The actor-turned-director recounts the many challenges he faced making his first feature

When a beloved actor makes the leap to the other side of the camera, their work might be derisively regarded as a stumble into the final filmmaking frontier or hailed as a marker of a directorial star being born. It looks like Paul Dano will fall into the latter category with his directing debut, Wildlife, which premiered at Sundance in January and hits theaters Friday.

“I guess I have sort of dreamed of making a film for a long time,” Dano admits. “I actually was probably frustrated with myself that it took so long to find something to go make.” He finally found inspiration in Richard Ford’s 1990 novel of the same name, a period drama about a teenage boy (played in the film by Ed Oxenbould) who quietly watches the marriage of his parents (Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal) fall apart in small-town 1960s Montana.

After he first read the book, “I did think, ‘God, I wonder if I could make a film of this.’ And then I probably reread the book several times in a year, just kind of thinking about it,” Dano says. “I’m not the kind of person who’s going to read something and go right away and do it. I’m sort of a slow-cook person. So I daydreamed about it for a long time, and then I thought of what the ending might be, and the final shot of the film. And that is when I sort of said, ‘Okay, I can do it. Let’s do it.’”

Reaching that point was the easy part, though, compared to the challenges that awaited the first-time filmmaker. “I certainly was [discouraged] at times, but not in a real way, like I was ever going to stop,” Dano remembers. “That’s kind of the nice thing about being truly inspired by something — it’s not really a choice. It just became something I had to do.”

The novel itself presented Dano with his first hurdle. “It’s all internal life. It’s not plot-driven, so you’re trying to take this beautiful prose and internal life and language and make it into an image or an action,” Dano recalls. (He co-wrote the script with his partner, Zoe Kazan.) “It’s so tempting to use voice-over, and that was a very clear goal from the get-go: How do we do this without voice-over? How can we just make it spare and simple, and through that get the complexity of the relationships? Because I actually think using voice-over would be reductive. Like, how do we make it as complicated as all this stuff really feels in life?”

That challenge was compounded, too, by the source of that interiority being a teenager. After a long, fruitless search for a compelling 15-year-old, the casting team finally got a tape from Oxenbould. “The movie relies on this face, and this kid,” Dano says. “His tape was the first time that we saw the scenes the way they were written, essentially. Not meaning they got the lines right; I mean the space in between the lines, the subtext. You could see on camera that he was thinking thoughts. There was a moment in his audition tape that I would have put in the film if I could have.”

The writer-director calls Oxenbould’s casting “one of the best decisions that we made” on the film, but even with such a capable child actor in the role, his age presented more difficulties. With shooting hours limited by child labor laws, and worried that his young star would need lots of takes, Dano opted to shoot on digital rather than film. “But it turned out, I went, ‘F—, we could have shot on film,’ because Ed was just so good,” Dano remembers. “I don’t know how I would have made the film without him, him in particular.”

Wildlife - Still 1
Credit: IFC Films

The period kept the first-time director on his toes as well. “Everywhere you point the camera has to be controlled. You have to create the colors, the textures — everything you’re putting in front of the camera, because you’re making it 1960, is a choice. It’s not, like, a found object,” he says. “But there’s a great, great beauty in doing it this way, because as a director, you get to control everything. It really allows you to create a world, and hopefully the film is realistic and relatable, but it’s also a film. You want a slight sense of, you know, stepping into something.”

Most of the 28-day shoot took place in Oklahoma, but the first four days were a trial by fire — literally — in Montana, where Dano’s crew got exteriors for a sequence depicting the wildfire that Gyllenhaal’s character leaves town to help fight. “Everything about [that] was a challenge, just logistically, accomplishing what we needed to in a day,” Dano says. “There were a lot of hiccups, but there was a lot of great stuff. There was just enough where, even though it was one of the hardest days, it was also like, ‘Okay, we’re making a movie. The movie could be good.’”

Wildlife hits theaters Oct. 19.

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