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Film Director Jean-Marc Vallée walks Wild with ‘ghosts, ghosts everywhere’

Reese Witherspoon, left, saw director Jean-Marc Vallée as her first choice to helm Wild.

Anne Marie Fox

On the set of Wild earlier this year, director Jean-Marc Vallée got the feeling he was repeating himself. He was shooting one of the movie's many flashbacks, in this case the central character's memory of her abusively drunken father. He turned to his director of photography, Yves Bélanger.

"'Let's change this, it's too C.R.A.Z.Y. It makes me think too much of C.R.A.Z.Y.,'" Vallée remembers saying. "And Yves says: 'Just do it. It doesn't matter if you did it on C.R.A.Z.Y. It's a different story.' And I thought: 'Yeah, okay, all right.' But it's touching material about family, and about trying to find yourself and accept who you are. Even though there's nothing to do with sexual orientation here, like there was in C.R.A.Z.Y., it's something similar. That's why I was attracted in the first place."

C.R.A.Z.Y., the 2005 movie that Vallée co-wrote and directed about a Quebec teenager struggling with his family and emerging homosexuality, might have been his Hollywood calling card, but the Montreal filmmaker hasn't felt as personally connected to a project until Reese Witherspoon brought him Wild.

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Witherspoon had optioned Wild, Cheryl Strayed's raw 2012 memoir about finding herself while hiking the 1,770-kilometre Pacific Crest Trail, while the book was still in galleys. Witherspoon shared a manager with Matthew McConaughey, and his experience making Dallas Buyers Club with Vallée at the helm had been so positive, she immediately arranged to see a rough cut of the uncompleted movie. When the screening ended, Vallée was her first choice as director for Wild, in which Witherspoon plays Strayed.

"Reese came to me," Vallée recalled while pouring tea in a hotel room during September's Toronto International Film Festival, "and I knew right at the beginning, when I read the book and the script, that I had the kind of material that not only was powerful emotionally, but had the kind of material that allows the director to have fun with the language and music and editing and silence – the quick disconnected images with sound. The language of cinema."

Two things connected immediately with the director, who quickly went to work adapting the 500-page book with British novelist Nick Hornby. First was the story's cinematic potential: Much of it takes the form of memories and impressions experienced during the long trek. It could be a story of parallel journeys, odysseys of land and mind.

"Let's use the power of cinema to tell the story," Vallée remembers thinking. "How the brain works – the brain can be bang! bang! bang! but it makes sense. … And ghosts, ghosts everywhere. How do we get the audience's attention, and how do we keep being captivating with one girl on a trail for 65 per cent of the time? And the other 35 per cent I've got flashbacks and other people. I'm fucking alone with this girl – how are we going to make a film with this?"

Like Hornby, Vallée has a deep belief in the suggestive spiritual power of music and one thing that struck them both was Strayed's description of the music that played in her head almost every step of the way.

"The challenge is to get in her head," Vallée remembers telling Hornby. "So let's cheat. Cheryl didn't have any music, so no music on the trail, except when she's humming and singing. Or when she's trying to remember a song. Then, there's a ghost of a song. We can hear the song and it's mixed in a way that it's not a filmmaker showing off with a song out loud, but quietly, a little bit quiet."

But flashbacks and music do not a movie make, no matter deftly deployed. The film still needed a strong structural hook; that presented itself when Hornby suggested playing up Strayed's memory of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern in the film), a single mother whose spirit follows her daughter just as persistently as those ghostly strains of music.

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Vallée jumped on the suggestion, and not just for structural reasons. "I lost my mom from cancer three years ago," he explains. "And I'm not sure I've mourned totally. But this film helped me get rid of a big chunk of tears I had kept inside. In the cutting room, I was editing the film with tears just pouring on keyboard. I was like: 'Why can't I stop crying? What's going on with this film?'"

Vallée pauses, wipes his eyes and apologizes. "See? I talk about it, I get emotional."

Composed again, he smiles. "I'm making fun of it a little bit these days. I like to say some people go to a therapist for a year – I make a film. It's my sort of therapy."

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