‘Wild,’ with Witherspoon and Dern, chronicles woman’s amazing journey

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in ‘Wild.’
Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in ‘Wild.’

When she finished her 1,100-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed had 20 cents to her name. She had a student loan she wouldn’t pay off until she was 44. She was divorced and unemployed.

“The thing is,” says Strayed, 46 now and musing years after the end of her journey, “there I was on the bridge. I finished my hike. I didn’t have anything when it comes to what we think we need: a man, a job. And I was deeply OK. Can you think of another film that tells that story?”

No, but then again, stories about women often have a hard time finding their way to the screen. Which is why Reese Witherspoon’s production company bought the rights to Strayed’s bestselling memoir, Wild, about Strayed’s grueling physical quest — and the emotional miles she traveled to find herself.

The film opens Friday in South Florida with Witherspoon playing a younger, more troubled Strayed, who sets out to walk the trail in the wake of crushing personal loss. Strayed had sent the book to Witherspoon before it was published, and Witherspoon loved it, eventually optioning it with partner Bruna Papandrea. Witherspoon told Variety she returned to producing specifically to seek out projects with such perspectives: “My daughter was 13, and I wanted her to see movies with female leads and heroes and life stories.”

Wild, though, isn’t a strictly female story so much as a universally human one, touching on tragedy, courage and resilience and the difficulty of paring back your life long enough to listen to your heart. The book was the first choice in Oprah Winfrey’s revamped 2.0 book club in 2012 when it was published, and the paperback version has remained on the bestseller list for 88 weeks and counting.

One notable fan is Jean Marc Vallée, who directed last year’s Dallas Buyers Club as well as The Young Victoria, C.R.A.Z.Y. and the critically acclaimed Café de Flore.

“I didn’t choose this film; the film chose me,” he says simply. “I loved that story so much, I wanted to be part of it.”

With novelist Nick Hornby (About A Boy, High Fidelity, A Long Way Down) on board to write the screenplay, Vallée discovered one of his primary concerns was staying true to Strayed’s book.

“I wanted to keep Cheryl’s words intact, to bring as much as I could from the book in voiceover,” he says. “She had good instincts. She is an amazing storyteller. We had a big challenge. The book was so emotional and beautiful, that was my main concern: How will I be able to make something as emotional as the book? It was a matter of tough decisions of what to keep and what don’t we keep. When I got Nick’s first draft, my first instinct was, ‘My God, why didn’t you put this in or that in?’ even though he nailed it with a beautiful structure.”

Shooting started without a finished rewrite, and Vallée used the opportunity to improvise, mostly adding scenes with Laura Dern, who plays Cheryl’s mother in the film. The scenes, effectively framed as flashbacks while Cheryl walks her way through desert and forest, bring poignancy to the relationship between the two women and form the powerful emotional backbone of the film.

“I’d say, ‘Why don’t we do this even though it’s not scripted?’ Laura came on set for makeup tests, and I’d say, ‘Let’s shoot this.’ She was such a trouper, so willing to try all these new moments,” Vallée says. Witherspoon and Dern “have been acting for so long, and the two of them have so much experience, and they were so in love with the material. They wanted to serve and honor Cheryl’s life. The dynamic on set was we were like kids wanting to do the right thing and be playful and have fun with this great project.”

Strayed spent a lot of time on set as well, becoming “very involved,” she says, “to a degree none of us expected.” Authors frequently groan about liberties taken and changes enforced in their work once Hollywood steps in, but Strayed — who lives in Oregon, where most of the film was shot, with her husband and two children — said her experience was overwhelmingly, surprisingly positive. Her daughter Bobbi even appears as a child version of Strayed.

“I’ve heard every one of the horror stories, and I sort of expected that, and I didn’t get that at all,” Strayed says, adding that she and Witherspoon connected immediately by talking about books and writers. “Each person I sincerely had a connection with. They always invited me into the fold. I was reading Nick’s script early on and weighing in with my thoughts and ideas. With Jean Marc, we were discussing the film on set. There was a whole lot of talking to the actors about the real life people they were playing. … I was treated so well! The book-to-screen process was done with such integrity and kindness.”

“She almost become my technical advisor,” Vallée says. “I was always referring to her for stuff about the tent or the backpack or the equipment, how you put on the backpack, how to take it off. The energy of this woman! Once you meet her, you want to be friends with her forever. … At the same time, it’s film, a different medium, so she was respectful about knowing when to interfere and when to go away.”

Seeing her life recreated on screen was “surreal,” Strayed admits, but in the end, she believes her experience working on the film is reminiscent of what she wrote at the end of the book: “[I]t was enough to trust that what I’d done was true.”

“I’m deeply moved by the film. So many scenes are straight from my life, it’s funny — like when Reese can’t lift that backpack. … But I am so proud this film gets to be about what it’s about: a woman walking alone in the wilderness to find her strength again. Reese and Jean Marc let it be what it was, a real story about a complicated woman who’s done some good things and some bad things, had hard things happen to her but also has been the beneficiary of beautiful grace.”