The filmmaking team behind the Oscar-winning Dallas Buyers Club goes even deeper into the backcountry of indie production with the raw and gorgeous Wild.
In 1995, a young woman named Cheryl Strayed set out to hike a large portion of the infamous Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), from the Mojave Desert in California to the Washington border, some 1,100 miles to the north, alone. She had zero experience hiking in high altitude or over long distances, and she carried a backpack she dubbed in her remarkable memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, “Monster,” for its gross overweight (nearly double what most experienced PCT hikers would carry).
The comically large pack was not her only burden – Strayed’s mother had died of cancer (at age 45) a few years before, and Strayed had just finalized a divorce with her husband of seven years, mostly because of her own sexual philandering. Her last boyfriend (in Portland, Oregon, where she lives today) had coaxed her into using heroin. In short, Strayed was as profoundly lost as a 26-year-old woman could be before taking her first steps (in hiking boots that were sized too small) into the wilderness on a three-month odyssey fraught with equal parts joy, danger, fear and friendship.
From this unlikely redemption story came a New York Times Best Seller, and a movie option (while still in galleys) by Reese Witherspoon and her producing partner, Bruna Papandrea (Gone Girl, Milk).
Wild was logistically and technically demanding, shot in the remote mountains and deserts of southern Oregon. To visualize the story, the women turned to French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée and his long-time cinematographer, Yves Bélanger, CSC. The men had met two decades ago doing commercials; their last collaboration was the 2013 rags-to-riches indie feature Dallas Buyers Club, which won three Oscars.
“Nick Hornby delivered a script that ‘broke the back’ of what was clearly a very difficult adaptation,” Papandrea reflects about Wild’s upcoming December release by Fox Searchlight Pictures. [Strayed’s book leaps back and forth in time as she hikes the PCT.] “It provided us with a blueprint for a movie.”
Papandrea says that once Hornby’s “blueprint” was in place, “it was about finding the most inventive and emotional filmmaker. I had seen all of Jean-Marc’s earlier films – C.R.A.Z.Y., The Young Victoria, Café de Flore – and knew, from a craft perspective, he was incredibly innovative. When we saw an early version of Dallas Buyers Club and its raw, natural style, we pretty much begged him to direct our film,” she laughs.
Creating a naturalistic look that would reveal the stunning yet harsh natural world that swallows up the main character was no mean feat. Vallée says he and Bélanger talked about the four best options for filming Witherspoon on the trail.
“Are we doing a handheld dolly back, in a medium close-up, and when she stops, we stop; she turns right or left and we cut to her POV?” he recounts. “Or are we waiting in a wide shot as this small woman comes closer from very far away and then exits frame? Maybe we should shoot her from behind and then she enters frame and gradually becomes very small as she walks? Or is it a handheld dolly in from behind? All of these say different things, and we knew we needed to find the best visual language for the film.”
Vallée says he did extensive coverage the first week, trying to find the right balance. “It soon became obvious the handheld dolly back was the best approach,” he continues. “But what surprised me in the cutting room was that some of the huge wide shots we did at the beginning were just as emotional as the handheld close-ups that were our visual theme. Seeing Cheryl, once you got to know her better, with this huge pack in a vast open frame, was also powerful. So I moved those early shots to later in the film.”
Another key was eschewing the tropes of cinema as they had done in Dallas Buyers Club. “Yves didn’t try to block or reflect light so much as just capture what was there,” Vallée describes. “Nature, especially in the beginning, is not Cheryl’s friend. It’s tough and harsh. So instead of backlighting Reese with the sun – having this beautiful rim light and silhouette as you might expect – we did the opposite. No make-up, direct hard sunlight, with Yves very, very close to her face.”
So close that Bélanger describes Wild as one of “the most intense working relationships” he’s had ever had with an actor on a film set. “Reese and I were feeling the same thing all of the time,” the DP smiles. “We were both carrying 40 pounds of gear and walking, walking, walking forever.”
While most would think anamorphic a natural choice for the vast landscapes, “Jean-Marc wanted me to do these rack focuses from infinity to 20 inches,” Bélanger continues, “in effect making Reese’s face the landscape. Of course with anamorphic, you can only focus to about three feet, and that wasn’t nearly close enough.”
Wanting to capture as much color detail and resolution as possible, Bélanger opted to shoot ALEXA ARRIRAW with Master Primes for the trail scenes, and older Zeiss primes for the flashbacks. Since Bélanger was always walking backward and shooting 360 degrees, he relied heavily on Guild 1st AC Paul Santoni, who pulled remote focus off a handheld monitor.
“What was so wonderful to discover in these hiking scenes,” Bélanger observes, “is that because Reese wore no make-up, and I used no artificial light or even bounce cards for the sun; her eyes were so blue and pale they reflected the landscape around us – the shimmering snow or the green blades of grass. We cinematographers love adding light to control the frame, but we forget that by adding light we are often taking away the natural secondary light that can reveal so much, particularly when you want the face to become a human landscape.”
Ah, landscapes. Wild actually used 55 different locations, made even more difficult by restrictions on motorized vehicles and equipment on the PCT. Papandrea says the key to being able to move base camp two to three times a day, “as well as having to trek 30 minutes around Mt. Hood without disturbing a pristine snow field needed for the shot,” was keeping an ultralight footprint. “We never could have done this movie in a typical Hollywood way with large amounts of grip and electric,” she relates. “Often we would drive in an SUV for miles, park, hike for another 30 minutes, and start shooting with, literally, the most minimal amount of gear I have ever seen.”
One such scene frames both the movie and the book. Having already lost several toenails (and any hubris about feminine hygiene), Strayed is perched on a ledge above a stunning High Sierra vista. When she removes one aching boot – her lifeline between success and failure – it slips over the precipice. Then, in complete physical and emotional surrender, Strayed hurls the other boot off the mountain.
“We shot this scene near a ski resort in Southern Oregon, and Reese and Yves were harnessed the whole time,” Papandrea describes of the vertiginous location. “We had to meet with The Oregon Film Commission, The National Forestry Representative, and The Pacific Crest Trail Association, who made sure all the PCT signage in the film was correct, and cleared the way with permits. Most of the PCT is in fragile and protected wilderness, and since those were mainly off-limits, the challenge was to find remote locations that matched the look of the PCT.”
All of Wild’s flashbacks, including those of Strayed’s tumultuous relationship with her mother, Bobbi (played by Laura Dern), in Minnesota, as well as her marriage and divorce, were shot in and around Portland. A key scene where Strayed reconnects with hikers she has met on the PCT, at Kennedy Meadows in California’s High Sierras, was recreated outside Bend, while a fleeting romance she has during a break from the trail was filmed in the event’s real location, Ashland.
Most were shot in the same spirit as the PCT exteriors – handheld ALEXA, with Bélanger staying between T2 and T2.8, and all practical lighting. The cinematographer rode the lens aperture to account for differences between shadow and light, and/or simply changed the ASA, easily accessible in the ALEXA’s viewfinder.
“Two notable exceptions were a long scene in the forest at night during a rainstorm, which is supposed to be only moonlight, and I had to put a light up on a crane,” Bélanger recalls. “And a scene in a Minnesota diner, where Cheryl is talking to her friend. It’s supposed to be daytime and snowing, but we shot in Portland on a clear, beautiful night.”
Bélanger green-screened about 25 feet outside the windows, lighting for the VFX insert that Vallée would later create in post, as well as the actors inside. “We also did green screen for the red fox [which symbolizes Bobbi’s spirit watching over Strayed] that she sees on the trail,” he adds.
“Jean-Marc is quite brilliant in how he uses visual effects,” Papandrea shares. “It’s done in a very practical way that often helps the art department, and everyone else, stay on budget and schedule.”
In fact, Vallée says the 200 VFX shots in Wild are completely transparent and only there to serve the story. “An example is the dozen or so shots we had to flop in post,” he describes. “Cheryl is always seen walking from left to right to create the feeling of progression. But a few times Yves and I forgot and we shot her going right to left!
“The only problem is that as she keeps hiking, she gets more scars and wounds on her arms, face, and legs,” he adds. “So I had to erase all of those wounds and scars [on the flopped shots], one-by-one, and move them to the other side of her body.”
Another example of VFX enhancement on an indie budget is a scene where Vallée wanted Bélanger to reference the classic wide-screen Lawrence of Arabia.
“That moment when Peter O’Toole sees Omar Sharif on the horse approaching from very far away,” the director continues. “When Cheryl sees these two hunters coming – which turns out to be her most threatening human encounter – it was the same idea of danger approaching. Yves shot some takes with fog and some where it had burned off, and I needed to use both, so we enhanced the fog in post to make it all seamless.”
Strayed’s book is structured in flashbacks; one great asset to Wild’s emotive visuals is Hornby’s screenplay, which carefully elucidates how the mind can wander on a long solo journey.
“Cheryl remembers a line or a detail and we go hurtling back in time for a moment, then return to the present, then pick out another memory and flashback,” Bélanger describes. And because the real Cheryl Strayed had no audio device on the trail, the “obvious choice” for Vallée was to have the music come only in her memories.
“She’s humming or singing to herself on the trail and that brings us back to another time in her life,” Vallée explains. “We wanted the audience inside Cheryl’s head – whatever she thinks, sees, or dreams while walking, we are there with her.”
One of Wild’s most ethereal scenes is just such a moment. Deep into her journey, Strayed encounters a llama wandering on the trail. As she corrals the animal, an elderly woman and her young grandson appear to claim him. The boy’s questions about her mother freezes Strayed in place. When he begins to sing a lilting version of Red River Valley, she is propelled back to her early childhood, and a deeply felt memory of Bobbi singing the same song to Strayed and her siblings. When the scene returns to the forest, Strayed crumbles to her knees, tearful and overwhelmed.
“We were trying to convey this with humility and a less-is-more approach,” Vallée recounts. “The way she looks at the boy, what he represents in her journey; that moment was just…amazing. She looks up at the sky and for the first time really acknowledges how much she misses her mother, and then she sees the many moments of her journey that have brought her to this point. The acting, the cinematography, the editing – everything is in perfect sync with the story.”
Bélanger agrees, citing a famous quote from Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman that “you work ten hours a day on a movie set [or location] to get one minute of magic.”
“It was raining a lot that day,” Bélanger adds, “and usually there would be too much concern about exposure to even shoot. But the super-soft light actually enhanced the colors, particularly the greens. Jean-Marc is such a courageous filmmaker. I think our experience, along with these fantastic human qualities from the little boy and Reese, gave us the strength to just go for it.”
The friendships Strayed makes on the trail ultimately save her – and the same can be said for the creative adventures of Vallée and Bélanger.
“What I love about Yves is that he is willing to get out of his comfort zone to serve the story and acting,” Vallée concludes. “I mean, how many DPs would accept making a film like this with zero lights? He’s saying to me, ‘Jean-Marc, this scene is so under- or overexposed, I am never going to get hired again.’ But then we get in the grading room and there’s almost nothing to do because he’s done such a beautiful job.”
Papandrea laughs when she recalls a key moment early in the film: hungry and fearful, Strayed chases after a man on a nearby road at dusk. “I could barely see my own hands, let alone the actors and the car they were riding in,” Papandrea remembers. “It’s a tribute to Yves that he had the confidence to just keep going to capture the urgency of that scene, and it’s key to the way he and Jean-Marc work. It’s a bit scary, yet very liberating.”
While Bélanger says it’s true Vallée once again put him well outside his comfort zone, “we were much luckier on Wild [than we were on Dallas Buyers Club],” he says. “Every time I needed it to be overcast, so the windows in a scene didn’t blow out, or I needed rain on the trail and we couldn’t use a rain machine, we got it! I think Jean-Marc and I are starting to really figure this [type of filmmaking] out. But it doesn’t hurt to be lucky.”