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Directors Series-Sean Penn-Into the Wild

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By Thomas J. McLean
It�s been six years since Sean Penn, best known as an Oscar-winning actor for his roles in such films as Mystic River, 21 Grams and Dead Man Walking, last stepped behind the camera to helm a feature. But the delay was intentional and, indeed, essential, as Penn says passion is important in directing.
He found that passion in Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer�s 1996 book about the real-life story of Chris McCandless, who walked away from his family, friends and life to live off the grid, in the wild. Calling himself �Alexander Supertramp,� McCandless� trek took him to Alaska, where he lived four months on his own before he mistakenly ate a poison plant. Trapped by the swollen summer river, he starves to death.
Penn was one of many interested in the film rights, but McCandless� family was not easily won over, and it took about a decade before they gave Penn permission to make the film.
Adapting Krakauer�s book himself, Penn and his crew shot the film over eight months in many of the same locations McCandless visited, from the plains of the Dakotas to southwestern deserts and, finally, to the frozen wilderness of Alaska. The film stars Emile Hirsch as McCandless, with a distinguished cast supporting him that includes Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Kristin Stewart and Hal Holbrook.
With the film almost entirely shot on location, there were plenty of difficulties to overcome. Penn also used technology and visual effects � which seamlessly grace more than 100 shots in the film � to fine effect in creating a film that has won over audiences since its debut at the Toronto Film Festival.
The post-festival buzz on the film has been strong, carrying through a limited release Sept. 21 by Paramount Vantage and generating plenty of interest by the time Below the Line interviewed with Penn during a busy day of press and promotions on the patio of a Beverly Hills hotel room.

Below the Line: There�s a nice visual scope to this movie that�s very big, and kind of stands in contrast to Chris McCandless� internal journey. Was that always part of your conception of this as a film?
Sean Penn: Yeah. I always saw it as a scope movie. That�s largely why we went to the real places, in most cases, because there, it would kind of be one and would not exert effort to feel that it was following the same magnet that (McCandless) was following, and let the camera be grabbing that stuff as you cover the story.
BTL: How did you begin to get the visual scope into concrete terms as you prepared to shoot?
Penn: (Cinematographer) Eric Gautier and I, we watched several films together, just to get a sense of what language we were speaking, and that was helpful. And then we just traveled together. Actually, (production designer) Derek Hill and I actually started this before Eric came into it, and then we were complemented by Eric once he was in. It kind of was self-explanatory. By that I mean the landscapes explained how they were going to work to us. The difficulty of it for me, as a director, was I�m used to framing off of manmade things. And we get out into 360 degrees of equally dynamic background, you�re constantly questioning (what to shoot). I would rely largely on Eric in terms of light relative to tone of scene, and which way was the sun going to be when we wanted it to be.
BTL: What were some of the other difficulties in shooting so much of the film outdoors? Was it difficult to get to a lot of these locations or supply things like electricity to remote areas?
Penn: There was a tremendous logistical juggling routine that had to happen. Thank God all I had to do is demand the imagery and then someone else did it. It was like you had logisticians more than you had just simply a line producer. And there was, for example, the bus, which was a duplicate of the (real) bus. That was miles into the backwoods area where we put that bus. And so we had to bring that in in the wintertime over a series of days with a sled that was carrying the bus in and to do it only between three and five in the morning, two hours a night, when the ice was cold and hard enough to support the sled getting in there and miles to go. So it was things like that, with the river swelling to the point where we had a bridge built to get over it to get into one area. It was a dance.
BTL: And once you�re on location, there�s a lot of motion in the camera. How did you and Eric come up with the visual language, of moving the camera around a lot even though you�re in such remote places?
Penn: It was kind of just the demand of not letting the difficulties get in our way or restrict the dream of how it should look and how it should be covered. It�s a constant challenge, particularly in Alaska, where you have a moving camera even when you have a static camera because you have permafrost. We were shooting on the sides of mountains and we had to hold the camera back from falling over the mountain and taking some of us with it when the dolly tracks broke through the permafrost. Things like that were happening all the time. But in terms of the attack on it, I�m not big on film theory. I like to use every tool in the kit, to be free to use every tool in the kit of instinct, you know, about covering stuff. And I felt this movie was going to allow for that. So there are things that I would articulate differently than Eric would articulate, but then it lands in the same place. He had different things that he was looking out for me on, things that he�d speak better to than I would, in terms of being able to get the imagery that I wanted, and so on. But the main thing was just to say, �Look, let�s not let the difficulty level keep us from making the choice.�
BTL: What was your collaboration like with Eric and how involved were you in the cinematography?
Penn: I was as involved as I�ll ever be. It was the best experience I�ve ever had, not because I haven�t worked with great DPs, but this guy really shared my voice on this and he was a bona fide partner. We both operated (the camera), in part because I like to operate and in part because there were certain shots of composition I felt I could do that weren�t too complicated for me to do, that I had a very specific thing about them. He�s such a great operator that anything real important, that required any kind of idiosyncrasies of skill to it, he was doing. I might have operated 20 percent of the picture, but he did all the rest.
BTL: Was it helpful to be in isolated areas when you�re working with the cast? Did it help people focus on their jobs a little bit more?
Penn: I think it does.
BTL: Did you shoot on film?
Penn: Yeah. 35, 8mm, 16mm.
BTL: Was everything shot on location or did you shoot anything on a stage for this film?
Penn: We did an insert, a few days of insert shooting on a stage, but everything else was on location.
BTL: Costuming, hair and makeup are perhaps suitably invisible in this film, but obviously important. What were your directions for those department heads, Mary Claire Hannan on costuming, Robin Mathews on makeup and Sterfon Demings on hair?
Penn: Make it real. On locations and wardrobe, I think that the biggest part of the job was detective work, to see things that he had and to figure out where he might have gotten them, who along his trip may have given
him something, and so on and so forth. And there was a lot of success that came out of that, things that otherwise would not be explainable.
BTL: What�s your rapport like with Jay Cassidy and what do you think he brought to this particular film?
Penn: He�s my flat-out writing partner in the third stage of writing, the editing of the picture. He always has been. Jay is my longest, most immediate collaborator on the movie. The way we work is, I work above my garage and he comes and I�ve got a guest house and he stays for all the months of that up there. And we worked dog�s hours, so if I got an idea or he does at three in the morning, we wake the other one up and do it.
BTL: Can you talk about how you decided what needed to be done with visual effects work you had Mat Beck and Entity FX do for you?
Penn: My favorite thing about the accessibility of them and the level they�re at today is to use them on things where they�re not going to draw attention to themselves. The biggest effects had to do with the flash flood. My main thing on that is just let me see as little computerization as possible. And often, the things that I like to do with it are related to night stuff, because night exteriors are always subject to artifice, very difficult to do. Unless you actually have the brightest moon of all time, it�s very difficult to give something any depth. I do like to let things fall into black, but there�s times that you want some depth so you can light it up a little.
BTL: There were a couple of points where you had multi-panel shots and the writing on the screen in particular. Where did the ideas for those come from?
Penn: The writing was just something that I always just saw for this movie. I think I liked it in something (Bernardo) Bertolucci did, and it looks like that probably was a trigger. And then the multipanels, I�ve just always liked that, split screening and stuff. It�s fun to watch, to me.
BTL: In recreating the bus Chris lived in, how did make it look like the real thing but still be functional for your shoot?
Penn: Well, functionally, the real bus could have worked, but we all know we�d have had to cut holes in it and trample it all.
BTL: You brought Michael Brook in to score the film at first. Why did you later bring in Kaki King and Eddie Vedder? What were you looking for from them and what did they contribute to the score?
Penn: I always wished you could take a credit of �director,� and the editor is �editor,� because we all do a little of each other�s jobs. And with the director, everybody does a lot of your job. If there�s not this idea of single cohesion starting with the guy who�s making the movie, then why that ought to be with a composer is something I�ve felt for a long time.
So I wanted to have a collaboration of people. That was my initial thing. More and more as it went along, the sonics of what (Brook) was doing were working so well. But then there were things that Kaki King brought into it, and then when I got Eddie involved, he went hand in hand with what Michael and to a lesser degree Kaki had already been doing. So the three of them have contributions that way. I think 90 percent of the score is Michael�s, of the instrumental score, but I think there�s a shared 10 percent that�s Eddie and Kaki. And then, of course, the songs are Eddie�s.
BTL: Did you guys use a digital intermediate on this film?
Penn: We did.
BTL: What did you find that useful for?
Penn: Starting with getting a real idea of the tone you had on your visuals right from the go. You really get an idea of what you have. And it�s just being able to get the movie to look like what you want it to look like. That�s really what it comes down to.
BTL: Do you plan to continue to direct?
Penn: I will if these things (cigarettes) don�t kill me first. I got a few things I�m tinkering with. It takes some time. It�s like falling in love. You can�t just fall in love with something whenever you feel like it.

Written by Tom McLean

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