Wild: Reese Witherspoon’s Oscar Card

wild_posterIn WILD, director Jean-Marc Vallée guides Reese Witherspoon to her best performance in a decade as Cheryl Strayed.

Scribe Nick Hornby has adapted bestselling author Cheryl Strayed’s adventure book to the big screen.   After years of reckless behavior, a heroin addiction and the destruction of her marriage, Cheryl Strayed makes a rash decision.  Haunted by memories of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), but with no experience, she sets out to hike more than a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail all on her own.

WILD reveals her terrors and pleasures –as she forges ahead on a journey that maddens, strengthens, and ultimately heals her.

Thinking she’d lost everything, Cheryl Strayed walked out of her broken-down life and into the deep wilderness on a 1,100-mile solo hike that would take her to the edge. Strayed’s experiences became the beating heart of an inspirational, best-selling memoir that was about more than just an inexperienced hiker’s crazy, grueling experience walking from the Mojave Desert to the Pacific Northwest via the rugged Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

wild_1_witherspoonMixing punk spirit with vibrant honesty, Wild offers a portrait of a modern, messed-up woman coming-of-age by embracing the call of the wild in her own way. On the trail, Strayed faced down thirst, heat, cold, feral animals and all of her worst fears, but even more so, she faced up to change: pushing through to carve her own path out of grief and a haunted past.

Both director and star face najor challenges in making this movie, since it story unfolds largely inside one woman’s head –a flood of memories, fears, ideas, songs, poems, anger and awe.

Wilderness epics have been around since the beginning of cinema. However, from the 1912 silent film THE CONQUEST OF THE POLE to JEREMIAH JOHNSON to INTO THE WILD to 127 HOURS, nearly all have traced the paths of men far from civilization. The fact that WILD takes a different, less expected direction served as an attraction to many of filmmakers.

Says Reese Witherspoon, who also produced the film with her partner Bruna Papandrea: “WILD is about so many things that touch people.  It’s about life, love, loss and family. It’s about how a woman who thought she was completely broken, found a way to reconstitute herself.”

wild_2_witherspoonDirector Vallée adds: “WILD is the story of a woman who wants to change her life and decides to do it in a very drastic way by going on this hike on the PCT. It becomes quite a journey, a journey of discovering herself and facing life and asking herself all the hard questions. But it’s also a journey of redemption – that’s the thing.”

WILD began with Cheryl Strayed’s own personal story – that of a woman still reeling from the sudden loss of her inspiring mother, a wrecked marriage and a headlong dive into unabashed self-destruction who decides to put a halt to it all and takes a seemingly preposterous adventure. With zero outdoors experience, a monstrously heavy backpack and fueled by little but her own ragged will, Strayed set out to hike the PCT, the longest, toughest and wildest through-trail in America, completely alone.

Barely a few minutes into her trek, she considered quitting. But she persevered and during those few months, she found reminders of joy, courage and beauty amid the fear, exhaustion and peril. It was an adventure that helped her put her life back together again and emerge with a raw but remarkable story.

Recalls the real-life Strayed: “It was a huge physical undertaking for me to hike the PCT for 94 days, but it was also very much a spiritual journey. I turned to the trail as many people turn to the wilderness — at a time when I felt lost and desperate, when I was in a place where I didn’t know how to move forward. In many ways the trail taught me to literally just put one foot in front of the other again.”

Strayed’s story meant a lot to her personally but she couldn’t have foreseen how deeply her writing would tap into other people’s longing for a transformative experience. As soon as Wild was published in 2012 it hit the best-seller lists and drew critical raves, as much for its irreverent yet movingly candid style as for its adventurousness. The New York Times Book Review called it a “literary and human triumph” and The Boston Globe said Wild is “an addictive, gorgeous book that not only entertains, but leaves us the better for having read it.”

Witherspoon read the book several months before it was published and decided to produce it right away.  Though reading many scripts, Witherspoon’s reaction to Wild was instantaneous and fervent.

“I read the first half of the book on a plane and I was just in tears,” Witherspoon recalls. “Then, I just couldn’t wait to get back to the book and I read the rest on the flight back. I said, ‘I don’t know who Cheryl Strayed is, but I need her number immediately.’”

Witherspoon called Strayed and told her how deeply she related to the memoir and how much she believed the book could touch many different lives.  “I told Cheryl this is a rocket ship, so hold on–you are going to go so far with this book,” she remembers.  “I found her to be every bit the spiritual and emotional person that you’d expect.  She’s no nonsense, cuts through all the b.s. and just tells it like it is–the same things that people really responded to with her book.”

Witherspoon asked Strayed if she could option the film rights – and she and Papandrea soon began the process of trying to develop the story in a way that would do it justice. They knew they were headed into rough territory, not just to the PCT with its infamous harsh passages, but also into an emotional wilderness that many people who have never hiked a step have journeyed through.

“It was essential to us to maintain the purity of Cheryl’s book,” says Papandrea. “The book was so popular because whether you’re from a broken family or you’ve lost someone close to you or you’ve struggled with hardships, this is a story that reminds us we can save ourselves. Cheryl gets her life back because she chooses to walk back into the world. We wanted to tell that story.”

They joined together with Bill Pohlad (12 YEARS A SLAVE, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) and River Road Entertainment to develop the script. “Bill and River Road gave us the ability to then find the best home which was Fox Searchlight,” says Papandrea.  As the project came together, executive producers Nathan Ross and Bergen Swanson came aboard. “I really loved the book,” says Nathan Ross, who also produced DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, echoing the response of so many. “It’s a physical journey but it’s just as much a very emotional journey and Cheryl comes out of the whole thing a better person in every way.”

For Swanson, whose recent films include SHAME and THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, the film also hit a personal note. “I’m a native Oregonian and the movie is set in a world I grew up in, one you don’t see often in film,” he says. “For Oregonians, Wild becoming a best-seller nationwide has been really special because it illuminates how meaningful our natural environment can be and what it’s like to really get in touch with the wild.”

To adapt the material for the screen, the filmmakers turned to a writer who had also fallen for Strayed’s book: the English novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby. Hornby is best known for his own funny, poignant and deeply popular novels about contemporary life and love – including High Fidelity, About A Boy and A Long Way Down. He also garnered an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of the memoir that became Lone Sherfig’s acclaimed feature AN EDUCATION.

He was drawn to Strayed’s style as soon as he turned the first page. “There were several things that electrified me about the book when I read it,” says Hornby. “Tonally, Cheryl writes in the way that I most identify with: she’s never humorless, but she’s also serious and passionate and she speaks directly. I loved her candor and her ability to talk about the various messes she’d made without self-pity or self-loathing. I loved her optimism, her determination to find the light even though its source seemed a long way away. I loved her very deep connection to the arts, to music and books. For me, Wild felt like a Springsteen song, specifically a song from ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ and I wanted very much to try and capture that sound in the script.”

As he dove in, Hornby hoped to distill Strayed’s mix of heartache and irrepressible bravery. “I think the big thing was the rawness — of the pain, the loss and of the journey itself, the loneliness of it, as well as Cheryl’s unshakeable sense that this insane project will somehow pay off. There’s a kind of magic in the book, too,” he points out. “The bad stuff is buried in the past, but the trail itself is peculiarly beneficent, despite all the physical pain and the relentlessness of the difficulty. And there’s redemption, of course. We’re all looking for that.”

Intriguingly, Hornby is not an outdoorsy person – which he says only helped him relate to Cheryl’s absurdly unprepared state as she took on the PCT. “I have no experience of the wilderness. None,” he confesses. “But one of the things I loved about the book was that it was written for someone like me: the shock of it all, Cheryl’s unpreparedness, speaks directly to those of us who spend all our time – I refuse to say too much time – thinking about writing, books, music, movies. That was my way in. One of the reasons the book works for so many readers is that it’s not a book written for trekkers . . . and I figured that it was Jean-Marc and the crew who would have to deal with the scary stuff. I could look at the trail on the internet and think about it in my North London office.”

Hornby structured the film to bring all of Cheryl’s memories, doubts and past experiences with her on the trail, seeping into what she’s experiencing in the present tense. “I think the book is less internal than it looks. Stuff happens,” he notes. “It’s unusual, to say the least, to find a book about nature which contains a lot of sex and drug abuse! And Cheryl meets people along the way, and those meetings are themselves transformative.”

He goes on: “But I needed to mess with the structure a bit. I wanted to unravel the back-story in a different way. In the book, Cheryl talks about the death of her mother right at the beginning, and everything springs from that. That makes perfect sense because her prose is so compelling, and you want to go anywhere she wants to take you after that. But without the prose, I decided that we had to create a kind of mystery in the story – what has messed this young woman up so badly? So we spool back from the divorce, until we get to the wellspring of everything, Bobbi’s death.”

Strayed was exhilarated to have her story in Hornby’s hands. “I really can’t think of a writer I respect more than Nick,” she says. “I’m such a fan of his work. He’s funny, smart, wise and he’s also got a really good heart. I think he was the exact right person to undertake the transformation this book had to go through to become a script. He wrote a beautiful, brave screenplay.”

Witherspoon was equally impressed. “Nick did an incredible job of really capturing Cheryl’s voice and structuring the film into a non-linear narrative,” she says. “He created it as a mystery that unfolds, as you figure out why Cheryl’s on this long journey. He has an amazing ability to distill human relationships down to their emotional essence.”

Papandrea notes that Hornby was able to get under the skin of a female character as well as any he has explored. “Nick writes so brilliantly about modern men,” she muses, “but AN EDUCATION is very much a female-driven coming-of-age story and that was equally wonderful. So it’s interesting that he has been drawn to women’s journeys in the cinematic space.”

Meanwhile, as Witherspoon and Papandrea began talking about a list of potential directors for WILD, one name resonated with them: Jean-Marc Vallée. At that time, he was still in EARLY STAGES OF POST production on DALLAS BUYERS CLUB – and the hoopla surrounding that film was yet to occur. But they were riveted by the energy of two previous films: C.R.A.Z.Y., the suspenseful story of a gay man growing up with a conservative father in 1970s Quebec, and THE YOUNG VICTORIA, an intimate look into the early reign of Queen Victoria. Both featured radiant performances. After ongoing conversations with Bruna, Fox Searchlight and Nathan Ross, Vallée read Hornby’s script and they were off to the races. Vallée was so taken with the story and its potential, he was eager to make it his next film.