If Billie McCandless’s nightmare had seemed to shut down all hopes of making the film, what happened to make it possible a decade later? Billie’s own explanation is a bit puzzling. “We’d heard that an unauthorized movie might be in the works,” she told me over the phone. “So [in that film] Chris could magically survive. And then there’d be a sequel.” Billie called up Krakauer and told him she was thinking of changing her mind. Krakauer called Penn to see if he was still interested.
“I got a phone call out of the blue,” Penn recounts. “I just kicked up my heels and started writing.”
During the past decade, Penn had stayed in touch with the McCandlesses. Of course, he could have made the film without consulting the family. But Krakauer found the cooperation of Chris’s parents so essential to the story that he gave 20 percent of his royalties to Walt and Billie, who in turn established a foundation in their son’s name. “I always hoped that at some point they would see that it was worthwhile,” Penn says. “And maybe this helped: I stayed in touch, but I never talked about the film. I made a vow that I wouldn’t push it.”
No doubt other factors contributed to Billie’s change of heart. Over the years a steady flow of contributions, as well as the Krakauer royalties, funneled into the Christopher Johnson McCandless Memorial Foundation. The money has found its way, via Christian charities, to such far-flung locations as an orphanage in Cambodia. “Basically,” says Billie, “we want to reach out to children and help them and their families.”
As Krakauer’s book attained the status of a classic, it became required reading
in many secondary schools and Outward Bound–style programs. Billie says she’s received scores of letters from students, and “I answer every one.”
Finally the long process of grieving seems to have helped dissolve the nightmare. “For years after Chris disappeared,” says Walt, “every time we’d go away even for a long weekend, we’d leave a note on the door just in case he showed up.”
Near the end of Penn’s movie, there is a charged but ambiguous fantasy sequence that portends a reconciliation between the parents and their prodigal son. As he packed up his belongings and started to head out of the wilderness on July 3, 1992, had Chris McCandless finally tamed the furies that had driven him to his perilous pilgrimage? “We always had a strong feeling he’d return,” says Walt. “If wishes were fishes,” adds Billie.
But Carine says bluntly, “Chris was not on his way back to Annandale.”
I ask Penn how the viewer is supposed to read that fantasy sequence—the one scene in the movie about which I had qualms. Is it Chris’s fantasy? His parents’? Or a kind of omniscient what-might-have-been?
Penn pauses over the telephone before answering. “When we meet face-to-face, I would be happy to tell you that.” Another pause. “It’s not that I’m without clarity about what I intended. It’s just one of those things you don’t want to go on record with.”