The Call of the Wild: Backstory
Washington Post, Sunday, 9/13/1992
"Trapped in Wild, Starving Hiker Wrote: 'I Am All Alone'"
T.A. Badger, Associated Press
I remember when this broke. I was living in Washington, DC, and had just begun teaching high school in nearby Hyattsville, Maryland. The story gripped me right away, as did a more detailed follow-up nine days later ("A Thirst for Knowledge Leads to Death in Wilderness" on 9/22/1992; Chris was from nearby Annandale, Virginia). I think I felt akin to Chris McCandless, not just because he was born in 1968, and graduated from high school in 1986, college in 1990, but because I understood some of his choices, and could also see how easily something like this could have ended so badly. I hadn't tried to live in the wild (though I had often wondered about it, and still do), but I'm sure it was something similar that had beckoned me to try crossing Africa rather than attend graduate school following Tufts. Indeed, in the fall of 1990 I had actually inscribed the Henry David Thoreau "I went to the woods" quote on the inside cover of my travel journal, you know, the one about "sucking the marrow out of life" and "getting to the whole and genuine meanness of it." I wasn't the extremist or thrillseeker that Chris was, but I did end up having a few close calls in Africa where things could have easily gone the other way—most notably, when my travel mates and I were chased down and shot at by the Malian army, mistaken for Tuareg gunrunners, as we crossed the Sahara, and another time when we convinced some Ghanians to take us out shark fishing and found ourselves miles out to sea in a dugout canoe, caught in a raging thunderstorm that nearly capsized our boat. Unlike most of the people we met as we crossed the continent, we were largely unprepared, and rather oblivious to the dangers we faced, all of them self-chosen. But we, like Chris, always had the best stories. When Chris turned up dead in Alaska that September, I instinctively knew why he'd gone "into the wild," and how unprepared he probably was for what he encountered up North. And yet, as tragic as the story was, I was envious, and rather than see it as a cautionary tale, I romanticized it. A certain part of me longed to do the same thing!
The Post follow-up stroy (9/22/1992)
The types of decisions you make at 22
The funny thing is, I wasn't the only one who had this reaction, and the story was well known among my generation for years before the book Into the Wild came out. A lot of us read about it in the Post, or The New York Times, or People magazine, and some of us caught the more detailed articles in Outside magazine ("Death of an Innocent," Jon Krakauer, January 1993), or more likely, in The New Yorker ("I Now Walk Into the Wild," Chip Brown, February 1993). Whatever the case, I distinctly remember that my circle of friends used to reference Chris all the time back in the early nineties. Whether it was over late night beers at Hawk 'n' Dove or the Tune Inn on Pennsylvania Avenue, or the random Monday night when my sister would come over our place to watch Northern Exposure, the story of Chris McCandless lived on well after he'd been forgotten by the media. In some ways, he had become a true Gen-X cult figure: if you asked a twenty-something in the early 1990s if they'd ever heard of Chris McCandless, or the guy who took the rice and the books out into the woods of Alaska, odds are they would know exactly whom you were talking about, and had a rather romantic view of him; whereas most of our parents' generation had never heard of him, and if they did, thought him foolish and more a tragic figure than a romantic one. I remember wondering, even back then, if I could somehow, someday, make a pilgrimage up to Alaska, and make my way out to the bus where he lived, and died, that summer of 1992.
Sometime in 1996, back living in Massachusetts, I was taking a class at the South Amherst Public Library. I was early, and to kill time I browsed through the new hardcover arrivals. And that was when I first saw that unforgettable, unintentionally misleading, cover of Into the Wild, with its high angle shot of the abandoned bus, "Fairbanks 142," covered in snow (many people I've come across, even those who actually read the book, are so imprinted by this cover shot that they think Chris froze to death). When I read the cover, I knew immediately what it was—finally, a book about the Chris McCandless story. I was thrilled. And so grateful that Jon Krakauer had followed up his original Outside article with a more detailed and thorough account. Like most people who respond to this story, I read it in about two sittings. It was also around this time that I became interested in filmmaking, and documentary filmmaking in particular, and was lucky enough to one day catch a Ross McElwee marathon on some cable channel. It was revelation. I had previously thought of the genre largely in terms of the Ken Burns style, and hoped to make my own historical docs employing talking heads, location shots, and archival photos. Obviously, this changed when I saw Sherman's March. I decided then that retracing the travels of Chris McCandless, shooting it in a direct cinema style, could potentially make for a really interesting documentary. Of course, I wasn't ready to make it yet—it needed time to germinate, and I needed time to become a better filmmaker. And so I kept it in the back of my mind, hoping to someday be able to produce it.
Production on The Political Dr. Seuss
kept me busy for a few years
Years passed. I went back to school for my Master's degree, got married, had my first child, made another film, had a second child, moved a couple times. And in the meantime, twice, I actually tried to make the film. The first time was in the summer of 2002. In the planning stages, I wrote a letter to Jon Krakauer asking him for advice:
Dear Mr. Krakauer:
I was born in 1968. This fact might seem insignificant, but it has everything to do with why I've never been able to let go of the Chris McCandless story...What I hope to achieve is a film that is thoughtful, meditative, complex, undramatic, symbolic, and reflexive—an exploration into who Chris McCandless was, and what he has come to represent, both to his own generation and across generations...Although I hope to retrace his journeys this summer, I have yet to commit myself entirely, and would like to correspond with you and/or Walter and Billie McCandless before making a final decision. I would hope to have the opportunity at some point, as you did in writing the book, to earn their trust, and likewise, to allow them, should they desire it, access to my film in all its stages...
A day or so later the phone rang, and much to my surprise, it was Jon Krakauer on the line. He told me that not only was I not the first person to have the idea of making a film on the McCandless story, but that so many people had approached the McCandlesses about a film since Into the Wild was published, that by now their "eyes glazed over" with every new proposal. Subsequently, Jon had fallen into the role of contact person for the family, receiving myriad letters about possible films, and sending them all along to the McCandlesses for evaluation, and all of them, for ultimate rejection. He said that he liked my idea, and my approach to the subject, but added that there was little chance the McCandlesses would give my letter serious consideration. Indeed, they had decided, definitively, that there would never be a film made about Chris. They were happy with his book. Why risk a bad movie? Krakauer went on to tell me that a movie had actually been in the works a year or so earlier. It was to be directed by Sean Penn, and was to star the new "it boy" at the time, Leonardo DeCaprio, as Chris; I was told that Marlon Brando was even slated to make a cameo as Ronald Franz (Hal Holbrook's role). But, Krakauer went on, the night before all the papers were going to be signed, Chris's mother had a nightmare, and the next morning the McCandless family pulled the plug on the whole deal, deciding right then and there that no movie would ever be made—not Sean Penn's, or anyone else's.
Sean Penn�s Into the Wild crew at the Detrital Wash, Arizona
Krakauer went on to suggest, quite genuinely so it seemed at the time, that I make another documentary, chose another story, "that there are lots of other great ones to tell." Well, that phone call, taken alongside my deteriorating financial state and some familial concerns, put the brakes on the documentary for the summer of 2002. Before I set off in the footsteps of McCandless, I needed to first figure out if I could still make the film without the participation of Jon Krakauer or the family. Well, another year passed, and by the summer of 2003, after a great deal of thought and consideration, and another fruitless series of letters to the McCandlesses, I nonetheless concluded that I still wanted to make the film, and had little choice but to do it on my own. Once again, I began planning my itinerary. Of course, the best laid schemes of mice and men, as they say, often go astray, and so did mine. Karen and I were planning on moving to Boston at the end of the summer, once I got back from Alaska, but because we couldn't work out an extra month on our lease without signing on for another year, we had to move mid-summer, undermining my entire production schedule. Anyway, the upshot of it was that another summer passed with no McCandless film. And, with my Dr. Seuss film in full swing in 2004, another summer after that. The following year, too, passed without a film, as my wife's job took us out of the country, and my Ph.D. comps consumed me. Well, I passed my exams, got my dissertation prospectus approved and filed, and I even got a co-production offer from WETA to move forward with my documentary about the history of college football. But there was still Chris McCandless, and the film I needed to get out of my system.
But did I still have it in me? Two children. A good marriage. A comfortable home life. Why did I need to carry a backpack and a bunch of camera equipment across the country, hitchhiking no less, and then, risk serious injury by attempting to cross the Teklanika at full flood? A good question. Moreover, did I even think about Chris McCandless the same way I once had? Approaching forty, did I now see him in a somewhat different light than I had at twenty-four? And what about me—was I the same person who once dreamed of venturing out to the bus? Anyway, that twenty-something waxing eloquent over pints in a Capitol Hill bar about McCandless and his dream of "breaking away from society," who had perhaps read a bit too much Tolstoy and Thoreau himself, he was now approaching middle age, and that part of him was slipping away, more so with every passing year, with every new commitment and deeper responsibility—paternal, financial, or otherwise. I knew if another year passed without me making this film, and especially if I got deep into a big-budget PBS documentary that might take four or five years to finish, I might never make it.
In any case, sometime in later 2005, around the holidays, I decided once and for all that I was going to shoot the documentary the following summer, heading out once my BU commitments were done. I once again started to move forward with my production plans, this time for May 2006, still feeling a bit ambivalent about the whole thing, but confident that it was something I still needed to do. And then in March, on a whim, I did the following Google search: "Chris McCandless film." Needless to say, I was utterly shocked to see the first page of results, and discover that Sean Penn was making his film after all. I clicked on the one of the top handful of hits, an article from Variety: "Par 'Wild' About Penn." I couldn't believe my eyes. I was devastated. After mustering up all my energies to finally commit to making the film that summer, I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. My immediate thought was: Well, that's it, I waited too long and now I've blown it. I mean, how do you compete with the resources of Paramount? This was now going to be the Chris McCandless film, and I would have to live with that fact. Not a pleasant realization. For two days I felt a sense of loss, and in a way came to realize how badly I had still wanted to make the film, and go through it all, even at thirty-seven.
As usual, this wave of disappointment gave way to further resolve, and I decided I could, and should, still make the film. I sold myself on the idea that the two of them—the Hollywood docudrama, and the low-budget independent documentary—could possibly co-exist. Maybe they could speak to each other in some interesting way? It took about forty-eight hours, but in the end I decided to continue forward. I kept planning, finished my semester, and walked out my door with a backpack full of blank DVCAM tapes on a sunny Monday morning, the eighth of May 2006.
And so, for anyone who hasn't already stopped reading this seemingly endless and rather self-indulgent essay of one man's filmmaking odyssey, that's the backstory of The Call of the Wild.