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Talking soundtracks with Wild director Jean-Marc Vallée

Matthew Lickona: Tell me about putting the soundtrack together. I thought it was a very interesting approach, having snatches of songs come in here and there, sometimes having them sung by the characters.

Jean-Marc Vallée: That’s how I like to use music in films: create a playlist for the characters. Finding the right tracks, the right playlist is always a good tool to define a character and set up a mood. And the music is linked to the period. Cheryl was a fan of Portishead, so we hear that. When she was in the tattoo parlor right when she’s getting divorced, there was a song by Free, “Be My Friend.” Jerry Garcia died right when she got to Ashland, Oregon. And then you have “Homeward Bound” playing when she’s in the car with her mother Bobbi.

It’s not like we’re trying to show off with music. It’s just part of their lives. What they listen to is what we hear. The music always comes from an audio device in the scene. I like to have a soundtrack that is part of the story. I never use a composer, and if the characters aren’t listening to music, there’s no music. I cheated just once, with Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa.” That’s used two or three times as score music, where the characters don’t hear it playing.

ML: Can you talk about selecting one particular track?

Movie

Wild *

thumbnail

The story of Cheryl Strayed (an unadorned Reese Witherspoon) and her attempt to, in her words, "walk myself back to the way I was." The path to the past runs 1,100 miles or so along the Pacific Crest Trail. Walking is slow business. To break the monotony, director Jean-Mark Vallee (Dallas Buyer's Club) tosses in encounters with other hikers, rednecks, bikers, Deadheads, and even an amazed journalist from the Hobo Times. He also doles out an artful array of flashbacks to help you understand just what Strayed is running, er, hiking from. (Mostly, it has to do with Mom, played with great, vulnerable appeal by Laura Dern.) Alas, this is a journey that ends, not because it reaches some actual dramatic resolution, but because the author (the real-life Strayed wrote the memoir that serves as source material) tells you she's done. We know she's different, not because of anything in particular that's happened, but because she says so. Strayed comes across as a real person, Witherspoon is a real actor, and the film is a real showcase. But you may wind up wishing for more to change than the scenery.

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J-MV: Yeah, the main theme, “El Condor Pasa.” It’s directly linked to Bobbi and everything she loved: her love of music and her spirit. Cheryl doesn’t like to remember the song when she’s on the trail. But it’s the kind of song that, once you start humming it, it gets stuck in your mind. [I’d rather be a hammer than a nail/ If I could/ If I only could I surely would...) It’s annoying the way it sticks, and she gets annoyed with it. It was annoying because it reminded her of her mother: how soon she left, and how annoying she was in her own way — without being annoying. So there’s a nice evolution in the film in the way she reacts to the song: by the end, she’s at peace with the track. It’s no longer painful for her, and she doesn’t mind remembering it.

The instrumental part of that song has some sort of mystical quality, and there’s a lot of melancholy to it. It felt like the right thing to use to accompany Cheryl on the trail and give this little bit of magic. Maybe that’s Bobbi accompanying her on the trail, when Cheryl doesn’t hear it and we hear it being used as score.

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Matthew Lickona: Tell me about putting the soundtrack together. I thought it was a very interesting approach, having snatches of songs come in here and there, sometimes having them sung by the characters.

Jean-Marc Vallée: That’s how I like to use music in films: create a playlist for the characters. Finding the right tracks, the right playlist is always a good tool to define a character and set up a mood. And the music is linked to the period. Cheryl was a fan of Portishead, so we hear that. When she was in the tattoo parlor right when she’s getting divorced, there was a song by Free, “Be My Friend.” Jerry Garcia died right when she got to Ashland, Oregon. And then you have “Homeward Bound” playing when she’s in the car with her mother Bobbi.

It’s not like we’re trying to show off with music. It’s just part of their lives. What they listen to is what we hear. The music always comes from an audio device in the scene. I like to have a soundtrack that is part of the story. I never use a composer, and if the characters aren’t listening to music, there’s no music. I cheated just once, with Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa.” That’s used two or three times as score music, where the characters don’t hear it playing.

ML: Can you talk about selecting one particular track?

Movie

Wild *

thumbnail

The story of Cheryl Strayed (an unadorned Reese Witherspoon) and her attempt to, in her words, "walk myself back to the way I was." The path to the past runs 1,100 miles or so along the Pacific Crest Trail. Walking is slow business. To break the monotony, director Jean-Mark Vallee (Dallas Buyer's Club) tosses in encounters with other hikers, rednecks, bikers, Deadheads, and even an amazed journalist from the Hobo Times. He also doles out an artful array of flashbacks to help you understand just what Strayed is running, er, hiking from. (Mostly, it has to do with Mom, played with great, vulnerable appeal by Laura Dern.) Alas, this is a journey that ends, not because it reaches some actual dramatic resolution, but because the author (the real-life Strayed wrote the memoir that serves as source material) tells you she's done. We know she's different, not because of anything in particular that's happened, but because she says so. Strayed comes across as a real person, Witherspoon is a real actor, and the film is a real showcase. But you may wind up wishing for more to change than the scenery.

Find showtimes

J-MV: Yeah, the main theme, “El Condor Pasa.” It’s directly linked to Bobbi and everything she loved: her love of music and her spirit. Cheryl doesn’t like to remember the song when she’s on the trail. But it’s the kind of song that, once you start humming it, it gets stuck in your mind. [I’d rather be a hammer than a nail/ If I could/ If I only could I surely would...) It’s annoying the way it sticks, and she gets annoyed with it. It was annoying because it reminded her of her mother: how soon she left, and how annoying she was in her own way — without being annoying. So there’s a nice evolution in the film in the way she reacts to the song: by the end, she’s at peace with the track. It’s no longer painful for her, and she doesn’t mind remembering it.

The instrumental part of that song has some sort of mystical quality, and there’s a lot of melancholy to it. It felt like the right thing to use to accompany Cheryl on the trail and give this little bit of magic. Maybe that’s Bobbi accompanying her on the trail, when Cheryl doesn’t hear it and we hear it being used as score.

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