TELLURIDE — When Fox Searchlight's "Wild" landed Friday afternoon in Telluride, the Oscar fuse was instantly lit for star and producer Reese Witherspoon. But as our own Greg Ellwood noted in his review, after last year's "Dallas Buyers Club," director Jean-Marc Vallée seems almost destined to again be the unsung hero of a film that leaves audiences talking about the power of its performances and the efficiency of its economy.

The most intriguing thing about the film to me was its structure, and that's what I wanted to get into with Vallée in particular when we spoke Saturday afternoon. A genre like this is so well-worn that there seems precious little originality left to be explored, but while Vallée doesn't blow the doors off its conventions, he makes the film more of an experience by playing with picture and sound in the editorial process (he edits his own films), making "Wild" a state of mind film in some sense. That goes a long way toward keeping things fresh.

You can read through our back and forth below. From here, "Wild" heads north of the border to the Toronto Film Festival next month before opening in theaters on Dec. 5.


HitFix: It's funny, when we were talking last year, I didn't even realize you were shooting this.

Jean-Marc Vallée: Oh, I didn't mention it?

No, but I'm not usually looking too far ahead when I'm in the middle of things. So when I got around to this year's stuff I was like, "Oh, damn, he's doing that, too."

Yeah, and I'm shooting on September 15, man. The next one.

Do you like that, keeping them lined up?

It's just circumstances. These three films in a row. I think after this one I'm going to relax.

How does it feel being in the thick of a rush like that, though?

I feel great, man. I feel like I'm living the dream. I'm having a beautiful professional life. I'm enjoying it, meeting great actors and creators. I feel blessed.

So, softball to start, but what was it about Cheryl Strayed's story that made you want to explore it as a film?

I was finishing "Dallas" and I read the script and then the book, and I was so moved. I related to it so much. I lost my mom three years before of cancer. And I was just crying, man, like a baby, when I read the book. I thought, "I've got to make this movie and pay tribute to this woman," who was my mom." Who was, you know, so positive, and, "you can do it," just like Bobbi. So I said, "Yeah, I guess this is for me." Cheryl and Reese and Laura, we all met and we wanted to be at the service of this story.

It's interesting that you had such a personal reaction to the material, because I feel that sort of plays it out in the structure of the film. It's like you're putting the viewer in Cheryl's state of mind.

Oh yeah.

And then you're using flashback structure, but in a dynamic way, playing with sound to trigger memory, and then fleeting imagery.

Like the brain can work. Just a sound, a moment of a song appearing and then you think of something else, and then you have an image, and then you see this girl having a finger in her mouth during a sex scene for, like, 10 frames, and you say, "Wait, what was that?" It puts you in a zone where you have to pay attention and you're in her head. What she sees is what we see. What she thinks is what we see. What she hears is what we hear, and sometimes what we hear is not coming from reality, it's coming from memory. It was such an amazing project for a director, to play with the "toy," to have fun with the medium and the language. And also I had to be humble and not interfere and not play too much. At the same time, I had to just be there: "The script is so beautiful, the scenes are great, the lines great, just capture this, don't overdo it, don't over cut." There are lots of shots in the film that are very long. I'm not cutting performances. They're there. I was in the cutting room with a box of tissues just holding back tears and crying, just watching them, and where to cut? "I don't want to cut; this is so beautiful." I had this problem.

Kristopher Tapley has covered the film awards landscape for over a decade. He founded In Contention in 2005. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Times of London and Variety. He begs you not to take any of this too seriously.