Directors in the Oscar race

With “Into the Wild,” his fourth film as a director, Penn proves his ability to create the same memorable, mournful and probingly human story from behind the camera as in front of it. Since 1991′s “The Indian Runner,” a raw tale of sibling conflict, Penn has delivered distinctive directorial visions every four or five years: “The Crossing Guard” (1995) and “The Pledge” (2001). But with “Wild,” an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s chronicle of Christopher McCandless’ journey, Penn takes a lighter, more freewheeling approach that’s resonated with audiences and critics in a broader, more visceral way than his previous efforts.

GENESIS: “I read the book when it came out, tried to get the rights. … I had written so much of it in my head over the years subconsciously that the first draft was (written in) less than a month. I got a lot of input from (Krakauer and the McCandless family), then I went back and did what became our shooting draft, and then that changed every day.”

VISION: “I was interested in an American journey that breathed. You can lose track of your narrative and be a kind of Alaskan travelogue. It was always in my head (to) shoot things that I thought would work transitionally and bring elements of the chapters into that final crossing, which is Alaska.”

CHALLENGES: “It was such a massive undertaking. It was a reasonably good budget — more than I’ve had to work with in the past — but for what we were trying to achieve in eight months of shooting and many locations, we were stretching this baby.”

MAGIC: “The biggest roll of the dice was the unknown of the performance and the commitment that I perceived to be there,” says Penn of his lead, Emile Hirsch. “It was a good hypothesis, but the success of it was blind luck: I got a guy who was clearheaded enough at 21 to put his heart and soul in this thing, do it beautifully and not break his neck doing it.”

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