'Wildlife's' Paul Dano on Directing for the First Time: "It's a Gargantuan Job"

"I can see why directors love their actors so much," says Dano. "The sort of magic they offer is really beautiful."

Speaking with THR, the multi-hyphenate describes how a certain celebrity wedding helped him cast Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal and why his first directing experience has given him renewed appreciation for all who work in the movie business, including accountants.

A year after heading to Cannes as one of the stars of competition title Okja, Paul Dano returns to the Croisette, this time as a director. His impressive debut turn with Wildlife, based on the 1990 novel by Richard Ford and telling the contemplative story of a family’s slow implosion in 1950s Montana, was co-written over a number of years with his partner onscreen and off, Zoe Kazan. Having bowed at Sundance (where Dano, 33, says he was “too nervous to enjoy himself”), the film is set to open Critics’ Week, bringing the sidebar competition some sizable A-list clout thanks to stars Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. Speaking with THR, the multi-hyphenate describes how a certain celebrity wedding helped him cast the duo and why his first directing experience has given him renewed appreciation for all who work in the movie business, including accountants.

There was a lot of noise surrounding Okja in Cannes last year because of the Netflix issue. Was that a strange experience?

There was a lot of stuff around it, but when you go to the Palais with that screen and the sound, there’s not much like it. For us, the people who made the film, we were proud of it, and [director] Bong [Joon-ho] deserves to be one of the people in competition no matter what. The hardest part was just having to talk about it because it was a distraction from talking about the film. But I had a great time.

Most actors who turn to directing have a tendency to cast themselves. Was this ever a consideration with Wildlife?

No, I wasn’t tempted. I’ve wanted to make a film for a long time. I really love film and all of the other elements, and I wanted to give them my full attention and have that experience. God is in the details, and in terms of all of the design elements and where to put the camera and why, that was really the fun part to dive into. I never thought otherwise.

Has making Wildlife given you new respect for directors?

Yeah, it’s a gargantuan job; the amount of time and energy and will that it takes to push the rock up the hill before you even get to production [is incredible]. But funnily enough, it gave me a new respect for acting as well. I can see why directors love their actors so much. They’re an extension of you in some way, and at the end of the day, you’re all chasing a moment.

Was there one major part of the directing process that you took away with you?

Seeing that it takes a village. As an actor, it can be a little more lonely, maybe. And so with directing, even your accountant is a really important person who you’re interacting with, because you’re trying to make the f—ing budget work.

This was your first time writing with Zoe Kazan. Did you develop a particular working style together?

We did. So I read this book and it was something I really felt connected to. But I didn’t go to option it until I thought of the final scene and the final image. And then I wrote a first draft — and then Zoe basically tore it apart when I gave it to her to read. She did a pass and then we basically traded it back and forth. We’d sit down and talk about it for maybe an hour or half a day, and then one of us would take it and do something. So we never actually wrote together. We discussed and daydreamed, and then one of us would dive into it.

Did it create any tension at home?

I think it had its moments, but never in a long-lasting way. We get along pretty well. I probably drove Zoe a little crazy.

Casting Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal is no easy feat. How did that come about?

Zoe and Carey had done a play together nine years or so ago, so we’ve known her for a long time. And I worked with Jake on a film called Prisoners, and he’s also in Okja. But I actually met Jake for the first time at Carey’s wedding [in 2012 to Marcus Mumford of the band Mumford & Sons]. We started with her character, Jeanette. I thought it might be fun to see her play someone messy or awed. After she said she’d do it, I thought, "You know, Jake and Carey have wanted to work together ..." You don’t expect people to do you favors, and I wouldn’t want them to. But for Jake, I’d seen him do Okja and Nightcrawler and all these balls-to-the-wall characters and thought that doing something simple and classical and American could be a nice thing to work with for a bit. I was really surprised by how great they were to me and how trusting they were.

Ed Oxenbould’s character Joe seems like the sort of character a younger you might have played. Did you see that?

I probably didn’t see it myself until people started mentioning it. Obviously the film is through that character’s eyes, so as the writer and director there’s a link there no matter what. Also, my sister is a costumer and she worked on the film. She chose a certain jacket for Joe and was like, that’s just like this jacket you have. Without knowing it, you’re sort of unconsciously putting yourself into it. 

Any other films in the pipeline you’re hoping to direct?

I’m probably going to try to open the windows toward the next film this summer and start to day-dream. I don’t know what’s next, but I can’t wait to do it again. I hope it flies through the window sooner rather than later.

A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 9 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.