Will the Real Gus Van Sant Please Stand Up

On the inscrutable filmmaker’s career, his penchant for troubled, self-medicating men, and his biopic on cartoonist John Callahan.

Director Gus Van Sant sort of resembles a cartoon character—fitting, since his new film Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is adapted from the memoir of Portland cartoonist John Callahan. Van Sant isn’t odd-looking, but there’s a kooky sensibility to his face; side-swooped bangs, eyes that dart impishly from side to side, a straight-line mouth. With a low voice you might count sheep to, he’s more Charlie Brown than SpongeBob SquarePants. There’s a tight-lipped melancholy to his demeanor. Depression and death lurk with regularity beneath the surface of his films.

Van Sant’s artistry has something of a split personality. There are recurring themes, to be sure—homosexuality, listless youth, drug use—yet he is strangely responsible for both ultra-indie darlings (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Elephant) and conventional crowd-pleasers (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, Milk). Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot falls somewhere between these extremes: It’s a true-story biopic with inspirational footnotes about the now-deceased Callahan, an alcoholic who got sober and miraculously found his calling as an artist following a car accident that left him quadriplegic. The movie veers toward sentiment at times, then bounces back with grim humor and terrible sadness. It’s Van Sant’s best work in a decade.

Twenty years ago, Robin Williams approached Van Sant about developing Callahan’s memoir, intent on playing its author himself. The two had worked together on Good Will Hunting, a film now embedded deep within the American consciousness, for which Van Sant became a household name and Williams won Best Supporting Actor at the 1998 Oscars. Van Sant spoke about that film as “popular art” made “for the ordinary viewer,” intended almost anonymously (you’d never peg it a GVS film if you didn’t know who made it). He borrowed this concept from Native American writer Jamake Highwater, who described Greek art—unlike art made during the Renaissance or contemporarily—as more ubiquitous and easily understood by a public, often not bearing the artist’s name since it was meant to be collective, not personal, work. 

When Robin Williams praised Van Sant in his Oscar speech, he said, “Thank you for being so subtle you’re almost subliminal.”

When Williams praised Van Sant in his Oscar speech, he said, “Thank you for being so subtle you’re almost subliminal.” Asked about this compliment, Van Sant explains over the phone: “After they’re finished with a take, actors always look at you right away. They want to know what the director thinks about what they just did. And I usually have a blank expression—though I do have an opinion. The subliminal thing is probably that they can see what I think, even though I’m not expressing it. Especially somebody like Robin—he’s one of those people who could read somebody very quickly.”

Thus the power of that specific Williams performance, it seems—among the most sympathetic and tender of a career already littered with kindly cross-dressing nannies and inspirational teachers and blue genies thirsting for freedom. In Good Will Hunting, Williams plays a therapist who assists genius slacker Will (Matt Damon) in overcoming childhood trauma, meeting a nice girl, and getting his shit together. There’s a masterful scene on a park bench in which Williams’s character eviscerates Damon’s, never raising his voice above a murmur, hurling barbs of wisdom that lodge deep enough to enact real change.

Fast-forward to 2018, and Joaquin Phoenix stars in Van Sant’s final version of Callahan’s story—Phoenix being an actor far sterner and less accessible than Williams, who took his own life over three years ago and never saw this project to fruition. Williams was interested both in Callahan’s humor and his disability, having himself befriended the Superman star Christopher Reeve, a quadriplegic by way of a horseback riding accident. The director thinks both Williams and Phoenix have traits in common with the cartoonist, whom Van Sant describes as “funny, but shy and soft-spoken.” If Philip Seymour Hoffman had whispered his lines, he would’ve resembled Callahan most, Van Sant adds—but he was also not around. (Hoffman passed from a drug overdose the same year Robin died.) Van Sant is fairly surrounded by these pained, self-medicating men: He included several Elliott Smith songs in Good Will Hunting (Smith wrote “Miss Misery” specifically for the film), garnering the indie rocker international attention; his tremulous, white-suit-clad Oscars performance of “Misery” became the stuff of lore. Smith died of a presumed suicide a few years later.

Van Sant has a languorous way of answering questions, and one of his signature moves is the inclusion of long—sometimes painfully long—takes.

Sometimes Van Sant animates the flat lines of Callahan’s drawings in Don’t Worry, often depicting a scene conceived at the artist’s own expense and mocking the disabled, or otherwise poking fun at people of all races and creeds (“Let’s wok the dog,” a Chinese man says to his wife as they relax at home with their pet). Though whimsical, the sketches had a tendency to piss people off; readers would write in to Portland’s Willamette Week and complain.

Callahan’s illustrative technique isn’t particularly impressive, at least not until you remember that he drew everything with numbed fingers, unable to so much as unscrew a bottle. Van Sant’s film is named for one of his best captions, accompanying a cartoon of three sheriffs on horseback who find an upturned wheelchair in the desert: “Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot,” one sheriff assures the others. It’s both a put-down and a challenge to the artist himself. How much can you accomplish after paralysis?

This is the first collaboration for Phoenix and Van Sant since the two worked on 1995’s To Die For. Here, Phoenix-as-Callahan speeds maniacally down suburban sidewalks on a motorized wheelchair, loathe to slow down, unwilling to accept his new fate. Don’t Worry affords some uncomfortable glimpses into life post-paralysis; how sex works, how Callahan’s assistant lowers him into the bathtub on a pulley system, how his body’s imprisonment interferes with even the drudgery of drinking. He can no longer access liquor by himself—there’s a humiliating moment where he sits, wheelchair-bound, staring up at a bottle of vodka on a high shelf, helpless as a baby but filled with far more longing—so he eventually gets sober. He’s helped along by a Swedish physical therapist (Rooney Mara, blonde and soothing), a patient AA sponsor also deep in recovery (Jonah Hill, blond and delicate and surprising), and an enabling, drunk-driving buddy who’s responsible for paralyzing Callahan in the first place (Jack Black, not blond but wild-eyed and then revelatory in a late scene where he seeks forgiveness).

If this is the story of a sick man forced to slow down and reckon with himself, it’s small wonder Van Sant took an interest. The director has always been slow himself; he started out with painterly ambitions and attended the Rhode Island School of Design (later changing his major to film), but didn’t make his first movie until his early thirties, after working in a NYC advertising agency and living with his parents to save money. He also didn’t fully figure out that he was gay until adulthood. He has a languorous way of answering questions, and one of his signature moves is the inclusion of long—sometimes painfully long—takes. As a viewer, you suffer through them, robbed of cuts or excitement, your thoughts forced to take shape, wander, and transmogrify.

Elephant is not exactly dictating what you should feel—just, be a part of it. Be a part of the ideas.”

2003’s Elephant, winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is based on the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School. Van Sant’s camera tracks students (non-actors, all) in a molasses-style relay race, one after the other, as they stroll through hallways and across grassy lawns. Hardly any information is gleaned in accompanying them—jocks and nerds, future victims and soon-to-be-killers. We merely sink inside their lives, unsure of who will live or die and why.

In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas, school shootings, the story feels as raw as ever. Van Sant’s neutral depiction of the violence, draining it of “energy, purpose, glamor, reward,” as Roger Ebert put it, is what makes Elephant a timeless masterwork. “We had a screenplay that was much more specific about its views on what the causes were for extreme school violence,” Van Sant says of the project’s origins. “But as we got closer to filming, we left it way more open-ended, so the audience would see the usual suspects drifting by, and they’re kind of encouraged to bring their own ideas into the equation. The film is not exactly dictating what you should feel—just, be a part of it. Be a part of the ideas.”

Frequently, the director’s spoken statements mimic this anodyne ambiguity; for example, while he certainly does not dismiss Good Will Hunting producer Harvey Weinstein’s atrocities, when we discuss how Weinstein’s looming presence might affect that film’s legacy, Van Sant makes an unexpected and somewhat esoteric comparison between the mogul’s fall from grace and Burmese campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, then later villainized for overseeing the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar. “It can affect actors, presidents, anybody,” Van Sant says vaguely of these public ruinations. “A person can become a hero or they can become a non-hero.”

Perhaps Van Sant’s résumé is bipolar, in part, due to his nonpartisan inclinations. It’s split evenly between those mainstream award magnets (Good Will Hunting was nominated for Best Director; both that film and Milk received Best Picture nominations) and the weirder stuff, like Elephant or Last Days (the latter of which is almost maddeningly minimal, loosely based on Kurt Cobain’s descent into heroin-induced lethargy). Indies like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho—both arthouse, lo-fi works about kids living rootless, lonely existences, the latter starring Joaquin’s brother River Phoenix, who also died of an overdose—helped bolster Van Sant’s reputation as a thoughtful auteur at the start of his career in the ’90s. Then there’s the stuff that not many liked, such as his last picture The Sea of Trees (11 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and the shot-for-shot colored remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which Van Sant made as a sassy response to Hollywood’s reboot and sequel obsession in 1998.

photo by Scott Patrick Green, courtesy of Amazon Studios

“Hollywood just needs a way to understand the film they’re gonna see before they see it,” Van Sant explains of remakes. “Then the audience will know what they’re gonna get. It’s the idea of making something that the public is already aware of. I just thought, ‘If they’re going to do it, they might as well try to do it one time without changing the thing they’re making.’ If what they wanted is the same movie, rather than taking only the screenplay, why don’t they take all the other input?” Meaning the camera angles and shots themselves, which Van Sant duly replicated. But his Psycho was not kindly received. “It was a concept,” he says, apparently unphased. “I wasn’t sure whether it would work or not.” He wonders if it was merely the wrong choice of film, and doesn’t see the trend shifting much twenty years later. “Spielberg is in the process of remaking West Side Story,” he points out. “And they’re not changing any of the lyrics to the songs.”

Van Sant appears resigned to Hollywood’s absurd rules of law, willing to play along if it means he’ll keep making movies. When he speaks of Hollywood’s originality dearth, he does so seemingly without disdain—those trends don’t anger him, they simply inform his own work. Though one might assume it’s harder to get avant-garde projects made than populist ones, Van Sant insists there is little difference for him. “They were inexpensive,” he says of his indies. “Every film is pretty hard. I didn’t notice one being easier than the other… I know it’s a thing where filmmakers say, ‘I did one for the money or the studio, and one for me.’ But I don’t think I’ve been working quite like that.” FL

This article appears in FLOOD 8. You can download or purchase the magazine here.

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