As a troubled young woman in “Wild,” Reese Witherspoon has earned Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations and is a front-runner for a best actress Oscar nomination.
Canada’s Jean-Marc Vallée directed Witherspoon, an Oscar winner for her role in 2005’s “Walk the Line,” in the acclaimed new drama, which opens Friday in New Orleans.
Vallée’s intimate approach to filmmaking helps his actors find their great performances. Witherspoon digs deep emotional terrain as Cheryl Strayed, the author of the best-selling memoir that “Wild” is based on.
As the film begins, Strayed’s years of troubles include heroin addiction and a failed marriage. At the end of her rope, she gives herself the epic challenge of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Vallée creates an intimate on-set atmosphere. He shoots scenes with hand-held cameras and available light. He doesn’t use electrical and grip crews.
“I don’t want anybody on the set,” Vallée said recently from Los Angeles. “This approach allows the actors to feel more freedom to do what they have to do in a location and space. They don’t have to be concerned about being at the right place because the light is there.
“From one shot to the next, I just move with the cameraman. The shots are very long and in the moment. It becomes more of a capturing instead of staging. We don’t stage. We just try to be real and feel the thing. I try not to interfere too much and just trust the storytelling and the acting.”
The filming becomes a dance between the director and the actors, Vallée said. “I’m reacting like them. It’s all about instinct.”
Vallée also wants the technical side of the filmmaking to be invisible. That includes his direction and editing.
“I tell this to every head of the departments: ‘Let’s be as transparent as possible. So they (audiences) don’t get out of the story. They don’t notice the clever art direction or lighting to clever editing. Try to not be clever.’ ”
Vallée watched “Wild” with audiences at the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. The response pleased him.
“It is a film that is touching the heart in the right place,” he said. “We can relate to Cheryl so much, what she went through, her experience on the trail. She is brutally honest about herself.
“It’s nice to remind ourselves that we’re human and that we can allow ourselves to go on a path to try to find peace — ‘I’m going to try to be happy. I’m going to try to find myself.’ ”
On the “Wild” set, some scenes summoned debilitating emotion in the director. They include Witherspoon’s encounter with a grandmother and her grandson, a child whose mother has died young.
“That scene, oh, yeah, I had a hard time saying ‘cut,’ ” he said. “I was choked. Emotion in the throat. No voice. Teary eyes. Filming Reese, looking at her and at the kid and listening to his sad voice, I’m seeing the transformation on her face.”
Witherspoon was born at Baptist Hospital in New Orleans, though her family left shortly thereafter for Germany, where her father was a military surgeon.
Vallée previously directed Oscar-winning performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in the New Orleans-filmed “Dallas Buyers Club.”
“I was with Matthew yesterday,” the director said. “He introduced a screening of ‘Wild.’ And we had dinner with Matthew and Reese. We talked about how much we miss New Orleans and Coquette, a restaurant on Magazine Street that we love.
“New Orleans is a special town,” Montreal native Vallée said. “I’m not talking about Bourbon Street and the French Quarter. I’m talking about the vibe, the musical scene, the architecture, the people. There’s a different rhythm. I didn’t feel funny (there). I didn’t feel I was in the States.”