Emory Report
October 1, 2007
Volume 60, Number 6

Q&A: Emile Hirsch
Emile Hirsch stars as Christopher McCandless in “Into the Wild,” a film adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s bestseller that chronicles the true story of the Emory alumnus who journeys to Alaska to live in the wilderness, where he eventually perishes. Hirsch speaks with Emory Report about wanderlust, working with director Sean Penn, and sharing a scene with a 9-foot-tall, 1,000-pound co-star.

How did you approach playing Chris in an authentic way but still remain enigmatic?

I tried to learn what I could about Chris: talking to his family; going over his journal and the photos of him. It’s trying to absorb information and give it interpretation.

How did you prepare
physically for this role?
A lot of it is getting your body in shape. In terms of [scenes such as kayaking the Colorado River] rapids — that was more of just willpower and learning to face challenges that are mentally daunting and fear-inspiring. One of the things I took away from the movie is that a lot of the time you feel like you can’t do something, but you really can. It’s only your own fears that are holding you back.

What was it like to work with Sean Penn, who was with you every step of the way — including boating down the rapids?
He was the general with the mad glint in his eye. He was really on a mission to make this film authentically as pure and honest as he could make it. And he inspires people around him to do their best.

Did going to all the places McCandless visited help you get into the character?
Hirsch: Sean says it best when he said, “Everything was made more authentic because nature is relentlessly authentic.” You can’t help but be affected by that. There were times when it felt so real. Where we were — it was such a tangible environment, so non-theoretical, it brought out the reality in all the situations.

What were the best and worst parts of the whole experience?
The best day and worst day were the same day. The worst day was the day where I had to work with the grizzly bear — this was a 9-foot-tall, 1,000-pound grizzly bear. Even though he was trained, he was a method actor ­— very prone to improvising. The best day was the end of that day, when I walked away with my limbs intact.

Do you think Chris McCandless was coming home?
I won’t say that I know; no one knows where he was going. He was alone in Alaska for 113 days. After doing something like that, it could profoundly change you. I will say I think he would have gone back to society.

Has experiencing Chris’ journey rubbed off on you?
Identifying with that need for wanderlust is something I responded to, the urge for adventure, the “itchy feet.” I think it’s the adventures that he had that sparks people’s imaginations — what can I accomplish, where can I go?

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October 1, 2007
Emory’s cameo in ‘Into the Wild’ becomes reality through staff efforts

By kim urquhart

Those who attended the 2006 Commencement ceremony will no doubt recall a familiar face moving inconspicuously around the Quad with movie cameras in tow. It was soon evident that this figure was Sean Penn, who was on campus filming a scene for “Into The Wild” which opens in Atlanta on Oct.15.

Emory students, however, were treated to a sneak peek of the finished product that stars Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless, the Emory graduate who donated his savings to charity, abandoned most of his possessions and struck out on a quest that eventually led to his death in the Alaskan wilderness. Penn did not make a return trip to campus, but Hirsch did — speaking to students at the film’s special Emory premiere.

Hirsch was introduced by David McClurkin, one of the Emory staff members who helped further Penn’s goal to make the film as authentic as possible. The film is closely based on the 1996 book of the same name by Jon Krakauer, who first detailed McCandless’ unique odyssey for Outside Magazine in 1993.

After securing the family’s blessings — Penn was so haunted by McCandless’ story that he pursued the project for 10 years — the cast and crew crisscrossed North America to shoot at 36 locations, including Emory.

Emory does not often allow filming on campus, especially not at an event as important as Commencement. But when River Road Entertainment approached the University about the project, a deal was eventually brokered.

“This was an exceptional situation because of Sean Penn’s involvement, because he’s well known and has a good reputation, and of course the fact that the film is about an Emory student,” said McClurkin, who as brand manager is responsible for fielding all outside requests to shoot film, video or photography on campus. The University has standard guidelines for permission and pricing, McClurkin said, and the primary criteria for accepting such a project is whether it advances Emory’s mission and strategic plan.

In the case of “Into the Wild,” McClurkin said, “They gave me the preliminary script written by Sean Penn to review first, because I wanted to make sure it was a neutral to positive portrayal of Emory. And it appeared to be positive, and a positive portrayal of the student.”

After several weeks of negotiation, led by Associate General Counsel Chris Kellner, the University agreed to allow filming at Commencement. “We were very restrictive about what they could do at Commencement, because we didn’t want there to be any distraction from the ceremony,” said McClurkin. “Throughout the entire experience Penn and River Road Entertainment were gracious, cooperative, sensible and helpful.”

Emory requested that the film crew be as unobtrusive as possible, and not a word was mentioned that the famed actor-director would be on the premises. Penn donned a baseball cap and sunglasses; two cameras on tripods and crew of about eight moved quietly about the Quad.

“Over the course of the ceremony, more and more people began to recognize Sean Penn,” McClurkin recalled. “But it became a positive experience. Penn was being so good about not taking away from the importance of the event.”

Penn even attended a reception with film studies graduates. “After Penn got the sense that it was okay for him to be recognized, and to move around a bit more freely, then he was comfortable answering people’s questions about what he was doing there. He answered graciously but briefly — he was so focused on filming,” McClurkin said.

During the campus filming, the crew used only over-the-head of the crowd shots where no single person would be recognized. So why was the graduation scene with the actors filmed at Rice University?

McClurkin suspects it’s so the producers could have more control. “We thought it would be disruptive to have William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden sitting in the audience at graduation,” he said. The filming was also dependent on the stars’ schedules and various logistical considerations. “We offered to let them shoot the day before graduation, but logistically they could not.”

The production company wanted to rent Emory’s podium for the commencement shots, “but we were reluctant, even with insurance, to ship this to another place,” McClurkin said. A replica of Emory’s podium was eventually constructed at Rice.

In an effort to make the movie as authentic as possible, the producers also asked for various Emory-branded commencement paraphernalia such as, ribbons, robes and bedels. Director of Convocation Tricia Stultz received a request for 2,000 gowns. The film also used footage of the traditional Commencement bagpipes, and paid an honorarium to the Atlanta Pipe Band for a 12-second clip.

McClurkin hopes the film will also be an opportunity to introduce Emory to the world.

“Because of my position as brand manager, I think this might be one of the most cost-effective and extraordinary opportunities to have Emory be seen all over the world,” he said.

For more information, visit www.emory.edu/intothewild.cfm.