Published at: Oct. 1, 2007, 6:59 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
I’ve been a fan of Sean Penn’s work about as long as Sean Penn’s been making movies. BAD BOYS was a huuuuuuuuge film for me and my friends. Huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge.
And so was TAPS. And so was FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. And so was RACING WITH THE MOON. He was a big deal to movie nerds, a sort of sneering Kid Bogart with impeccable comic timing and drama chops. He seemed like the one safe bet for superstardom out of all the young actors who were just getting a foothold at the time.
And then he zagged.
The reason I think he’s an icon, one of the genuine greats in the business, is because he sort of continually, willfully, gracefully zags his way through his career choices. It’s real hard to pigeonhole Sean Penn because he’s perpetually changing as a performer and as an artist. You always get the feeling watching his work that Penn’s real gift is honesty. That when he plays something, whatever it is, he commits to it in a way that makes him honest. He believes everything he plays, and he’s so open... so able to invite you into what he’s feeling from moment to moment... such a great raw nerve.
I’ve read profiles of Penn over the years and watched interviews with him, including an Actor’s Studio appearance that was sent to me on DVD. And I think he’s a guarded, engaging interview in the right circumstances. I’ve seen him make some really great appearances over the years and of course I’ve seen the bad press that seems to inevitably pile up on someone like Penn. And all of the personal stuff just sort of seems like white noise at this point.
Meanwhile, I get the impression of him from his work that he’s trying to build a filmography of substance while remembering to have fun occasionally and not take everything so seriously. Like, you know, showing up on VIVA LA BAM in one of the most surreal images in that show’s history. That’s like seeing Brando do a CANDID CAMERA appearance. And I sort of think that’s awesome. I wish that had happened, come to think of it.
The night I went to see INTO THE WILD, Sean Penn was there, and there was a small reception afterwards. I was introduced to him to chat.
Honestly, I don’t remember much of it. It was just so odd being pushed together with this icon so casually at a small table in the middle of this theater lobby. Like speed dating. It seemed to go well enough considering I was just stammering, and mainly we talked about THE INDIAN RUNNER, his first film, a favorite of mine. It’s not just my previous favorite Penn film, it’s also my favorite Viggo Mortensen work ever. We talked about that film’s score and Eddie Vedder’s score for this one, and finally, Penn laughed and shook my hand a few times. “I can’t even tell you... you’re really striking some chords for me. We should definitely talk again.” Knowing his natural reticence to do much press, that seemed amazing to me, and after he left, my friends from Paramount Vantage confirmed it for me. “Sean said he’d like to talk more with Drew from the Internet.” And I’ve been looking forward to it ever since.
Finally, the day of the film’s premiere in Hollywood at the Director’s Guild Theater, Penn held a press conference at the Four Seasons with Eddie Vedder, and then they did some round-table interviews afterwards. By the time I showed up at the Four Seasons in the afternoon, the roundtables were just ending, and as I arrived on the second floor, there was a group of people waiting to get on the elevator. I’m sure I totally reacted, too, as I realized that Eddie Vedder was standing directly in front of me. I mean... shit, that’s Eddie Vedder!
And that’s about as long as I could think about it, because I had to check in. They asked me to wait for a few minutes and gave me a copy of the new issue of OUTDOOR with INTO THE WILD on the cover. And, honestly, the article they have on it is one of the best pieces of film journalism I’ve read in a long time. Clean, intimate, a great look at the process with this particular team of filmmakers.
It was maybe five minutes before a publicist led me down the hall to a room where it had been set up for a quiet one-on-one conversation, and when I walked in, I was struck again by the sheer surreality of his very Sean Penn-ness.
I mean, so many filmmakers have gotten so much mileage off that mug of his that it’s really quite odd to sit across from a man-sized version of the movie star. There’s famous... and then there’s Sean Penn famous.
His casual manner put me at ease right away, though, and I snapped the recorder on as soon as I stepped in and we shook hands.
MORIARTY: So when I saw it the first time, it was still early days. It really hadn’t played yet.
SEAN PENN: Yeah.
MORIARTY: And people really hadn’t started giving you feedback. It has to be really gratifying on this side of Toronto and Telluride, on the eve of release, to see that a lot of people are really embracing it.
SEAN PENN: Yeah.
MORIARTY: I think it’s... there’s just such a generosity to the film. Are you getting that back from the audiences you’ve seen it with? Is the reaction what you expected?
SEAN PENN: It’s what I hoped for. I realized at Telluride, there was this thing. They do this... have you ever been there?
MORIARTY: I haven’t been to that one, no.
SEAN PENN: Oh, man, you hear that this is the festival of festivals, you know? “We’re the only real...” So the first movie I saw there was one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen. Julian Schnabel’s film [THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY], and I’m like, “Oh, well, they do have good taste.” So then they start showing the movie, and it’s going great, and they asked if I would approve them doing what they like to do with certain movies, an outdoor free screening against the Rockies, you know? They set up the screen in the park...
SEAN PENN: And of course, this makes sense with this movie in a romantic sense and everything else, but...
Finally, I thought, “Chris McCandless wants me to do a free screening. Okay. Go for it.” And now I’ve got the elements, I’ve got people walking down the street who are going to watch ten minutes of it. And that ten minutes, if that’s all they see of it, they’ll never get the flow. There’s all these things you think about, but... let’s go for it. So all these people are camped out, you know, in their sleeping bags or whatever, in this park, and more people showed up for this than for any of the other movies, so it was a big deal. And at the start, it was great, and then... BOOOM! The rain comes falling. Just before the movie’s gonna start, and I mean pouring. And nobody moved. And again, you know, you’re supposed to be happy with that. But I start to think to myself, “You know, if I’d wanted all this sound and wetness and all of this filter of rain in front of it, I’d have put it in the movie.” So now I’m thinking, “This is Birkenstock bullshit. This is a self-celebration.” You know? “Oh, I was at Woodstock. That’s how I saw INTO THE WILD.” But there’s not a meditation between the audience and the movie. It’s just, “Aren’t we cool in the rain?” And then I think, “Well, that’s not a very fair hostility. I don’t like feeling that way. What’s really bothering me here?” And what was bothering me was, for the first time, I was feeling separation anxiety from a movie.
As proud as I am of my other movies, I always wanted to have ten people relate to them, so I had to stay in there throughout the life of the movies and be the ten by myself. And with this subject, part of what grabbed me was that this was everybody’s movie in the first place. You know? That wanderlust thing. This was a movie where if it wasn’t shared, it wasn’t shit. So then I kinda got happy with it.
And so what the good reaction is, you know, from one who, for good reasons and bad, suffers from feeling misunderstood most of the time, is “Fuck, I’m not totally alien. I’m not all alone here.” So that’s been good.
MORIARTY: Well, it’s the first time as a writer/director that you’ve ever worked with a piece of material that had this sort of weight of expectation. The book is beloved...
SEAN PENN: Yeah, there’s that, too.
MORIARTY: I think it’s a strong choice and, really, the only choice you can make for it as a film, to leave [author of the book Jon] Krakauer out. He’s a real presence in the book, but the film is just Chris and his journey. How early did you know that was the way your film would work?
SEAN PENN: From go.
MORIARTY: From go. Okay.
SEAN PENN: There were a couple of things behind that. For one, I felt like Krakauer didn’t have my camera there, which would bridge my... whatever part of it you want to... I don’t, I don’t want to choose to accept it as autobiography, but whatever part of it demands a personal investment in the hope that your personal experience somehow unifies it in some way, right? What you know is what you know in your heart and your mind, so you’ve got to bring that to it. So my camera would do that. The other thing that it does, just in a practical sense... it had stuck with me for a long time that quote that I think was attributed to Coppola a bout the short story being a much mor reliable form to adapt than a novel to a film...
SEAN PENN: So when you do take Jon’s book and you take out those chapters, you’re down to a pebble between your fingers, and that... you can do the whole thing.
MORIARTY: And it really breathes.
SEAN PENN: Yeah.
MORIARTY: Your film... it takes its time on the road, instead of just being like some greatest hits “this is what I learned here, this is what I learned here” bullshit...
SEAN PENN: Right.
MORIARTY: You let it have its own pace, and it takes its time, and... one of the very first reviews we were sent from someone who had seen it, he wrote about how odd the structure was at the beginning. You’ve got two or three major scenes, and only then does a “Chapter One” title appear. It’s respectful of laying out the details for you.
So was the big question you asked yourself when you sat down to write, “What was it about Chris that led him to live and die like this?”
SEAN PENN: Certainly that’s a big part of it. A big part of it is identifying how much of it is flight and how much of it is pursuit. And in terms of script structure and editorially, the idea is that I think it would be sort of generous early on to find some way to establish the language of the movie. I always... I can really name the films that spoke to me offhand, but there were films that didn’t pay attention to... presentation titles and here’s the credits and then here’s the narrative. There were certainly films that spoke to me that were like that. It’s like you wanna say to the audience, “This is a movie that takes its time. Relax in your seat and go with how it goes.” It just evolved naturally that way.
MORIARTY: I think the film says some really... I’m a fairly new parent, and I know you’re a dad... and there’s something here that really speaks to me. His journey really encapsulates both the best and the worst of what’s possible with your kids. What you hope for them. What you fear. He pays with his life for something that he chooses to do... but he chooses. He makes strong choices about who he wants to be. He becomes a person of substance in that pursuit... but he makes a few horrendous decisions. Really insanely bad choices. A few. It’s very bittersweet. As a director, taking Emile through that... you, as an actor, have pushed yourself to so many dark or extreme places, and now you’re taking someone else thorugh that experience. What was that process? It’s by far the best thing he’s done, and it’s like you woke something up in him as an actor.
SEAN PENN: And I think that Chris’s story and Jon’s book woke something up in Emile. There’s something... he was... that’s what I was looking for. There’s something about the values of him that worked for the playing of the part. Looking the way he does, the experiences he’s had... at this point in his life, he was up for this. And you know, being able to photograph a guy on the cusp of boy to man and see that up onscreen... that’s what I was drawn to in Bertolucci’s film with Liv Tyler. There’s this very brief moment with a young actor, and either you can get it or you can’t.
But he was so up for it. I think I helped, but I think that it was inherent in the material. If I helped, it was because I said, “We’re not going to shoot this all in one location. We’re not going to have safety nets. That thing you read? Yeah, we’re really going to do that.”
MORIARTY: Well, it’s amazing the places you took him and the things you actually went and did. In an age where we’re almost numbed by what computers can accomplish on the technical cutting edge of film. You went the other direction, and that’s what you can’t help but react to, especially on a good big screen in the theater: it’s real.
SEAN PENN: Which is why I did it. You start as an audience member. Someone said to me, “Why did you do the split screens in the film?”
(long pause, little shrug)
I like ‘em. I find ‘em fun as an audience. And when fun is right, you get to do it. The same thing here... I know this is going to be eight months of our life, so that eight months better count for something. We’re not just going to half-do this. Eddie [Vedder] and I were doing a press conference earlier, and someone asked “What are you going to do next?” And Eddie said, “There’s no point buying a chair if you’re not going to sit in it.” Well, I like to buy and sit in the chair at the same time. That was the wilderness in this movie. I wanted that experience, and I wanted it for the actors and for everybody involved. And I do believe that when you do that, it finds its way up onscreen.
MORIARTY: It’s one thing to read it and get an idea of what Chris did. Krakauer is a damn good writer. Seeing it on film, though, and seeing where he went, seeing what he did... I found it almost spiritual. And going to those places for real, it must have influenced and changed your approach to the film even as you were making it.
SEAN PENN: There’s no question about it. I tell this story about Eric Gautier [the film’s cinematographer] coming up to my place a few months before we started shooting, and we were just looking at movies, talking about what to do.
And I put in a call to a friend of mine, I hadn’t seen in a long time, one of the great visual directors ever... Carroll Ballard.
MORIARTY: Oh, man. Of course.
SEAN PENN: Among the pictures that really excited me when I was looking forward to making this picture was NEVER CRY WOLF. To this day, there are images in that film that no NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC special can touch. And so I asked if, at the end of this week Eric and I were spending together, getting to know each other, if he and I could come up to Carol’s cabin. Have lunch with him. Just talk with him about... whatever came up. Film. Shooting in Alaska. And we ending up having a very nice talk with him. He was the perfect sage on this thing. As we left, Carroll put his hand on my shoulder, and he said, “Alaska’s gonna change you.” And... today, the way I look at that is, here’s this movie about the pursuit of authenticity, breaking away from the conventional, freedom, rite of passage, learning the great lessons of life... all these things that I’m only in a certain stage of myself. And so do I come into these places loaded with my own fraudulence, my own ego? Yes. But the great thing about the wilderness is that it’s relentlessly authentic, and you are outnumbered.
SEAN PENN: And it will strip you. You might have to go back to restrip later, but it’s powerful. And it’s powerful to see how it affects other people. The love that people had on this crew for this story allowed me to really fulfill the assumption that being a director is not a popularity contest. I could be very demanding and... and sometimes ornery... and they never fell out of love with the movie we were making. They might have fallen well out of love with me, but not the film. So even the leadership positions had to be deferred to the wilderness itself.
MORIARTY: It’s one of those things where I’m impressed that the family allowed you to tell the story the way you told it. I don’t think it’s especially flattering. You really dig into the source of Chris’s discontent and what it is that he’s specifically rejecting. And it doesn’t flinch. Was it hard for them when they first saw the film? Or in trusting you over the decade you’ve been trying to make this, did they let go of their need to manage...
SEAN PENN: (nods)
MORIARTY: They did?
SEAN PENN: It’s a real tribute to what is ultimately their selfless devotion to their son, who they loved. The one thing I was mindful of when I showed it... when I first showed it to them... if you subtract from it all those things that you called unflinching, they’re still sitting there watching a movie about their dead son. Which I can’t imagine. They’ve been endlessly supportive. They’ve had varied personal reactions to it ranging from sorrow to anger... all sorts of emotional reactions... and they’ve had some ups and downs with it. I’m very grateful to them, and it felt like they knew... somehow... even when they made the decision not to make the movie ten years ago, I always knew they would. I knew they would eventually. Somehow, it just had to be. And then it did happen. And I’m looking forward to... they’re coming to the premiere tonight.
MORIARTY: That’s great.
SEAN PENN: Yeah, I’m really glad they’re coming. Krakauer’s going to be there...
MORIARTY: You know, it’s a great supporting cast. One of the things I love about the film is the way characters drop in and out of Alexander’s experience, and there are two actors in particular where it kind of blows me away what you got out of them. One is Brian Dierker... who is just awesome. He is such a great fin in the movie. So genuine, and with such soul in the scenes he shares with Emile. Um... the other is Zach [Galifianakis]. I love him as a stand-up, but I never would have imagined anyone using him like this. And it pays off. It’s great sort of counter-casting. What was your process in putting this cast together?
SEAN PENN: In the case of the two of them, and it’s sort of true of all the actors... with Brian, it was all about making him relax and making him understand what I thought was great about him.
MORIARTY: I know you really had to fight for him. Art [Linson, producer of the film] was telling me he resisted that casting all the way up to...
SEAN PENN: Did he admit that? (laughs)
MORIARTY: He kept saying to you, “No, you can’t use this guy! I’ll fly someone up to test them for you.”
SEAN PENN: (still laughing) Oh, that’s such a relief. I’ve been keeping Art’s secret. In front of Brian, I thanked him again. I didn’t say anything. Oh, he’ll regret that.
SEAN PENN: Yeah, yeah. And then with Zach... I had seen Zach in some silly comedy that my sons watched about 483 times about a bunch of snow guides with Lee Majors in it. And I wrote his name down. I waited through the credits and wrote his name down, and I had it... so then, when I found myself casting all the guys around Vince [Vaughn], I knew I was going to do some... it’s stupid to hire Vince Vaughn and not do some improvising. And I wanted to make sure Vince had somebody who could bounce. Zach was so grounded that I found I could linger on that guy rather than use him as an off-camera sounding board for Vince. Zach turned out to be such a committed actor...
At this point, Penn’s publicist stepped in to tell us to wrap it up.
SEAN PENN: He was... he... I’ll tell you a very funny story. We’re in Carthage, South Dakota, shooting the harvest stuff and the grain elevator stuff. Zack would come in with his chew in his mouth and his beard and his hat down like this, and he blended irhgt in with all the guys down there. They had maybe 180 people. We had as big a crew as they ahd a town. Because we were. You know, you could make a movie about a crew coming in and being bigger than the town, and this was the perfect one because it’s in the middle of nowhere and just filled with these sweetheart people. Conservative as hell.
SEAN PENN: So we decide that, as gratitude for all the help they’re going to be and all that we’ll be asking of them over the next two weeks of shooting in tow... you know, keeping them up at night with our lights and the noise... we’re going to throw a barbecue with the town and the crew. So we pick an afternoon, and we’re playing beer-cup football, where you’ve got to keep your beer in your hand and not spill it as you play. Everybody’s having a great time together.
And there, in the middle of everything, are these two 200-year-old matriarchs of the town, sitting side-by-side, these little spinsters. And there’s Zach. And they asked me who he was because he couldn’t be from Hollywood. They were sure he was one of them, but they oughta know everybody in town. And I kind of confirmed it. “I don’t know. I’ll find out.” So I go over to Zack and I tell him, and I can see that he likes that. I tell him to go talk to them, right?
So I see him go over, and I don’t know what Zach says, but I can see the shock on their faces. He tells me later that when he leaned in close, he said, “I have got to find a gay bar.”
MORIARTY: (laughs) Thanks, man. I’ve been looking forward to talking to you ever since I saw the movie.
SEAN PENN: Oh, and as you know, it’s very appreciated by us, what you wrote. We’re grateful.
MORIARTY: Hey, I just wish you well with it as it rolls out. And go, Hal Holbrook!
SEAN PENN: (laughs)
And just like that, they had to hustle him out of the room and off to the premiere. It was waaaaaaaaaay too short an interview, but that’s just because it felt like it was really going well. I’ve always heard that Penn was a “tough interview,” and nothing could be further from the truth. I thought he was relaxed, engaging, and genuinely visibly proud of his movie. You could just tell how much he enjoys talking about it, thinking about it, and how he was actually looking forward to screening it that night.
Thanks, Paramount Vantage for putting this one together. It was a great opportunity, and he more than lived up to my hopes in person.