Paul Dano is the American actor famed for his work in There Will Be Blood, Youth and Okja. He now makes his directorial debut with Wildlife, an adaptation of the 1960s-set novel by Richard Ford. Scripted by Dano and Zoe Kazan, it stars Ex Oxenbould as Joe, a young boy who witnesses the demise of the marriage between his mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal).
ASFF: Why were you attracted to Richard Ford’s novel? Did you want to say something about America?
PD: No, I think I’m exploring more something in here than out there. It’s really about family, marriage and growing up and the American Dream. There’s no grand statement. It’s something I find beautiful and moving and I relate to. I find the characters very complex and I really liked the grey space. We try to make life very black and white sometimes for it to make sense, but there’s light and shadow.
ASFF: Did you take to directing easily or was it a struggle?
PD: I think both. I’ve wanted to do it for a long time. I feel like I’ve thought about it so much and daydreamed and tried to be a student of film for a long time, so I felt good about trying to make it. I don’t know if this is going to change but making a film is very hard. It’s crazy and it is a struggle. There are times when you feel good, there are times when you feel bad. But I did feel comfortable in my skin. There were days when I felt anxious and horrible.
ASFF: What did your time as an actor teach you stepping into the role of a director?
PD: The biggest thing is just seeing how other people work, even other actors. I can’t imagine what it would be like if you didn’t know, stepping onto the set. I want the crew to feel a part of the film; I like that as an actor when the crew is watching the scene. They’re a presence there and there’s a difference when they care about the scene or they’re on their cellphones. That comes from the material but also the people around them.
ASFF: Do you relate to any of the characters?
PD: I think all of them. Yeah, I do. When I first read the book, the Jeanette character really spoke because she’s so complicated and mysterious and powerful, but of course the kid [Joe] is where the central point of alignment is. Probably as a person but also as a writer…it is a family portrait but it’s witnessed through his gaze. But I really understood the father too; whether it was a part of me or just empathy…I related to all of them and loved all of them, even though they fuck up.
ASFF: How did you set about casting?
PD: I’d worked with Jake on a film called Prisoners and I’d met Jake once with Carey, they knew each other. So we started with Jeanette and Carey, so it felt like, ‘OK, I know her and Jake wanted to work together and they’re really good friends but they’re really different. It might be a good team.’
Wildlife opens in cinemas on 9 November. For more details, click here.
1. Still from Wildlife.