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Paul Dano – It’s A Wild Wildlife

Updated: Aug 6, 2023

Paul Dano at the Philadelphia Film Festival Screening of “Wildlife.”

Paul Dano

It’s A Wild Wildlife

By Jay S. Jacobs

We know Paul Dano as an actor with over a decade of quirky movie choices behind him. Perhaps you remember him best as the twin preachers in There Will Be Blood. Or perhaps as the young Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy. Or, then again it could be as the dysfunctional older brother in Little Miss Sunshine. Or as the frightened future gangster in Looper. Or the mentally impaired man who was under suspicion for the disappearance of two girls in Prisoners.

It could be those or any one of dozens of other roles that Dano has played over the years.

Now, he is taking on yet another interesting new role – that of writer/director. Dano co-wrote the screenplay for the movie Wildlife with his long-time girlfriend, actress Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) and based upon the novel of the same name by Richard Ford.

Paul Dano at the Philadelphia Film Festival Screening of “Wildlife.”

The melancholy drama is about a teen boy Ed Oxenbould watching the crumbling of his parents’ (Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan) marriage in 1960s Montana, set against the backdrop of economic uncertainty and a fast-burning wildfire in the nearby hills. The movie has been getting raves as it made its way through the festival circuit, with an eye on an early November release.

Funny thing is, Dano has been thinking about making this movie since even before he made a name as an actor. He had discovered Ford’s novel long before that.

“I was a fan of his work,” Dano explained to me on the red carpet at the Philadelphia Film Center for the Philadelphia Film Festival screening. “I went into the bookstore and opened this book called Wildlife and was pretty much in love from the first sentence.”

Paul Dano at the Philadelphia Film Festival Screening of “Wildlife.”

Of course, back then Dano was just reading the book for enjoyment, but it dazzled him and stuck with him long after he arrived at the final page.

“I didn’t know it would be a film right away, but just as a reader,” Dano said.

So many things spoke to Dano in the book. “The language of it. The characters. The time. The place. The sense of family. The American dream.”

The seed of the movie started growing in Dano’s mind.

“I just really had a personal experience reading it and started daydreaming about a film,” Dano explained.

The novel Wildlife takes place in 1960, twenty-four years before Dano was even born. Back when the novel takes place, the family structure was very different. The father brought home the bacon, the mother kept the home and marital problems were always very hush-hush.

Philadelphia Film Society executive director Andrew Greenblatt, Greater Philadelphia Film Office executive director Sharon Pinkerton and Paul Dano at the Philadelphia Film Festival Screening of “Wildlife.”

Wildlife explores the darker sides of that Father Knows Best age, which is often romanticized in the modern world. It was not necessarily the domestic paradise that is fetishized on “Making America Great Again” hats. However, Dano feels that the story will resonate with modern audiences.

“Well, for me, I saw myself in it,” Dano told me. “My parents. And my grandparents. So, yes, the time and the place is important to the story, but, at its heart – mother, father, child, marriage, family – I think it is timeless, the emotional content.”

Paul Dano at the Philadelphia Film Festival Screening of “Wildlife.”

In fact, Dano enjoyed recreating life in the heart of the Eisenhower era. The quiet desperation of the world, the repression, the different mores and family values, the low-tech existence, the forced civility; all these things appealed to him as a filmmaker.

“Sometimes it’s easier to see yourself when you step into a different world, rather than just the present,” Dano acknowledged. “Of course, it was important for the Jeanette character [the mother played by Carey Mulligan], the restrictions around her in society at that time. But, I think I started just from the heart.”

Now, Dano is intrigued by digging deeper into filmmaking. Of course, much of that decision will depend on the reaction to Wildlife. So far, the reviews have been stellar, but Dano is still somewhat bemused by how people will view his passion project.

Paul Dano at the Philadelphia Film Festival Screening of “Wildlife.”

“Boy, I hope the film isn’t disappointing,” Dano joked from the stage after being applauded by the crowd when introduced before the Philadelphia Film Festival screening. “It would be a bit awkward coming back after that.”

Beyond its period setting, Dano also feels that Wildlife is an old-fashioned film in another important way. It is a film best seen on a big screen; not on a television, or a pad, or a smart phone.

“First and foremost, it is really important to us, particularly in this day and age, that we get to share our work in the way it was intended to be seen and have a communal experience together,” Dano said.

“It means a lot that you guys take the care to show not just our film, but so many films here this week,” he said from the stage at the Film Festival. “To provide them with a good home, a beautiful theater. And for you guys to come out and support and share this with us. So, thank you.”

Paul Dano and PFS executive director Andrew Greenblatt at the Philadelphia Film Festival Screening of “Wildlife.”

While Dano still plans on working as an actor, Wildlife has him excited about a future behind the scenes. The road to Wildlife has been long and winding, and he is gratified that it is finally getting out there for audiences to appreciate.

“I hope I’m still a young man,” Dano said. “I’ve been poking away at it for a while. Really hope it has found a home. I started thinking of this film when I was only 16, so it means a lot to be out here.”

In the long run, Dano wants people to relate to this story, just as he did as a teenaged reader who was hooked from the very first line.

“It’s a film about family,” Dano explained. “We’ve all got one. I hope everyone finds a piece of themselves somewhere in it.”

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: November 3, 2018.

Photos by Deborah Wagner © 2018.


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