Since starting History of Cinema all the way back in 2014, I’ve had quite the number of commenters asking me about my own personal favourite film. While I have – maybe unsurprisingly – watched quite a lot of films in my time, only one deserves the top spot for me, and that is 2007’s ‘Into the Wild’.
Sean Penn, adapting author Jon Krakauer’s best-selling 1996 novel ‘Into the Wild’, tells the inspired-by-reality tale of Chris McCandless, a graduate student of Emory University in Atlanta, who – of his own accord – boldly drove out into the American wilderness in the Spring of 1990.
By working with director of photography Eric Gautier, who had also shot Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries two years before, Penn brings to life the awe-inspiring landscapes of Krakauer’s expansive novel. In another inspired choice, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder was brought onboard to score the film, which landed the veteran musician with his first Golden Globe win for “Best Original Song” for ‘Guaranteed’ at the 65th Golden Globe Awards in 2008.
Bolstered by an outstanding cast in William Hurt, Catherine Keener, Marcia Gay Harden, and (“Best Supporting Actor” Oscar Nominee) Hal Holbrook, Emile Hirsch gives a committed, gruelling perfomance as McCandless, originally being approached by Penn on account of an equally committed performance in 2006’s Alpha Dog, as seedy drug dealer Johnny Truelove.
A follower of the History of Cinema page for a while now, Emile was kind enough to answer a few burning questions that had remained in my mind ever since my first watch back in 2007.
Were you familiar with the story of Christopher McCandless before taking on the role?
Emile Hirsch: I was nine years old in Santa Fe New Mexico, watching a new show called 2020. I watched this segment on Chris McCandless that they had made, once the book by Jon Krakauer had come out. It was haunting and beautiful and honestly pretty heavy for a nine-year-old to watch. It filled me with sadness but also awe at this older guy having so much courage and passion to live, but so much sorrow at the thought of him away from his family, and dying as he did. When Sean Penn gave me the book to read years later, a tingling came to me halfway through the book as I realized this was the story I had watched all those years before. It felt meant to be. Cause let’s be honest, that was like the one time I’d ever watched 2020 as a kid!
How did Sean Penn approach you about the idea for the movie? What was it about the pitch that caught your eye?
Emile Hirsch: He didn’t tell me when he first met me what it was for, he shrouded it all in the idea that he had greatly appreciated my performance in Lords of Dogtown, he knew the real-life character I played that movie, Jay Adams, so almost appreciated the strange and particular performance I had busted my ass trying to give there. It was funny when the movie came out, nobody really knew who I was or who Jay was, so they didn’t quite understand just how far I had to go to nail that role. But Sean did. After hanging out a few times, he slowly brought up the idea. I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited in my whole life than the moment Sean let me read the script and asked me if I would play Chris McCandless to my face– he was dead serious when he asked me because he knew how hard it would be. And I just looked him right in the eye and said, “Yes, I will.”
Did you yourself ever consider to abandon your life and drive out into the middle of nowhere, as McCandless did?
Emile Hirsch: I think like a lot of us, I’ve thought about it all the time. Often I’ll feel lonely or bored and just go driving, letting wherever I go lead the way. But I’m by nature also very different than Chris was. I still struggle to do things alone, I know it sounds ridiculous, but I love the company of people. I just like people, to me, everything is more fun and engaging when I’m with someone I care about or love. So a lot of learning about the part was retraining myself to spend a long period of time in isolation, going camping alone for a few weeks, no phone, seeing what that was like. And at times it was pretty scary, but it also cured me of a lifelong phobia perhaps I had harboured of being alone. I’m not afraid of the dark, at all, anymore.
What kind of research did you have to do to get into the mind of Christopher McCandless? Did you have the chance to talk to the McCandless family?
Emile Hirsch: I went and met with McCandless’ family. They have a complex history with each other, and I wanted to respect Carine and Walt and Billie’s different perspectives on Chris and each other. I just wanted them to be as honest with me as I could. In the case with Carine, I remember telling her my own life story, the pain I still had close to the surface about my parent’s divorce, my frustrations with my own father at the time – and I think she felt comfortable telling me her story since I was willing to tell her mine. It was a two-way street. Carine was a beautiful person and a wonderful sister who loved her brother with all her heart, she made that so clear to me. And Walt and Billie were very driven and gifted people, who struggled with the same issues many parents do while raising very headstrong children. Now that I’m a father myself, I look at it from both perspectives in a different way.
Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack for ‘Into The Wild’ is just incredible. What are your thoughts on it?
Emile Hirsch: My favourite film soundtrack is the Into The Wild soundtrack. Guaranteed, it has always been special to me, the set of songs. It’s beautiful. I’ve listened so many times. I know that sounds a bit indulgent on my part, but it is bonafide amazing. Eddie poured his heart and soul into the album in a way that still brings tears to my eyes when I listen to it. It was a beautiful creative achievement that he did, and he was clearly uniquely inspired by the film.
You’ve worked alongside Sean Penn both as an actor and a director. How different were both experiences?
Emile Hirsch: Working with Sean on Milk, we didn’t really talk much. I respect every actor’s process so I am loathed to really get into any details of how they work as to never spoil the alchemy or the magic of performance. But I will say that we kind of did our thing – we were comfortable leaving each other alone though, in a strange way, I think because we knew we had already been on this ridiculously intimate journey together. I’ve said it before, but Sean was uniquely gifted as a director to make Into The Wild. Other directors simply wouldn’t have had the physical courage that he regularly displayed on location, the tenaciousness, but also the freedom of spirit to experiment to take risks.
Even briefly scrolling through YouTube comments related to the film, you can read the stories of people inspired to travel the world after watching the movie – 12 years on, how do you feel about that impact? Do fans continue to reach out with their stories?
Emile Hirsch: People message me every day about the movie, literally since the day it came out. I’m humbled and so thankful that I could have been a part of a movie that has touched and continues to touch so many people. People write me how it changed their perspectives on life, the way they live, made them happier, improved their family lives, made them believe in something greater than ourselves– so many things. It’s humbling.
What was it was like, travelling to the real Magic Bus, where Christopher spent his last moments?
Emile Hirsch: I went with a guide and visited the magic bus, it was a special day. I and a guy went out on a snowmobile together and checked it out. But for the film, we had to recreate the bus, for a variety of reasons like permits and location and the fact that the bus looked different even then from when Chris lived in it. But visiting the real place I definitely held close to me.
What was the hardest part of shooting?
Emile Hirsch: The weight loss was the hardest part of the shoot, by far. I was literally not eating and doing two spin classes a day. At one point I had to call my doctor because every time I sat up my vision went totally orange for ten seconds or so. I called my doctor and he told me to take a teaspoon of salt to level out my blood pressure. It worked. But psychologically it took more willpower and discipline than anything I’ve ever had to do. All I thought about every day was food.
What was the most significant experience you took from filming the movie?
Emile Hirsch: I don’t necessarily know that there was one single most significant experience from the movie, but there is one symbolically that comes to my mind. When we were shooting on the Colorado River, I had to do a scene where I did rapids. I was scared out of my mind but made it on my first three tries that day. That night we slept on the banks of the river on mats, and I couldn’t sleep and the next day, I tried it the rapids again and I fell. I realised my life jacket while looking cool, was pretty vintage and didn’t really work, as I saw it floating a foot or two above me as I was underwater. I was struggling to the surface, but the water was pulling me down, I started to gulp water and really panic. After a little more struggling, my head popped above the water and I was coughing and trying to breathe at the same time. But then a blurry image was coming towards me– it was Sean, leaning over the side of the little tugboat, with his hand out. I lifted my hand and in one strong motion, he pulled me onto the boat. He’s a good man.
On December the 10th, 2014, my brother would have turned 31 years old. He had passed away in early 2014, and having something of an existential crisis on his birthday that particular year, I decided to buy the domain to this website at home in Brazil. In April 2015, I started the History of Cinema Instagram account, which would also be followed by sister accounts History of Action and History of Series in 2016 and 2018 respectively. Five years on, and we’ve collectively reached over one million followers, from our home in America to the world. Without you, I would not have been able to make my personal mission – to provoke conversation, to inform and to discuss – a reality.
So, thank you – and here’s to five more years!