Movie about a 1990 graduate puts Emory in the spotlight
By Paige P. Parvin
As Emile Hirsch strolls the sidewalks of the Quadrangle, he looks a heck of a lot more like an Emory student than a movie star. If not for the stylish assistants orbiting him, furiously answering cell phones and typing into PDAs as they coordinate his every move, anyone happening by might not look at him twice.
Which is a good thing, since an Emory graduate is his latest role. A slight, wiry twenty-two-year-old with shaggy hair and a winning smile, Hirsch, casual in low-slung jeans and a T-shirt, has no trouble pulling it off.
His presence on the Quad echoes the University’s 2006 Commencement, when actor-director Sean Penn lent the event considerable notoriety by filming backdrop footage for his new movie, Into the Wild. Released in theaters this fall, the film is based on the story of Christopher McCandless 90C, an Emory graduate who forsook all social convention and struck out on a fiercely independent adventure the summer after his senior year, eventually meeting a harsh end in the Alaskan wilderness.
Hirsch visited Atlanta in September to promote the release of the film, appearing before an audience packed with students at an exclusive Emory premiere. But as he walked the campus, he also seemed intent on absorbing something of the place where McCandless lived, for a time, the safe, seemingly ordinary life of a college student.
After he graduated, little about McCandless could be called ordinary. Without a word to his family, he gave away his remaining college funds—some $24,000—to OXFAM, packed most of his things into his 1982 Datsun, and hit the road, apparently with no need of an itinerary. For nearly two years, he zigzagged the West, hitching rides and working odd jobs under the name Alexander Supertramp. McCandless documented much of this period in journals and postcards to friends he made on the road, which later became the basis for Jon Krakauer’s well-known book about McCandless, Into the Wild.
In April 1992, McCandless set out on the ultimate challenge: he walked alone into the Alaskan tundra, where he had told friends he intended to “live off the land” for a couple of months. For more than ninety days, he succeeded remarkably well, camping in an abandoned bus, eating small game and what vegetation he could forage. But in August, when he tried to hike out of the wilderness, a swollen river blocked his way; shortly thereafter, a poisonous plant sickened him and sealed his fate. In September, moose hunters found his emaciated remains in the bus.
According to media reports, Penn pursued McCandless’s story from the day he happened to pick up Krakauer’s book in a Los Angeles bookstore. But he patiently waited until the McCandless family was ready to work with a director and see the film made. It was a decade before he finally obtained the blessing of Chris’s parents and his younger sister, Carine.
Although many readers of Krakauer’s book have judged McCandless to be crazy, unbalanced, and narcissistic, Penn has said he was drawn to the project because of other qualities Chris exhibited: independence, altruism, and most of all, an almost archetypal wanderlust.
“Whether that wanderlust comes from trauma, family, or from some purely positive place, it ties in with our unified desire to set out along that road,” he told National Geographic Adventure magazine.
Hirsch, too, caught McCandless’s spirit during the weeks of filming, which pushed him to his limits of physical and emotional endurance. “I think it’s the adventure he had that sparks people’s imaginations,” he said in an interview.
Emory graduates will have no trouble recognizing the Commencement setting, with its blue tent and packed Quad, in the opening moments of the film. The Atlanta Pipe Band, the bagpipers who lead every procession, received an honorarium for twelve seconds of silver screen fame. University Brand Manager David McClurkin worked closely with the film crew.
“We are just fortunate,” he says, “that we had this extraordinary kid who went on this extraordinary adventure, had a beautiful book written about it, and one of the most talented people in Hollywood was passionate about doing the project.”