Austin Film Festival Brings Paul Dano's Wildlife to Town

The actor becomes director with literary family drama

Touching from a distance: Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan in Wildlife

Perhaps you remember him best as the preacher whose metaphorical milkshake gets drunk in the closing moments of There Will Be Blood. Or maybe as the young Brian Wilson in the Beach Boys biopic Love & Mercy, or the mute-by-choice older brother in the dark comedy Little Miss Sunshine, or the vengeful slave overseer in 12 Years a Slave? Paul Dano, at the present age of 34, has more terrific film and stage performances to his credit than most actors can hope for in a lifetime. Now Dano has switched things up, moving behind the camera to write and direct his first feature film, Wildlife, which screens this week at the Austin Film Festival. He sat for an interview last month at the Toronto International Film Festival where he was promoting the film in advance of its U.S. rollout this fall.

The period drama is a spare but evocative story about the dissolution of a marriage as witnessed through the eyes of the couple's young teenage son. The film is based on a novel by Richard Ford (the Pulitzer-winning author of Independence Day) and is set in Montana in 1960. Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan deliver impeccable performances as the simmering husband and wife, and Ed Oxenbould plays their son, who's observing things that are beyond his ken. Dano said, "There's a big part of it for me that's the mystery of who our parents are."

Wildlife was a challenging drama to choose for one's debut as a writer/director, but Dano was confident in his material. "I was a fan of Ford's writing," Dano explained, "so I picked up this book. I'd read other things of his. Right away, the first sentence and first paragraph became one of my favorites in any book. I didn't know right away I was going to make a film of it. But I knew right away, like wow, this is my kind of language. It's just beautiful and feels really true. There's a great sense of love here, but also a great sense of struggle. I was taken away by it and started thinking, 'Could I make a film with it maybe? Is there something here for me?' I read it many times over the course of a year, and thought about it and thought about it. Finally, I thought of what an ending to the film might be (which is different from the book). And that sparked me to get over the hump instead of just thinking about it."

Still, writing a screenplay was a new endeavor for him. After finishing a first draft, which he thought was pretty good, he gave it to his partner Zoe Kazan to read. Kazan wrote the 2012 film Ruby Sparks in which Dano starred. The two have been a couple for more than a decade. Dano was shocked when she tore apart his first version of the Wildlife script. She had notes on every page and they fought. "Finally, she said, 'I see what you're trying to do. Let me do a pass on it.' I said, 'Great.' And then we worked like that where we would sit down and talk. Then one of us would go and do something to it. We never wrote by the computer together. We would get our notes together, talk for hours, and say, 'I think this isn't quite working,' or 'Why this or that?' But, you know, she's a proper writer. This is my first time. She's really smart and wonderful, and she was so generous to me as a collaborator."

Although Dano may have surprised himself with this move into writing and directing, a cursory glance at the actor's film credits shows that he's always had, as he confided, "a crush on filmmakers and cinematographers." While working with directors as diverse and creative as Paul Thomas Anderson, Ang Lee, Rian Johnson, Richard Linklater, Denis Villeneuve, Kelly Reichardt, Jon Favreau, and Steve McQueen, it's clear in retrospect that Dano has been studying while on the job. "The whole entity is as important to me as the character," Dano said. "I can't wait to make another film. I mean, it is so hard, and it's a totally crazy job. But I loved it."

Wildlife plays at the Stateside Theatre on Sun., Oct. 28, at 10pm.

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