CANNES, France - The Cannes Film Festival can validate an aspiring filmmaker like few other places. In a year light on American directors at Cannes, one of the few trumpeted by the festival is Paul Dano, whose filmmaking debut "Wildlife" opened Cannes' Critics Week sidebar.
"Wildlife," which the 33-year-old Dano scripted with his partner Zoe Kazan, is based on the 1990 Richard Ford novel, set in 1960s Montana and seen largely through the eyes of a teenage boy, Joe (Ed Oxenbould). After his father (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job and enlists to fight wildfires outside of town, Joe watches their family begin to disintegrate.
Carey Mulligan, in a standout performance, plays Joe's anguished mother.
Classically composed with an undercurrent of emotion, "Wildlife" has been praised as a breakthrough for Dano ("Little Miss Sunshine," ''There Will Be Blood," ''Prisoners"). In its review, Variety called him a "natural-born filmmaker with an eye for elegant, spare compositions."
As an actor, Dano has been a Cannes regular in recent years (Paolo Sorrentino's "Youth," Bong Joon-ho's "Okja"), and in an interview on a hotel rooftop terrace, he spoke about how international cinema led him into filmmaking.
AP: When did you start wanting to direct?
Dano: I've wanted to make films for a long time. I think, probably around 20, I started to think about film in a more serious way. I didn't know what I would write. I read this book and it just sort of haunted me. I read it a few times in a year and I daydreamed about it a lot. I let it be with me for a while to make sure I wanted to do it. Once I thought of what the final scene would be and the final image, I got the bug.
AP: Was it motivated by some experience you had as an actor or some creative urge that was unfulfilled?
Dano: There was definitely one moment in my late teens, early 20s when I started watching a lot of foreign cinema that I didn't know about and being like, "I didn't know you could do that." I remember seeing "A Man Escaped" by Robert Bresson for the first time and being like, "Whoa. That's so spare and pure." The more stuff you see, the more it starts to open up what it is. It starts to be a language in your head.
AP: You must have early on envisioned the film with some of that sparseness and quiet.
Dano: That was there from the get-go as an impression. That was the feeling. For me, simple is the hardest thing — and I think it's one of the most complex things. I remember telling some crew members that it's like sushi. It looks simple but it's very complex. If we were to overcut or do too many push-ins or something, it's actually being reductive. It's meant to be an honest look at their experience, so it's really about what's happening on the actor's face in between the lines.
AP: If you squint, the actor who plays Joe in the film looks a little like a young you. The film is very much from his perspective. Did you particularly identify with that perspective of seeing one's parents?
Dano: Yeah, I must have. Probably my first attraction to the book was actually about the Jeanette character because the mystery of our parents is very fascinating. But I think ultimately the connection to Joe is the more unconscious reason. It's something about the honesty of his gaze.
I remember what it was like to suddenly go: "Oh, wait. Things are complicated. Things can be hard." There's so much love here but so much struggle. I'm still probably a little naive to it. My sister worked on the film; she's a costumer. And she said, "That jacket you put Joe in is just like a jacket you used to wear." And I had no clue.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP