Film News

Penn keeping it real in Alaska wilderness drama

TORONTO (Hollywood Reporter) - “By the book” took on a whole new meaning for Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch and the makers of “Into the Wild,” which opens September 21 via Paramount Vantage.

Director Sean Penn listens to a question during the news conference for "Into the Wild" at the 32nd Toronto International Film Festival September 9, 2007. "By the book" took on a whole new meaning for Penn, Emile Hirsch and the makers of "Into the Wild," which opens September 21 via Paramount Vantage. REUTERS/Mike Cassese

The movie, adapted by Penn from the Jon Krakauer book of the same name, tells the story of Christopher McCandless (Hirsch), a man who abandoned his possessions and traveled America before living -- and dying -- in an abandoned city bus in the Alaskan wilderness.

The filmmakers originally looked to set up shop in places they could use as production bases -- Vancouver and/or Salt Lake City -- but it wasn’t clicking for Penn, who also directed and produced the film.

“Sean finally decided that no, this movie has to take place in Alaska,” said John Kelly, unit production manager and an executive producer on the film. “And we’re going to go to South Dakota, we’re going to go to Emory University (in Atlanta), we’re going to shoot these places the way they happened.”

Using the book as a guide, the filmmakers went to the locations it described. They studied photos that McCandless took -- photos discovered by his family on undeveloped film after his death -- and matched up mountains and ranges as best they could. And as much as they could, they went to the same spots as McCandless did, experiencing the harsh desert conditions of Lake Mead, Nev., and the swamp-muck of springtime in Alaska.

The movie shot last year from late April-November in a schedule that tried to balance the seasons described in the book and Hirsch’s weight loss as McCandless starves.

But reality also seeped into the movie in another way: The real people whose lives were touched by McCandless ended up involved in the film, on and off screen. In Alaska, McCandless was dropped off on a road named the Stampede Trail by a fellow named Jim Gallien.

“Sean had us go find (the real) Jim Gallien, and he plays himself in the movie and drops (Hirsch) off at the same spot he really dropped (McCandless) off,” Kelly says.

The production went to Carthage, N.D., where McCandless spent time working for Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn). In Carthage, Westerberg ended up working as a driver on the movie.

In Yuma, Ariz., at the same border crossing McCandless traversed 15 years earlier, Penn -- who had secured permission from the government to shoot there -- engaged as an actor a guard who had worked at the station back when the real young man had crossed the border.

The production used actual homeless people for the downtown Los Angeles shelter scene, giving the transients food and a fee and making a donation to the area. At a hippie commune McCandless resided at called Slab City, the production engaged locals as extras and actors.

Not everything, however, could be done the way McCandless lived it, especially the Alaska-set abandoned bus sequences, which presented many logistical challenges. While the actual bus still exists and has become something of a pilgrimage site for hard-core hikers, the production located a similar site where, after getting the OK from a tribal council and federal officials, they brought in a duplicate bus discovered in a backyard.

But just as the journey touched the soul of McCandless, the journey of making this film all over the country touched the filmmakers. Penn, Kelly and others ended up keeping in touch with many of the people they came across, and they were saddened to learn that Insane Wayne, one of the Slab City commune members, died Sunday of a heart attack.

“That’s the magic of this movie: It was so very un-Hollywood,” Kelly said. “It was a group of people doing their own small film, but on a grander scale.”

Concluded executive producer Frank Hildebrand: “It mirrored (McCandless’) trip in many way and his trials. It was well worth it, and we came away with a healthy respect for what he did. In the path of what we did, he led us to these magnificent locations. And while it was challenging logistically, it was visually stunning and we saw some of the most beautiful parts in America.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter