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Wild Ride

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Penn at the Helm

Because Into the Wild Director Sean Penn opted to film in the actual places where the true story of the film took place, the crew was faced with the challenge of getting to the remote sites. Penn estimates the team traveled thousands of miles by air, road, and train, and hundreds of miles by foot. Pictured: Camera operator Jacques Jouffret leads crewmates to an Alaskan location.
Photo: Francois Duhamel. All photos © 2007 by PARAMOUNT VANTAGE, a Division of PARAMOUNT PICTURES. All Rights Reserved.

When Sean Penn’s long-held desire to make a movie of Jon Krakauer’s novel about iconoclastic adventurer Chris McCandless finally came true, the question became, “How, exactly?” The true story, after all, revolves around a solitary figure tramping through the remotest hinterlands in three countries and dozens of states, eventually disappearing, living off the land, and dying in Alaska. McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch, ages and loses massive amounts of weight in the course of the story — transforming physically and spiritually during his journey.

With a modest budget, Penn faced two basic choices. He could film Into the Wild in a couple of financing-friendly locations, such as Utah or Vancouver, British Columbia, that could be dressed up to resemble many of the places McCandless visited and rely heavily on visual effects and other cinematic tricks, or he could actually go to most of those places, film in rugged countryside under less-than-pristine conditions, and push his schedule to accommodate Hirsch’s radical weight loss and weather changes in those locations. He chose the latter approach, even though it meant spreading his shooting schedule out over more than 140 days during the course of eight months and returning four times to the same location in Alaska — highly unusual and logistically complicated choices.

“I was not interested in photographing beard growth applied with glue, snow applied with computers, weight gain and loss achieved with body replacement, or Utah for Alaska,” Penn recently told millimeter. “From the beginning, it felt essential that the schedule for the film be lengthy enough to shoot real places and real things in as close to realtime and in chronological order as possible. There’s simply no other way to stumble on new ideas and make a movie without coloring by numbers quite as well as having the real thing in front of you. So we shot over a period of eight months to achieve the feeling of a story that takes place over a two-year period. It was extremely complicated and equally exhilarating.

“The burden of achieving this was firmly on the shoulders of [executive producer] John Kelly and [first AD] David Webb. Even at eight months, it was really a miracle the way they structured the schedule. We shot in no less than 36 distinctly separate locations, most of which were far from support and creature comforts. In practical terms, this meant full crew moves approximately every two weeks; thousands of miles traveled by air, road, and train; and hundreds [of miles] traveled by foot. I had never been involved in anything quite like it, nor had most of the crew.”

Kelly was responsibile for the logistical aspects of such an unusual production schedule, and he says it was a visit to the actual location of McCandless’ final base camp in the Alaskan bush that inspired Penn to commit to this taxing production approach.

The team shot on three cameras—an Aaton 35-III, an Arricam Lite, and an
Arriflex 435ES (pictured, top)—and a trio of Fujifilm Super 35 stocks.


“Sean insisted on keeping it as authentic as possible,” Kelly says. “We had to schedule the entire movie around [Hirsch’s] weight loss and facial-hair growth, and also changing weather conditions in Alaska and wheat growth in South Dakota. But we were [still] considering shooting in Vancouver or Salt Lake City when we scouted the location [in Alaska] of the real bus [the actual rusted-out, vintage Fairbanks, Alaska, transit bus in which McCandless took refuge while in the wilderness], mainly for research and inspiration. While there, we found a location nearby where Sean decided to shoot, and at that point, I knew Sean was wholeheartedly committed to going to as many of the real locations as he could. That changed the whole project because we had to rebudget and reschedule the whole thing, including figuring out how to make it work to return to Alaska multiple times as the weather changed and Emile changed.”

Penn’s team chose to essentially stash gear in what Kelly calls “the middle of nowhere” for months at a time, in order to return there periodically to use it for a couple of weeks here and there. “We had rental gear in the lower 48 [states], and then a second set of rental gear — grip and electric and some generators and things — sent up to near where the location was where we recreated [the bus and McCandless’ camp], about 4 hours north of Anchorage and 2 hours south of Fairbanks in a little village called Cantwell,” Kelly says. “Our equipment would sit there for one or two months, then we would use it for one or two weeks on our scheduled dates, and then we would disappear, and the equipment would stay there until we returned again.”

The company’s method of accessing the site also changed each time it visited the location. At the end of April 2006, the entire crew — close to 100 people, according to Kelly — rode in on snowmobiles. A few months later, as the snow pack melted, they relied on all-terrain vehicles called Unimogs, high-profile 4×4 trucks, and track-propelled vehicles. During the summer, they largely hiked in and out. They also faced the same logistical problem that McCandless faced in his real adventure — they had to cross a quiet brook to access their site, only to find it transformed into a raging river a few months later, leaving Penn’s team to seek permission from Alaskan state officials about building a method for crossing the water safely.

“When we found the location, we were told we would have a river about 2ft. to 3ft. wide and 1ft. deep, but between that first week of shooting and the end of May, locals start telling us this little river will shortly become close to 40ft. wide and 4ft. deep,” Kelly says. “That put us in panic mode about how to get there, because there was no other way to get to the site other than crossing the river, and we had to move both people and equipment.

“We discussed building a temporary bridge, but that was far too expensive and would take far longer than the time we had. We talked about using flatbed trucks, but ice flow from the mountains meant that wouldn’t work, and then we asked if we could build a culvert bridge, where we could divert water under a mound of dirt, but the state refused that request. Finally, they gave us a bridge permit to actually drag a rail car from one side to the other over the river using a large bulldozer. It was amazing seeing things like that done by the local construction crew in Alaska. We were very fortunate to find a plan for getting stuff across a 40ft. to 50ft. wide river like that. Otherwise, we never would have been able to cross it in the summer.”

The documentary shooting style envisioned by Penn and DP Eric Gautier involved extensive handheld work under a variety of unusual and grueling conditions.

Editing on the road

In any case, the built-in delays in the lengthy schedule helped the project editorially, according to Penn and editor Jay Cassidy. Those delays gave the filmmakers time to craft earlier sections of the movie while waiting to film later sections, which was crucial — especially because the viewing of dailies was a sporadic affair when the production headed into particularly remote locations.

“With all my films, I like to have my editor on location as much as possible,” Penn says. “In Alaska, it was simply not practical, but we did have a couple of weeks of down time spread throughout that section of the shoot where I was able to regroup with [Cassidy] in Los Angeles and begin to assemble some sequences. That was extremely valuable. For the rest of the locations, Jay was generally with us, and I was able to end my shooting days in an editing room and begin to experiment with the footage. Another thing we could do once or twice a month was put together a show reel between 10 to 15 minutes long, catching up the crew on what they were spending so much time involved in and, in general, boost morale after hours — buy a couple of cases of beer, turn off the lights, and watch some of your work in front of you. There is added value doing this sort of thing to begin experiencing the audience relationship to the film from the get-go.”

Large sections of the movie take place in locations other than Alaska — particularly South Dakota, Mexico, the Mojave Desert, and other portions of Southern California. Most of the time when the production was based in Alaska, Cassidy remained ensconced either in Los Angeles or at Penn’s editorial offices in Marin County, Calif., but he traveled with the company during visits to most of the other locations.

That meant, as Cassidy puts it, “taking editorial on the road,” by cutting on a Macintosh PowerBook G4 running Avid Media Composer software with 1TB of FireWire drive storage, while relying on dailies sent on FireWire drives from Company 3, Santa Monica, Calif., the company that handled both the dailies process and the final DI. Cassidy played those dailies for Penn and key members of the crew in various hotel rooms around the country through a Microtech CX6 DLP projector onto a traveling Da-Lite Screen Company 60in.-wide portable film screen.

“I went with the company to Arizona twice, South Dakota, Oregon twice, the California desert, and other places,” Cassidy says. “In particular, I went with them when the trips were substantial and they were expecting to be in one location for more than a week. I would set up editorial in our hotel, and work that way with Sean. The whole editorial thing is more portable than it was a few years ago. It’s shrunk down amazingly, actually. My assistant, Dana Mulligan, who lives in Marin County where we were headquartered [for editorial], would prepare material [after it was telecined at Company 3] and send media back and forth to me on [30GB G-Technology FireWire drives] on location. We would run dailies from the Avid to the DLP projector, which was small enough to travel everywhere with me. The screen was the clumsiest thing, but it just traveled around with us on a truck.”

Regardless of his location, Cassidy insists that the film’s final story, which incorporates flashbacks and nonlinear developments, as well as graphic elements showing entries from McCandless’ diary, sort of cut itself together. By that, he means that filmmakers first built what was essentially a linear story out of Penn’s original screenplay, and then they sought opportunities to move elements around when those opportunities presented themselves.

“The film was shot as a linear story, and that is how the first assembly was put together,” the editor says. “But we always talked about the fact that there were opportunities for intercutting the Alaska story with Chris’ story of leaving [Emory University] and traveling through the western United States. So the structure that exists in the final version of the film came from an editorial rethinking. I think the idea of telling the story in two timeframes allowed each to inform the other. Something that would happen in Alaska was cut against something else that Chris went through in his trip across the West. We found relationships between those two stories by putting them together. You have a big challenge in any editorial process, on any movie, to listen to what the material is telling you as the filmmaker, and then hone things so that the viewer can respond to that. For us, the discovery of the film’s structure was the result of that listening.”

The team chose Carl Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses, Angenieux Optimo zooms, and a Century Canon zoom because of the unusual lighting situations throughout the shoot and the need for extraordinary contrast.


The final product relies extensively on cinematographer Eric Gautier’s sweeping outdoor photography, designed as a crucial narrative element to illustrate in detail the environment in which McCandless placed himself. Penn says Gautier’s work first struck him when he saw The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) — a film that Penn feels visually evoked “the spirit” of what he was seeking for Into the Wild.

“The relationship between a director and cinematographer is a complicated one, more often than not,” Penn says. “In Eric Gautier, I found someone with whom it was quite simple. When he read my script, he understood very clearly what movie I was trying to make. It was almost immediately a seamless partnership of shared thought, composition, color, storytelling — and, not least importantly, a shared will to shoot from the hip; to shoot in existing light, with multiple cameras; and to shoot everything all the time. The value of having a cinematographer like that is immeasurable.”

Gautier used three cameras throughout the production — an Aaton 35-III, an Arricam Lite, and an Arriflex 435ES — shooting onto a trio of Fujifilm Super 35 (2:35 aspect ratio, 3-perf) stocks (Eterna 250D, Eterna 400T, and Eterna 500T). He says his choices of Carl Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses, Angenieux Optimo zooms (17mm-80mm and 24mm-290mm), and a Century Canon zoom (150mm-600mm) were made out of his need for extraordinary contrast. “I was able to shoot in very complicated light situations, where I couldn’t add any fill light,” he says.

The DP says he found certain similarities between production on Into the Wild and The Motorcycle Diaries, which was also a “road picture” of sorts.

“We were shooting on the roads and in the cities [for The Motorcycle Diaries],” Gautier says. “The big difference on Sean Penn’s movie is that it takes place in the wild — in locations that are very hard to reach, off the road, and [far from] civilization. We shot four times in Alaska to capture different seasons, on the Colorado River, in all kinds of deserts in Nevada, Arizona, California, and Mexico. So the most complicated part of my work was organization and logistics — lighting, camera, grips, crews, equipment, and the schedule generally. Sometimes, I felt more like a building site foreman than an artist.”

But, Gautier adds, those logistical complexities were necessary in order to allow him to creatively “translate the sensations of heat, humidity, tiredness, weakness, strength, cold — all those feelings of different seasons” onto film.

“Nature had to be nice and beautiful sometimes in this picture, and tough and hostile at other times,” Gautier says. “It’s the fight of the lead character — to find his place out of civilization, in the wilderness. One challenge Sean and I had was to shoot huge and wide shots of nature, where Chris McCandless is nothing but a speck, and at the same time, get close to him, as intimate as possible, [close enough to] feel his breath, almost reading his mind. So, it was two different scales.

“We tried shooting in a coherent style, but a documentary style. The rule was, no rehearsing, lots of improvisation [within the confines of scenarios designed by Penn at the start of each shooting day], a few takes — and sometimes only one take. Most of the time, with two cameras always running, we were able to catch anything that might happen almost by accident.”

Despite the logistics involved with moving equipment in and out, Gautier was able to make liberal use of slow-motion rigs, cranes, long lenses, and other tools that were part of a strategy to give the film a “fictional palette” within the context of this documentary approach.

“We tried to be as realistic as we could, and yet, Sean wanted the film to be fiction, and definitely not an actual documentary,” Gautier says. “For that reason, we tried using these [cranes, lenses, and rigs] to make this mixing as coherent as possible. My main choice was to use as few lights as possible, [relying largely] on natural lighting. I did have to use, from time to time, larger amounts of light for particular scenes, such as the scene where [McCandless] realizes he has been poisoned. That was shot with a big artificial sun to provide an important flare in the lens. The image has a violent, nightmare look. Actually, we shot that scene in the rain [at the location in the Alaska bush], so you can imagine how complicated it was to get lights and generators on set. But, generally, my idea was to shoot interiors, as much as I could, in the same conditions as outdoors, which made me dependent on outside weather. Key light is always coming from outside, through windows, [during interior scenes] throughout this movie.”

Company 3, Santa Monica, Calif., handled the dailies process and the DI. The filmmakers saw dailies sporadically, yet Gautier’s in-camera decisions and sweeping cinematography required only subtle adjustments in DI—due in part to universal diligence about color during the dailies process.

The DI

The digital intermediate was performed by colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3, based on a template for the palette that he and dailies colorist Sean Beach worked out with Penn, Gautier, Cassidy, and production designer Derek Hill. Cassidy and Gautier both agree that Company 3 and Penn’s team were “so diligent about color all the way through dailies,” in Cassidy’s words, that the DI sessions were quick and efficient.

For the DI, filmmakers started with an initial color pass of their conformed 2K scans, using an Avid output of the cut as color reference, and then, they performed a more complete second color pass, output the movie to HD for preview screening purposes, and continued fine-tuning the film through a series of additional sessions at Company 3.

“The DI was pretty fast, largely because of Stefan Sonnenfeld’s talent and intelligence, and also because I prefer to expose the negative very precisely,” Gautier says. “[A big reason] why I don’t believe in making the image in post is because you have less imagination [in that setting] than when you are on set, with the crew, working with all departments, and watching and listening to the director work with the actors. Final color timing is obviously very important, but only to finalize what was in your imagination and vision when you were on set.”

Indeed, Penn echoes this sentiment by suggesting that the DI was essentially the culmination of an ongoing, highly collaborative editing process that began during the earliest days of shooting.

“For me, the greatest advantage of working off a DI is that your editing takes place somewhere close to what will be the final tone of the look,” Penn says. “[Gautier’s choices] in terms of those things best achieved in-camera, and those things shot to be completed in the DI process, varied. But, in general, I would say that the in-camera look remained the foundation of every other choice we made. Where Stefan Sonnenfeld and his team came in, and everybody that works with him will tell you this, is at that vital moment where the cinematographer, the editor, and the director are losing the freshness of their eye with the material. Stefan’s team has the skill, the taste, and the talent to continue the filmmaker’s fresh-eyed vision. Simply put, they ‘got’ what we were looking for, and were extremely helpful in our being able to achieve it.”

For a breakdown of a visual effects sequence from Into the Wild, click here.

Penn at the Helm

Into the Wild represents Sean Penn’s first directorial effort since 2001’s The Pledge, and a lot has changed in the art and science of filmmaking during those six years — such as the infiltration of the digital intermediate process into the equation and the growing use of digital camera technology, among other things.

While Penn did opt for a DI, however, he says he never entertained the thought of shooting the movie digitally.

“The way the film was financed, we had to jump straight into shooting in a committed and aggressive approach, and make adjustments as necessary,” Penn says. “So I never considered shooting this movie in HD — if for no other reason than I don’t have a command of the technology. I wasn’t against Dylan going electric, but I wouldn’t recommend it to just any acoustic guitar player. I’m not well enough acquainted with HD technology to have fallen in love with it, but I’ve had a long-term affair with film.”

Penn will admit, however, to being a more mature director than he was in 2001, and he credits the rigors of Into the Wild with making him a more knowledgeable, efficient, and philosophical helmer.

“Filmmaking, like martial arts and the handling of weapons, is a perishable skill,” he says. “If you’re not doing it every day, you’re losing a bit of it every day. But, in the creative arts, this is largely a good thing. It’s exhilarating to learn and re-learn simultaneously. It’s something like muscle memory — one might not have the strength they left the gym with a year earlier, but the knowledge is stored in the cells, and each time one re-approaches the gym, they know how to get stronger faster, better, more efficiently. That’s been my experience.

“Having said that, each film has a set of challenges that are unique, and therefore can’t be practiced, and Into the Wild certainly had its share of that — so much so that I think it benefited from the sensation similar to what a director experiences when making his or her first film. Only this time, when presented with the challenge, the trucks, and the bodies looking for leadership, I didn’t have the same silent thought that I had on my first film, which was, ‘Holy shit, where are the adults? Who is going to call the plumber?’ This time around, I knew I was either going to find that person in the mirror, or this was going to be a very long shoot.”