Paul Dano speaks on his directorial debut, ‘Wildlife’

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Paul Dano is the latest to add his name to the slew of established actors-turned-directors in recent years. Since gaining his first acting credit at the age of 15, he has constructed a diverse portfolio and worked with some of the best in the business, including Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Thomas Anderson and Denis Villeneuve. But after almost two decades of working in front of the camera, Dano made the jump from actor to co-writer and director in his latest film, “Wildlife.”

Having always wanted to direct films, it was never a question of if but of when. When he read “Wildlife,” a novel by Richard Ford, it took him by storm; this was his story to tell, and this was his time to tell it.

“I had an uncanny, personal reaction to this book,” Dano said. The book haunted him, mesmerized him and infiltrated his dreams. He was moved by the fact that this book spoke to him in such a personal way.

It also did not hurt that Ford’s writing was immediately entrancing, either. “The language of the book is really lean, but it’s poetic at the same time,” Dano said. And his film aims to capture that same essence: lean yet poetic.

“Wildlife” is a coming-of-age tale for all of its characters. Set in a small town in Montana in 1960, the story follows the members of a family through a particularly tumultuous time in their lives. Fourteen-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould), the only child of parents Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), watches his family break apart as tension builds to seemingly insurmountable heights.

After Jerry gets fired from his job, both he and Jeanette find themselves no longer fitting into the roles they had been unconsciously inhabiting for so long. This places a strain on their relationship, causing Jerry to decide to go to the nearby Canadian border to fight a wildfire, while Jeanette wears new clothes and begins an affair with an older man and Ed is forced to recognize his parents as imperfect people.

Dano wanted to make sure that the book’s rich family themes were portrayed as accurately as possible. Nothing about translating something that affected him so deeply onto the silver screen was an easy process for Dano; he just wanted to get it right. “There were so many times where I was going, ‘Why did I choose this?’ But not in the end,” Dano said.

Like the book, the film is told from a first-person perspective, which posed many challenges for the first-time filmmaker. A first-person coming-of-age tale can fall into the cliche traps of the genre, but he knew his film adaptation had to somehow capture that same depth contained in the book that had made him fall in love with it in the first place. Adamant about omitting genre tropes such as voiceover, he simply wanted the characters and images to tell this story and noted that there are things that you have to “ultimately give up to the process and to the characters, because sometimes there is a shot you want and you have to go, ‘I have to cut it.’ ”

Having worked on countless films throughout his career, he used his past experience as an actor to help guide him as a director, especially in creating the on-set environment. “I’m just trying to set up the right atmosphere for them to give their best work,” Dano said. And as a more character-driven story rather than a plot-heavy one, the film required the actors to bring their A-game. Luckily, Dano was able to assemble a stellar cast.

“For Carey and Jake, I was so lucky that they said yes,” Dano said. “We were so lucky to find Ed, because the film is so reliant on his thoughts.”

Dano’s reverence for his actors is evident; his previous experience as an actor himself caused him to treat those on set with respect, giving them time and space to breathe. They are able to do more than merely act for the sake of the scene; they are able to believably live within the world that Dano has constructed, not ringing a false note.

“I like the illusion of simplicity,” Dano said. The film is a story about a family of three, but it is much more than that. “The opening image is idyllic, and then it slowly peels back the layers.”

“Wildlife” provides a window into a family at a time when the rug has been pulled out from under them. The characters are messy, flawed, and complicated, but that is exactly what attracted Dano to this project. It is clear that he understands these characters as he grounds them in their humanity: “They’re human and we’re just kind of witnessing their struggle.”

Contact Julia Mears at [email protected].