MOVIETALKY: Director Gus Van Sant on ‘Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot’ and Unexpected Casting Choices

Director Gus Van Sant on ‘Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far on Foot’ and Unexpected Casting Choices

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From writer/director Gus Van Sant and based on a true story, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot follows the path to sobriety after a life-changing accident pushes John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix, with one of the best performances of the year) to discover the healing power of art, willing his injured hands into drawing often quite controversial cartoons that bring him attention and a following. Seeing what led up to that turning point in his life and how he copes with it afterwards, provides a fascinating perspective on the relationships in his life, whether it’s with his old drinking buddy (Jack Black), his sponsor (Jonah Hill), his girlfriend (Rooney Mara), or the eclectic individuals in his 12-step group.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Gus Van Sant talked about the film’s 20-year journey from Robin Williams obtaining the rights to John Callahan’s autobiography to the film we see now, how the script changed once Joaquin Phoenix was set to play the role, what he knew of Callahan prior to telling his story for the big screen, the freedom he gave his leading man to find the character, and the film’s unexpected casting choices.
dont-worry-he-wont-get-far-on-foot-posterCollider:  I very much enjoyed this film, and I thought Joaquin Phoenix was just remarkable in it.
GUS VAN SANT:  Great, thanks!
What’s it like to finally see something that was first brought to your attention over 20 years ago, fully realized in this way? What does it mean to you to be able to tell this story and to share it with audiences?
VAN SANT:  It’s nice. I’ve had that experience, a few times before. I think the screenplay for My Own Private Idaho was first attempted about 15 or 16 years before we shot it. I think some of the smaller films like Last Days were about 12 years, before they finally were made. So, I’m used to it. It’s not that unusual.
When you’re waiting so many years, trying to get something done or hoping that something gets made, do you always think that maybe it isn’t going to happen, or do you always have hope that it will happen?
VAN SANT:  Well, the projects are in a file and you run across them or you get re-inspired by something that maybe you were inspired by, in the first place. In the case of this particular one, it’s a little different because it was in the hands of Robin Williams. He developed it. I had worked on it with a writer, on a couple of screenplays, but it really was still in the office of Robin Williams and it was his inability to commit to the project that he had developed, probably due to having lots of choices and lots of things that he could do. It wasn’t unusual. Aside from John Callahan, himself, who was very despondent, on the edge of his seat waiting for this to happen, I wasn’t really in the same situation. I was just hopeful that maybe something would happen. I was very surprised when Sony called with the story.
Did you ever think that once Robin Williams was gone that you just weren’t going to do this anymore, or did you get re-inspired by having Joaquin Phoenix get involved with it?
VAN SANT:  When Robin died, I wasn’t really thinking of this project. It wasn’t what came to mind. I didn’t really think about it. As a result of his dying, the studio was housecleaning and they found this investment they had made, in buying this book, and since I was connected to it, they said, “Is there something you think you would want to make with this?” That was when I was given the chance. It was also a new offer. I wasn’t sitting and waiting for it. The first step was whether I wanted to revisit it, which I thought I did, and then to find out if there was somebody that I liked that could play the role. Joaquin responded positively, and it was a great opportunity to work with him.
Was it your idea to talk to him about it and work with him, having worked with him before?
VAN SANT:  Yeah, that was my idea. He and I had talked about other projects, some of which were books that he knew about, or stories that he knew about, or screenplays, and some of them were ones that I knew about. In this case, this was one that I knew about.
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Image via Sundance Institute
Having him on board must have changed what the script would need to be. Were there a lot of changes in the story, once you had him on board?
VAN SANT:  Yeah, the new screenplay was different, not necessarily in a character sense, but in the fact that the things that I chose to focus in on were different than the other drafts. We also tried to keep it closer to John’s sentiment in the book. When we were doing the Robin Williams draft, we had Robin in mind. We thought, “It’s for Robin, so he’s going to read it like this,” and we made it Robin-esque, which is maybe a little bit different than John was. In the case of Joaquin playing it, I always had Joaquin in mind, but also had John in my head, as well.
You knew who John Callahan was, but how much did you know about him and how well did you know his work, before doing this?
VAN SANT:  I knew his cartoons, from the L.A. Weekly in the 70s or early ‘80s. And he was visible on the street. You would see him cruising in his wheelchair very fast, with bright red hair, whizzing around. And then, he was also getting more and more notice, as a cartoonist. By 1985 or 1986, he was being celebrated as a cartoonist. He was on 60 Minutes, and he was a local celebrity, back in Portland. And then, when Robin had bought his book, that was when I really first sat down and talked to him. I think I had met him, but we didn’t have a deep relationship until we started working on the screenplay.
With a film like this, it seems as though you might want a very specific performance out of your lead actor, but I was surprised to hear that you gave Joaquin a lot of freedom in portraying John Callahan. Have you always liked to give actors the freedom they need, or is it something that really depends on the project and the actor?
VAN SANT:  Yeah, it really depends on what the actor is most comfortable with. In my general experience, with all the actors, if you let them create the character and you don’t over manage them, then they’re a little happier because they’re able to contribute, artistically, in the creation of the piece. When you’re shooting them, they’re doing something that they have created, as opposed to having to explain to them how to do it.
How different of an actor would you say Joaquin is now, from when you had worked with him on To Die For?
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Image via Amazon Studios
VAN SANT:  He seems very similar, but he’s had a lot more experience, over the years. When I worked with him at 20, he hadn’t worked for a long time. By the time we made this, he was like a pro. He had been all over the world and done a lot of different things.
I love the unexpected casting in this. It feels like, in someone else’s hands, we might not have seen any of these actors in these roles, but they were all so good. Were Jonah Hill, Jack Black and Rooney Mara immediate choices you made, or were any of them suggested to you by someone else?
VAN SANT:  For those characters, Rooney was suggested by Joaquin. For Jonah, I had met him in the front of the Bowery Hotel in New York, and he was saying that we should work together. I had remembered that, so that was a choice that I made. When I first saw Jack Black, I think we’d already written the first draft, but eventually the role of Dexter just seemed to cry out for Jack Black.
I also really loved Kim Gordon and Beth Ditto in this, in smaller roles. What made you decide on them?
VAN SANT:  I was generally trying to cast comedic actors from improv groups that I had been visiting, and we were bringing them into the casting session, but I was also sometimes meeting them in the places where they worked, in the improv clubs. Beth came in from Francine Maisler’s office, who had cast her in Tom Ford’s movie, Nocturnal Animals, and I knew her from Portland. I had seen her play, and when she was on stage, she talked a lot to the audience. It wasn’t just playing songs. There was some communication going on, as well. I always thought she was an amazing character, so when she came in to read, she did a lot of the things that she did in the final movie. She was channeling her aunt and her mother, and she was funny, but she wasn’t a comedienne.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is now playing in limited release.
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Image via Amazon Studios
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Image via Amazon Studios
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Image via Amazon Studios
SOURCE: COLLIDER

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