Oscar-Worthy: Author Nick Hornby Adapts Cheryl Strayed’s Wild

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58th BFI London Film FestivalThere will be a lot of talk over the next couple of months about Reese Witherspoon’s performance as Cheryl Strayed in Wild. It’s based on the true story of Strayed’s decision to hike thousands of miles across the Pacific Crest Trail in California on her own, looking to heal after tough times following the death of her mother (played by Laura Dern).

What may surprise those who watch the film is that Strayed’s recounting of her seemingly impossible trek has been adapted by acclaimed author Nick Hornby, famous for writing the beloved novels“High Fidelity,” “Fever Pitch” and “About a Boy,” all of which have been turned into movies (and a TV show for the latter.)

Hornby’s popular books about love and romance tend to thrive on their British setting, and neither of those elements are found within in the screenplay for Wild, though Hornby’s distinctive writing contributes greatly to how Witherspoon and director Jean-Marc Valée (Dallas Buyers Club) were able to bring Strayed’s story to the screen.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Hornby a few weeks back to talk about how he got involved with adapting the screenplay as well as touching on other things he’s been working on, including the screenplay for John Crowley’s Brooklyn and a possible adaptation of his previous novel, “Juliet, Naked.”

ComingSoon.net: It’s been a while since we last spoke for “An Education,” the last screenplay you adapted from someone else’s memoir.

Nick Hornby: Yes, exactly, five years.

CS: Is that part of your overall plan, to adapt someone’s memoir every five years?

Hornby: I’ve actually adapted someone else’s novel in between, but that’s not coming out until next year. So two memoirs and a novel, yeah.

 CS: How did you get involved with this one? Did Cheryl contact you or one of the producers or did you find it on your own?

Hornby: No, I found it. I read a review of the book, read it, and then thought it looked like a terrific movie. I chased after whomever owned it, which turned out to be Reese and Bruna. I asked them to give me a shot.

CS: How long ago was that?

Hornby: It was really recently. (Laughs) The book hadn’t been out that long, so the first meeting I had was October 2012, and then they finished shooting in November 2013.

CS: I remember speaking to Jean-Marc last year for “Dallas Buyer’s Club” and he’d already started filming with Reese, so he literally went from one movie into the other.

Hornby: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing, and Jean-Marc’s just finished shooting another movie, so he’s done three back to back. My other movie, “Brooklyn,” was shooting pretty much the same time as well, or a little bit after, so both of us have been pretty busy, but I’ve never been involved in a movie that moved as fast as “Wild.”

CS: Was Cheryl involved at all? Did you talk to her or meet with her, go on a hike with her or do anything with her before you even started writing?

Hornby: We met before I started writing, and we spoke a bit. I didn’t go on a hike and I didn’t go on a trail. I used the book. I watched a documentary that someone had made about doing the same kind of thing, but really, the book was the only thing that I needed. As far as the trail goes, I always thought that it’s Jean-Marc who has got to shoot that. I’d describe things that I wanted to see, but sometimes, it wasn’t possible or sometimes the locations didn’t work out, because you find the place, but you can’t shoot there. You know, for me, it was about structuring the book and dramatizing all the great scenes in it.

nickhornbywild2CS: But it is such a location-based movie because it’s real locations and you’re trying to recreate that. You can do that just from the book or did you visit the Pacific Crest Trail yourself?

Hornby: No, you don’t need to, really, because I had the map of the trail in my office, so I knew which bits I wanted to hit. But the things that you’re describing, like rock falls or rivers or animals or whatever, of course it’s very specific to northern California in origin, but it’s not that much more specific than that. So for me, all the sense of place that I needed came from what I’d read in the book. 

CS: I was surprised to see your name in the credits, because this seems so different from your own work and even “An Education,” which is also very British, so was the idea of pushing yourself to do something you’ve never done before what interested you?

Hornby: I didn’t know that I’d be interested in a book about hiking until I read it. I mean, it was a surprise to me that I ended up reading it and loving it to the extent that I did. I think it is written from the point of view of someone who’s an urban person with a liberal arts sensibility, and it’s one of the ways in which I think the book has worked for a big section of the book-reading public. So, it really didn’t feel different in that way. I don’t know. The American thing doesn’t make that much difference to me. I know lots of American people have read “High Fidelity” and seen “An Education” and didn’t necessarily think that it was about Britishness in the way that I read “Wild” and didn’t necessarily think it was about being an American. It’s all people.

CS: This is just as much about America during the mid-‘90s. There are a lot of things in there like the death of Jerry Garcia and certain types of people from that area and era. You definitely capture that.

Hornby: Yes, I think that’s the way the world is–we all experienced that in some way or another.

CS: It’s an interesting period piece in a sense, although I don’t feel like people have changed that much since that time. There are obvious absences like no internet or smart phones. It would’ve been very different if Cheryl went on the journey today because I feel like there’d be a lot more communication with the outside world, in some ways.

Hornby: Well, I think people do it, and actually, cell phones might not always be possible on parts of the trail. I don’t know how good the coverage is. I think it could possibly feel more contrived. “I’m going to walk this trail and I’m not going to take any means of communication with me,” so it might have been a little bit more self conscious than it was possible to be in 1994.

CS: A cell phone would just add more weight to that huge backpack she was carrying as well.

Hornby: Exactly. 

CS: The film has a very dream-like quality, including the voiceover that goes into Cheryl’s head, so was that stuff you got from the book and had worked into the film at the screenplay stage?

Hornby: Yeah, the voiceover thing was one of the things that I’d talked to Reese about before I started. I knew that’s what I wanted to do, was to try and find a way of externalizing what was going on internally, without it being a conventional voiceover, so that it was never sort of recollections in tranquility and no clarity. I really wanted it to be a kind of fevered jumble of stuff that was in her head. Then, Jean-Marc turned the way of filming that, and also, I think finding a lot of brilliant sound design for that as well. So I think all that stuff turned out better than I’d hoped it would turn out well, but they’ve done such a great job on it. 

CS: I’m assuming you had already been working with Reese and Bruna and getting the script together and then Jean-Marc got involved afterwards. When he came on board, how much did you guys work together?

Hornby: Then it really was a race against time, because Jean-Marc probably had I guess a month or so to get the script into the shape he wanted it to be in. Then, we went into this huge kind of Skype hole for about three weeks or a month, where we spoke every day at some length, just going through the script page by page.

CS: As far as working with Reese, did she have very specific things she wanted to make sure was included? How much was she involved and how did you work with her?

Hornby: We talked at the beginning. I wrote a draft. We talked after I’d written it. There were a few notes from the two of them. I mean, it wasn’t anything specific that she wanted included. She really, really loves this book. She’s devoted to Cheryl. She’s devoted to the book. This is a really big deal for her. So the thing that I was most impressed by was that she just didn’t want to cop out in any way whatsoever. If she had to take heroin, then she would. If she had to appear naked, then she would. There was never any question of softening the impact of the book in any way.

CS: I haven’t actually read Cheryl’s book, I have to say, but I got the impression that if I read the book the movie really captured the feel of it.

Hornby: Well, it comes at you. That’s what comes at you. Yeah, that was something that we all wanted in the movie.

nickhornbywild3CS: When you write a movie, you’re working in a director’s medium. When you first saw the movie, was there anything that surprised you or transcended what you thought it would be in some ways?

Hornby: I mean, there were lots of things that Jean-Marc had done that I didn’t know he was going to do, which I thought were really interesting. That’s part of the point of doing film for me, is to work with people who are going to come up… the idea is always that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I’m certainly not a writer who is going to complain because the movie is different from the script, kind of what I’m looking for from the experience. Jean-Marc’s use of montage and the way he uses lots of fast cut images–you know, he edits his own movies as well–so there were little sequences that surprised me, in a good way.

CS: Have you reached a point yet where you might want to try directing yourself? Obviously, a lot of your books adapted into films and you obviously have a very clear vision of what you want when you’re writing them.

Hornby: For me, that’s like the most terrible job in the world. I have absolutely zero interest. I’m quite impatient, and if I was going to do a 14-hour day writing, which I don’t very often, at the end of it, you’d want a big chunk of work. Whereas, if you do 14-hour day on a film set, you’ve got about a minute and a half of a movie. Every time I’ve been to a movie set, and I’ve watched them shifting lights around and talking about where somebody’s feet should be, I know that I don’t want to be a director. 

CS: Yeah, I guess that’s true, that it’s a lot more technical than just having an idea of what things should look like.

Hornby: Exactly. I have a voice in the film, so I can always talk to the director and talk to producers and talk to cast, sometimes, but I don’t ever actually do any of the terrible stuff. (laughs) Then, post (production) as well, which goes on forever, and they’re talking about tiny, tiny fractions of seconds. 

CS: That can be frustrating I’m sure. How’s “Brooklyn” going? I’m interested in that not only because it takes place in New York, but it’s also another period piece which also takes place in Ireland. Have they finished shooting it or are they in the middle of it and have you seen any of it?

Hornby: No, it’s all done. I’ve seen it a few times now, but they’re just finishing off the music, so I’ve seen a few cuts and I’m really very excited about it. I think it’s turned out wonderfully and it’s such an amazing cast and Saoirse Ronan is a real force of nature. She’s never played an Irish girl before, which is weird, because she’s an Irish girl. So it really feels like the part that she was born to play.

CS: I’m just really impressed by the cast alone, and I’m a big fan of John Crowley’s work.

Hornby: Yeah, well, again, I can’t imagine anyone else doing this movie other than John. I’m excited for people to see it.

CS: I was a big fan of “Juliet, Naked,” and last time we spoke, I had pretty much devoured the book and I really loved it. Has there been any forward movement as far as adapting that? It seems like such a natural to me.

Hornby: There has been a little bit of forward movement, and something might be happening in the next few months, I think. There is a director attached and there may be one cast member attached, but I don’t know how official any of that is, so I can’t say much more. But yeah, it’s finally moving along.

 CS: It just seems like it’d be three great roles that actors will be fighting to get.

Hornby: (Laughs) Yeah.

CS: When you’re working on these movies, like “Wild” and “Brooklyn,” it must take you away from your own writing. How do you come to the decision to take time off from writing your own stuff to adapt someone else’s work? Does that give you a nice breather?

Hornby: Well, there wasn’t much of a breather, because I had started a novel when I got the “Wild” job, then, I put the novel to one side, and that came out, and then I finished it. It came out in the UK last week and it’s coming out here in February. So, it’s been a busy time, actually, these last two years in particular, has been really full-on. So there’s a novel and two movies, and I think I’m due a breather.

CS: Is that a tough decision to make when you’re in the middle of a novel? Because it must take at least a year or two to really get the novels together in some ways.

Hornby: Yeah, the novel, luckily, I mean, I had the characters and I was up and running with it, so when I did take time out for “Wild,” you have a pretty miserable couple of weeks, where you think you’re never going to remember anything about it. But it comes back, and then, I didn’t have to break again after that. So I got back in the groove with it.

Wild opens in select cities on Wednesday, December 3.

(Photo Credit: Lia Toby/WENN.com)