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Q&A: Penn, Vedder go where the "Wild" things are

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 movie’s soundtrack.

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 Nielsen SoundScan.

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.” (laughs)

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) character.”

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 moving?

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 left?

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 sanity.”

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.”