, lost all alone on this trail. You don’t know where she’s going. She doesn’t know where she’s going. And yet, she just keeps moving forward.

MM: What made Reese the right actress to play Cheryl?

JMV: Her soul. Her guts. Her place in the world. Her place at this point in time in her life. Everything made her perfect. She was ready for the challenge and she just did it in such a humble, beautiful way that I couldn’t imagine anyone else as Cheryl. She just has this amazing quality about her. After two minutes focusing on her face, you hardly know the character, but you find yourself caring for her, you want to follow her, and you want to learn more about her story.

Reese Witherspoon spots a red fox in Wild.

Witherspoon in an emotional scene, as Strayed spots a red fox

Reese was ready to do this. And maybe it had something to do with the fact that she has everything? Everything in life. Just like Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyer’s Club. What do you do when you’re at this place in life where you have money, success, healthy children, a beautiful wife or husband, lovely parents, this and that? You think: “What else is there? I want to try something new. I want to challenge myself. I want a great part. I want a great part for a woman.”

Wild represents all of those things. Reese bought the book herself, wanted to honor Cheryl and her story, and here we are.

MM: Is there anything specific that you do that sets the tone for the actors and helps them elicit their very best?

JMV: I think it’s just allowing them to be instinctive. Trusting them. And maybe the approach I use helps. The fact that I’m shooting available light with a hand-held – they can use the space however they want. They can move 360 degrees because there’s no one there. I specifically ask the crew to leave the space to the actors. And that helps a lot.

But really, it’s just about feeling them and going with their instincts. They know it and they feel it when they get the right take. I say “cut” and they look at me and smile, knowing they nailed it. And for some reason, I know they did too. We don’t talk about it. We don’t explain it. I just say, “Cut, print, thank you, bye.”


MM: The last several films, you’ve been very active as an editor. How important is it as a director to have that kind of responsibility, that kind of control?

JMV: Yes, yes. It’s absolutely vital. In my case, editing belongs to the director and I’m very selfish. I want to do it all myself [laughs].

I really get a kick out of editing. I learn so much and have lots of fun doing it. Editing is the part of moviemaking where you’re giving your signature, you’re deciding on the tone, the rhythm, and you’re creating the playlist. It’s where you finish your painting, using all of the colors, and all of the different brushes. I know some directors work differently with some really great editors, but I started out as an editor, and just want to keep doing it. For me, editing will always be an integral part of directing. MM

Wild opens in theaters December 5, 2014, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.