Restless in Montana: Actor Paul Dano makes impressive directing debut with 'Wildlife'

Movies Features

Acclaimed actor Paul Dano is discussing in characteristically thoughtful tones what he learned directing his first feature film, the accomplished adaptation of the 1990 Richard Ford novel, Wildlife.

“On a budget and on a certain schedule, not everything is going to go according to the plan. And from that, sometimes, some really great stuff blossoms, [but] it’s so hard to trust that. So I think the biggest thing I took away was really trusting the process.”

A brief digression: As many basketball fans are wont to know, the phrase “Trust the process” was made famous several years ago by the then-general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. Sam Hinkie’s “process” was controversial: He purposefully tanked games in order to rebuild the failing team he had inherited and turn it into a stronger outfit. Although that might sound strange to someone who counts herself a greater fan of sports movies than she is of sports, the overarching idea behind the credo “Trust the process” is fairly comprehensible: its notion of prizing patience and maintaining faith in a long-range vision.

I do not know if Dano is a sports fan. We have not made it there in our conversation, nor do we ever arrive. I have no idea if he is aware of Hinkie, the 76ers, or if he puts stock in self-sabotage as a means of ascendance. But, boy, does the newly minted director and screenwriter (a credit he shares on Wildlife with his partner, the writer/actress Zoe Kazan) believe in “trusting the process.” In the fundamental things that apply to the uphill-mountainous worlds of film and sports both: trusting your abilities and to perseverance to see you through inevitable, unavoidable challenges on a road to success lined with spectators. Trusting, with patience and with faith, in yourself to the process you have set in motion.

The first challenge Dano faced with Wildlife arrived before he had much of an idea of there being a process to ignite. He read and loved the novel by Richard Ford. The book charts the unraveling of a family in 1960 Montana. When dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal in the film) loses his job as a golf-course groundskeeper, he leaves his wife Jeanette (a firecracker Carey Mulligan) and son Joe (Ed Oxenbould of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) to join a group of volunteers battling wildfires up in the mountains. Faced with new freedom and not nearly enough money, Jeanette goes off the rails and into another, richer man’s arms, forcing our protagonist Joe to grow up quickly.

The book struck several personal chords for Dano, who is best known for disappearing inside critically heralded roles like those in Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, 12 Years a Slave and Love & Mercy, to name a few. In his Director’s Statement, he admits to growing up in a home like the one depicted in Wildlife, where there was “an extraordinary amount of love” but “also incredible turbulence.” When asked to expand upon this thought, Dano is understandably cagey and distant, although, to credit his professionalism, neither defensive nor resistant. Always he speaks measuredly, often pausing for several beats after he is asked a question. “I think the first thing I was struck by when I read it was Jeanette’s character,” he muses. “The feeling of discovering that your parents are people. And that they’re flawed people.” In fact, all three of the central characters “felt like me, like people I knew. They reminded me of my family, and I think I just wanted to try to understand a little better.”

But the challenge was, Dano wasn’t sure if the story—emotionally resonant but, like many novels, resonant with its protagonist’s interior reflections—was right for the visual medium of the movies.

“I spent about a year daydreaming about it. Probably re-read the book several times and kind of just kept turning it over in my head.” The questions that stumped him were: “Could I do it, and why would I do it, and, you know, is there really a film here?”

His patient ruminations paid off. “Eventually I thought of the final scene of the film and the final image,” which gave him the confidence to move forward. You can see which scene he is talking about if you watch the IFC movie’s teaser trailer: Mulligan and Gyllenhaal sitting against a blue dropcloth, staring into the camera, she with a sad and cracking determination to keep it together, he with a more vacant melancholia. In the film, it’s photography-apprentice Joe who takes this portrait of his family. But in the book, this scene never happens.

It was Wildlife’s author, Richard Ford, who encouraged Dano to deviate from his text. The second challenge the director faced was optioning the novel—although that hurdle, to his delighted surprise, would prove the easiest to surmount.

“I’m grateful to you for your interest in my book,” wrote Ford to Dano in an e-mail, “but I should also say this—in hopes of actually encouraging you: My book is my book; your picture—were you to make it—is your picture. Your moviemaker’s fidelity to my novel is of no great concern to me... Establish your own values, means, goal; leave the book behind so it doesn’t get in the way—and where it’s safest.”

“That was a great sense of permission from somebody who you admire,” remembers Dano. “If I could have asked for him to say anything, it would have been something like that.”

A smooth process, by all accounts, then, was Widlife the picture, in the beginning.

And then Dano picked up a pen.

For Challenge No. 3, The Writing (not to be confused with “The Reaping,” although a sense of horror-movie anxiety is not out of place here), Dano enlisted the help of his partner, Kazan.

What was that dynamic between the couple like? One wants pryingly to know.

“The initial conversations were probably more of a fight than anything,” Dano reveals with uncharacteristic alacrity. First he wrote a draft on his own that Kazan tore apart. That earliest attempt was “more about the image,” Dano admits. “And I didn’t write in screenplay format… I sort of wanted to write from a very naïve place, just to get the guts of it out on the page.” After he showed it to, and fought with, Kazan, “she was like, ‘I see what you’re trying to do, why don’t you just let me do a pass?’ And I said, ‘Great.’ I was so devastated—no, I mean, I wanted her help.”

Kazan pulled Dano’s collection of images together into a dramatic structure. And then the real work, fueled by that patience and that faith which were already defining Dano’s methodology, began. For a few years the duo passed the script back and forth. “If she was acting in a film, I might do a pass on the script, you know, we’d talk about it; or if I was away, we would talk about it, and then she would do a pass.”

In his 2016 resignation letter from The 76ers, Hinkie reflected: “This story underscores what our players, particularly our best players, are in greatest need of—time.” If you were to substitute the word “scripts” for “players,” this quote might well have come from Dano himself. The filmmaker agrees “that time was a great virtue for the [writing] process. Because in all the other parts of the process, time is such a precious commodity. Like, you don’t have time. Once you’re paying people,” he clarifies, mentioning the film’s small budget.

With Challenge No. 4—the Technical Challenge, you might call it, or pre-production—Dano, a veteran of the movies as an actor, was surprised as a director by just how “technical, logistical, so much about money and schedule” it all was. It became useful for him to remind himself that “even when you’re making a budgetary decision, you’re making a film. It’s gonna impact what you put in front of the camera.”

It’s here he mentions how hard it is to trust to “great stuff” blossoming beneath budgetary and scheduling constraints. But his faith in the process would soon be roundly, even uncannily, justified.

“So the film takes place in Montana,” Dano recounts, “but we could only afford to shoot four days in Montana.” The production moved on to Oklahoma, for a sound technical, logistical, monetary and scheduling reason—namely, “they have a really great tax incentive there.

“We found a town [in Oklahoma] that had a lot of period vibes to it still. And we ended up finding a house that was one of the last locations we found, which was the scariest thing, because so much of the film takes place there [inside the family’s home.] And it ended up being some guy’s house from the late ’50s, who took care of the grounds at a golf course.” Some guy, that is, who had had the same job that Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Jerry, has at the beginning of the film, and during the same era. This real-life Jerry whom Dano and his crew discovered “was blind and he had a lot of stuff from the ’60s still in his house.” As “bummed” as Dano was to forgo capturing more of the “beautiful” and “lonely” landscape of Montana, having now come out the other end, “I can’t imagine doing it any other way.”

Nor could he imagine working with any other DP for this, Challenge No. 5: The Shooting. Prior to filming, Dano was given a list of 300 working cinematographers by an agent at WME. He chatted with many of them, but it was Diego Garcia (Neon Bull), who happened to speak the poorest English of the bunch but “the closest dramatic language to me,” who stood out.

“Watching his stuff it was clear how it just felt like [there was] a great sensitivity to his frames. And also a great sense of composition, which was something that was really, really important for this film.” Indeed, the compositions in Wildlife are precise, delicate, at times exquisite in their formal arrangements and in their restraint. Garcia “also just felt immediately that sense of camera, cinematography, that was in the writing” and that had survived from Dano’s first “naïve” draft through Kazan’s restructurings.

Such a sympathetic grasp of what Dano meant was crucial, for Dano was in thrall to the idea of portraiture, to paintings that “peel back the layers of what you see at first.” Hence his decision to deviate from the novel and have Joe photograph his family at the end, as well as to arrange his own frames with a painterly eye. True to Ford’s advice, this is very much Dano’s version of Wildlife, the way he both visually and thematically processes emotions on display—a process that also appears to be very much about catharsis, if not self-revelation.

“Ultimately I think I’m most aligned with the kid, Joe,” the filmmaker says. It was through the character of Joe that Ford in his book captured “the way I would have, and still deal with, situations and struggles…this kid, rather than rebelling or acting out, he was kind of trying to hold the whole thing together. Like, trying not to let things get too far in the wrong direction. And that’s just kind of who I am, probably.”

Dano had worked as an actor alongside Gyllenhaal before (in Prisoners; they also both appear in Okja, although never together), and Mulligan he deservedly raves about: She was “so all-in” and “such a wonderful collaborator… I was surprised how much she trusted me as a first-time filmmaker.” But Oxenbould was something else.

“I started acting around his age,” explains Dano, who made his onscreen debut at 14 in a 1998 episode of The Disney Channel show “Smart Guy.” “I really felt it was important to me to make him a collaborator.” He describes the patient line of questioning he would put to Oxenbould: “Ed, what do you think? How do you feel? Does it feel true to you? Do you want another take?” But “Ed didn’t need” more takes or his director’s kid gloves. “We were so excited when we cast him, because we were like, ‘The kid’s a real actor’… He wasn’t just using natural abilities as a kid; he’s an actor.”

It’s tempting to speculate Dano was so excited by his lead actor because of the sympatico understanding he shared with this teen showing up to prove his mettle on-set each day. It doesn’t seem too far off the mark to reflect—to use Dano’s own phrasing—if you were to peel back the layers of Oxenbould’s performance, you might find that behind the native Australian boy you see at first is Dano himself. Exposed, through the filmmaker’s decisions of framing and direction, in a way that starring in his own film, with the mannerisms of a character to hide behind, never could have left him.

What is certain is that Dano would still be immersed in Challenge No. 6: The Edit, if given the chance. Of the editing bay he says: “If somebody had allowed me to, if we had the money, I would probably be in there for another year, just trying to move four frames somewhere. I mean, it’s an obsessive line of work.”

Not to mention the fact one can never be certain what will happen once the picture closes. Inadvertently, I myself present Dano with another iteration of his process’ final and still ongoing challenge: The Reception. I wonder aloud if the “sort of distance” I think is evident in his highly aesthetic film was intentional, part of the “weight of myth or nostalgia” with which he has just said he wanted to imbue the movie.

Pause for reflection.

“I think—no. I don’t think so. For me, I don’t think distance was part of the vocabulary.” Dano then lists those factors that could have contributed to my misperception: how he wanted the characters to speak for themselves, without novelistic voiceover; how “the feeling of the camera” was partially inspired by (static) painting; how he wanted the movie to rely on the image and the cut to move things forward. “I think if it was a film that had push-ins on big moments, it would end up, for me, feeling a bit reductive.”

In other words—the words of the nameless woman in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” seem the most appropriate here—That is not what I meant at all; that is not it, at all. His patience has yet to wear.

“We talk a lot about process—not outcome—and trying to consistently take all the best information you can and consistently make good decisions,” said the reliably analogous Hinkie when he was hired in May of 2013. “Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but you reevaluate them all.”

Despite journalists who might blunder in their readings, the outcome for Wildlife has been unanimously positive: As of this writing, the film stands at a ripe 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. And yet the point, it seems, is not only to focus on, but to find something galvanizing in the process of decision-making as you work towards the outcome; otherwise, every stage is a challenge to be got through, rather than met. Dano appears to understand this. “You are choosing the colors and the texture and the feeling of the house,” he says of being a director. “It’s so fun.”

He is already reevaluating and thinking about his follow-up effort. He “couldn’t care less” if he made another adaptation or filmed an original story, so long as it’s “something to be inspired by.” Something worth his considerable patience and faith.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to say next time, ‘OK: This is gonna work, somehow.’ The first time it’s like: ‘Is this gonna work?’ And it’s scary not to know.”