Actor, screenwriter, and now director, Paul Dano, collaborates with screenwriter/actor Zoe Kazan to bring their adaptation of Richard Ford's novel, Wildlife, to the screen. Go behind-the-scenes with Gina Gomez for a peek inside their writing process.
A cool, crisp morning in Beverly Hills. A packed coffee shop. Two genius actors walk outside towards a table to talk to an aspiring screenwriter about a film they’ve recently co-written together.
Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan have given some of the best performances of their generation, so it’s no surprise to me that they co-wrote such a brilliant script and Paul directed such a beautiful, honest film. I interviewed them about their film, Wildlife, about the adaptation process from the novel, what’s it like to be a screenwriting team, and their overall screenwriting process!
Wildlife opens today, October 19th.
Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Script: So obviously, I loved the film, so much.
Paul Dano: Well thanks! It’s not obvious.
Script: [laughs] It reminds me of films that used to come out like, 15 years ago. It was a slow drama. I loved the camera angles where it stayed on the actors, even if they left the screen. I loved that.
Paul Dano: That’s nice.
Zoe Kazan: Thank you!
Script: That was the first thing I wanted to say because I really appreciated that, because I feel like they don’t make movies like that as much anymore. Which is a shame.
Paul Dano: That’s nice… yeah, I think so too.
Script: So first question, how’d you come across this book? Because when I was trying to read it before I saw it, it was kind of hard for me to find it.
Paul Dano: Really?
Script: Yeah! It was really weird.
Zoe Kazan: Well, it’s been re-printed for the movie coming out.
Paul Dano: I was a fan of Richard Ford, so I think I was just looking for another book to read of his. I read a book of short stories of his called Rock Springs that is just, wonderful. And i was kind of looking for something like that. And this book Wildlife, from the first sentence, you can kind of tell was in that lineage. The first paragraph remains one of my favorite openings to a book ever. I just loved it right from the start.
Script: That’s awesome. So you’re a fan of the author! I have to check out his other works now.
Paul Dano: Yeah, The Sportswriter is a wonderful book, and he has several books following that character. And Rock Springs I really like, and they’re kind of two slightly different styles of writing. So it depends which one you want to start with. That’s what I would recommend.
Script: Good to know! When I read [Wildlife], I probably finished it in three sittings, because it was so haunting. And for some weird reason, you care about these characters instantly. You don’t even know too much about them. What about this specific story, why did you want to make it a film, especially your directing debut? What stuck out to you?
Paul Dano: I too loved the characters, and cared about them, and worried about them, and felt for them. There were many things that just spoke to me immediately. The mystery of who our parents are, sort of how suddenly your thrust into adulthood one day. And I think I related to the feeling of just change, and trying to keep things together or hope they’re going to be OK. And Jeanette felt so mysterious and complicated. The feeling of the American dream, and even the language of the book. If I was going to write, I would want to write like that probably, and I think it related to a film language I’m interested in. It was the one, it was the thing.
Script: Did you see a film in your head when you were reading it?
Paul Dano: I saw images. I asked Zoe to read it. There’s so much internal dialogue and feelings from the kid, and it’s looking back on it. There were a lot of challenges, so it was kind of like, “Do you think this could work?” And then thinking about it for a long time, and then letting the daydreams come into your head, and yes, there were probably a few gut impressions and emotional impressions, really. But it’s just one of those testaments to great artists, where it felt like when you read something, it felt like it was written for you. And that happens to lots of people, it’s just incredible that somebody can write something and you feel it captures some piece of you.
Script: I love that. When you read it, did you think, “OK, this can definitely be a film?” Or what was your first impression?
Zoe Kazan: It’s a slim book, so I read it very quickly. I think I felt immediately that I understood Paul’s identification with it. I saw what Paul said about this book being written for him. I saw that, a kind of portrait of Paul in it too. So, it seemed completely natural to me that he would have the impulse that he wanted to adapt it. Yeah, it seemed like it could be a film. You know, it is very internal, so I didn’t have an immediate feeling of “I know how to adapt this.” But when Paul started working on it, and I started seeing what his entry point was, then the puzzle of it became clear to me, and that really engaged me. It engaged me in a technical level, and it engaged Paul in a gut level, originally. Although that changed.
Paul Dano: Yeah, and I should say that I would have no reason to just adapt a book. Right? So why would I do this? And I spent probably about a year thinking about it—could it be a film—but also, why would I do it? And who’s me in this? And kind of, how we do as actors, how do I put myself through this so it’s something personal? So I’m giving you something that means something to me and it’s not just translating a book.
Script: When you guys approached Richard Ford, what was your pitch like to option the book?
Paul Dano: I wrote him and I don’t think I pitched the film as much as I said what it meant to me on a personal level and why I would want to make the film, and my intentions, not in terms of what the film was going to look like and/or what kind of budget, but my human, my emotional intentions of why I would want to make Wildlife. I was very lucky because he wrote me back and gave me permission to make my own film, essentially. He said my book’s my book, your picture’s your picture, and you have to establish your own values and goals, and that was very wise and a place of wisdom to speak from knowing that it’s not going to be any good if you just…
Zoe Kazan: It’s not straight translation.
Paul Dano: Yeah. This particular book I don’t think would work quite like that anyway.
Zoe Kazan: What makes a novel good is not what makes a film good.
Paul Dano: Yeah, so that was super important because I do admire him as a writer, and he wrote a book that means a lot to me, so I feel in retrospect very lucky that I got to hear that early in the process.
Script: Yeah, because he could’ve easily said like, “No, don’t adapt it, or if you do, it has to be exactly like my book.”
Paul Dano: Yeah, or I want to read every step of it, or you know, who knows, and then Zoe was instrumental in time, just sort of letting it become a script. Because you start with the book, and why did I have this gut reaction to the book, and let me take everything I fucking loved about this book, and then you kind of have to let it grow into it’s own thing.
Script: So I understand that you [Paul] wrote the first draft and then you [Zoe] helped with a few drafts. How was the adapting process like? Like obviously since a novel has prose, was it hard to externalize some of the prose, or did you guys outline the book first, or did you put the book aside?
Zoe Kazan: Paul did the first steps.
Paul Dano: Yeah, which I did not write in screenplay format. And just kind of wrote by the image and kind of more of a gut [reaction].
Zoe Kazan: In that, he did a lot of the heavy lifting of doing a first pass of pulling things from the book, starting to move internal monologue into action.
Paul Dano: Yeah like, impressions of, OK, this paragraph gave me a feeling, how do I make an image or an action of that feeling, because the literal thing might not be translatable. There were little, really simple things—like Joe fixing the toilet—I don’t think that’s in the book. I think that’s a nice image to say, this kid is trying to keep this family together. And then some of it is really like the book, too, and the spirit of it. Again, it’s part of why I love the book, because it felt like if I could’ve written, I would’ve written that. But [all of] that also took time.
Zoe Kazan: He was away shooting Prisoners and had some time on his hands so did a first pass of the draft then. And then he came back and asked me to read that draft.
Paul Dano: Yeah.
Zoe Kazan: For notes. Which is something we do for each other. I write plays, too, and Paul is always my first reader. And I had a lot of notes. We got about five pages into the script, and it took us about an hour. We were fighting quite a lot about the notes and finally I just said, “I think it’s going to be faster and better for our relationship if you just let me take a pass at this. I felt like I could show him better than I could tell him. He was also being incredibly stubborn. It just wasn’t the best scene, so Paul said, “Yes." Then I did a lot of work restructuring and turning what wasn’t in screenplay format into it. I don’t mean literally lifting things and putting them in Final Draft, I mean, taking scenes that were more like a treatment and turning them into dialogue. After I had done that draft, we really traded back and forth drafts for about three years. Paul would take a pass, and then I would give notes. He would take a second pass, and then he would give it to me, and then I would do a pass and he'd give me notes, and I'd do a second pass, and it sort of went back and forth like that. Sometimes there was a very specific project in mind, like, “OK, the second act still isn’t working, so I’m going to chop it up and re-structure it again, or “This character has been sort of, not foremost in our minds, let’s do one pass where we just think about this character’s journey." Sometimes it was just like, “Well, I’m off doing Olive Kitteridge," so Paul worked on it for a little while.
Paul Dano: Also, we didn’t have to pay our rent writing Wildlife.
Zoe Kazan: So that allowed us a lot of freedom.
Paul Dano: We optioned it ourselves. We didn’t have to answer to anybody. We both firmly believed the foundation that you’re going to build a film on is so essential.
Zoe Kazan: It has to be in the script.
Paul Dano: So we took our time with the script.
Zoe Kazan: We’ve both had the experience of being told, “OK, it’s not on the page now, but when you shoot it, X, Y, Z” and that’s never a true statement. It really had to be on the page. So we wanted to make sure that it was before we brought it to a financier or to an actor.
Script: And that’s so smart. Because I feel like most screenwriters know that, but it’s good to know.
Zoe Kazan: Well, it’s like what Paul was saying is true. If we had had to make our living writing this script, we wouldn’t have had that luxury.
Script: Right. So I’m a screenwriter with my twin sister—we're a screenwriting team.
Zoe Kazan: Cool!
Paul Dano: Nice.
Script: Obviously we also get into arguments and stuff. So how do you guys get over that? Or is there a phrase you say? I usually say, “Please don’t take it personally; I just want the best for this script.” How do you guys handle that? [laughs]
Paul Dano: That’s good. I don’t know, we’ve definitely fought about stuff, we’ve definitely gotten frustrated at times. But I do think usually we were fighting about something to do with the character or story or the film, you know, not with each other. And there might’ve been a time or two where I do something annoying, but for the most part it’s about the thing. So at least you’re having an argument on behalf [of the film]. I think one bad habit I have is being like, “Let’s try it” and then a day later like, totally not like it.
Zoe Kazan: You do?
Paul Dano: I don’t know if that’s true, but I feel like, in the edit room at least.
Zoe Kazan: Yes.
Paul Dano: That was definitely true. I remember being like, “OK, let’s leave it like that,” and then knowing it was just going to…
Zoe Kazan: I would say our brains work really differently.
Paul Dano: Our brains work really differently. I don’t know if twin sisters are more…
Zoe Kazan: Our brains work really differently, and because of that, I think just in our relationship, we’ve had to learn how to communicate well to each other. So I think we’ve had a lot of practice. I mean, sisters have as well, I have a sister, but there’s something about having to live together. We’ve worked together several times. We kind of know how to argue productively now.
Paul Dano: I think also, both your parents are screenwriters. And I feel like you make some of that work by being able to look at it from a bird’s-eye view. Because I feel like, seeing your mom give somebody notes... I don’t have that, maybe. In terms of communication, with the writing, I think you were able to make that work in a nice way. I’m trying to give a compliment, because I don’t know if I have the toolbox to step back from it and sort of have experience. You know, this was my first time, so I also wanted and needed the help and the collaboration.
Zoe Kazan: The way that I would articulate that is, this was your baby from the start. You had a very strong emotional reaction to the book, and we optioned it for you to direct it. Sometimes that strong of an emotional attachment can make it really hard to be objective about something. And I think part of what you’re saying is that I was bringing my objective eye more often to it.
Paul Dano: Yes, I think that’s right.
Script: That’s awesome. And that’s always what’s great about a team—it doesn’t all have to lie on you, so you can get help in a sense.
Zoe Kazan: Yeah, also we had this weird thing built in, because we’re both actors, and because we do have to pay the rent with our acting. Over the course of the three years that we wrote this, often one or the other of us would be away acting in something, and sometimes both of us would be, so we had to take breaks from it. There’s this wonderful Stephen King book, his book, On Writing, and in it he advises writers to put their first draft away for 6-8 weeks and just not tinker with it at all—not look at it at all—and come back and edit with fresh eyes. That works really well for me. When I read his book, and I started to do that, it really changed my experience of writing, and it changed my writing. That kind of break was built in for us. It helped us, like we could argue about something, and then we go away for six weeks, and suddenly it’d become very clear what we had to do.
Script: There’s some incredible dialogue in the book. I almost feel like every line of dialogue in the book is philosophical. There were so many times I had to put it down and think, “My god, that [line] is amazing.” So how’d you guys choose which specific dialogue you took exactly from the book, how’d you figure out ‘this line has to be in the film’? There’s a few awesome examples [in the film].
Paul Dano: That was kind of hard, because again, you have to kill your darlings and also something beautiful and poetic on the page is not always then going to translate through the actor. It’s going to be too good, too written… and luckily we had actors who also, not only are great actors [that] have done plays but [also] a period film with a slight sense of language to it. It doesn’t sound unfamiliar coming out of their mouths, you know? It feels good, it feels rich. Cause, some of it I would think would be challenging to act. [To Zoe] Do you remember anything specific? I mean, I definitely know there are things cut that I loved, and that’s just part of the process—cooking it down to its strength.
Zoe Kazan: I would say that Paul brought a lot of treasure from the book in that first pass and then we didn’t look at the book for a few drafts, and then we started looking at it again.
Paul Dano: We’d go back to it, yeah.
Zoe Kazan: And seeing what did we miss, and Paul’s right, it almost became like a seasoning or something like that. If you have some lines that feel more like Ford’s lines, that does a lot of work for you, but if you have too many of them, it starts to feel written. And so finding that balance, it was hard. Although his language is so plain, or so unsentimental, there’s something so unsauced about it, that it set a kind of standard for us of what the dialogue should feel like.
Paul Dano: Yeah.
Script: There’s some examples, obviously, because of the prose, but then you guys externalize it. Was it hard doing a show-don’t-tell sort of thing? I think Joe in the book is more of an observer and in the film he’s more active. Because we see him at his job, we see him with Ruth, we see him at the police station at the end. Was that a thought you had, “Okay, we have to make him more active”?
Paul Dano: I think so, obviously in a pretty small [way]… I mean, you know, that’s nice that you say that because that was one of the challenges. But also, I still think most people consider him a somewhat passive character, so it’s these small actions… but I think that’s the film, too, it’s in those details and it’s meant to be the attention to these kind of [things].
Zoe Kazan: For instance, Ruth is a character that Paul invented in his first draft. And then as we interrogated why did he have that impulse… often they say give a character a friend so that they have a confidant… if he had a confidant, then he might not have had the burden of his family weighing so heavily on him. What we found was, “Oh, we need there to be a life that he’s turning away from in order to take care of his family”… And so making his school life feel more real, giving him the opportunity to connect with someone and either he takes that opportunity or he doesn’t. That’s how we learn about his character and his emotional state. Because actually he’s not very forthcoming. He doesn’t say a lot about what his emotional state is. He doesn’t cry a lot or act out a lot. He’s a stand-in for the audience, yes, we’re seeing the parents through his eyes, but he’s also trying in these really small ways to keep his family together. His witnessing of his family is not passive-witnessing. He’s actively [witnessing] … One of the decisions that we made in adapting it is whether or not we should be seeing the parent’s without him there, and we ended up deciding to have some scenes without him being there. One of the reasons you end up with so many scenes with him there is that he’s choosing to be in the room with his parents over and over again. He’s choosing to say, “Yes, I will go with you to dinner at this man’s house,” not “I won’t go with you”. And part of the reason he keeps putting himself in the room with his parents is to try to keep them sane and whole and together as a family.
Script: That actor that plays Joe is incredible.
Paul Dano: Yeah, he’s so great.
Script: How was that casting process like?
Paul Dano: It was great. I feel so lucky we found Ed [Oxenbould]. He’s an Australian kid, and he [sent] a tape, and it was really the only time we saw the scenes the way we wanted to. Ed was able to kinda fill the space between the lines. His thoughts were there, not just the saying the line, but the space between. He had it, you know, and it was such a relief—and exciting. We were still nervous to cast a kid because the movie is so reliant on his face, but I remember us being like, “I think he’s a real actor... I think he’s really good…”
Zoe Kazan: [We thought like this] before we were on set with him.
Paul Dano: Before casting him.
Paul Dano: Watching the audition tape, being like “Wow”…
Zoe Kazan: I’ll never forget seeing his tape for the first time. It was such a feeling of relief. Because we had seen a lot of really wonderful and talented kids, but we did not see Joe yet. And when we got Ed’s tape, it was like, “Oh there he is!” We can just leave the camera on him and never cut [away].
Paul Dano: It was clear.
Script: It was like I had the prose in the back of my head when I was watching him.
Zoe Kazan: Oh, that’s cool!
Script: Obviously, that’s not what he was thinking when he was acting it.
Paul: No, yeah… I don’t know.
Script: Did the actors read the book at all?
Paul Dano: I would guess they probably did, but some people get really into their source material, some don’t, because the script is different. You have to just go with that because you can get confused or suddenly you want to bring something in that isn’t actually represented in the film. That’s kind of a personal thing. I can’t remember how much they each took from the book or not. I don’t know.
Script: I love how feminist this film is. I love how Jeanette [Carrie Mulligan] doesn’t wait around for Jerry [Jake Gyllenhaal]. I love that she makes decisions, even though they’re morally wrong, I really feel for her character. Was that part of the pitch to get Carrie? Or how did you guys get Carrie and Jake involved?
Paul Dano: I don’t think it was a part of the pitch so to speak, in a verbal way. It was part of the character, and Carrie responded immediately, which is very rare. We know Carrie. She got back to us about 12 hours after I sent the script—right away.
Script: So you sent the script first.
Paul Dano: Yes. When you know people…
Zoe Kazan: She’s our friend.
Paul Dano: She’s our friend. And I don’t think you want to ask somebody for a performance that challenging as a favor. They would have to love it. You just wouldn’t want somebody who’s there like, “Aw shit, these are my friends, I gotta do it.” So, the tack with her was, “Carrie, we wrote something, will you read it?” and let the script hopefully speak for itself. And luckily they connected, Jeanette and Carrie.
Zoe Kazan: And the same thing with Jake.
Paul Dano: Same thing with Jake, yeah. Because again, they’re good actors, and we respect them, and that’s not the right angle. So, script first, and then if they want to talk, great. Jake and I talked for a long time on the phone. I forgot where I was or he was, but [we talked] about family, our lives, the American dream, masculinity. The script provoked rich conversations with both of them. We were definitely very lucky to get them.
Script: Well, thank you guys so much.
Zoe Kazan: Thank you so much.
Script: I can’t wait to see it again, and I’m going to tell everyone to see it.
Paul Dano: Nice, nice, we appreciate it.
Wildlife is now in theaters!