Thinking she’d lost everything, Cheryl Strayed walked out of her broken-down life and into the deep wilderness on a 1,100-mile solo hike that would take her to the edge. Strayed’s experiences became the beating heart of an inspirational, best-selling memoir that was about more than just an inexperienced hiker’s crazy, grueling experience walking from the Mojave Desert to the Pacific Northwest via the rugged Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
With its mix of punk spirit and vibrant honesty, it also became something rarely seen: a portrait of a modern, messed-up woman coming-of-age by embracing the call of the wild in her own way. On the trail, Strayed faced down thirst, heat, cold, feral animals and all of her worst fears, but even more so, she faced up to change: pushing through to carve her own path out of grief and a haunted past.
Now Strayed’s acclaimed book comes to the screen directed by Academy Award nominee Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”), adapted by critically lauded best-selling author and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nick Hornby (“An Education”) and starring Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon, who optioned the book as soon as she read it. Together, they set out to capture a story that unfolds largely inside one woman’s head –a flood of memories, fears, ideas, songs, poems, anger and awe – but travels a vast distance.
From the beginning it was clear that “Wild” had to be shot on the road and trail to capture both Cheryl’s disorienting immersion into the wilderness and her journey towards embracing all its revelations and unknowns. In many ways the production would come to echo her rites of passage.
Witherspoon notes that while Cheryl took a lot from the solitude she found, she took just as much from the people she met along the way, encounters that become key to the film. “I love how all kinds of different people come into her life on this solo trek,” she says. “It reminds me a little of Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries,” where she’s on this journey and she keeps meeting people who bring up something she needs to address in her life.”
Throughout production, Witherspoon’s feet were chewed up, her body left aching and, much like Cheryl had, she passed through some dark and fearsome interior places but was constantly invigorated by the hard-won transformation she was projecting. “It was never easy, but it was the kind of thing where when you get to the end of the day, you just feel like you’ve accomplished something,” she concludes. “I felt so lucky to be able to tell a story like Cheryl’s.”
Ultimately, as she entwined deeper and deeper with the character, Witherspoon found that Cheryl’s infamously weighty backpack and ramshackle boots became a part of her own soul. While the backpack is often a source a comedy in the film, it also became a metaphor for Cheryl learning to shoulder the weight of the past and keep walking on. The boots and backpack became a part of me,” Witherspoon notes. “The backpack came to feel like it was my arm or leg. Sometimes I would forget between scenes it was even on my body. Sometimes the prop master would have to say ‘you can take it off.’ As Cheryl says in her book, there’s something amazing about realizing that everything you really need in life you could carry on your back. It is so liberating. It's a beautiful idea.”
“Wild” opens February 4 in cinemas nationwide from 20th Century Fox distributed thru Warner Bros.