In an age of digital shortcuts and studio interference, Penn refused to compromise, insisting on filming in the places McCandless had been. 'Into the Wild' takes place in Alaska, and it would be filmed in Alaska. It followed McCandless to locations as far-flung as the Salton Sea in the California desert and Carthage, South Dakota, where the film's production crew doubled the size of the town. "It just felt like the only way to make the movie. That's all," says Penn. "It always felt worth the sacrifice."
Alaskans often shake their heads at misrepresentations of their state in the media, and there is a fair bit of anticipatory skepticism about the movie. Dave Talerico, the mayor of Denali Borough (population 2,000, and roughly the size of Maryland), grew up in Roslyn, Washington, the stand-in for the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, in the show 'Northern Exposure.' So he wasn't surprised when Penn decided to shoot the Alaska scenes 50 miles south of where McCandless actually died, in the tiny town of Cantwell, where the landscape conformed more readily to the Hollywood vision of the Last Frontier.
"What I don't understand with all these books and movies," Talerico tells me, "is why they don't tell the stories of the people who survive. The ones who have forged a life here?"
Cantwell lies on the Alaska Railroad line just south of Denali National Park. Filming at the bus was too remote for the technical demands of a movie shoot; the Alaska Range lies low and distant on the horizon. Cantwell, by contrast, is right next to the buttress of mountains that form Denali's foothills. It's a picture-perfect vision of the Alaskan wilderness – a stark contrast from the grim, swampy, mosquito-swarmed site of McCandless's death.
It was probably an inevitable irony that, despite its best intentions, a production from the lower 48 would have some of the same difficulties in the Alaskan interior as its subject. Wayne Westerberg, a friend, the recipient of the postcard in which McCandless announced that the boy was walking "into the wild," was hired as a consultant and then as a union truck driver for the production. "There were lots of logistical problems shooting on location," says Westerberg, a former grain-elevator operator who is played by Vince Vaughn in the film. "We had to drive through four feet of water just to get between base camp and the shoot. We swamped a lot of vehicles and brought a lot back to the rental company in pieces." Then there were issues with the "wildlife": the trained grizzly stuck on the wrong side of a river who nearly needed an airlift, reindeer not moving on cue, trained wolves that didn't act wolfy enough.
Whatever the challenges, the resulting film is visually stunning, the landscapes of the American West and far north shot in epic scope and intimate detail, the soundtrack haunted by Eddie Vedder's throaty growl. The part of McCandless fell to 22-year-old Emile Hirsch. To match McCandless's sinewy, athletic build Hirsch worked out obsessively, losing 26 pounds before filming even began. During the course of production, as he paced McCandless's descent into starvation, he shed another 15, in a chilling transformation. "By the end I was down to 115 pounds," says Hirsch. "I had no energy at all. It changes everything about you: the way you think, the way you treat others, the way you are alone."
Alongside a busload of famous actors (Vaughn, William Hurt, Hal Holbrook, Catherine Keener), the real characters and haunts of the American underclass have cameos, giving the film at times a documentary feel. At every encounter in his nomadic wanderings – from soup kitchens and train yards to the vast landscapes of the Grand Canyon and the Alaska Range – we see McCandless flitting through people's lives, leaving them changed before vanishing. But whereas Krakauer showed both sides of McCandless – the hapless tenderfoot and the enlightened eternal seeker – Penn presents only the latter version. His McCandless is almost Christlike. It is a deeply mythic take on a character who is largely a cipher. Clearly, in Sean Penn's eyes, 'Into the Wild' is a story about something profound and universal in the human spirit, a longing for freedom and a pure connection to the natural world that's been lost.
"I'm not trying to romanticize him," insists Penn, who has little patience for McCandless's critics. "There are few people in Alaska who have done anything comparable to what Chris did. We're not talking about a week with another buddy and ATVs, hunting. This was 113 days, 79 of them by choice. And he did pretty damn well. Did he make mistakes? Sure. A lot of people do. But however many miles he needed to walk to become a man was up to him. So I think he did very well by any standard, including Alaskan."