This is the spot where I could choose to emulate our own estimable Jeremy Smith and wax ebullient about the artistic success of Into The Wild. For without a proper review, which I may never actually get to, this is as good a platform as any to stake my position on Sean Penn’s first truly successful directorial effort and recognize not only the acting of Emile Hirsch, but creative choices which neither destroy the adventurous spirit of Chris McCandless nor sugarcoat the not always respectable behavior of his alter ego, Alexander Supertramp.
Or, I could get down and dirty about the way that a poorly populated roundtable interview, of which this was a prime example, can destroy any chance of getting a useful conversation out of anyone, much less someone as typically close-mouthed as Emile Hirsch.
I’ve cut out a lot of the bullshit that flew across the table in this interview. Expressions of concern for ‘the moose guy’, questions about whether or not he was scared during the film’s many stunts and dangerous moment (seriously, this question was asked four or five times!) and my favorite, especially for a movie like this: an earnest conversation, mostly one-sided, about Hirsch’s hair in the film. Not that all of my questions were brilliant (they never are) but getting some decent info shouldn’t be like delving into King Solomon’s goddamn mines.
Into The Wild is currently enjoying a limited engagement. It opens to more markets this Friday, October 5 and wider on October 12.
In Krakauer’s book, Chis is not the most sympathetic guy. Can you explain the differences between your portrayal of Chris and Krakauer’s?
They are different. Through talking to Carine and his parents and Wayne Westerberg a little more did my vision…not my ‘vision’, but some of my ideas of Chris changed a little bit. I saw some of his more sensitive side, through his writings not under the alias of Alexander Supertramp, but things written earlier as himself, years before, he was a really sensitive guy. Really, good guy. Krakauer, being the good reporter that he is has to be fairly dispassionate when he’s writing about people. As a film, if you present a character that objectively on film, sometimes you won’t feel anything.
So did you feel like you had to take license, or exaggerate aspects of his character?
No! I felt like what I did was who I thought Chris was. There was no fabrication.
Did you feel any connection between who you are, and who he was?
I don’t think I had any particular connection to the character from the outset. But I think the thing that connects people, not just me but a lot of people who come across the story, is the idea of wanderlust. It’s that thing that we all have, searching for adventure, itchy feet.
Were there challenges to each location that mirrored what McCandless went through?
Each environment posed it’s own challenges and it’s own dangers. South Dakota, I had to be mindful of machinery, like farm machinery. You can really get hurt in those grain elevators. You can die easily. I had a really scary encounter on a grain elevator that’s just a platform in the silo that raises up five or six stories. I pulled the [securing] pin out, but it was rigged for a guy that weighed like 300 pounds, so the thing just shot up; I couldn’t do anything. It went all the way to the top, slammed on the roof of the silo and I got serious air. If I had been at the edge and stuck my arm out, it would have got chopped off.
Eddie Vedder’s music plays a big part in the narrative voice of the film. Did Sean share that with you as you worked?
No, not at all. I think Sean actually approached Eddie after he had cut the movie. They met, and Eddie made a song for him; he liked it and asked him to make a bunch more. I think Sean, maybe he had started to think about that while we were shooting.
Tell me about the way this project started for you.
I was sitting around for a year in LA, waiting for an adventure to come along. Hoping, praying for an adventure, whether it was acting or whatever. I had itchy feet. This part came along, sean came knocking on my door. And he wasn’t selling flowers. He was there to be tough and lead the whole crew on this wild adventrure. And a lot of times we’d be shooting on location, and he’d point to the top of some mountain. "That’s where we gotta go!" and we’d all have to carry gear up the mountain. We had to go, if for no other reason than we had to get up to those points. Not even that it was the best shot, it was just where we had to go.
Because he was so committed to it for so long, Sean was not willing to compromise authenticity. He wanted to shoot in all the real locations. At a certain point he was told that they wouldn’t be able to get real wolves for a scene and he wouldn’t allow it. He sent back these other dogs and had them bring in real wolves. Even the little things he wouldn’t let slide.
How did that turn up in his interaction with you?
He wanted things to be as authentic as possible. He had me do all the physicality. If there was a stunt, I would have to do it. And I chose to do it. Kayaking down the rapids, but Sean was smart about that. He went first. Which didn’t make me totally relieved, but at least I thought if he was going to do it, I had to do it.
Being familiar with Chris’s writings and Carine’s perspective, what does the use of her voice as narrator say to you?
I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with you sensing Chris’s absense when she’s speaking. There was the whole idea that siblings are connected, and she was the half of him who did stay. It just seemed appropriate, that if anyone was going to speak for him, she would. After talking to her, I felt that very strongly.
Certain images of Chris are almost Messianic. Are you comfortable with audiences getting that impression?
I don’t know about that. I think that a lot of those impressions are…it’s easy to have Christ comparison when a guy has a beard and is really skinny. I don’t think that’s intentional.