NEW YORK (Billboard) - Sean Penn has wanted to make a movie
based on Jon Krakauer's 1996 book "Into the Wild" since the
moment he finished reading it.
The true story of Christopher McCandless, a recent college
graduate who in 1990 cut ties with his family and embarked on a
two-year odyssey that ended tragically in the Alaskan
wilderness, struck a major chord with the actor/director. And
though it took him years to convince McCandless' parents and
sister to give their blessing to the project, it took only a
matter of hours for him to secure longtime friend Pearl Jam
frontman Eddie Vedder to write new original material for the
Vedder plays nearly all the instruments on the soundtrack
and explores more of an acoustic, stripped-down musical
approach than normally heard on Pearl Jam albums. The
soundtrack debuted in September at No. 11 on the Billboard 200
and has sold 95,000 copies in the United States, according to
With Paramount Vantage's "Into the Wild" garnering strong
reviews and whispers of Academy Award nominations, Penn and
Vedder talked with Billboard about their creative partnership.
Q: If you can recall, at what point did you start thinking
about what kind of music would be in the movie?
Sean Penn: "I'm going to guess that it was right from go.
But in terms of really identifying that I was going to
structure transitions to be told in song, that was when I first
started to ask myself, 'OK, what are all the components of
things I've been thinking of for the last 10 years?"'
Q: Did you have actual songs in mind for those transitions?
Penn: "Oh, yeah. I had model tracks throughout. There was
Neil Young's 'Hey Hey, My My,' Cat Stevens' 'Miles From
Nowhere,' Joe Henry's 'King's Highway' and Philip Glass'
'Cloudscape.' That was less in a transitional state than it was
in a visual one. There was Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Simple Man" too."
Q: When you asked for Vedder's involvement, did you show
him a script?
Penn: "I don't even remember whether I gave him a script at
all. By the time I went to him, I had a rough cut of the movie.
He was in Hawaii when I tracked him down. He got a copy of the
book and read it. He called up very invested already. He really
connected with it. I said, 'Call me when you get back and I'll
come up to Seattle,' and that's what happened. I brought up
like a three-hour-and-15-minute cut of the movie, and we sat
and watched that. His words were, 'It's on,' and that was it."
Eddie Vedder: "The film ended and we shared a moment of
silence, because it was heavy. I think I just asked him, as I'm
reaching over to light a cigarette, 'What do you want?' And he
said, 'Whatever you feel. It could be a song, it could be two,
it could be the whole thing.' So I went in for three days,
starting the next day, and gave him a palette of stuff to work
with. And then he started choosing. Immediately he had a few
things he put in. I wasn't expecting that. After that, then it
was really on. What I gathered was, the songs could now become
another tool in the storytelling, especially when you have
shots of the young man solitary. In a way, it's offering a
window into what he's going through intellectually and
emotionally without having to have him talk to himself."
Q: Did you leave that cut of the movie with him?
Penn: "I didn't leave that cut, but once he started playing
with things, I started sending sections of the picture so he
could work to them. When he sent 'Guaranteed,' I was still
holding out for 'Miles From Nowhere.' But 'Guaranteed' wasn't
borrowing somebody else's baggage to make it appealing. I have
felt that as an audience member. In that terrific picture 'The
Killing Fields,' when John Lennon's 'Imagine' played, I was so
moved. But when I got home I thought, 'Well, I was moved the
first time I heard it too,' which had nothing to do with this
movie. Once I heard 'Guaranteed,' I just felt that for sure
this is the musical voice of (actor) Emile (Hirsch's)
Q: Were you consciously trying to put yourself in
McCandless' head or was the narration more omniscient?
Vedder: "It was startling how easy it was for me to get
into his head. I found it to be uncomfortable how easy it was,
because I thought I'd grown up. (laughs) I think all this stuff
was right under the surface for me, barely. Because of that,
lyrics and words and even chord changes were coming quick. It
was like being asked to do something you did every day for a
decade -- you just hadn't done it for 20 years. You go to do it
again and it's just all right there. It never left."
Q: What was your writing process like once things got
Vedder: "It was like being a songwriter for a band --
serving the voice of Chris McCandless. Not my voice, or
something I wanted to say. In almost every aspect of this
process, it simplified things. There were fewer choices. The
story was there and the scenes were there. If there was
anything that I learned with my own writing process, maybe
there's too many choices for what to write about. Just the
amount of subject matter in the world these days; maybe that
feels chaotic for me. This took away all the choices. There was
a point A and a point B, and I found it pretty easy to get
there without hitting all the other points in between."
Q: Once you got inspired and started cranking out material
so fast, was it hard to turn that faucet off? Was there a void
Vedder: "When I was working, I was inspired to make the
music. That's what I was requested to do. After that, I took
the inspiration and put it into my real life and my family
life. We spent the summer outdoors. We did some camping. I felt
like a real human being. My surfing got blockaded as a young
adult when I had to start working the drugstore jobs. (laughs)
In about 1993 or 1994, I realized I'd been afforded the
opportunity to get back to the ocean, and that really has been
what fueled 80 percent of my creativity and 95 percent of my
Q: There seems to be two camps in terms of what people
think about the movie: one that praises McCandless for his
sense of adventure and another that feels anger toward him
because he never contacted his family during his travels. Do
you fall on one particular side?
Penn: "I'm on the side that doesn't put the white wig and
the robe on. It's just people wanting to have something to
criticize. It's courage envy. Everybody's got their own f---ing
way of dealing with their family stuff, and it's nobody's
(business) to judge on him like that. I think that if there's
anybody I would listen to on the subject, it's his family."
Vedder: "I defer to them as well. I thought about them a
lot. There's a line in 'Guaranteed' that says, "Don't come
closer or I'll have to go/Owning me like gravity are places
that pull/If ever there was someone to keep me at home/It would
be you.' That line is for (McCandless' sister, Carine)."
Q: What's next for both of you?
Penn: "I'm playing with a couple of things, but let's say I
hope it's something I can get Eddie Vedder involved in."
Vedder: "I'm ready for a break, but I have to say, this
offered me an opportunity to get deeper into writing than maybe
I had in a while. It was just the most welcome set of demands
I've come across in a long time. Our band is going to be better
for it and from it, which I'm pretty excited about."