I AM Paul Dano: Wildlife

Wildlife  (2018) feat Carey Mulligan as Jeanette Brinson and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry Brinson - courtesy of  IFC Films

Wildlife (2018) feat Carey Mulligan as Jeanette Brinson and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry Brinson - courtesy of IFC Films


Award-winning actor Paul Dano showcased his critically acclaimed directorial-debut Wildlife at this year’s Cannes Critics’ Week, dedicated to first and second feature film directors. Starring Dano’s friends and collaborators Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, the unanimously praised film co-written with his partner Zowie Kazan, is set to be released in theatres by IFC Films, later this year.

Here is the edited Cannes conversation held at the American Film Pavilion with Dano about his experiences as a first-time feature director.

What is Wildlife is about?

Yeah, so our film here, Wildlife: it’s a film about family. It’s a film about a kid sort of seeing his parents change, their marriage change, through their failures—being forced to grow up. Takes place in 1960, Montana. (The) family moves to a new town looking for a better life and I don’t know that they find it.

Wildlife teaser - courtesy of IFC Films


Why this book? What was it about it that really spoke to you, that felt like this should be the debut?

I wanted to make films for a long time. I love film, and I wish that I, you know, I’d been able to write something or find something, even sooner. I’m glad that it was this.
— Paul Dano

I read a book of Richard Ford called Rock Springs - a book of short stories. And I really liked the style of prose; it’s a very sort of spare, lean, American-type of language. And I was wondering if he had any other books written in that style.

So, I read this book Wildlife. And pretty much from the first sentence, I knew I was going to love it. It has an incredible opening paragraph. And again, I just think there’s just something in the sound and sense of the words that, it was like; This is really who I am. If I could be a writer, I would probably want to write like that.

And then, even 20-something pages in, there was a passage about this kid looking at his mother teaching, and she looked like a sort of kind, happy person—yet, he knew on the inside, that she was really struggling. And it’s said in a much more elegant and poetic way. I’m just paraphrasing the essence of it.  And it just felt like a very vital feeling, to me. You know, this idea that we just don’t know what’s going on between all of our sweet faces out there.

I thought the whole book was beautiful. I really appreciated that he wrote about a sort of heart-breaking family situation; a harrowing one at times, a bit of a harsh one. But, through a sense of love, or compassion, and honesty. You know, it didn’t feel like he was judging any of the characters. And that just felt very true to, sort of, my own experience as well; where sometimes love is what makes something painful or complicated.

Can you talk about your way into it in figuring out how you were going to make what was on page a cinematic experience?

Yeah, so, first of all, when I wrote Richard Ford, he wrote me back. One of the things he said was, “My book is my book. Your picture is your picture. Do you.” And that was a really important sense of permission—and that’s what I think we wanted from the get-go. But, it was nice to hear it from somebody whose work you admire.

So, the first thing I think was, for me, was probably just really exploring, “Ok, why am I going to do this?” You know, and sort trying to dig up: Who I am in this? Not just trying to translate a book to a screenplay. 
— Paul Dano

You co-wrote the screenplay with your better half—Zowie Kazan. Can you elaborate a little bit more about your writing process with Zowie and where the strengths and weaknesses come from, and how you were able to complimentarily write this together?

Zowie Kazan (as Ruby Sparks) and Paul Dano (as Calvin Weir-fields) in  Ruby Sparks  (2012)

Zowie Kazan (as Ruby Sparks) and Paul Dano (as Calvin Weir-fields) in Ruby Sparks (2012)

I had read the book many times. I think one thing Zowie was really helpful with was just like, “Let’s step away and let’s just follow the characters now.” You know, follow the sense of the drama that’s happening here, letting go of what’s there. I think, I was sort of writing—at first, at least—by the image. And Zowie was able to kind of make those into scenes, rather than shots almost.  

It was really helpful, for me at least, to have, one: a bounce-board. Two: to gain perspective. To sort of, like editing, you’re in a vacuum as a writer a little bit, and you trust yourself. But, to have a fluid collaborator, like that, you know—we were never in the same room writing at a computer. That would have been crazy. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it without that.

Were there any scenes you had trouble on, where it took longer to figure out how to translate that?

Yeah, well, I wrote a first draft, which I then gave to Zowie, and she tore apart, and then we fought, and then, she said, “Why don’t you let me just do a pass, you know?” And I said, “Great. You’re so smart: you do it.” And that was great, and then, we started collaborating on the screenplay, which was basically talking about it for a couple of hours and then passing it back and forth.

There was a lot of times where it felt really fun, right? You know, it was something where you can kind of get off on your own. Acting is something where you need a stage. This was like something where you could have a little day at home and come out feeling good. You could also come out feeling really bad and hitting your head against the wall.

We had the gift of time, which was—we optioned the book with our own money. There was no deadline. So, we would work on it, put it away. You know, there’s sort of this thing in Stephen King’s book on writing, which is; write your first draft, put it in a draw for six-eight weeks in a sealed envelope, and then, come back to it.

Can you think of anything specific that you have gleaned from a set or working with somebody, that it wasn’t until you were on your own set, that you realised, “Oh that made sense why this filmmaker approached me like this,” and in turn, how you worked with your actors? 

Yeah, I mean, the biggest thing that I’ve taken away as an actor, that I could bring from a director: one is, probably just breaking down material, like, really looking at writing and interpreting. But, the other thing is just seeing how different people work, including actors; like, how different actors are.

And then, for me as an actor—feeling the sort of temperature that people are working at has always been really important. And I really appreciate it when a filmmaker has set a certain vibe with either the actors or the crew.

And I think, seeing what it’s like when a crew is harmonious and with the filmmaker, that always feels really good as an actor. So, these are all things that I would want as a director and try to bring to my film.
— Paul Dano

So, knowing that there’s different ways of working alone, sort of frees you to figure out your way of working. And that was really important and really fun to think about all these experiences and think, “What do I want my set to feel like? How do I want to work? What do I want to give the actors?”

And you know, I try to give the actors what I want, which is, like, a really trusting space to fail, and to have a collaborator where you push them, they push you, and let’s try to make something a deeper scene, than we could—without each other.

Can you give me practical examples of that? Was there a different approach working with Carey Mulligan versus Bill Camp? The story is told from the point of view of a teenager, largely. They are all very different, just in how they are going to be performing.

Carey Mulligan (as Jeanette Brinson) in  Wildlife  (2018) - courtesy of IFC Films

Carey Mulligan (as Jeanette Brinson) in Wildlife (2018) - courtesy of IFC Films

Well, luckily, I had really good actors—one. And they trusted me more than I even anticipated, which was really nice. So, I feel like we really did get to go to work together. You know, I think one of the most important things that I’ve seen directors do, which almost sounds like a bad thing is:

The best directors I’ve worked with are not afraid to stop if something is not quite right, and they’ll go, ‘Ok, something I sense is going off. Let’s stop for a moment. I think we can make this a little better.’
— Paul Dano

It might be something in the writing, it might be the position of the camera, it might be a performance thing.

Because time is crazy when you’re making a film—and money—it’s very hard if you’re worried about making a day. And that is one of the things that I’ve always appreciated as an actor because you know that person is looking out for the film; that’s actually what it means. I don’t think it means they’re fucking up. It means they are, you know—in-tune.

And we had to do that a couple of times, and that was actually a very good feeling. But I think, seeing somebody else do that, luckily, helped me know that, ok, “Line producer, or whatever, we’ve got to take a moment here.”

And one of the best things about directing for me was just trying to bring the best out of everybody around you—crew included. And so, it was just really fun to just be their cheerleader and give them space to do their thing, and then, also, just try to nudge them.

And it’s really, I think, important when you’re creating something, to be able to take risk. And so, just giving them a chance to take a risk and know that I’m there for them.

Jake Gyllenhaal (as Jerry Brinson) in  Wildlife  (2018) - courtesy of IFC Films

Jake Gyllenhaal (as Jerry Brinson) in Wildlife (2018) - courtesy of IFC Films

This is the story that really needs that too, because, in terms of plot, it’s not an intricate, convoluted thing. It’s more about the complexity of the dynamics from scene to scene: if this thing happens, how does this thing affect everybody then?  

Yeah, I really relied on them because the film is so much about their inner life; the humanity of these people. And I knew that I didn’t want to shoot or cut the film in a way where we’re making band-aids for a moment. So, we lean on them with the camera, and the film is always meant to be, sort of, hopefully, like a piece of sushi or something—where it looks simple—but it’s really complex. And so…propositions, and letting them be free within that proposition.

What did you not know that you didn’t realise you didn’t know until you were wearing these shoes and suddenly had to do it?

I mean, there’s a lot of answers to that question. I mean, the first, you know: writing’s really hard, I think.

We got really lucky with casting and especially finding our kid. That was a really scary decision because the film relies so much on the 14-year-old, and we found this kid Ed Oxenbould who’s a real actor, and he’s great.

Ed Oxenbold (as Joe Brinson) in  Wildlife  (2018) - courtesy of IFC Films

Ed Oxenbold (as Joe Brinson) in Wildlife (2018) - courtesy of IFC Films

Pre-production for me was a big learning experience because it’s so technical, logistical, and financial. And you kind of have to remember that you are making the movie every day already by (making) choices, making decisions every day.

I think the hardest thing was probably learning to compromise. I don’t feel anything in the film is compromised, ultimately, but there are times, learning when you have to say, “No, it has to be this way,” and learning when you can give an inch. There’s a very fine line. I think you just have to trust your gut in terms of, “Ok, you know, we can’t do a company move that day for just one shot. So, “Ok, this will do,” or “No, it won’t.”

I guess, you just have to roll with it sometimes. But that was hard when you have something in your head—to be fluid, when it’s not like a hand-held, “We’ll figure it out in the edit room.” So, it’s particular. And, so, everything felt that way to me. And then, just time. Melt-downs at night, because you didn’t get one shot and you have no clue what those shots are, almost. You know…there’s so much.

Great creativity comes out of limitations, at times. So, can you think of anything that you were sure that something was going to happen in a certain way and it didn’t, and you had to work your way around it, and it ended up for the best? 

Yeah, well, first of all, I think there’s stuff where even with location choices where that happens, right? Like, the sort of example I was just talking about. Like, by not doing that company move, and choosing option two, for a football field or something; it allows you to get an extra shot you thought of, you know, suddenly—there on the day.

And those sometimes end up being really important moments where you see something and you grab it, and in the edit room—you’re so happy.  You know, even though it wasn’t on the game-plan for the day or whatever, but, you were able to do that.

L-R Carey Mulligan (as Jeanette Brinson), Ed Oxenbold (as Joe Brinson) in  Wildlife  (2018) - courtesy of IFC Films

L-R Carey Mulligan (as Jeanette Brinson), Ed Oxenbold (as Joe Brinson) in Wildlife (2018) - courtesy of IFC Films

You are a very successful actor. But now, here you are as a first-time director trying to convince financiers to give you money. So, how was that experience for you?

Yeah, so, first of all, you know, I was in a lucky position because I’m an actor and it is probably frankly easier when you send a script to an agent or something. And that’s the way it works, so, you know…

I thought it was hard because you sort of do feel like you have to like, sell your film. Like you want to be honest about it and that’s sort of just a different hat to put on for me, because normally as an actor, that stuff is out of the way when you get there, usually, right?  You’re starting to get close to production and a lot of the business is already out of the way.

So, just thinking about how all this stuff works with casting and raising money and foreign sales, and a lot of what the film market is like here, at a place like Cannes, and being involved; all that was kind of scary.

And I would say that even for Zowie and I—we’re in this lucky position starting this script—but, the amount of will it takes to push the rock up the hill and make the film is crazy, and you just have to be willing to do that. I don’t mean that in a self-congratulatory way of ‘we did it’. I just mean:

it’s a real crazy thing to do; to make a film. And I don’t think I realised that.
— Paul Dano

It’s a crazy thing to do and it takes a village. And especially as a first-time director, there’s a certain amount of ambition. But, god, you need good people around you, whether it’s a producer or a casting agent or an agent, or whoever, to help you slowly just move the ball down the field.

So, as you probably know; it’s a lot of hustle. And if we didn’t put our foot down and throw a ‘Hail Mary’, I don’t think the film would have gotten made when it did. We sort of just eked it out, until, suddenly, it was real.

Carey Mulligan (as Jeanette Brinson) in  Wildlife  (2018) - courtesy of IFC Films

Carey Mulligan (as Jeanette Brinson) in Wildlife (2018) - courtesy of IFC Films

As far as scratching creative itches: What was the point that was the most exciting for you? The blank page in front of you, being on set, or polishing in the editing room?

Each stage has its struggle and its joy. I think, it was being on set at a certain point, once the film’s really going because there’s times when it doesn’t feel that way. And there’s times when it really felt great. Definitely, things really coming together at the end of pre-production too, when you’re seeing the sort of interior of the house, and the colour and the wallpaper…

And I think I really enjoy that day-dreaming part of it too: sitting in a location with Diego, and just sort of seeing the day-dream in your head. And then, to see it realised is quite special—once it is realised.

I feel and I think again: one of the nicest things is just being proud of everybody you’ve been working with, in a way. It’s very maternal or something. I don’t know…you bring together a creative family and it’s really nice when you see people do a great job. I feel really proud of everybody.

I’m sure you learn your first time. I want to know about a learning lesson of something you would never do again?

The first thing that I know I have to take the next time I do it is to just like trust the process because there’s times when you—it’s not there that day—you feel like it’s never going to be. But it will be. And that happens in all phases of it from the writing to the editing.

You have to trust the process, that you’re going to get there. I wish I had sort of known that at certain times, because, maybe I would have been just a little less crazy or strung up about something and just trusted the process.
— Paul Dano

Something that I definitely won’t do again: I’m sure there are many things. I think the other thing that for me is really important to learn to just trust your collaborators—you need them—again, you sort of want to control everything, but you’ve really got to trust your people.

Wildlife premiered at Sundance earlier this year and will be released in US theatres from October 19th, 2018. This edited interview was conducted and hosted by the American Film Pavilion and Aaron Hill, during the Festival de Cannes, 2018.

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Paul Dano

Producer, Screenwriter, Actor and Director

Paul Dano started his career on Broadway before making his film debut in The Newcomers (2000). He won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Debut Performance for his role in L.I.E. (2002) and received accolades for his role as Dwayne Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine (2006). For his dual roles as Paul and Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood (2007), he was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Dano has also received accolades for roles such as John Tibeats in 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Alex Jones in Prisoners (2013). His acting portrayal of musician Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy (2014), earned him a Golden Globe nomination in the category of Best Supporting Actor.

Dano made his directorial debut with the 2018 drama film Wildlife, based on the novel by Richard Ford and starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. He co-wrote the screenplay with his partner Zoe Kazan. [Source: Wikipedia, IMDb]