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Hollywood in the heartland

Paul Dano’s directorial debut brings awards buzz sweeping down the plain



Director Paul Dano on the set of “Wildlife”

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“You kind of have to find natural gold.”

That’s how actor and now first-time director Paul Dano described making an authentic period movie on a small budget.

After lots of digging, he struck gold in Enid, Oklahoma.

His acclaimed debut, “Wildlife,” stars Oscar nominees Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. The film, based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel about a crumbling mid-century marriage, is viewed from the perspective of the couple’s 14-year-old son, Joe, played by Ed Oxenbould.

“It’s a film that takes place in 1960, has period elements, and is made on a certain budget, so we couldn’t build it all ourselves,” Dano said. “But once we planted our feet in Oklahoma, we found an incredible amount of locations.”

Equipped with a “lookbook” filled with images and aesthetic influences for the film’s palette, Dano and his production designer Akin McKenzie combed several states and parts of Canada in search of a stand-in location for Montana, the story’s locale. With a narrow production window of November/December 2016, Montana’s climate would’ve been too cold for the fall setting. (Only scenes with mountain landscapes were shot there.)

“It was kind of a Hail Mary,” Dano said of adding Oklahoma to a list of regions they hoped would approximate Big Sky Country. “We drove the whole state in two days, and we came away from that trip saying, ‘OK, we can make the movie here.’ It was like this scavenger hunt, and when you find what you’re looking for, it’s incredible.”

What got them here in the first place was Oklahoma’s cash rebate incentive.

First implemented in 2001 but renewed for 10 more years in 2014, the Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate Program attracts film and television productions to shoot in the state, employing thousands of Oklahomans and sustaining small businesses statewide. Originally capped at an available $5 million annually, that was reduced to $4 million per year in 2016 after state government incentives were cut by 20 percent. With just a $5 million budget of its own, “Wildlife” was eligible for the 35 percent base percentage rebate.

“There were several communities that really rolled out the red carpet, but [Dano and McKenzie] were so particular with what they were looking for. They found it in Enid,” said Tava Sofsky, Director at the Oklahoma Film & Music Office.

“Enid had a history that worked for our film,” Dano said. “It was an oil town, and something about Montana towns were the same way, either oil or copper. It had the right vibe.”

But it may have been the kismet of the family’s home that sealed the deal.

“We found a house of a man who was a golf grounds keeper during the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, similar to the character of Jerry that Jake Gyllenhaal plays,” Dano said. “He’d kept a lot of stuff from his life, so suddenly we had stepped into this house with relics from the ‘60s, of a guy who had a similar job as Jerry’s. That’s one of those synchronicities you just can’t predict.”

The quality of local film crews was also vital. “We had talked to some people who had worked in the state before,” Dano said. “So we knew there was a good local crew base, and that’s really important because a film is usually done on a tight schedule—long days, and you need the whole organism to function well.”

“Oklahoma has a really excellent reputation [for film production],” said Colin Warde of Oklahoma City, who was the film’s on-set dresser. “People come here from out of state in top tier positions and are just bowled over by the high proficiency, the technical ability, the motivation to do the work.”

Warde’s fellow set dresser Dylan Brodie believes that reputation was borne out on “Wildlife.” “We had some beautiful transformations for this film. Even though we didn’t have a great deal of money, there was never a sense of corners being cut. This was true, honest-to-God artistic integrity, every day. You knew it was something special. I’m really proud of what we achieved.”

Small films like this can be just the tip of the iceberg for states. Sofsky has visited new film hubs like Georgia, seeing their infrastructure and researching their tax incentive programs. She also met with studio heads in L.A., and the message is the same: They want to bring projects to Oklahoma.

“I sat with executives at HBO and Disney,” Sofsky said. “It became clear that because of our diverse locations and growing infrastructure, they would be willing to invest their resources into our economy by bringing a TV series or a larger feature film to Oklahoma if we had better incentives.”

By comparison, Georgia began a more aggressive and generous program in 2008. A decade later, that state’s total film and television spending hit a record of $2.7 billion in the fiscal year that ended in 2017, and that doesn’t include the market growth for the broader economy.

“They call it the movie business for a reason,” Sofsky stressed. “Studios are looking for soil to put their multi-million-dollar businesses on, to employ our citizens. Our taxpayers. Our talent. To patronize our businesses statewide. The more we can remain competitive with our incentive packages, the more business we can have here.”

A prime possibility: “Killers Of The Flower Moon,” a film based on David Grann’s book about the founding of the FBI during an investigation of murdered Osage Indians on their oil-rich land in the 1920s. From the actor/director team of Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, Sofsky and the Osage Nation are working hard to secure the coveted project, slated to roll in 2019.

Film production also brings value to a community’s sense of identity, said Marcy Jarrett, the director of Visit Enid, the city’s tourism board. “What was fun was to see the pride in the residents. They felt honored,” Jarrett said. “It brings a bit of excitement when Hollywood comes to town. There’s no substitute for that.”

For Dano—who drew influences from the paintings of Rockwell and Hopper, the photography of Stephen Shore, and films ranging from “The Grapes of Wrath” to the family dramas of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda—Oklahoma brought fresh inspiration to the story that inspired him to make his first film.

“You’re discovering something new about the scene when you find the location,” Dano said. “Sometimes it matches what’s in your head, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you find something better. Then suddenly, it feels like the way it was meant to be.”

“Enid was great to us, their arms open to us,” Dano added. “We got to make the film we wanted to make. It’s about the mystery of who our parents are, from a kid’s point of view who’s trying to understand what’s happening.”

Dano and his partner, actor and writer Zoe Kazan—who recently became parents to their first childadapted the script together. “When I read it, I did feel like I was looking at a sort of portrait of the person I love,” Kazan said. “Also, I was intrigued by the puzzle of it, and drawn in by Carey Mulligan’s character, Jeanette, who’s struggling to express her own identity but with no place for personal expression.”

“I related to this duality that family is one of the greatest loves of our life but also sometimes it’s one of the hardest things in our life,” Dano said. “It felt both archetypal and personal at the same time, which meant it could speak to anybody.”

“It’s as much a coming of age for Jeanette and Jerry as it is for Joe,” he added. “It’s a coming of age story for a family.”

It may be one for Oklahoma’s film industry, too.

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