Great outdoors

Emile Hirsch, left, and Art Linson on the set in Cantwell, Alaska. Hirsch stars as a young idealist who heads into the Alaskan wilderness. (Francois Duhamel / Paramount Vantage)

ART LINSON is a throwback, the kind of producer who avoids making pre-masticated sequels, doesn't worry about being on power lists and isn't afraid of mixing it up with the studio suits. He's been producing movies for 30 years, having worked with an all-star team of talent that includes Bill Murray, Cameron Crowe, Michael Mann, Brian De Palma, Robert De Niro, David Mamet and David Fincher.

One other name belongs on that list: Sean Penn. "Into the Wild" marks Linson's fourth collaboration with Penn, dating to the actor-director's star-making turn in 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." When Penn finally got the rights to make a film out of Jon Krakauer's riveting book about Christopher McCandless, a young dreamer who heads north into the Alaskan wilderness, Penn turned to Linson for help in turning his ambitious script into a film.

So how did Sean approach you about "Into the Wild"?

You gotta understand -- Sean's wanted to do this movie since Emile Hirsch [who plays McCandless] was 8 years old. When the book came out, he read it, and then started reading it again. . . . The parents had balked about wanting a movie done. But finally I got a call from Sean saying, "They're ready. You wanna do the movie?" And I said yes. That shows you how hard my job is. I've been reading Kerouac's "On the Road" and it reminded me that a lot of great American writing is about lighting out for the territories, whether it's Thoreau or Woody Guthrie or Mark Twain. Why is that such an irresistible subject?

It's "Go west, young man." It's the American spirit, and Sean is American to the max. This film is as much about Sean as it is about Chris. Sean definitely has a lot of that wanderlust in him. He loves the idea of getting into a car and driving for three days. The farther away in Alaska we were, the happier he was. Me, I got a subscription to Variety too soon in my life. I like being comfortable.

What was Sean looking for when he was casting the film?

He just trusts his instincts. Brian Dierker, who plays Catherine Keener's husband, had never acted before. He was a camera mount guy for our river rapids scenes. As the producer, worried about our tight shooting schedule, I said, "Sean, I beg you, please get somebody in SAG to do this!" But he was right. He didn't want a canned performance. He wanted someone real.

Sean is pretty fierce about what he wants. How do you say no to him?

As a producer, I'm there to help directors be as good as they can be, which sometimes means saying, "This is a terrible idea." But even though Sean is uncompromising, he's at least aware of the issues. I kept saying, "We could shoot a lot of this movie in one place." But Sean felt it had to be in the exact spots where Chris really was. For Sean, it was like, "Even if the audience doesn't know, I'll know."

What happens when you have to tell him something he doesn't want to hear?

He doesn't like it. And neither do I. But we tell each other the truth. That's the only way to have a relationship in Hollywood that's going to last. Whether it's about politics, women or children, you tell the truth.

Do you remember the first impression you had of Sean when he was shooting "Fast Times"?

I watched him for the first five or six days and then I called Cameron Crowe and said, "You gotta write some more scenes for this guy. He's stealing the movie." It was exactly what's good about Sean. He was playing a stoned surfer, but there was no parody to the performance. He was totally serious about the part, which is why it was so great.

Patrick Goldstein writes The Big Picture, which runs every Tuesday in Calendar.