Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot: Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Multiple Oscar Nominee

Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, world premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Fest.  Amazon Studios will release the film in July.

John Callahan has a lust for life, a talent for off-color jokes, and a drinking problem. When an all-night bender ends in a catastrophic car accident, he does not intends to give up drinking.

But when he reluctantly enters treatment —with encouragement from his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and a charismatic sponsor (Jonah Hill) —Callahan discovers a gift for drawing edgy, irreverent newspaper cartoons that develop an international following and grant him a new lease on life.

Based on a true story, this poignant, insightful and often funny drama about the healing power of art is adapted from Callahan’s autobiography and directed by two-time Oscar nominee Gus Van Sant.

Jack Black, Carrie Brownstein, Beth Ditto and Kim Gordon also star.

 

 

Joaquin Phoenix

Playing the role of the iconoclastic cartoonist is three-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix.

The film reunites Van Sant with Phoenix, whom he last directed in the acclaimed 1995 film To Die For, starring Nicole Kidman.

Phoenix was just 19 when he shot the breakout role as a high-school student who conspires with his older lover, played by Nicole Kidman, to kill her husband. “I wanted to work with Joaquin again and there were a few other projects we had gotten close on,” says Van Sant. “We were always in touch and talking about doing something and when I sent him this one he was into it.”

Phoenix was particularly excited to work on a film that Van Sant wrote as well as directed. “I’ve always thought Gus had — it sounds like a cliché — but a unique vision, and he does,” says the actor. “And because he knew John, I felt like this was not going to be a typical biopic. I’ve done one of those and I wasn’t really interested in that kind of traditional storytelling. And I felt the way he wanted to use animation in the movie was really interesting.

But more than anything, Gus seemed really passionate about it, and that was the most important thing to me.” The fact that the film had the blessing of Callahan’s family was also significant to the actor. “And it’s based on his book, so they’re his stories,” he adds. “These are things he wanted to say about his life, it wasn’t just some random director who thought this might make a cool movie about somebody’s life. I felt like it would be personal.” Phoenix threw himself into the role, learning as much as he could about Callahan. “Joaquin is a very detail-oriented actor,” says Van Sant. “We went literally page by page through the whole script and talked about everything. And he had the memoir with him at all times, with all the important parts highlighted in yellow. Whenever we were going to do a particular scene he would read that section of the book. His devotion to keeping on track with the character and the story was incredible.”

Phoenix also studied interview tapes Van Sant had made at the cartoonist’s home, as well as a 1993 “60 Minutes” segment and the 2007 Dutch documentary about him, Touch Me Someplace I Can Feel.

However, his goal was never to mimic Callahan, according to Van Sant: “Joaquin was more interested in finding his own voice, rather than impersonating John. So he has created his own version of the character.”

Phoenix’s research included spending time at the Downey, California, Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, the same facility where Callahan was treated after his accident. He spoke with a number of patients at the facility, although he acknowledges feeling uncomfortable about it at first.

“It’s always an awkward thing when you do research, to come in and be like, ‘I want to examine your life.’ But a lot of the guys I talked to had been injured 15 or 20 years earlier and they wanted to talk about it. They would just kind of go, ‘yeah, ask me whatever.’”

The actor realized he needed to approach newer patients more delicately, however. “I met this kid one day who had just arrived,” Phoenix recalls. “I didn’t talk to him that much because you could tell he was in shock. That day helped me understand the level of trauma you experience in that situation. I also drew on John’s book because he goes into detail about what he felt during that period. Both were really helpful to understand that part of John’s life.”

As Phoenix spends much of the film confined to a wheelchair, he also practiced maneuvering the motorized device Callahan used to race around his neighborhood. “The one we used in the film was really souped-up,” he explains. “I had been practicing in one for a month and I felt really good. But the chair I had been using went about four miles per hour and the one in the film went like 11 or 12. That doesn’t sound like a lot but it seemed way faster than that. I definitely had quite a few accidents.”

The scene in which Callahan’s wheelchair tips over, prompting a group of local kids to come to his aid, was originally shot with a stunt double. “I was angry because it didn’t seem like a stunt and I was pretty sure I could do it,” says Phoenix. “So then I did it and the moment I did, I was like, oh it is more of a stunt. There was a rope tied to the chair so at some point it just stops and I go flying off the chair and I automatically moved my arm to control myself, which John wouldn’t have been able to do. So I think it took at least two takes before I actually got one where I didn’t move before I hit.”

Phoenix’s meticulous preparation paid off according to the cartoonist’s younger brother Tom, who visited the set with his family. “It was amazing to watch Joaquin,” he says. “My son and my wife and I looked at each other and were like, wow, he’s doing everything like John. I told him afterward that it was like I’d gotten to see John again. It was very exciting and emotional.” Tom says he’s confident his brother–who had at one point optioned his memoir to Oscar-winner William Hurt–would have been thrilled to be portrayed by an actor of Phoenix’s caliber. “I think John would have really been happy with it,” he says.

“We’ve seen some articles complaining that Gus didn’t cast someone in a wheelchair, but I’m positive John would not have agreed with them.  The story isn’t just about his disability. It’s also about overcoming his alcoholism, and his life before and after he became disabled.”

Cast:

The film stars Oscar nominees Joaquin Phoenix (Her, Walk the Line), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street, Moneyball), Rooney Mara (Carol, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Jack Black (Bernie, School of Rock), Carrie Brownstein (“Portlandia,” “Transparent”), Beth Ditto and Kim Gordon.

Credits:

Produced by Oscar winner Steve Golin (Spotlight, The Revenant), Charles-Marie Anthonioz (Spring Breakers, One More Time with Feeling), Mourad Belkeddar (Heaven Knows What, One More Time with Feeling) and Nicolas Lhermitte (Heaven Knows What).

Executive producer is Brett Cranford (Night Moves, The Wait).

Director of photography is Christopher Blauvelt (Certain Women, The Bling Ring).

Production design is by Jahmin Assa (Mid ’90s).

Costume designer is Oscar® nominee Danny Glicker (Up in the Air, Milk).

Editors are David Marks and Gus Van Sant.

Music is composed by Oscar nominee Danny Elfman (Milk, Good Will Hunting).