When Paul Dano first discovered Richard Ford’s Wildlife, he was simply looking for a good book to read on the subway. What he found was the inspiration for his directorial debut.
An acclaimed actor known for his work in Little Miss Sunshine, Love & Mercy, and There Will Be Blood, the 34-year-old Dano has long harbored the desire to helm a film. After he found himself revisiting Ford’s short novel numerous times over the course of a year, Dano finally mustered up the courage to write Ford and express his interest in adapting the author’s work.
“I wrote him a letter,” Dano recalls, “and he got back to me. He told me that his book was his book, and that my picture was my picture, and that I needed to do me. That was so important to hear from him, because that is what I wanted. I was looking to put myself through this material, but to have a writer that you admire so much give you that permission was a really important thing to hear.”
Dano set to work writing a draft of the screenplay. He confesses he secretly thought his first effort was “pretty good,” but then he asked his longtime girlfriend, actress and screenwriter Zoe Kazan, to read it and she returned the script with notes on every page.
“She tore it apart,” he says, laughing. “We tried to go through it, and we maybe got five pages in before she said, ‘Why don’t you just let me do a pass on it?’ Then she took it and just made it a lot better.”
Having optioned the rights to Ford’s novel on their own, Dano and Kazan were under no deadlines and relished the opportunity to tinker with the screenplay to their satisfaction. At one point the couple even re-created the road trip in which the Brinson family travels from Idaho to their current residence in Great Falls, Montana.
Starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as the parents of Joe — played by Ed Oxenbould (a strikingly talented young actor from Australia) — Wildlife is a sparse and quiet portrait of a boy in 1960 forced to realize that our mothers and fathers are as flawed as the rest of us. The setting of Montana almost serves as an auxiliary character; as Dano observes, the state’s stunning geography, captured vividly by cinematographer Diego García, serves dual purposes in the story.
“It is so magnificent,” he says of the landscapes that serve as Wildlife’s backdrop. “I think that was an important precipice to be on, because you could either view it with a sense of hope and possibility, or you could view it with this sense of desolation and despair that I think comes with being somewhere so much bigger than you.”
With only three main characters anchoring the film, casting the right actors was of utmost importance. Kazan had previously worked with Mulligan on a Broadway play, and Dano felt the Oscar-nominated actress might enjoy the chance to change things up by playing the character of Jeanette, whom he accurately describes as “messy.” Dano first met Gyllenhaal at Mulligan’s wedding and the two later worked together on the 2013 film Prisoners. He is thrilled that Wildlife represents the first time the two esteemed actors (and friends) have co-starred in a film.
The final product is an expertly crafted debut for Dano, who is now eager to return to the director’s chair.
“I can’t wait to make another film,” he says. “I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I want to make different films. However, I would be surprised if I didn’t come back to that sense of family somehow. It’s just something that’s always spoken to me — in writing, in film, in art, and in my life.”
The film won the first Mill Valley Film Festival Award of 2018.