Oregon Goes Wild

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Director Jean-Marc Vallée and Reese Witherspoon in Wild.

Behind the scenes with director Jean-Marc Vallée

By Katie Sauro
Photos Courtesy of Fox Searchlight © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox

In December, moviegoers were invited to tag along on Cheryl Strayed’s incredible 1,100-mile journey. As viewers, we watched Cheryl (played by Reese Witherspoon) as she trudged along the Pacific Crest Trail, and felt her pain—physical and otherwise—as she grieved for her mother and endured her spiritual transformation.

Wild is striking, both in terms of heartbreaking subject matter and picturesque composition. The beauty of the film can be credited to the source material (Strayed’s memoir, upon which the film is based, and Nick Hornby’s screenplay) and the film’s director, Jean-Marc Vallée, who brings the story to life.

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Vallée directs Witherspoon between takes.

Vallée, fresh off a successful turn directing Dallas Buyers Club, was selected by the film’s producers (including Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea) to direct the film for Fox Searchlight.

“I didn’t choose this film; it chose me,” said Vallée. “I didn’t choose Reese; Reese chose me. I knew I had to be part of this film. It’s so beautiful, and I related on a personal level.”

The film was shot almost entirely in Oregon in 2013—most notably in the Ashland-Medford area, the greater Bend area, and in and around Portland—utilizing many local cast and crew. Several Portland locations doubled for Minneapolis, while a number of rural Oregon locations stood in for the California leg of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Vallée called recreating the California part of the trail a “challenge of the film.”

Filming a scene for Wild.

Filming a scene for Wild.

“The plan was to shoot in Oregon for the financial reasons,” he explained. “It’s always cheaper to stick to one place instead of traveling the whole crew and cast and everything. So [recreating California] became a challenge. It became an objective, a goal, to make it work. The PCT Association supports the film and said we did a great job recreating the PCT.”

One of the “California” scenes that was shot in Oregon was when Cheryl is hiking through the Mojave Desert, which is known for its Joshua trees.

“But Oregon doesn’t have any Joshua trees,” explained Vallée, “so John (Paino), our production designer, had to compensate here and there. We brought in 10 to 15 trees that we put in the foreground and shot using a green screen to add them in post. There were between 100 and 200 trees added when she’s in the desert.”

Director Jean-Marc Vallée.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée.

For Witherspoon, part of the challenge was “pretending she was warm in the California desert when she was freezing in an Oregon desert,” said Vallée, laughing. “We’re wearing winter coats and scarves and boots and hats and gloves, and she’s pretending she’s hot.”

And of course, there were several other challenges that cropped up during filming, such as when the government shutdown last year forced the production to find new filming sites that weren’t located in national parks. But for the most part, filming went smoothly, even with regard to the Northwest’s notoriously hit-and-miss weather. (“We were fortunate,” said Vallée.)

“The whole thing was a great, great experience,” he said. “It was always a great creative moment as a director. I felt I was in a great creative film, surrounded by such a great cast, great department heads and their crew. As a person, as a human, it was a blast to be there and experience nature. I’ve never hiked one single day of my life and here I was making this film. But it’s not about hiking, it’s about a woman.”

Reese Witherspoon in Wild.

Reese Witherspoon in Wild.

One of his favorite scenes to shoot was the final scene in the film, when Cheryl reaches the Bridge of the Gods, the end of her journey.

“The Bridge of the Gods moment was quite a day, a moving moment,” said Vallée. “I called the DP and said I wanted to shoot with a Steadicam in slow motion. Everything will be very soft and fluid. We will feel like we’re floating. It was a cloudy day, raining a little bit here and there. There was something magical about that.”

Before filming Wild, Vallée had never been to Oregon before. So what does he think of his experience?

“Overall, I would say that I’m ready to move to Portland. If I have to move somewhere someday, it would be (to) Portland,” he said. “I loved everything about it: the people, the vibe, good food, restaurants, the outdoors, the bikes, the city, the quality of life. Everything.”

The film’s Portland premiere was held Monday, December 8, and Vallée was in attendance, as was Strayed, Witherspoon, actress Laura Dern, the producers, and many of the local cast and crew. Wild opened in December in theaters nationwide.

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