For Zoe Kazan’s second produced screenplay, she collaborated with partner Paul Dano on adapting Richard Ford’s family drama Wildlife. Starring Carey Mulligan as a mother in increasingly desperate straits trying to provide for her son as her husband (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job as a golf pro and takes on a dangerous tour as a fire fighter.
Taking place in 1960’s Wyoming, Wildlife is an intense portrait of family dysfunction and the lengths one will go to in an effort to keep their head above water.
What drew your interest to Wildlife?
It started with Paul (Dano) reading the book. He is a massive fan of (Wildlife author) Richard Ford’s. He had read Rock Springs and The Sportswriter and he was looking for another book of his. He picked up Wildlife and was almost immediately so drawn to it. I think he felt an autobiographical recognition. Obviously, what happens in the book does not mirror what happened in Paul’s life precisely, but I think he felt like that little boy was also him. He gave it to me and said do you think this would make a good movie and I said absolutely. We optioned it ourselves and he decided to take a stab at a first draft. What he gave me was definitely an important first step in adaptation. He had taken so much of the juice of the book and he had done some really important alterations that were in the final draft of our script as well. But then there were things that just wouldn’t stand up in a screenplay. Like there were scenes with no dialogue and I just didn’t understand why. I tried giving him notes on it and we just fought. Finally, I said I think it would be better for our relationship if you just let me take a pass at this and show you what I mean rather than try to explain to you what I mean. He very happily let me do that. Which I’m grateful for now because working on this with him has been an absolute pleasure and one of the big learning experiences of my life. We worked together on it for about three years and another two years of pre-production, production, and post. I just learned so much from Paul. I feel very lucky to have had this experience.
In the film, there are a lot of scenes where the characters are saying one thing, but you can tell on their faces they either mean or are thinking something else. There’s a lot of implication and not much in the way of direct statements. Was that challenging to write?
That’s very perceptive. One of the things that made it hard for me to give him notes on his first draft is that the film that he saw reading the book was told between the lines as much as it was told in the lines. It was such an important thing to him. Like him lingering on actor’s face. To have that space to help tell the story. So, yes. In adapting it we had to be very careful not to overwrite it. To allow that space for the camera, the actor, and the performance to provide that emotional content. That was one of the things I learned from him in that process.
Carey Mulligan as Jeannette did such a wonderful job of teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown in her performance. As much by facial expression and mannerism as anything else. I know the two of you have been close since working on Broadway together many years ago. Was she the first choice for the role in your mind while working on the screenplay?
When we were writing we were trying not to think of any actor in particular. Mostly because when you’re working from an adaptation, you really see how strong the author’s voice is for you. I think to imagine certain actors would be like having another voice in the room too early. We were trying to see who these people were on the page. Who are they for us? How do we take what’s on the page and create a flesh and blood person? Then very late in the process when we were trying to put financing together we started talking about actors. At that point when we realized that Carey could be an appropriate age for the character, that’s when we started getting really excited. First of all, objectively, she’s an extraordinary actor. But also, you get to make a film with someone you really love. To get to hand an incredibly interesting role to someone you know will appreciate it, run with it, and make it better than you ever could have asked for? Yes. We leapt at the opportunity.
When I spoke to Carey, one of the things she said was how it felt easy to play Jeannette because she felt like she was already on the page. I imagine with the stress of a 28 day shoot, you felt the need to have the screenplay as locked in as possible beforehand.
That’s absolutely the case. Paul and I had both been on independent films of all kinds of budget sizes. Including one much smaller than this. I think we knew how fast we were going to have to move on set. And yes, we absolutely felt we had to have as much of the writing done as possible and not be in the position where we were trying to fix something in the writing on set. I think we also felt pretty strongly with actors that are this good, you want to hand them a script where everything is there on the page for them. I think the hard thing for us was knowing when to stop. When we had done enough for the script to be in good enough shape to send to people. We tinkered with it for so long, working on it for three years before we showed it to anyone. It was hard to know when we had come to that point.
Carey described a very harmonious set for an actor despite the short shooting time. Did you find the shoot at all challenging due to the number of days you had?
I think some of your readers might see a 28 day film shoot and think that’s not so bad, but the thing you have to remember is we had a child actor who could only work five hours of the day on camera. So, we were having to work incredibly quickly to come in on time. We relied on people like Carey to act opposite of Paul sometimes instead of Ed, our kid. Paul was the producer on this and I think he knew he wanted as much time for performance as possible. So, we actually gave up on a couple locations. For instance, we wrote scenes so they could happen inside of the house, so we could have a full day to work on the scenes. Budgeting time for the actors was incredibly important to Paul and I think it shows on screen.
You were also shooting a period piece. So each scene had to look appropriate to the era. Which probably made 28 days feel tight as well.
That’s exactly right. The advantage of that is you got to choose everything that was going to be in the frame. That was a real joy for Paul and our DP Diego Garcia, and our production designer Akin Mckenzie, and our costume designer Amanda Ford. At the same time, it does mean you can’t ever just point and shoot. You’re always having to construct that world. The time frame we were able to do that in is a testament to the heads of those departments and to Paul’s vision.
Your first screenplay was for the romantic comedy Ruby Sparks. Wildlife is obviously a much different film. Do you feel comfortable writing for such different projects?
To be totally honest, I’ve written four plays that have been produced and they are all wildly different from Ruby Sparks. I would say Ruby Sparks is more the outlier. All four of my plays are about family and relationships. They are all dramas. I think Wildlife is more in keeping with the rest of my writing. That said, there is real joy for me in moving between genres. My last play was a sci-fi play and I hope I get to keep exploring.