Interview: 'Wildlife' co-writer Zoe Kazan
Edwin Arnaudin: Are you out on the west coast? In L.A.?
Zoe Kazan: Yeah, I am. I’m staying with my parents. You’re in Asheville?
EA: Yeah! And I was wondering if you had any history here.
ZK: I have been to Asheville. Paul [Dano] and I have family down South — much further South than you are, and we’ve driven that drive from New York down many times and have stopped in Asheville. It seems like a great place to live.
EA: I think so. It’s kind of a miserable, cold, rainy day today, but it was a good weekend.
ZK: Well, that’s nice. I’ve had some good food in Asheville. You guys have some nice places there.
EA: They do! I’m a vegetarian, and there’s a lot of good options there, but I also like taking friends to barbecue restaurants, too. There’s something for everybody there.
ZK: Yeah, exactly.
EA: Well, I wanted to start off talking about your writing. You’ve now had two of your scripts [Ruby Sparks and Wildlife] produced. Are there others you’ve completed that have yet to make it to the screen?
ZK: No, I don’t have anything pending right now, but I do have several I’m working on at home.
EA: I feel like you’ve definitely established yourself as a strong screenwriter. I didn’t know if you were starting to get studios or other writers asking you to do any kind of script doctoring or general help improving other people’s screenplays?
ZK: No, I would love to do that! Why don’t you tell everybody that I would love to do that. [laughs] Seems like a good way to make a little money.
EA: Now, what approach did you and Paul take to collaborating on the Wildlife script?
ZK: You know, we sort of made it up as we went along. Neither of us had written anything with anyone else before, but we found a very harmonious way of working. Basically, one of us would do a draft of it, the other person would read it and give notes, then the first person would take one more pass at it and then pass it back. We just passed it back and forth for about three years. Sometimes, one person would be like, “I have an idea that I want to try.” Sometimes it was just like, “Let’s tighten it up” or “Let’s do a pass thinking about Jerry’s character” or whatever. And sometimes both of us would be working as actors and would have to take a little time off from it and come back with new eyes, which was actually incredibly useful.
EA: What in [Richard Ford’s source] novel did you know needed to be changed so that this story could work on the screen?
ZK: Well, I didn’t know anything at first. Neither of us had adapted before, either, so we really were learning as we went. I think what I discovered was that the structure of the novel wasn’t that helpful to us. In the novel, Jerry [played by Jake Gyllenhaal] leaves very early — in the first 25 pages or so, and it felt like we needed to established much more of what is happening in this family before he leaves. And then a lot of it was…there’s a lot of internal thought in the novel. A lot of Joe’s perspective, what he’s thinking as he looks at his parents — how do you translate that to image or to action? It didn’t really feel like it could be translated to dialogue, so finding little things like Joe [played by Ed Oxenbould] fixing the toilet was something that [Paul] invented that’s not in the book and I think it’s a very good way of seeing how he’s trying to hold the family together by doing whatever he can, but he doesn’t know what it is that he needs to do to make that happen.
EA: Did you consider using narration?
ZK: We were tempted to at the very beginning because the narration in the book is so beautiful, and as fans of the book, we want to take that writing and transport it to the screen. But the truth is that it started to feel like that would be a much more sentimental film. I think we receive voiceover differently than we receive narration in a novel. So, no, that got taken off the table almost immediately.
EA: Were there other parts from the book you really wanted to include, but ultimately decided to leave out?
ZK: There were a lot of killing of darlings, but it was mostly dialogue. There were lines in the book that we just loved and we had in the drafts forever, and eventually it felt maybe this was a little too poetic, or a little too novelistic to really lift into an actor’s mouth.
EA: At the same time, I imagine that there are more parts that you guys invented. Were there some of those in earlier drafts that didn’t make the final cut?
ZK: Yeah! You know, it was a balance for us about how much of Jerry and Jeanette’s private life should be onscreen. The book is squarely from Joe’s point of view, but it’s told from a future tense. It’s told looking back at his childhood, and so I think we had a kind of question mark about, like, “Well, how much are we allowed to see of them without him being there?” Because we’re making it absolutely present tense. There’s no omniscience to the narrator or to that camera’s eye, right? And so, we ending up writing a lot more scenes for Jeanette [played by Carey Mulligan] and Jerry on their own than ending up either in our shooting script or even in the final project from the shooting script. We just, as we went, found that less was more in that regard — but I do think it helped us write those character to sort of overwrite them, because then we got to know them and sort of figured out, like, “Where does our Jeanette live? Where does our Jerry live? How are these people different than the people in the book?”
EA: Now, you’re creating this world with Paul. Did you help guide his visual approach in any way?
ZK: Well, he absolutely had this movie in his head before there was even ever a screenplay. He read the book and saw images, so a lot of my work at the very beginning was helping him translate those images into words that could be put on a page that someone else could read and intuit what was in his head. Reading and writing is a kind of act of mind-reading, right? When it works as well as it can, right? And so, visually, I think he really had a strong attack on it. He and our DP Diego Garcia had just a really gorgeous collaboration. They’re really well suited to each other, and in that way he didn’t need my help at all.
But I will say that we use each other as a bounce board all the time, creatively. And there were things that I knew more about than he did, like clothes and window treatments and stuff like that. He would have a very specific thing in mind, but he wouldn’t have the vocabulary to communicate it, so I did a lot of providing that bounce board for him on that kind of stuff until he really had the vocabulary that he needed to be able to to talk to his collaborators eloquently about what he saw in his head.
EA: And then did you have much involvement on set during filming?
ZK: Well, yes and no. Weirdly, when our money came in and we got the green light to shoot that fall of 2016, I was already committed to doing a play in New York. I was already in rehearsal, actually. And so, I wasn’t able to be there in Oklahoma or Montana on set. That said, I was watching the dailies every night and giving feedback and rewriting stuff on the fly from New York, so I felt like I was a satellite contributor.
EA: And do you have directorial aspirations of your own?
ZK: Maybe some day. I think having watched this come to fruition in every step and having had some involvement producer-ially on Ruby Sparks, I really know how entirely a movie takes up your life when you’re the director and I wouldn’t want to do that unless I felt absolutely certain that I have found something that would keep my interest. [laughs] So, nothing yet, but maybe some day.
EA: And finally, the same weekend I watched Wildlife, we had a critics screening of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs that Saturday morning,
ZK: Uh huh.
EA: Then Sunday night was the season finale of The Deuce. So after feeling like I hadn’t seen you in a while onscreen, suddenly you were everywhere.
ZK: That’s really funny.
EA: I really enjoyed Buster Scruggs and think that your chapter is the richest one in the film. So, I’m curious, where did the timing of that shoot fall compared to when you were writing Wildlife?
ZK: We were just locking sound and picture and everything on Wildlife when I went to Nebraska to shoot that. It was almost exactly a year after we’d started shooting on Wildlife that I went. Yeah, it was last September. And I’m glad you enjoyed it. I really loved the movie. I think it’s very strange and wonderful and I can’t wait for people to see it.
EA: Where there things you learned working with the Coens and reading their script that have helped inform your creative process?
ZK: Yeah. I think the biggest things that I learned…first of all, they really write cinematically. They’re writing exactly what the camera is going to see, and the camera is sort of baked into the writing. The first script I read of theirs was No Country for Old Men. I was auditioning for some tiny part in that a million years ago and I was stunned to read it. I had never read a script that was so visual before and it really changed the way what I thought about what was possible in screenwriting.
I think also, having worked on it…and especially on Buster Scruggs because each of the chapters is so different tonally, really seeing what their range is in terms of dialogue and the way that they can make people talk — the way that our characters talk in our chapter is so different from the way that Buster Scruggs, Tim Blake Nelson’s character, talks in his. It’s just a really good reminder that as a writer, you should always be thinking about genre and tone and also how the way that different characters think can impact the way that they talk, which sounds basic, but I think some writers make everybody sound the same, as if everybody’s brain works exactly the same way. That’s good.
And then the other thing I learned from them is, watching them on set, they’re really perfectionists, but they’re not micromanagers. And I think it’s really hard to let go when you’re a perfectionist. It’s really hard for me, or it has been historically to just let everybody do their job and not want to jump in and just adjust something. They have so much trust in their collaborators. They empower the people around them and, again, it’s just such a good reminder of how healthy that way of working is.
EA: Well, Zoe, thank you so much for your time today! This was a delight.
ZK: Edwin! You ask such good questions. We’ve been doing so much press and you asked me questions no one else has asked me, and that was such a nice thing. Thank you.
EA: You’re welcome! That’s always my goal. I figure you’re doing interview after interview, so it seems like if you’re willing to take time out, I should make it worth your while.
ZK: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much.