Jay Cassidy on Into the Wild: The RT Interview

The Oscar-nominated editor discusses Sean Penn and making films in the wilds of Alaska

by | March 27, 2008 | Comments

Jay Cassidy waited eight years to help tell the true story of Christopher McCandless, the young man who hitchhiked into the Alaskan wilderness and never returned. Cassidy is an editor and long-time collaborator of director, Sean Penn, whose drive and passion finally brought the 2007 film, Into the Wild, to the screen.

With over thirty years of experience in the industry, Cassidy received a nomination for the 2008 Achievement in Film Editing Academy Award for his work on this adaptation of John Krakauer’s startling and inspiring novel. This is a story that could have slipped unnoticed except for a short piece in a small tabloid newspaper but rather, now stands as a reminder to pause and reflect more deeply on the many senseless deaths in the media.

Jay Cassidy talks to RT about working with Sean Penn, the Alaskan wilderness and the importance of losing his social skills for his art.

What originally attracted you to a career in editing?

Jay Cassidy: I have been editing for a long time. I began in the early 70s, working on political advertising and documentaries. At that moment, editing was, for me, the most compelling part of the filmmaking process. The documentary could be filmed over many years, but you made the film in the editing room.

If a documentary is made in the editing suite, how much is the editing process considered during filming? For example, at what point did you step into Into the Wild?

JC: I have worked with Sean Penn on all of the theatrical films he has done, so I was aware of this project for many years. I knew the book and knew about Sean’s ups and downs in getting it made. He would not make this film without the permission of the family and they were reluctant to go ahead for many years. So in this case, I was involved for a long time. I read early drafts of the script and sat in on script readings with the actors. This is the exception but I have a very long relationship with Sean.

At what point did you start contributing to conversations about how it will appear in the edit?

JC: This film was shot over eight months with many breaks. There were times when I wasn’t with the company and there were times when I was with them for weeks at a time. On the occasions when I wasn’t on the shoot, I simply saw the film when it came from the laboratory and we had no discussion about it. We knew roughly what Sean wanted as he went into each shoot. Alaska being a difficult place to work, you may go in with one intention, but you can certainly come out with something else, so in those cases we didn’t really discuss anything until I had a cut of the material and he had seen that cut. This shoot was a little peculiar in that the schedule was so rigorous that he sometimes didn’t see dailies until weeks later.

That suggests a real professional trust between the two of you.

JC: We would talk about the flow of it as we went and he would ask about specific shots. The interesting thing about this shoot was that, because the production had to follow the weather in Alaska, we would work for a while and then we would have to wait. Also, Emile Hirsch had this tremendous weight loss that he went through that necessitated halting the production while he lost the last 15 pounds. Sean and I would spend time together during those pauses to look at cuts and the dailies he hadn’t seen, and I could catch up with the production so that when we went into the next phase, we already knew what we had.

Sean Penn’s public persona is one of incredible intensity. How have you found working with him throughout your collaboration?

JC: I don’t know the public perception of Sean Penn, I only have a personal one and I would say that he certainly has a great passion which is confused for intensity. That passion is a large part of his leadership quality. People are willing to march into the Grand Canyon with him because they know he believes in what he is doing. He is a generous person and a story teller – the process of telling a story being an act of generosity – and he is also very generous with the crew.

As the character of Chris McCandless goes through his journey, the look and feel of the film seems to change. How did you use the editing to reflect his journey?

JC: An operating principle of this film was that we had to go someplace to shoot, so we may as well go to the actual places that Chris McCandless visited. And for the most part we did, sometimes to the exact spot. For example, when Chris was in a flash flood in his car, we filmed down to GPS accuracy where that actually happened. We could stand on set with photographs Chris McCandless had taken and match them up to where we were standing. Given that approach to filming, the whole movie was going to have a varying palette of texture, colour and nature. Some of those places were pretty far flung so you end up with a movie that has a view of the American West from many points of view and geography. We maintained that through the editing. The photographic treatment of Chris McCandless changed quite radically when he went to Alaska and he got in trouble. It is all a process of earning the trust of the audience so that when you end up in a place where the photography is quite distressed as well as the situation for the character, the audience have been led there visually, allowing them to accept it.

Do you have a signature editing style?

JC: I think an editing style is something that is ascribed to the work after-the-fact. I don’t think you go in with a particular intention, but I think if there is an integrity to the work and the material you are working with, the work comes from the nature of that material; essentially the person who creates what is being called ‘after-the–fact’ style shouldn’t be aware of it.

For someone aspiring to enter your profession, could you outline what a typical working day is like for you?

JC: I always like to tell people who are interested in the business, and the acquired wisdom I give my children, is to stay out of show business. There are better ways to lead your life. You might end up being happier and spend more time with your family and make more money if you don’t work in the film business. That advice, however, usually goes to no avail for the people who aspire to it. In a certain regard, it is a horrible life because, if you are really working on something intensely, your social skills fall away and you are not fit to be brought out into public. That is, if you are truly involved in a film and if you are going to do any kind of good work, you have to have that full commitment to the work. If you aren’t willing to do that, or if that is not in your nature, I say steer clear of it.

Has your approach to watching a film been affected by your role as a film editor?

JC: I am so delighted when I get to see a really good movie. In that experience the artifice of movie making, the photography or the cutting style, falls away because you are inside the movie. Part of the discipline of being an editor is that you have to be a good audience member; your work is to be a surrogate audience member on the films you are working on. I certainly don’t have any trouble watching movies. I love the movies.

And finally, you talked earlier about the respect Penn had for the McCandless family and the importance of having their support in the making of this film. Do you think the family are happy with Into the Wild?

JC:I think Chris’ sister, Carine McCandless, certainly was. She was involved all along and saw cuts and worked on the voice over, because it was actually her voice. For his parents, it was a bit of an up and down experience. I think they have come to terms with it and I think they are very happy it was made, despite the fact that there are times in the film when they are not portrayed in the best light. For them, I believe, it is some manner of forgiveness for them to have participated in the making of this film about their son’s life.

Into the Wild is now available on DVD.