Toronto: 'Wild' Director Jean-Marc Vallee on Directing Reese Witherspoon, Oscar Buzz and Feeling Like a Kid 'With a Camera'

The 'Dallas Buyers Club' director returns to the fest with his adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir about an 1,100-mile journey of self-discovery

Jean-Marc Vallee seemed to come out of nowhere last year with his critically acclaimed drama Dallas Buyers Club, which earned three Academy Awards, including best actor for star Matthew McConaughey. But the 51-year-old director burst on the scene in Toronto with the 2005 French-language film C.R.A.Z.Y., about a young gay man dealing with homophobia in 1960s Quebec. Now his Fox Searchlight drama Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon in an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir about an 1,100-mile journey of self-discovery, is generating buzz heading into Toronto, where it will have its international premiere Sept 8. Vallee, who lives in Montreal with his partner and two children, next will direct Demolition about an investment banker coping with his wife’s death.

How does it feel to return to the Toronto film festival?

I’m very happy to be back so quickly this year with another film. I can’t wait to present Wild, with Reese and Cheryl and Laura Dern. I always say, I didn’t choose Wild. Wild chose me.

How did you come to direct Wild?

It’s a story that I felt comfortable with and I could be myself directing this film. And it was such a beautiful story that I wanted to be part of it badly. As a director, I try to be at the service of the story, and try to be humble and transparent and not steal the show with the camera or the editing. I try not to cut too much. That’s what I mean by not interfering too much. I use long shots, I trust the acting and the storytelling. I shot this with a hand-held camera, with natural light, with no electrical, no grip crew. I used available light as much as possible.

What drew Reese Witherspoon, who’s also producing, to the project? 

Reese is at a place in her life where she’s comfortable. She’s happy. She’s got everything. She wanted to find another challenge. That’s what she tried to do with this film playing Cheryl. Get out of her comfort zone. And she went out there and she went wild. She went wild from A to Z, playing physical and naked and a drug addict and a sex addict and having to go into cold, cold water and having no makeup and having the sun in her face. And she did it humbly, playfully and with so much humanity. 

There was a lot of Oscar buzz around Dallas Buyers in Toronto last year. Are you hoping for the same with Wild?

I must admit, yes, I hope it will happen again, for my actresses, for the film, for Cheryl, for everyone that worked so hard on this film. This is not the reason why I do this. I’m just trying to do my job and make a film and be tight and professional and be creative on a daily basis. But then, yes, there’s the promotion and award season and then we open at Toronto with our fingers crossed.

Will you ever make another film in Canada?

Well, I still live in Montreal. I only shoot movies outside, and when I’m done I bring back the postproduction of American films to Montreal. That’s where my home is, my family and my restaurants and my habits. … I’m working on a French-Canadian project I hope I will do in the next few years. But there’s some momentum right now after Dallas and Wild. I have something after Demolition in the States. So I have a few U.S. films back-to-back and then I’ll do my French-Canadian project after that. 

What was the last film that moved you?

I had such a blast watching The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wow, how creative can a director be? Wes Anderson. That guy just blew me away with the tone of his film, the characters, the acting, the editing, the music, my God.

What makes for a good director?

Tricky question. Tricky question. I’m not sure I should answer it.

Really?

Because if I answer it, then I see myself as a good director.

But you are a good director.

(Pause.) I guess I like directors that focus on trying to do the right thing for the project, and be at the service of the film and not showing off. OK, that’s not true. I like to write scripts where I show off. I wonder if there’s an answer to the question because there’s so many different films because of so many different directors and so many different ways to use this medium that is so magical. At 51, I feel like a kid, still playing with a camera and editing and adding music to a film. It’s toys, big toys.

Sept. 5, 3:49 p.m. Personal information about Mr. Vallee corrected. THR regrets the error.

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