BIRTH: FROM BOOK TO SCREEN
In the course of his 2-year quest to better understand himself and his place in the world, Chris McCandless blazed through an entire lifetime of experiences. From the birth of a brand new, self-invented identity as he set out on the road; to his declaration of independence from the bewildered family he left behind; to an exhilarating process of gaining knowledge and wisdom from the amazing people and places that touched his soul; to the calamity that led to his own unplanned demise at the apex of his perspective-altering journey, these fragments form the emotional mosaic at the core of Sean Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's bestseller Into The Wild.
First published in 1998, Krakauer's book became that rare thing in our contemporary, urbanized world: an instant wilderness classic. The book riveted readers of all backgrounds with its probing investigation of the life and death of 24 year-old Christopher McCandless, an affluent young man who renounced his wealth and attempted to shed his former identity in order to try the find the real meaning of freedom and wilderness, only to vanish into a rough country from which he would never return. The details of who McCandless was, where he journeyed and how he came to spend a remarkable 113 days in the wilds of Alaska with only bare supplies, became the unforgettable story of Krakauer's book - which was expanded from an article he had written for Outside Magazine.
A mountaineer and outdoorsman drawn to high, dangerous places himself, Krakauer took a deeply personal, obsessive approach to McCandless's story. He set out with the question of why certain young Americans are so drawn to risk - and how the themes of troubled families and the search for a meaningful, authentic life beyond the conventional lure of money and ambition are often woven through their stories. Rife with mystery and a feeling of raw intimacy, the book was a page-turner, yet one that addressed grand themes: the role of wilderness in shaping the American imagination; the bonds and bondage of family relationships; the struggle between rugged individualism and the need for love and community; and idealism's mix of equal parts promise and hubris.
The result was a best-seller that exploded out of the standard boundaries of nature writing to become not only an acclaimed work of literature, but the source of water-cooler debates. Book critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt noted in the New York Times that Krakauer had taken the controversial elements of McCandless's story and "made of it a heart-rending drama of human yearning."
Today, Krakauer himself believes that, whatever he accomplished with the book, Chris McCandless rightfully remains a cipher - a fascinating and flawed human being whose journey nevertheless still seems to hit upon a lot of vital questions about modern life.
"A lot of my motivation in writing the book was identifying with Chris and trying to figure him out for myself - but I don't pretend that I totally figured him out," Krakauer explains. "Chris was not an ordinary kid. He was self-absorbed. He was stubborn. He was impetuous. But he was also pure of heart. And the extremely wonderful thing about him is that he would not compromise. He had these extremely high ideals, this sense of moral rectitude. He believed that the purpose of life was not to take the easy path. Some of his critics thought he was ill-prepared, reckless, foolish - they asked why he didn't he have an ax and a radio when he went into Alaska? But his idea was: that's not an adventure. In this day and age, when there are no more blank spots on the map, Chris left the maps behind."
When Sean Penn saw Krakauer's hardback in a Brentwood bookshop, he had an immediate, visceral reaction. He recalls being drawn like a magnet to the cover photo of an abandoned bus in the snow and heading home to crack the spine, then says: "I read it from cover to cover twice before I went to sleep. Then I got up the following day, whatever time it was, and started right away trying to see if I could get the rights. I thought the story was instantly indelible and deeply cinematic in its characters and its landscape in every way. It hit the same nerve with me that I think it hit with most people who read it."
Eventually, Penn would get the rights but it would take nearly a decade. In the beginning, Penn was among a bevy of suitors who lined up to approach the McCandless family. Still heartbroken and reeling from the loss of their only son, the McCandlesses spoke with a number of filmmakers in those early days, including Penn, but came to no decision. "The family simply wasn't ready yet to let this film be made, but Sean kept in touch with them and he was very passionate about it," recalls producer Bill Pohlad, who also produced Ang Lee's long-in-the-making, Oscar®-winning adaptation of Brokeback Mountain.
At one point, just when it looked like it was going to happen, Billie McCandless (Chris's mother) even reported to Penn that she had a dream that Chris told her not to make the movie. But Penn was undeterred in his ardor, remaining steadfast without pressuring them. "This story just felt so hungry to be made into a movie, I always felt, one way or another, it was going to happen," he says.
Ten years after Penn first set out to get the rights, at last the phone rang. "They called, completely out of the blue, and said they were ready to do it. I honestly don't know why they changed their minds but they did," says Penn. Jon Krakauer, who deferred to the McCandless family throughout this process, believes he does know why the family chose Penn. "There's something about Sean that is so direct, so in your face, that you believe him, because you know he is telling it like it is," he says. "The McCandlesses couldn't be any more different than Sean, but they trusted something in him."
Years earlier, Penn says he had essentially written the screenplay in his head, but now he set out in earnest to complete his adaptation. Says producer Art Linson, who has known and worked with Penn since the beginning of his career as an actor: "It was as if Sean had thought about this movie for the whole ten years. It just poured out of him because the entire thrust of the movie was in him before he wrote a page."
From the outside, it might appear that bringing Krakauer's book, laden with quotes and poems and documents, to the screen would be a complex, even daunting, adaptation. After all, the story is as much about the inside of a man, about the yearning for ineffable things and the gathering of larger wisdom through osmosis and spontaneous moments, as it is about what happens to him. But for Penn, the story was close enough to his own soul that it emerged with lightening speed and instinctual ease.
"When I sat down to write the first draft, it had been ten years since I read the book and I didn't even re-read it. I just wrote what was lodged in my head," he says. "Then, I read the book again and I found that Jon had done his job because it was all there. It then took some close re-reading and some compiling of clues to move forward. For the next draft, I went out on the road, following in Chris's steps, and meeting the people who Chris knew -- and that enriched the story in a different way. And then I also started compressing the story to bring to bring it all down to a containable level of cinematic storytelling."
Working backwards into the hazy realms of memory and regret, Penn had difficult and intimate conversations with the McCandless family, especially Chris's sister Carine - who shared her journals, letters and most private memories with Penn, further deepening the portrait. He also met with as many people who had known Chris during that period in the early 1990s as he could. "They all had something helpful to say," he comments. Later, he would even hire Wayne Westerberg, whom Chris had befriended in South Dakota and is played by Vince Vaughn in the movie, to serve as a consultant and truck driver during the production.
Penn had a gut-driven grip on the structure of the screenplay right from the beginning, dividing Chris's 2-year journey from his home in Atlanta to the abandoned bus in Alaska into a series of chapters that, as he says, "set out to tell the entire arc of a life, from birth to death, all crammed into the two years from the time he left home to the time that he died."
The result was a very alive and dynamic portrait of a human journey stripped bare. Sums up Linson of Penn's final draft: "I think Sean brought something new to the story. It's more than just Krakauer's book re-created. You really get a feeling of being inside somebody and somehow, between all of Chris McCandless' arrogance and all of his humanity, in the end you're pinned by the fact that he's a real person and you care about him. Sean took what could have been just a story of adventure and a rebel dropping out and turned it into an examination of what a person is, who they think they are and what they want to be, and he addressed all these confusions in a very powerful and touching way."
Adds Pohlad: "I think Sean did an amazing job of getting inside Chris as a character and letting you feel what he was going through, even though we'll never know precisely what happened to him. You get a real sense of the incredible impact he had on the people he met - not by doing anything grand or spectacular, but more just by his spirit. He changed people's lives and they changed his."
Penn's modus operandi, from the get-go, was to keep things very true to what Chris McCandless had done and seen and thought about, and this concept also influenced the style of the production, which mixes epic, breathtaking imagery with a more raw, almost documentary, realism. "Sean wanted a certain, different feeling for the film that made it very real, and he accomplished that by using a mix of non-actors and actors and authentic locations across the nation," explains Pohlad. "But, like any piece of true art, ultimately he leaves it up to the viewer to take their own judgment and interpretation of the events."
This approach would also win over Jon Krakauer, who admits he was initially skeptical of what a cinematic version of his book would look like. "Sean has made the kind of movie I suspect will leave an impression on people for a very long time," the author summarizes. "It doesn't spoon-feed you, it's an intense movie, but it makes you wonder."
ADOLESCENCE: EMILE HIRSCH PORTRAYS CHRISTOPHER MCCANDLESS
The appeal of Chris McCandless in Jon Krakauer's book extended beyond his physical adventures to his distinctive intelligence, enthusiasm and likeability, as well as his drive to separate himself with a sense of nobility from the warring and unhappiness of his parents. To play the role, Sean Penn sought an actor with the same sort of disarming, fresh-faced idealism as McCandless, and one who also might bear some physical resemblance to the handsome and charismatic young man seen in the haunting photographs left behind. More than that, he sought someone willing to give a 100% unflinching commitment to what would clearly be a performance that could make or break the film.
He found all these qualities in 22 year-old Emile Hirsch, who had impressed Penn in Catherine Hardwicke's board-culture movie Lords of Dogtown and recently established his reputation as one of today's most promising leading men with his starring role in Nick Cassavetes' Alpha Dog. After getting Hirsch's number from Hardwicke, Penn began meeting with him over a period of four months, testing him in a sense and sussing out the depths of his commitment. Penn recalls: "I knew he could act the part, but the question was could he act it every day for 8 months under tough circumstances - and was he going to be willing to go from boy to man during production and on-screen? I was taking the measure of his character, and more and more I got as confident as I could, although it still felt like a risky proposition. Finally, we said, 'yeah, let's do this,' and he came through in spades. There's something electric about him, and so much that Emile tells you about Chris McCandless in his eyes."
Adds producer Bill Pohlad. "Emile did an amazing job of stepping into a situation where he had to river raft and climb and do a lot of stuff he really hadn't done before - and he took it all on enthusiastically without complaint. At the same, he was able to portray Chris in a way that you really believe it was in this kid's soul to do these kinds of things. He underwent a genuine transformation."
Hirsch remembers first hearing about Chris McCandless as a kid, while watching television. "I think I was about 9 years old and a 20/20 episode about him came on and I was just captivated and kind of mesmerized by the story of this guy who went to Alaska," he recalls. "It had this deep impact on me even as a child. When Sean approached me, I read the book and those memories came flooding back."
Jon Krakauer's book took Hirsch even further into his fascination with McCandless. "I loved his spirit of adventure and flirtations with danger as well as his intelligence and discipline and philosophical quest for freedom. I loved the whole idea of searching for a way to do something truly different with your life," Hirsch says. "Yet, Chris had also been through a lot of hard times and I think he tried to come to grips with his many emotions through these adventures. I found him an endlessly intriguing person and I knew I would want to go really far into this role. He really thought in a different way than most people do and the things we usually take for granted, he didn't understand at all. The idea of sitting back and doing nothing didn't make sense to him. He was always motivated by action."
In the end, of course, even action couldn't save Chris McCandless from succumbing to a series of small, though devastating, mistakes. Hirsch, like Krakauer, and Penn, remains convinced that Chris's demise was truly an accident of circumstance. "I definitely think he meant to come back," he says. "He was looking for a total spiritual cleansing, but he didn't want to die."
For Hirsch, the moment when McCandless sheds his old identity like a skin he no longer needs and takes up the new moniker Alexander Supertramp became one of the keys to the character. "As Alexander Supertramp, he sees himself as the wandering adventurer who can do anything, scale any mountain and accomplish any goal. I think people really identify with that idea of wanting to overcome whatever's holding them back. We all have moments when we wonder what would happen if we just started walking into the wild. Everyone thinks about it, but there are so many things that prevent us. Chris was someone who really went for it and he found something very special."
Reading Penn's script on the heels of the book sealed the deal for Hirsch. He says, "I thought Sean had found the through-line of the story. He had connected the characters through this kind of linear line of emotional truth, so that each of Chris's relationships has significance and purpose. It read to me like a classic American journey where you run into all kinds of fascinating people and ideas."
The more he talked with Penn about his directorial approach, the more honored Hirsch felt to be chosen for the role. "It was exciting to me that Sean had been working on this project for 10 years, that he had been talking to the McCandless family to understand more about what Chris was like and that he was so committed to bringing integrity, sensitivity and creativity to the story," he says.
In preparing for the role, Hirsch also spent considerable time in conversation with Chris' parents and sister, whose honesty and openness provided their own inspiration. "I thought they were wonderful, smart, interesting people," he says of the McCandless family. "And they were the first to admit that things are never easy for any family; they didn't shy away from the family problems, and you get the sense they have dealt with things the best that they can."
Carine McCandless's deeply personal observations of her lost brother were especially invaluable to Hirsch. "She was really Chris' best friend and nobody knew him better than Carine. They were kind of yin and yang to one another," he observes. "I think one of the most puzzling aspects of his story is that when Chris left, he didn't even a leave a note for his sister. But what she shared with me was tremendous. She really helped me understand him better than I ever thought I would."
Going to Alaska had an equally profound effect on Hirsch, especially since that is where production began with an intensive dive into Chris' harrowing final days. "Alaska is such a striking and amazing land," he comments. "And being there in the real clothes that Chris really wore and wearing the backpack that Chris did, which was literally really heavy, it constantly amazed me how he managed at all in the cold and the snow and the harshness of that environment."
For Hirsch, the scenes in Alaska were a kind of trial-by-fire, pushing him to his limits in a way Chris McCandless might well have appreciated. Indeed on his very first day in Alaska, Sean Penn had Hirsch climb to the top of an exceedingly steep, snow-filled hill in similar conditions to those McCandless likely faced. When other crew members attempted to help Hirsch, Penn halted them. "I think he was testing me to see how ready to really step into the wild I was," muses Hirsch.
Hirsch even consulted by phone with Jon Krakauer while in Alaska to keep a handle on what Chris might have been doing and thinking. "I remembered when I went to Alaska by myself and headed into the wild," recalls Krakauer. "We talked about that mix of fear and excitement and elation."
To make things even more challenging Hirsch had to begin production in a nearly starved state, shedding 41 of his bodyweight, off an already lean frame, to accurately portray Chris' emaciated condition, ultimately coming in at less than 115 pounds for the film's final scenes. (The Alaska sequences were actually shot early in part because gaining weight is a much faster process than losing it.) "I was on a very, very strict diet," Hirsch explains. "I was eating in such a way that my hunger was never satisfied."
Says Penn: "Emile showed enormous discipline. Here's a kid who just turned old enough to buy a beer in a bar, and should have been out having fun with girls, and was able to do neither for 8 straight months. I watched him grow before my eyes."
As a result, Hirsch would become more and more acutely aware of what McCandless must have gone through in those mysterious and lonely final days. "I think he was afraid," he says. "I think Chris came up against the great barrier of the cold, uncaring harshness of nature and I think he fully understood what the stakes were." But Hirsch also found moments of tremendous peace and insight, as he assumes Chris must have, too. "While I was spending so much time in the bus that became Chris' last home, I really grew fond of it. I was discovering all this amazing stuff in nature around me and the bus became a kind of symbol of moving through the world even when you're still," he says.
As production went on, Hirsch would find increasing strength, moving from Alaska to the searing heat of Lake Mead and on to the Grand Canyon, where he learned to kayak the river's legendary hydraulic rapids. Hirsch admits he had his moments of panic.: "I remember hitting my first wave on the kayak and just getting air and it was kind of like a Kodak moment and then the instinct to survive kicked in and I just started going crazy paddling. I had sucked in more water than a sink, but I'd made it and I went to bed feeling like hero."
Marine Coordinator Brian Dierker (who would later be cast in the vital role of the "rubber tramp" Rainey) recalls working with Hirsch: "Right away I thought he was really well-balanced and athletic and a lot more capable than he knew he was so I really tried to build that up in his head. Ultimately, he did an amazing thing in learning so fast and he even went further than I think Sean expected him to. We thought we'd have to use a double, but we never did, because once he got a little bit under his belt, his confidence just built and built. He went out there and seized the moment."
As production moved from location to location, Hirsch especially enjoyed the opportunity to see offbeat parts of America where he'd never been, and meeting such a wide variety of wonderfully individual and eccentric characters at the very edges of the nation. One of Hirsch's favorite people he met along the way was Leonard Knight, the real-life artist who created Salvation Mountain at Slab City, and has a cameo in the film. "It was so refreshing to meet someone who lacked the cynicism that is so prevalent in our culture right now and was just totally sincere," says Hirsch. "That's what really moved Chris I think."
Producer Art Linson suggests that what makes Hirsch's performance itself so moving is its willingness to dive into the grey zones of McCandless's life and death. "I think both Sean and Emile were authentic to the spirit of Chris in that they allowed him to be a very emotionally complex character. That was the far harder job than simply capturing his adventurousness," he remarks.
Jon Krakauer sums up: "One of the coolest things about Emile is that he really doesn't look anything like Chris when you meet him in real life, but he's so believable on the screen, you feel like you're watching Chris through the whole movie."
READ MORE: DELIVERANCE: DESIGNING INTO THE WILD/ EDDIE VEDER'S MUSIC
READ MORE: FAMILY: WILLIAM HURT, MARCIA GAY HARDEN AND JENA MALONE AS MOTHER, FATHER AND SISTER/ THE GETTING OF WISDOM: THE PEOPLE CHRIS MET ON THE WAY/ SEAN PENN (DIRECTOR/SCREENPLAY/PRODUCER)
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