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'Wild' director Jean-Marc Vallee explains the movie's memory music

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In the first moments of Wild, Cheryl Strayed—played by Reese Witherspoon—is on a cliff, preparing to rip off one of her toenails. Through heavy breaths, she says to herself, “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail”—lyrics you may recognize from Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could).” Director Jean-Marc Vallée envisioned that trilling song as the movie’s theme.

In the film, which is based on Strayed’s memoir about hiking across the Pacific Crest Trail after the death of her mother, music often functions as memory—meshing into the movie’s flashbacks, sometimes even seeming to emerge out of Cheryl’s own mind as she sings to herself on the trail. Tiny bits of songs repeat themselves; it’s like they’re floating in from another world, or maybe just from the past. Elsewhere, music appears organically, coming from radios and street musicians. The movie accurately conveys what Strayed describes in the book as the “mix-tape radio station” in her head, “playing and replaying scraps of songs and jingles in an eternal, nonsensical loop.”

Strayed’s book mentions some music that translates to the screen—for instance, when her trek takes her to Ashland, she encounters the sounds of  Grateful Dead and “Box of Rain.” But though Wild is set in the 1990s—and some songs from that period do appear in it—the music in the film is often older: The Shangri-Las and Leonard Cohen appear, in addition to Simon and Garfunkel. The latter pair is there for a thematic reason: Vallée chose to primarily evoke Cheryl’s mother, Bobbi—who died of cancer at the age of 45—with “El Condor Pasa.”

“This track was perfect to accompany Bobbi almost in the magical way, [to] accompany Cheryl on the trail as if Bobbi’s soul is there walking with her daughter,” the director explains. He also loves the song’s instrumental introduction: “It has this beautiful quality. There’s a lot of melancholy to it. There’s also some sort of mystical aspect to it.”

One flashback finds Bobbi (Laura Dern) humming the song while Cheryl chides her for being happy when they have nothing. “She’s going to learn to make peace,” Vallée said. “Not only the whole idea with making peace with the loss of her mother, who she lost so soon at the age of 45, but make peace with this [musical] track. Make peace with herself.”

Music supervisor Susan Jacobs, who had read the book before starting work on the project, initially thought the movie would sound more in tune with the ’90s: “I came with the Wilco and the Nirvana and the Seattle scene.,” she says. But Vallée told her that he wanted to keep Bobbi present in the film by using music from earlier eras: “This isn’t about reality,” explains Jacobs.

“This is about keeping the essence of the mother there.”

Jacobs, who has supervised on films including the music-heavy American Hustle, compared Vallée, a DJ, to Jackson Pollock. The music in the film is often fragmented, with just bits of songs playing at a time. “I’ve never encountered a director that works with music the way he does. The value of music is almost the antithesis of a David O. Russell in terms of the fragmentation,” Jacobs says. “Working with David and collaborating with him, it’s using huge chunks of songs, and they play out, and they montage. Here, we have songs like ‘Don’t Be Cruel’—I defy anybody to find that in the movie, because you never hear the hook of the song.”

Screenwriter Nick Hornby also brought musical moments to the production. When attempting to find her way in a snowy area, for instance, Cheryl sings new lyrics to “Homeward Bound,” another Simon and Garfunkel tune. “‘Homeward Bound’ and the Bruce Springsteen track that we hear on the trail [‘Tougher Than the Rest,’ also suggested by Hornby], are two tracks that are mixed in a ghostly fashion,” Vallée said. “There’s a lot of reverb because I wanted the audience to have this impression that it’s coming from her mind and not from the storytellers. So it’s low. It’s not playing out loud. It has this reverb effect.”

Vallée experimented with Witherspoon on set, which gave him choices in the editing room: “I did some takes where I was asking Reese not to move her lips, but just to pretend hearing the song. Then I did another take asking her to move her lips, but just at specific points in the song.”

Then, of course, there are moments where no music plays at all. Vallée was eager to explore the solitude and environmental sounds of the trail. “I want to have a contrast between the flashbacks, where there’s civilization and music and culture, and then back on the trail, where there’s almost nothing,” Vallée says. “See where she’s thinking in the first act about her mother, and then we cut to the place where she’s studying with her mom. There’s the Leonard Cohen track playing, ‘Suzanne.’ And then we’re back on the trail and there’s no more music. There’s no more music—and then suddenly [the] very distant, ghostly sound of ‘Suzanne’ again, as she starts singing over it.” It’s that ghostliness that makes the music in the film feel deeply intimate, inserting the audience into Cheryl’s head—and her past.

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