Sean Penn is back where he wants to be: behind the camera, not in front of it.
Penn's fourth filmmaking effort, "Into the Wild," is his most accomplished yet, a sign that for all the accolades labeling him the finest actor of his generation, directing could be his real calling.
Adapted by Penn from Jon Krakauer's best-seller, "Into the Wild" combines grand American vistas with the heartbreaking real-life story of a fierce young idealist whose two-year trek of abstinent adventure ended in tragedy in Alaska.
Christopher McCandless was a rebellious spirit who came from a fairly privileged background yet was drawn to the ascetic tenets set forth by such writers as Leo Tolstoy, Jack London and Henry David Thoreau. He set off on his quest with an aim to repudiate material society and live on his own terms.
The story has resonated with Penn for more than a decade, since "Into the Wild" was published in 1996. Penn found it while browsing at a bookstore and was captivated by its cover photograph showing an old school bus in the snowy interior of Alaska, where McCandless took shelter for nearly four months before his death from starvation.
"I've been a longtime advocate of judging a book by its cover," Penn, 47, said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. "Something about the bus I could say even looked familiar. So I grabbed it and ended up reading it cover to cover twice in a row that night and started trying to get the film rights the next morning. That became a long process."
A 10-year-long process. Penn met with Krakauer, who was adamant that he would not cut a deal for the film rights without the approval of McCandless' parents, Walt and Billie McCandless.
Krakauer and the McCandless family met with Penn several times over a month and a half. Penn said he felt they were on the verge of an agreement to make the film when the project was abruptly halted.
"I got a call from Billie saying that she had a dream indicating that Chris didn't want a movie made at that time," Penn said. "I said to her if I didn't respect dreams, I wouldn't make movies. But I left her with one thing, which was I would never give up my hunger to make it, and if anything ever changed, call me. A decade passed, and I got a call."
Penn said he never asked why they changed their minds. He was just glad to move ahead with the film, which came together quickly after that.
"Into the Wild" stars Emile Hirsch as McCandless, who graduates from Emory University in 1990 and tells his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) he is thinking of going on to law school.
Instead, the 22-year-old gives $24,000 &
the bulk of the savings in his school fund &
to charity, then hits the road, eventually abandoning his car and most of his possessions and burning whatever cash he had.
McCandless wanders the continent, hitchhiking, hopping trains, taking the occasional job and canoeing to Mexico. He builds an extended family out of big-hearted strangers he meets along the way, among them a hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), a grain-elevator operator (Vince Vaughn) and a lonesome widower (Hal Holbrook).
Over the next two years, McCandless' parents and sister (Jena Malone) have no clue of his whereabouts. McCandless adopts the eccentric alias "Alexander Supertramp," eventually aiming for Alaska, where living off the land would present the ultimate test of self-denial.
McCandless arrives in April 1992. Four months later, his body is discovered in the bus where he had lived and starved to death, possibly as a result of eating poisonous roots.
Penn tends toward dark stories, both those he acts in such as "Mystic River," which earned him a best-actor Academy Award, and the previous three he directed, "The Indian Runner," "The Crossing Guard" and "The Pledge."
As Krakauer did with the book, though, the broody Penn has made "Into the Wild" both gloomily stark and nobly exultant.
"Celebratory is the word I constantly use. It's the word I used when I was speaking with the parents, and it's why I felt even though initially they had backed out, some part of me knew that this thing just hungered to get out and be shared with people," Penn said.
Hirsch, who delivers a career-making performance, said he found inspiration for the demanding role in the body of work Penn has created on screen.
"Anything that I was going through, that was hard or that would make me question what I was doing, all I had to do was think of him and look at him and know that in the same situation if he were in my position, he would be doing it and doing it better," Hirsch said. "That was a huge motivator and really kept me going."
Attracted by McCandless' entire journey, not just its severe ending, Penn said much of the appeal lay in the young man's ferocious desire to strip away the trappings of his cozy upbringing.
Penn cites a photograph McCandless shot of himself shortly before he died, holding a farewell note that says he had a happy life and offering a blessing to all.
"He looks terrible, he's like concentration-camp-level emaciated. And the look in his eye was so kind of glorious," Penn said. "The idea of somebody facing a lesson about themselves, a lesson about purpose, a life lesson like that with so little time, no time, to do anything other than be willing to know it. That was just gigantic to me.
"I guess it was the completion of the story that appealed to me the most. The way that he was able to birth himself and bring himself to a wizened old age in two years."
McCandless' death prompted harsh criticism from Alaskans and others who said he brought it on himself out of arrogance. Detractors said McCandless snubbed his nose at nature by tramping ill-prepared into a harsh landscape.
Yet McCandless pulled off an accomplishment few Alaskans could match, surviving as long as he did with scant provisions and equipment, Penn said.
"One hundred and thirteen days alone in this kind of terrain is quite an achievement," Penn said.
"There's no place left in the world that's off the map. You find that place by not using a map. He defined the challenge the way he wanted it. I'm a guy, I never read the directions on how to use a movie camera. If I'd had to, I just wouldn't have been interested. I wanted to make the mistakes and do it and find it until it worked for me. And I think that's the way he looked at this."
Sean Penn's back behind the lens