After 17 years fronting Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder is stepping out on his own this fall, writing and recording solo tracks for two movie soundtracks. The first, Into the Wild, is Sean Penn’s adaptation of the Jon Krakauer book — the expansive, true story of the life and death of 24-year-old Chris McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch). The second film is Body of War, a documentary co-directed by Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue that takes a bracing look at the Iraq War through the prism of Tomas Young, a 25-year-old veteran of the conflict who was paralyzed after serving just five days. Given this sudden burst of movie madness, we grabbed a couple minutes to chat with Vedder during an NYC pit stop on his way to Body’s Sept. 11 Toronto Film Festival premiere. Always thoughtful — and slightly sleepy, thanks to an all-nighter he’d just pulled with Penn — here’s what the socially conscious Seattleite had on his mind.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I heard you guys stayed up until 5:30.
That’s a rumor. [Laughs] No, Sean likes to stay up late. So I’ve got a comrade. Good things get talked about at 5 in the morning. You don’t remember them, but it’s fun while it happens.
Is your friendship with Sean at the heart of your Into the Wild participation?
Yeah, I might have thought about it differently if it was someone else. With this, there was no thought whatsoever. We’d just finished touring with Pearl Jam, and Sean called my second day off or something. So I read the book, and right away it was like, This is not gonna be a stretch. Sean very casually showed up at the house a couple days later — at my door, as if he lived down the street and just walked down — and we watched it together. It was beautiful, and I wept, and it was tremendous. I didn’t know what he needed me for, cause it was great. I remember watching it the first time — it was just me and Sean sitting on the floor watching, you know, with a pack of smokes — and I just wanted to say, like, How’d you get that shot? Wait, did that really happen? Were those wild horses? That grizzly bear, how’d you do that? So it was really difficult to not say a word. The whole thing to me was incredibly moving. And getting into [McCandless’] head, it’s very blatant that this is the last kid that would ever want a movie made about him, and how dangerous that would be to who he was and how he led his life, to be commercialized or trivialized. Thank God it was Sean who did this.
You hadn’t read the book previously?
No. Everyone else I knew had.
It’s one of those books you read in college and decide you’re going to throw away your whole stupid life and run off to the woods and die.
Yeah — or live. Learn from his few mistakes. We were talking about it a bit last night. I think it will not only affect people who did that stuff, who relate to that because they did something similar, but it’ll affect people who didn’t do it, and are wondering why they didn’t, having lost that chance.
One does get older and realize you’re way too immersed in your life to chuck it all and go hike the Appalachian Trail or whatever.
It’s amazing how quickly you can break out, though. You can. It’s right there at all times. The edge is closer than we think. You can put yourself out there in a few hours. And you can always come back, most of the time. Sean and I did about 100 miles through the Grand Canyon a few weeks ago, in kayaks, and came out at Lake Mead. We had a river guide, this great person called Brian Dierker, who plays Rainey in the movie. He doesn’t do commercial trips, he just takes geologists and scientists through there — Sean cast him after they scouted places to shoot. And Sean really took responsibility in the scouting, to the point where if there’s a scene in a tent in the desert, that tent is put exactly where Chris put it. They used photos and lined things up with the mountains, lined it up with the shoreline. And without disturbing the land, they would shoot. They didn’t have to do that. They could have used a backlot or something. You realize it’s not just that Sean made this great movie with these great people, but they had a f—ing hell of a time doing it. It was an adventure, just making it. So the kid had an adventure, and then Sean and the crew and Emile had an adventure.
And you’ve written the soundtrack for the adventure. Did you set out to essentially score the film?
Sean just said, ”Whatever you wanna do. Maybe it’s music, maybe it’s a song.” So I spent three days giving him colors that I could paint with. Different sounds. It would be pump organ and vocal, or it would be an uptempo song. I just gave him 25 minutes of music, stuff I felt that were colors on the palette. And I really didn’t think anything was gonna come out of it. Maybe a little piece or something. As much as I wanted to serve Sean and the project, I just had really low expectations. But instead of saying, ”Okay, cool, I might use one thing, thanks for trying,” Sean called and was like, ”I’ve already put two pieces in, if you can give me like five or six more, it could be the interior voice of the character.” I said, ”Let’s do it.”
Did you write from inside Chris’ head, or were the landscapes more your inspiration?
After I saw it initially, Sean sent me different parts, the silent versions. So I think I wrote to whatever that little thing required. There were a lot of boundaries, compared to writing an album with the band, which could be about anything. Like, ”It is one minute 30 seconds long, and you want the lyrics to drop out here so the talking can go over it.” All these boundaries were absolutely welcome, ‘cause it made it real easy.
As a parent, it’s gotta be hard to see Into the Wild — watching this kid turn his back on his family.
I think parents will learn a lot from this. I think even if they haven’t done anything wrong…yet…it’s gonna have a profound effect. It’s hard to get through a kid’s life without f—ing them up. And no matter how good you are, at some point your kids are gonna have to create their own independence and think that Mom and Dad aren’t cool, just to establish themselves. That’s what adolescence is about. They’re gonna go through that no matter what. And I think that’ll be an interesting time. I’m thinking about it myself. [Chuckles] These are troubled times, too. Do you force your kids to pay attention to what’s going on, or do you let them live their lives outside of it? My hope is that my child is a strong activist. That would make me most proud.
What if she rebels against your liberal politics and becomes a neo-con?
[Laughs] Aaaah… I don’t think so. I really don’t. Just knowing her now? It would be shocking. It’s certainly not in her nature now. She’s 3 years old — that’s like the height of liberalism. Liberalism comes naturally.
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