Penn hears footsteps, follows them

Filmmaker retraces an emotional trek across country for 'Wild'

"By the book" took on a whole new meaning for Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch and the makers of Paramount Vantage's "Into the Wild," which opens Sept. 21.

The movie, adapted by Penn from the Jon Krakauer book, tells the story of Christopher McCandless (Hirsch), who abandoned his possessions and traveled America in the early 1990s 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 — 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, onscreen and off.

In Alaska, McCandless was dropped off on a road named the Stampede Trail by 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.

"That's the magic of this movie: It was so very un-Hollywood," Kelly said.

Concluded executive producer Frank Hildebrand: "It mirrored (McCandless') trip in many ways and his trials. 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."