When Chris McCandless donated his entire college fund to Oxfam and set off for the Alaskan wilderness, he dreamt of returning to society relieved of its bonds and stifling expectations. Only he didn't come back.
Jon Krakauer's bestselling book about McCandless's heroic, ill-fated journey convinced Sean Penn to tell the story on screen. He, in turn, recruited former Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder to produce the soundtrack and together, the pair has crafted a moving and original masterwork. Here, Penn and Vedder discuss the Into The Wild.
What qualities did Emile Hirsch have where you would trust him with such an important role?
Sean Penn: He's got a lot of talent. You used to be able to get some pretty intriguing brooders, you know, out of the young generation, whatever that was. Today you can get the clever and the witty and the sexy and the charming, but none of those things happen to be the proper tool for this kit. I needed somebody who had a talent and a mug and a will, and also to photograph somebody going from boy to man, so you're catching somebody on that cusp. It was all those things that Emile had that I don't know another who has.
Sean, how did you discover this boy's story and why did you want to make it into a movie?
Sean Penn: I read the book when it came out. I read it twice in a row. I started to get the rights to it the next day. I could answer the question in boring length, but the movie should answer it for me. This is what I intended to make. This is the movie.
Have either of you felt a call to the wild?
Sean Penn: I can say yes, and I think Eddie would tell you the same to varying degrees, in different ways. But I also feel that one of the things that made me so interested in this story, and I've been wrong about these perceptions before, but I feel the way I made this movie is that it's true of everybody in this room and everybody outside this room, that this is a very universal thing, this wanderlust.
Eddie Vedder: For me, if I'm not on tour or in the studio, I'm in nature somewhere, usually some kind of ocean. Playing music has afforded me that. It's not lost on me that it's a tremendous opportunity to be able to spend your life being surrounded by nature. I have a three-year-old daughter now. I'm glad I did things in my 20s that were more reckless, because at some point you realise you have a responsibility beyond yourself and your need for adrenaline. For people who see this movie, if they haven't done that in their life, I think it's going to hit them pretty hard.
Eddie, what was your song writing process on this film?
Eddie Vedder: It was kind of all different ways. One nice thing it just kind of, I don't know how, but it just kind of grew organically. I may have been intimidated if Sean were to have said, 'We need this, and we need a theme, and it would be nice if it were structured this way or that way, and then it revisits this at the end.' None of that happened, or not consciously, and he started finding places to put the songs. I've been learning from listening to the actors and Sean talk. With the music basically he allowed me to write my own lines, a couple of cover songs. He gave me a few lines that I could interpret. He gave me a lot of freedom, and I think the biggest thing was trust, which was just kind of unspoken. I don't know if I'd want to do this again, because I know it wouldn't be as good as this experience was, so I could just leave it at this. This was great.
Sean, how did you decide how objective you could be about Chris? A park ranger said Chris wasn't daring but 'stupid, tragic and inconsiderate.' There was a hand operated tram nearby that a map would have shown. Did you make a conscious effort not to romanticize it?
Sean Penn: No, I object to a person who wears a brown shirt and a patch on their shoulder and follows instructions all day. I'm not all that interested in what the park rangers have to say. I accept that there's an automatic instinct to judge those you envy and who have more courage than you do, and I think while [the ranger] rides around in his four-wheeler on a CB radio and getting fat, Chris McCandless has spent 113 days alone in the most unforgiving wilderness that God created. You just go out there and take a look at it sometime.
If Alaska hadn't been the climax of Chris' life, what would he be doing now?
Sean Penn: My romantic vision of it is that he'd be doing what John Krakauer is doing. He'd be writing, adventuring and writing about it. But your guess is as good as mine beyond that.