It took director Gus Van Sant around 20 years and three screenplay drafts to realize his and the late Robin Williams’s dream of bringing cartoonist John Callahan’s life to the screen. The biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, relates a full-circle account of addiction and recovery. And anchoring the film is another fearless performance by Joaquin Phoenix, who brings his customary dark humor and pathos to his role as Callahan, who turned to alcohol at an early age in order to cope with the pain of having been sexually abused and later became a quadriplegic in an auto accident at the age of 21. The cartoonist died in 2010 following surgery for chronic bed sores.
At Berlinale this year, where Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot enjoyed its European premiere, I had the chance to sit down with Van Sant. Our conversation spanned everything from the filmmaker’s attachment to Callahan’s animation to how putting a wig on Nicole Kidman’s head on the set of To Die For has become a gift that keeps on giving.
Joaquin Phoenix has said that one of the things that he was struck by while working on the film was the amount of freedom you gave him in portraying John Callahan. Is that something you try to give to all your actors?
I do try to give actors as much freedom as I can. When I started out, there was a moment when I realized that actors need certain things. They need proof that you really mean what you say and that you’re dedicated to the project. The thing is that I’m also genuinely interested in their ideas. A director needs to believe in his or her actors and just allow them to come up with their own original ideas. When you show trust and can accommodate, you’re at home.
So, then, did Joaquin have his own ideas on how to portray John?
I have to confess something. At first, I didn’t think that Joaquin was the greatest fit for the role. As you probably know, the part was originally intended for Robin Williams. With him in the lead, the film would have been more about the later part of John’s life. After Robin left us, the concept of the film changed. Joaquin is exquisite at playing both real-life characters, like Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, and fictional ones, like Freddie Quell in The Master. He seems to be able to do anything. He had many ideas about his part and a few of them we eventually used. For instance, at one point in his life, John was trying to meet people from his past to say that he was sorry for what he’d said and done. One of the people that he really wanted to talk to was Dexter, because he was driving the car that got into an accident. I think what happened with the real John was that he couldn’t find Dexter. He was hidden behind the insurance company. Anyway, he couldn’t find him or else he didn’t write about it. But I thought it sounded like a good idea to have them meet on screen. So after we finished most of the scenes, we called up Jack Black and asked him if he wanted to do a few extra scenes. It’s pretty amazing.
Did you know Callahan’s story and work before you decided to direct?
Like me, John lived in Portland, and I knew who he was. I read his cartoons in newspapers and that was about it. I might’ve met him briefly at one point. We sort of had parallel careers working in the 1980s. We both became recognizable in the end of the 1980s nationally. He had his cartoon strip, and I’d done Drugstore Cowboy. I think in that way we started mirror careers in Portland. It wasn’t until much later, maybe 1997, around the time that I made Good Will Hunting, that Robin Williams mentioned that he had optioned this book by John called Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. I had realized that there was this book, but I never read it. I knew his story, though, and was a true fan of his animated short I Think I Was an Alcoholic.
Because of that, I said yes to Robin’s request. We produced two scripts at the time. But before I talked to Joaquin about the role, over 20 years went by. I don’t even know where the two early drafts are, maybe with the studio. At the time, Robin had so many things to do, so many choices of great roles that he eventually never got back to John’s story. Then he died. A year or two after that, someone from Sony contacted me saying that they had this book they got from Robin and they knew I was extensively working on an adaptation. They were wondering if I still wanted to do it. That was when I called Joaquin, almost immediately after the call from Sony. In the new draft of the script we decided to be more focused on John’s alcoholism and recovery.
Why was that the case?
I think that’s because from the moment he realized he was an alcoholic, it all transformed for him. The accident was a subject in itself. As was his childhood. His fame as a cartoonist was a potential. I had a feeling that the Donnie character, played by Jonah Hill, and the work they both put into recovery, was more dramatic. His struggle was right there.
Did you think of Kim Gordon and Beth Ditto from the start for their roles?
I worked with Kim on Last Days, so I knew what she was capable of and had no reservations. With Beth, we had our casting sessions. I’ve seen her perform in Portland, but I never met her in person. She came in one day and I knew from the start that she could improvise, and to a great extent.
Which parts did she improvise then?
I asked the actors in the story-sharing scene at the AA meeting to come up with their own original stories. So, Beth and Kim’s stories in that scene are improvised. And I honestly think they’re one of the best scenes in the film.
How can you describe the physical preparation and transformation of Joaquin and Jonah for their respective roles?
Jonah’s character has an interesting introduction to the story. John first goes to AA after about a year after he decided to stop drinking. It’s not really in the movie though. At some point, he just thought it was getting more and more difficult to stay sober and wanted to look for help at meetings. He was very nervous at first. When he finally went to the AA meeting he saw this guy who looked like Tom Petty and was cracking AA jokes. A leather jacket, long blond hair—that sort of guy. John had a bonding moment with him at that meeting because for the first time he realized there can be humor in AA. He thought it was comforting. And Jonah was very persistent on rocking the Tom Petty look.
Well, we had a lot of success with putting a blond wig on Nicole Kidman in To Die For, which she also used in later movies. She normally has super-curly red hair. And with this blond wig she completely transformed. I was just thinking, “What if we put a straight blond wig on Jonah?” My boyfriend went and got a bio-wig and brought Jonah in to our house and put a wig on him just to see it that’s possible. And it looked good. Then we proceeded from there.
I have to mention that his and Joaquin’s preparation was hidden from me. I knew they liked the script, and they’re both very capable performers. And yet, when we had our meetings, about two or three of them, they said their words very slowly. I’d think, “Okay, good, let’s do it again.” And they kept saying their words very slowly, without acting. We were talking about the characters, the relationships, things they’d talk about. But then they were still saying these words in a very monotone voice. So, I thought, “Okay, either I ask them to step it up, or I just wait and see until we start shooting.” I know that sometimes actors need to become stimulated in various ways before they can open up and act. But that was the first time something like that happened to me, really. Before, I always had actors perform from the very beginning. They might have been embarrassed because they were with each other, they might have been holding back. But I knew it was going to work out eventually. And it did.