Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot: Interview with Director Gus Van Sant

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Interviews with Gus Van Sant and Danny Elfman


Gus Van Sant: John Callahan, the subject of the movie was a cartoonist, so comedy was part of his business, he wasn’t, in person he was very funny and he could, he would like to sort of come up with puns and not so much like jokes.  They worked very well on his cartoons.  He was strangely very afraid of a crowd, to the point where even in AA, which happens in the movies, he is in AA, he had hard time speaking to the group of 30 people.  But because of the comic subject, I started to think of people that were funny, like part of the cast.  And also comedians that were more than that, that had done a lot of things that went beyond comedy.

 Serio Comedy

GVS: There were a lot of funny things in the original story that John sort of was making light of in his life and incongruities, and chance happenings, and bad luck, good luck, that he was dealing with, in a funny fashion, as he does in his comics.

The Character

GVS: He is actually a very interesting person, as a quadriplegic cartoonist.  He was known in Portland as sort of a character within the community and he broke out of Portland confines into international and national renown.  My interest was sort of in picking up the suggestion of Robin Williams to help him develop the book. Robin Williams had authored me to be developing screenplays for him playing John Callahan. I was more interested in following through with a project that was suggested. I didn’t dream up the project.


Danny Elfman: Gus really introduced me to John Callahan, and it was one of those weird things where I recognized his work immediately, so I knew what he did, but I didn’t know who he was.  And at first when he told me about it, I thought he was joking, it was so impossible.  So it was really intriguing of course from the beginning, like how could this be?  Cause I am always interested in doing anything that Gus comes up with and it’s always going to be an interesting experience for me.


Directing Style:

GVS: Probably I am just slow in deciding what I want. So when the take is over and you go cut, I am thinking for a long enough time that people will think that I am quiet.  Eventually I will come up with sort of a suggestion and an idea, but it takes me a couple of minutes. So by then, we are onto the next thing.  This happens in life too, Danny witnessing me all the time never having anything to say.


DE:  And sometimes, because I am kind of the same way, so it could be really amusing sometimes when the two of us are together.  There was one movie where Gus’ young assistant was just kind of sitting around in the room with us, and pretty much every time we had choices, we would turn to him, Scott, and we would ask him which one did you like?  And we would go yeah man, that’s it.

Scott and his girlfriend.  And so we are both a little bit that way, because when I am writing, I also tend to come up with lots of ideas and I will depend on the director to say this one or that one?  And sometimes Gus will like them both and go what do you think?  And I will go, let’s see how they would both work, from two different points of view.  So we can kind of play this a little bit with each other quite a bit, which is fun actually.


Joaquin Phoenix

GVS: He is an amazing actor.  We have known each other and have been in touch for years and years.  He was in “To Die For” so all the way after “To Die For,” we had been neighbors in New York City, neighbors in LA, and we were always sort of suggesting things to one another, and this one was finally one that we got to work on together.

We had sort of conspired to work on a number of different things through our history.  He has been a very serious actor since that period of time.  He was my neighbor in New York and so there were projects that came and went that either he was a part of or I was a part of and we never found a place to work together.  And recently we almost did something together, about two or three years ago.  And that also didn’t work out.  But then this one, it also has to be something that he agrees to do, and sometimes I will say what about this, and he is not sure. But in this case, he was very sure, and I was happy that he was.

John was hard to capture, fortunately he wasn’t so well known, that we can sort of put the face against the film.  It’s always a hard thing to have an actor portray somebody well known, but when they are kind of well known, it’s easier, so yes, he was definitely right for the role.  He is just, since working with him from the “To Die For” days, he has developed so much that he is an incredible actor in the way that he can sort of place himself in the scene to an extent that he is just sort of way in the scene, which is sort of my favorite part in what he does.   I mean, I think he was doing it in “To Die For,” but now, he’s more like, he seemingly was doing even more difficult things.

It was hard because we had tapes of John Callahan and he had this very high voice and kind of whispered his words.  And I think Joaquin tried that out a little bit and then he said you know, I kind of just have to use a new voice and not imitate John.  He tried, but I think it was better and more worthwhile to create something new than it was to mimic.

It’s not about being historically and completely accurate in that way that it’s a personality that everyone knows so well that to do a voice differently would make people concerned, that’s not the right voice.  That kind of puts him into a slightly different perspective.


Intriguing Project:

GVS: I had known John Callahan for a little while.  When I lived in Portland, he and I kind of had distinctions as I was a filmmaker and he was a cartoonist, in the late 80s.  And so I had known him and I met him but I didn’t know him well, and you would see him often riding very fast down the street in his wheelchair.  I knew his cartoons really well and he wrote a book, which was the book that we were working from and he was a person that I was aware of.  And then later, after “Good Will Hunting,” Robin Williams had unbeknownst to me, actually bought the book, because he wanted to make a movie from John’s book, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot.” And he asked whether I wanted to help develop it for he and his wife Marsha, who were developing it for Sony at the time.  And then I said yeah, of course.


Portraying Disability on Screen

GVS: Every time I work on a film, I try to figure out the most accurate out to portray it.  We went to the original rehab hospital, which was Rancho De Los Amigos in Downey.  It had been many years since John was there, but some of the same buildings were there.  Joaquin worked there with some of the people who were in conditions like John was, as he was a C-5, C-6 quadriplegic.   Joaquin learned the physical traits.  I was learning through John as well like details about his condition.  And the book, I developed the script with John, so we were often at his house videotaping him, and he was always explaining certain things that were a part of his condition.  It took him three hours in the morning to sort of get out of bed with the help of an attendant.  He needed to have physical therapy and he needed to exercise and exercise meant people lifting his arms and he wasn’t himself, lots of details.  There were some things that we didn’t get to, like things in his life that had happened as a quadriplegic and not feeling in his legs and having his foot being dragged on the ground without knowing it for six blocks or something like that and bleeding and so forth.  But whatever information we could find, mostly emanating from the facility he was in and mostly John himself.


Collaborating on Music

DE:  I never know what a director wants, but in particular, I would say I never know what Gus wants.  Because Gus likes to develop his ideas while we are working, so he doesn’t come to me with a set plan and I try to not start the film with a set plan.  We kind of evolve it with just kind of experimenting and just a lot of ideas, Gus starts responding to certain things and it’s always an improvisation of having a lot of stuff to start with, ideas, and then see what happens.

GVS: Sometimes when I am writing, I have at times used things that I am listening to when I am writing as some kind of score or music playing in the scenes.  But usually it’s like when it gets to the point of really deciding on the score, it just seems like we are starting things from scratch.

DE: Sometimes there are certain things that stick, like in “Good Will Hunting,” Gus knew that he wanted to work with Elliot Smith, so we would, Gus and I actually sit in his basement with guitars and starting to hear ideas and that actually stuck in my head as I was writing the score, of wanting to have something to work with that.  And sometimes it’s the opposite.  On this movie, the first thing that Gus was working with was Pachelbel, and we ended up with nothing even remotely that.

The funny thing is that on the spot, I did an improvisation and I said this is based on the mathematics of the singularity in the middle of a black hole.  And by the end of it, Gus was like, we should use that.  It wasn’t the right movie for that piece, it was when we were doing “Promised Land,” but that piece of music ended up becoming the second movement of my violin concerto that I wrote last year.  (laughs) So that improvisation stuck actually and that was just from an argument about music and Math.  Nothing gets wasted.


Showing Movie at Sundance

GVS: Coming to Sundance depends on the timing of your movie when you are ready to bring it out, you often think oh we could go to a festival.  And in the timing of our movie, we thought Sundance was the right timing.  With the clock of festivals, there is like seven festivals that are the likely suspects, Venice, New York, Sundance, Berlin, Cannes.  It’s like, when is your film coming out?


Trump and Fake News

GVS: Trump to me is more like TV, and I am more in the film world. He’s not in the film world yet.  Maybe he will work his way in there, but he is still like mainstream TV, which is so different, and it’s like a sitcom compared to something I am doing.  It’s like the difference between Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, with film to mainstream TV.


Cinematic Influences

GVS: “Diving Bell and the Butterfly” was an influence, and “The Men,” which was a Marlon Brando piece about a paraplegic and other people in the war that had multiple disabilities.  Those were not exactly templates, but I did see them and did watch them, just to sort of see how they dealt with certain things that resembled John’s condition.


Book to Film

GVS: His book is actually about his whole life, which included his childhood and his teen years and his alcoholism and his AA period, getting away from alcoholism and his learning to cartoon and his success and sort of trying to break into the business of cartooning.  But we just focused on the part where he had his accident, which was a result of his drinking and his alcoholism and following it about ten years later, when he was finally free of that and worked with 12 steps.  So it’s a very 12 step oriented film.

It’s releasing, the psychological side of him becoming free.  That moment is a big part of the film, because he can’t change his physical condition and he learns to work with it, but spiritually he does come out of it.  After his accident, it was so catastrophic, that he felt that it was a burden in his life, his condition, until he realized that quadriplegia is one thing, but it’s actually the alcoholism that is a bigger problem in his life.