The duo head to Alaska for their Chris McCandless biopic
Sean Penn is an American rebel. A loner. A man with a bad reputation and a bad attitude. He likes to apply the "shut the fuck up" rule when tending to his own film set as a director. He's a strong force and an imposing personality with outspoken political beliefs. I was under the assumption that he never smiles. But when I bumped into him at the Four Seasons, to listen to him speak about his latest directorial effort Into the Wild, a huge grin crept across his face. And it took me a step back. The man actually has a pretty nice smile. Its fairly warm, and inviting. Until you look at his balled up fists. He sort of reminds me of the purring cat that bites you midway through that second stroke.
Penn is known for is forthright candor, so I was very interested in listening to him speak about his latest effort behind the camera. A film entitled Into the Wild; it recounts the story of privileged rich kid Christopher McCandless. In 1992, the college graduate gave his bank account balance away to charity right before changing his name to Alexander Supertramp and heading out into the harsh landscape of the Alaskan wild. Penn recounts the kid's life-affirming journey with a gilded hand, bringing along Eddie Vedder to provide the soundtrack.
Both Penn and Vedder stopped by the Four Seasons to speak at a press conference. Unusually candid, the introverted pair matched each other for their shyness. After a few minutes, they opened up about their experiences with the film, and gave one of the more entertaining chat sessions that I have witnessed in a while.
Here's what they had to say:
Sean Penn: (Referring to my microphone, which always gets a comment) Can I have this one here? I like this one.
Eddie Vedder It's nice.
Prior to this, you've made three other movies about men who are trying to escape their past experiences.
Sean Penn: Can I get an ashtray, please?
Is this a theme that you like exploring? What continues to draw you to that?
Sean Penn: I could probably give you a very long-winded answer that had some truth to it. But I would say that the basic nature of it is not very analytical. Its probably first and foremost about being a man who is trying to come to terms with his past.
Can you talk about the use of the Sharon Olds poem in your narration?
Sean Penn: I'd read that poem some years before, and it really stuck with me. It got me into reading her stuff. It really made an impression on me. She is a great writer. It really struck me. I'm in the lucky club, as far as a boy and his parents. I had a very supportive, loving family. 99.6% of my friends didn't have that when I was growing up. It seemed so acute. I began to write, and this poem had been in my head for about five years. But the book had been in my head for ten years. Going back to it, I got to page three, and that poem had jacked me. It was a way into something early in the picture. And I very early on made sure I could use it, if I was going to continue on with that route. My partner had bought the writes to the book, and I said, "Come on, we can spend a little bit more money." So we got in touch with this poet, Sharon Olds, and we tried to see if we could get her permission to use it. I said, "And, as long as she is a women, and a great writer, lets see if we can get her hooked into doing the narration for the end of the film." I'd written the narration already, but after I was finished with the screenplay I knew I was going to want a woman's touch. And I wanted that particular woman's if I could get it. So we made an overall deal with Sharon. I moved and I finished the script. I had recorded all of my original narration with Jena Malone prior to shooting. Then I got Jena and Carine McCandless and Sharon Olds and myself in a recording studio in San Francisco. We did our kind of final spin-around off of what I had written in the first place and just got it to be better and more from a woman's voice.
Chris doesn't seem to have a very well thought-out exit strategy once he gets up to Alaska. I was wondering if you see any parallels to what's happened in our current foreign policy?
Sean Penn: No, I don't see a parallel in that way because Chris wasn't putting any babies at risk. I think that intention counts for a lot, and I don't think ours competes in the level of purity. But also, I don't know that I entirely agree. There is no exit strategy from Mother Nature if she doesn't want you to have one so you can go to any lengths you want. The degree to which he wanted to challenge himself is the degree to which he made a stripped-down trip. I think that the exit that was necessary was an exit from inauthenticity. Then, you're gonna see if you can handle the rest and if you get the luck and good fortune to do so.
Can you guys talk about the dynamics of your friendship, both personally and creatively? What did you actually do on this film together? Can you talk a little about the melding process?
Sean Penn: We go back quite a ways. I guess back to Dead Man Walking. It may be a little before that in a backstage kind of way. I'm 47, so there's not too much music that comes after '68 that doesn't feel like it's been done before. And then comes his voice. So many times before we met, the voice sat me down. I mean, as a songwriter as well as a singer. So there was that and, of course, I was predisposed to want him to like me when we met. That sort of thing. It didn't work out too well the first time. But then as it went along, I just felt a kind of creative connection, or at least aspired to it. And then it had started with other things that we'd talked about in the past. I mean I'd asked him to play the lead in a movie that I'd written at one point. Maybe he'll you about that. On this thing, I'd written the script to be, in part, told by song. So I'd left out narrative in those transitional sequences knowing just the seed of what I needed from the songs to close those gaps. It was about halfway through shooting really through Emile's performance that I started feeling, this is it. This is Eddie's voice. This was the musical soul, the voice of what Emile was bringing. I asked, and then I'll let him take it from here.
Eddie Vedder: First of all, don't feel like you need to ask me questions. I'm just happy to be sitting this close to whom I consider not just a great human, but a master at what he does, in all the things he does. I couldn't turn down that opportunity. If you go back to the poet, Sean had some resources. People call him back immediately because of the amount of respect that he's gained and earned over the years. I was just another one of those calls and immediately I responded, and said goodbye to what I thought was going to be a vacation after doing a long stretch with the band. Our friendship is incredibly important to me. We've had some really memorable times, whether it's running rapids or having coffee. It's amazing how those things with Sean can be really similar. To work with him is to work with somebody. With Sean, that's where you get into the good stuff beyond "Hey, how ya doin'? How's the family?" That's all great but to really work with somebody and get into it, I really enjoy that. That's great and that seems to further the friendship. It just gets deeper. The work is really where it gets exciting. As this has formed and now it seems to be done, it was a real gift. I'm really glad that he heard my voice in all that because it's been a real gift.
Have either of you ever felt a call to the wild to get away from all the fuss of the city?
Sean Penn: I can say yes, and I think he'd tell you the same to varying degrees, in different ways. I feel the way I made this movie is from the idea that it's true of everybody in this room and everybody outside this room too. That this is a very universal thing, this wanderlust.
Eddie Vedder: And for me, if I'm not on tour or if I'm not in the studio or something, I'm in nature somewhere, usually some kind of ocean. Playing music has afforded me that. It's not lost on me that it's a tremendous opportunity to be able to spend your life surrounded by nature. I have a three-year-old daughter now. I'm glad I did things in my 20s that were more reckless because at some point you realize you have a responsibility more beyond yourself and your need for adrenaline. I'm still looking for bigger waves and I still think I've got a few more. You know, I can jump up a few more feet before I go back to the long board. I'm glad I did that stuff at the time. For people who see this movie, if they haven't done that in their life, I think it's going to hit them pretty hard.
Sean, how did you discover Chris McCandless' story and why did you want to make it into a movie?
Sean Penn: I read the book when it came out. I read it twice in a row and I started trying to get the rights to it the next day. The impression that Jon Krakauer's book made on me and that Chris McCandless' story made on me was the movie that I made. That's what I read and was then embellished by my collaborators later. But the structure, the skeleton of this thing, was... Jon had me 75 percent towards the movie that you saw already, and I had 25 percent of making cinematic what he had made in literature, and to do that with my partners. I could answer the question in boring length, but I think that the movie should answer it for me. This is what I intended to make. This is the movie. It would be very fair for somebody to criticize something they don't like in the movie or that they felt more intelligent than, or more heartfelt than about something, or more whatever they felt about it. It would be factually wrong for them to say that I hadn't succeeded in telling the story as I intended. So I would say that I feel very complete in that it answers it for me.
What particularly struck me was Chris McCandless' destruction of his former self. What is your take on that?
Sean Penn: There's a thing Eddie said last night, we were talking to some journalists and some people last night, and he said they talked about "a healthy rebellion." The way that Walt McCandless described his son to me was that Chris didn't want to burn down the building, he just dismissed it. I don't think he wanted to burn down Chris McCandless in terms of where he'd started and the fraudulence he thought he was carrying on his back. I think he just wanted to dismiss it and that, in most ways, Chris was a young man who, way ahead of his time, knew who he was and just had to find a place that would accept him. Once he did that, he would have the muscles to offer something back to a community, to a family, to a woman, to whomever. It was always on that basis that I approached him.
This is such a diverse cast. In particular, we haven't seen Hal Holbrook in years. Can you talk about how that came together?
Sean Penn: Hal Holbrook was in one of my first television movies when I was about 18 or 19. He'd made such a strong impression on me and a lasting one in terms of what being an actor was. He's a man of great gifts. One of the things, despite [the fact] that there's no such thing as a better actor than Hal, there's something inherently moving about the integrity in a man. I had wanted to work with Hal on all kinds of things and I snuck his name into the ears of directors along the years that I was working. You know, tried to think of things maybe to direct and so on. When this fit, it just fit, so I called him up and the extent of my direction was pretty much "action" and "cut" with him. Hal Holbrook made that performance and he did it and he's great.
Sean, do you have any new metaphors that you might use to describe this film?
Sean Penn: I'm having separation anxiety on this movie. I've never had that before because I always like to have at least 10 people who relate to my movies, and I always had to be the 10th on the others so I could never let them go. This one is more what I like to say is everybody's movie. It was when I started it; it was before I started it. Chris' gift is too generous for me to claim it. I just would like for it to answer for itself every time it can.
Sean, how did you decide how objective you could be about Chris? A park ranger said what Chris did wasn't particularly daring but just stupid, tragic and inconsiderate. Also, there was a hand-operated tram a mile away from where he tried to cross the river that any decent map that most hikers would carry in a National Park would have shown. So it's as though he picked and chose what he wanted to abandon in society. Did you make a conscious effort to avoid romanticizing what he did?
Sean Penn: No, I don't object to a person who wears a brown shirt and a patch on their shoulder and follows instructions all day either. I'm not all that interested in what the park rangers have to say. I accept that there's an automatic instinct to judge those you envy and who have more courage than you do, and I think that while he rides around in his four-wheeler on a CB radio getting fat, Chris McCandless has spent 113 days fucking alone in the most unforgiving wilderness that God ever created. You just go out there and take a look at it sometime. This is a guy that wanted to challenge himself in a way that for us to judge would just be ridiculous. When I buy a Nikon camera, I have no tolerance for the instructions. I'm ready to make some mistakes using it and get some bad pictures back until I've figured it out for myself. I guarantee that if you do it that way, by the time you learn it, you learn it better than any instructions will tell you. If that's what he wanted to do, maybe he could have also put the rifle away and come out with a bow and arrow. He could have gone out there naked in the woods. You go out there and you challenge yourself the way that you want to challenge yourself. But I think that this isn't about whether there was more equipment to be bought at Patagonia. It's about somebody who had a will that is so uncommon today, a lack of addiction to comfort, that is so uncommon and is so necessary to become common, or humankind doesn't survive the next century. I'm just not willing to participate in it. I welcome anybody's criticism and they can discuss it in that way or any way that they want to about Chris McCandless as I always have myself. But I would caution you on listening to people in uniforms on this issue.
Like the Coast Guard, the National Park ranger would have to go out and rescue him.
Sean Penn: You just told me the guy said he wasn't in any hazardous condition. What's the big deal of driving his four-wheeler out and rescuing him then? He didn't bring anybody into hazard with what he was doing. We don't live our lives to avoid bureaucratic mandates of what your job description is to go in and do something or not do something. Put it on yourself. You're going to sit there and tell me... Do you have children?
Sean Penn: You never corrupted them or fucked them up in any way with any of your shit? There's no such thing as that. Alright, so who's a bigger fuckup: Chris McCandless for hurting himself or you for hurting your kids? We've all got our shit, and me too, by the way. I'm not attacking you. I'm saying that the point of this thing is the heroism of this will and this courage that this young man had. All the rest of it is somebody else's folly for me.
I don't want you to misunderstand me. I was criticizing him more than the movie.
Sean Penn: No, I understand and fair enough because I don't argue that he isn't a flawed person and I think you're misinterpreting the movie to say that. Again, that's not what this movie is about and I don't think objective and subjective applies to a poem, and I think that's what he left behind.
Has the family seen the movie and have they shared their insights and emotions felt after watching it?
Sean Penn: Oh yes, I can't go to the point of disclosing private conversations with them. I mean this was an incredibly selfless and brave thing in my view for them to allow his story to be shared, but at the end of the day I'm always aware that if you take away all of the flaws of the family, you've still got two parents who are watching the story of their lost child they loved dying, so this is not a pleasant experience for them. I hope that it will be a healing one and I know that they're very supportive of it. It's one of the trickiest things involved in making a movie like this. It's the double-edged sword of making speculations about someone you didn't know, Chris, and about being trusted in the hands of his parents on such a triumphant but difficult story. So I like to think - they're people that I - in my time with them, which was a different time in their life, a different stage, these are people I consider friends of mine and I have a great respect for a very intelligent, very caring people. I did have their help throughout, and I would call it all to the degree a partnership with Carine, Chris' sister.
What qualities did Emile have that made you trust him with such an important role?
Sean Penn: He's got a love talent. You used to be able to get some pretty intriguing brooders you know out of the young generation, or whatever that was, and then today you can get the clever and the witty and the sexy and the charming and the this and that, but none of those things happen to be the proper tool for this kit. I needed somebody who had a talent and a mug and a will, and also to photograph somebody going from boy to man, so you're catching somebody on that cusp. So it was all those things that Emile had that I don't know another who has.
Why did you choose to show the brother-sister bond so strongly and have her narrate the story when he never contacted her during his entire journey?
Sean Penn: Because I knew it to be so from the letters that he had written her previously, from memory -- letters that are not copied in either the movie or the book, things that remain private. But it's not an idle claim that she - it in my view represents what the relationship was. I think that the answer is in the film. I think that in the narration she answers it, but it seems to me that that was the closest I could get to the truth of what that relationship was.
What were the physical challenges you faced directing this movie?
Sean Penn: The physical challenges were production physical. The older and older that I'm getting, I was so exhilarated making this movie. We ran this movie in a way where if we were on the day searching out a location, because something shifted in the weather from what I'd planned, we got pretty quickly to the point where my crew, with me in the front of a boat, going down the Grand Canyon - my crew behind me would start to giggle as soon as we saw the most impossible mountain or cliff side to climb, because they knew that we have to go up there and shoot from there. I was going to trust that what energized me was not just going to be an indulgence, but it was going to be what this journey should be for us making it and that would fall onto the film. And so I pursued those things. If we got a giggly shoulder looking at something, and now we had 572 pounds at least of equipment to get up there, well that's what we were going to do. But that was exhilarating. So the physical challenge was not - it's like if you woke me up at 7 o'clock this morning and I woke up on a football field and they said, "Hike, go!," that would be a problem, but we were pretty much warmed up before we went to start.
What would you like an audience to take from this film?
Sean Penn: Whatever they want to, good or bad.
In both the book and the movie, Chris' time in Mexico is left sort of vague. Is there a reason for that?
Sean Penn: One of the significant things about it to Chris, from what I can put together from the book and whatever I followed up with, was just his disappointment in the natural flow of things being interrupted, the damming of the river, braiding it off into these irrigation canals, and all of that. And I think that in the flow of it I didn't question it all that much. It was just a piece of the story that was part of the fabric that hit me and stayed in. That's all.
It's obvious you have much to say as a person and as an artist. How carefully do you have to dance and decide at which level or to what extent you want to articulate your views both artistically in your films and as a visible member of the entertainment industry?
Sean Penn: Well articulating things is what it's - I guess it's one of the first questions to Eddie and I. I don't mean to be too hyperbolic about it but I feel like you're probably looking at two guys who'd have a relative death without their work and their work is articulating something or expressing something. It's like the gentleman's question over here before about my objectivity on the thing. Objectivity and subjectivity are to me another ball and chain potentially to get hung up on this thing. The bottom line is that this thing that I was tracking, in response to his question, was neither objective nor subjective, it was just the wrong paradigm for me. The idea was it's a hunger from deep inside that is touched when somebody - this will that I talk about -- and you can apply it to everything that's happening in the world, you can apply it - let's forget about getting into global politics, just the movies. You know, I'm so dissatisfied. It's like good movie, bad movie, I almost don't care. I just want to feel that the person who made it did and then that'll tell me enough. I'll get exhilarated about life better from seeing that movie on that basis alone. And so I just feel like it's time to - I'd apply this to somebody who was talking about the use of breaking the fourth wall, which I do a couple of times in the movie with the character, and it's like, "Hey man, we're near the end, break every fucking wall if you have to," is where I'm at. And that doesn't mean that I'm going to tell anybody to like that I did it or not like that I did it, or anything else, or that it works or doesn't work every time somebody does do it. I'm proud of the whole thing. It's the way that I wanted to tell it, but for sure we've got to find out what's on the other side of these walls, and that's what he did.
Eddie, what was your song writing process on this film? Were you given cuts of the film and did you write the music for specific scenes or did you just have the theme and went for a general mood? And how long did it take you to knock out the soundtrack for it?
Eddie Vedder: It was kind of all different ways, and one nice thing it just kind of, I don't know how, but it just kind of grew organically and it wasn't I think - I may have been intimidated if Sean were to have said, "We need this, and we need a theme, and it would be nice if it were structured this way or that way, and then it revisits this at the end." None of that happened, or not consciously, and he started finding places to put the songs. I've been learning from listening to the actors and Sean talk. Sean gave the actors - gave Emile, as closely as Sean was paying attention to detail to tell an exacting story being so responsible to Chris, he also gave Emile the freedom to be that person and how would that person be? What I'm saying is, with the music basically he allowed me to write my own lines, a couple of cover songs, so that was nice to - he gave me a few lines that I could interpret. He gave me a lot of freedom, and I think the biggest thing was trust, which was just kind of unspoken. The story is so inspiring, just so inspiring, and the images were inspiring, and it was so easy to focus that it really became kind of an out of body experience. It went real quick and instruments were being handed to me and we were just doing all the takes real quick, and then we'd send it to Sean and he'd find places for it, and ask for a couple more, and it just kind of grew that way. I don't know if I'd want to do this again, because I know it wouldn't be as good as this experience was, so I could just leave it at this. This was great.
If Alaska hadn't been the climax of Chris' life, what would have come next? What would he be doing now?
Sean Penn: For what it's worth, what I think, my romantic vision of it is he's doing what John Krakauer is doing. He'd be writing, he'd be adventuring more and writing about it more, but your guess is as good as mine beyond that.
Eddie Vedder: One of the directions that Sean gave me on - he's leaving the bus before he gets to the river and the river is overflowing -- just a short little note he sent up, and he said, "On this scene, don't be afraid to be too literal with the lyrics. He knows he's leaving, he knows he's leaving the bus, and he's not going back to his parents, and he's not going back to fuck the 16 year old girl" and then in parentheses "I don't know why."
Into the Wild opens September 21st, then expands on October 5th.