You don’t put together an acting resumé like Paul Dano’s by accident. There may not be a checklist per se, but the There Will Be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine star is clearly attempting to work with the best filmmakers of this young century. At just 34, he’s appeared in movies from Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen, Rebecca Miller, Kelly Reichert, Denis Villeneuve, Bong Joon-ho, Paolo Sorrentino, and Rian Johnson.
Now, that taste shows through in Dano’s debut directorial effort, Wildlife, which chronicles a turning point in the lives of the Brinson family in rural 1960 Montana. The father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job, leaving mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) to begin fending for herself and son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) to begin analyzing these two deeply flawed adults who are raising him.
On its surface, Wildlife carries a patina audiences may recognize all too well: a post-War, white family reckons with bone-deep dissatisfaction. As you’ll hear us say in the podcast below, cue the Philip Glass score and the parents screaming how they never really had a choice. But no — there’s very little screaming in Wildlife and about 1/16th of the notes you’d find in a Glass composition. Dano has adapted this Richard Ford novel into a spare acting nirvana for Gyllenhaal, Mulligan, consummate bit player Bill Camp, and newcomer Oxenbould.
In place of melodramatic speeches, the smallest movements of the performers swirl in human contradictions. Take, for example, the scene in which Jerry Brinson (Gyllenhaal) departs his family to fight a nearby forest fire for a reason he can’t articulate. Dano leaves the camera rolling on Gyllenhaal sitting in the back of a flatbed truck. His eyes well up, but he begins to exhale deeply as though someone’s just removed a menacing thorn from his ribs. He knows he’s causing pain, but he experiences the unburdening of his own pain at the same moment. Wildlife runs deep with moments like these. It thankfully hinges less on what it means to be struggling for the American Dream in 1960 and more about how our timeless delusions are the best and worst parts of us.
In short, Wildlife is a beautiful, nuanced story that’s worth seeing for some of the year’s best dramatic acting. In the interview below, I talk to Dano about stepping onto set for the first time as a director and what it meant to him when Paul Thomas Anderson made everyone on the There Will Be Blood crew wait for the oil to drip just right. Oh, and tune into the full podcast interview for a little bonus talk about the NBA.
Chance Solem-Pfeifer: It’s your first time directing, so let’s start with a question about visuals. One of the most evocative things you do in this movie repeatedly is to start in close on a scene and we don’t really know where we are or what’s happening around the characters, but then you pull out and show us the surroundings at the very end. How did that inward-to-outward reorienting motif work itself out?
Paul Dano: I suppose I like anything, as an audience member, where my senses are activated. I want to be involved in the scene. I don’t like the feeling of getting everything fed to me, and I think you get where the characters are most of the time without telling people. I was really also trying to boil the film down to something essential. I like the illusion of simplicity.
And why have an establishing shot? What is it really doing? Now, I’m tired …. I shouldn’t say it that way, but most of the time, right? Don’t just show me a shot of a building. As a director, every shot and cut and put you in front of an audience, you’re telling them to look at something.
CSP: Did you at any time want to be in this movie, or did you take it on with the specific intention of not acting in it?
PD: That was it. I wanted to make a film for a long time and was so excited to work with the camera and team and design of the film. I had zero interest in acting in it. There was too much to learn.
CSP: To hear you and Zoe Kazan talk about writing the script and handing drafts back and forth for several years, was there ever a moment where you got a draft back from Zoe and you were like, “Oh she got it. She hacked this thing I couldn’t or this quality I never knew we were even after”?
PD: Huh! I’m sure that moment happened, but at this point … we showed the film to Richard Ford. He said to me, “I love this particular moment.” And I said, “Well, that’s in the book.” And he said, “No it’s not.” The point being, I don’t think Zoe and I know anymore what’s what either.
CSP: Through your last however many years, with directing being your horizon, was there a point in your acting career where you started closely paying attention to how your directors made their films? I mean, you’ve worked with Paul Thomas Anderson, Denis Villeneuve, Rebecca Miller, Rian Johnson, great directors. Was there a point where you locked in, or have you always been attuned to how the films around you got made?
PD: My love of the medium has definitely informed my acting career. I like when I get to be on a certain type of film and work with a certain filmmaker. But most of the time when you’re acting, you’re a horse with blinders on for your character. That being said, there is a lot of osmosis that hopefully happens. There’s a lot picked up, but largely in the energy of it.
In terms of where to put the camera and when to use a certain lens, that just comes from being a real movie dork and, you know, studying film. I’ve always gotten such pleasure out of the idea of working with DPs, Roger Deakins and Robert Elswit, and maybe off work hours, you get to geek out a little bit about some camera stuff.
CSP: Specifically with Deakins?
PD: Well sure! With a lot of people. If you become friendly, suddenly you’re talking about films.
CSP: What about running a set? Is there an example from your career of being around a director and having that moment of, “If I get to make a movie, I want to treat people like this or have the energy be like this”?
PD: A lot of them honestly.
CSP: Sure. That’s good!
PD: Yeah! Definitely you step on the set of There Will Be Blood and there’s a certain temperature. I really love when the crew is there as opposed to on their cell phones or something. It’s certainly been beneficial to see someone like Paul [Thomas Anderson] wait for the oil to drip correctly and know time and money is burning but you’ve got to get it right.
I remember Steve McQueen … we were making a very difficult film about a very difficult subject matter [12 Years A Slave], but he was so positive and a great cheerleader for his actors considering what we were going through.
With Denis Villeneuve [on Prisoners], there was one scene where something didn’t feel right. It was a jump scare that just didn’t feel good. And we stopped and talked about it and changed stuff. And it became more about the morality of the moment. It was important to see someone realize soething could be better and not be afraid to say it.
CSP: I wanted to find a tactful way to ask you a Daniel Day-Lewis question that’s not just, “Oh, what was that like?” Does having directed give you any new perspective on how to collaborate with a person like that, whose processes or methods heavily impact everyone around them?
PD: I’ve probably seen habits that aren’t helpful to a film set. But Daniel’s are incredibly conducive to the work. I would say “no” in regard to him because I don’t think he expects anything in return from his scene partners in a negative way. Also, [his method acting] is very helpful. It’s creating energy between us being nemeses in [There Will Be Blood]. I think that raises the stakes, and that’s what you’re looking for.
One of the fun jobs of directing is getting the best out of everybody. It’s not quite like parenting … but knowing there are so many different ways to act, I do think helps me as a director. How does Ed Oxenbould work? How does Jake Gyllenhaal work? How does Carey Mulligan work?
CSP: Let me ask you about Carey and her character Jean. Once Jerry, the husband, leaves the movie, she becomes a whirlwind of reactions to this new situation. She’s ambitious, she’s self-destructive, she’s educational to her son. She’s also forcing her son to see the adult she is beyond his mother. She’s reacting and over-reacting and correcting and trying all these different personas on. But Carey Mulligan remains so controlled and so precise throughout. So as an actor, how hard is that to do? And as a director, what is that like to watch?
PD: She has such an incredible sort of weather system operating inside of her, and that was so important for this part, to have this kid be faced with shadow and light, and a smile one second and erratic behavior the next. Absolutely, it was so fun to collaborate with her because she’s capable of both such specificity but also losing herself in a moment. It’s a very high caliber of acting.