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Look at Gus Van Sant’s career in the right light, and it reads like a map of the last 30 years of independent movies.
It began in 1985 with docu-realist grit — Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy — about life in the shabbiest and most interesting corners of Portland. This, just at Sundance was coming into its industrial own. By the time My Own Private Idaho arrived in 1991, Van Sant was considered part of a movement of daring, new independent filmmakers. That blossomed into mainstream success with Good Will Hunting in 1997 when studios like (sorry for this dirty word) Miramax were spending as never before on indies and putting them up for awards.
A raised profile led Van Sant to bigger, but less acclaimed projects like Psycho and Finding Forrester before he retreated into small work in the mid-2000s. Then, 2008’s Milk garnered Van Sant a new hit and a second Oscar nomination. Now, at 66, his career is intersecting with the rise of streaming giants. The director’s latest, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, is an Amazon Studios release.
Don’t Worry is Van Sant’s cleverly constructed biopic of Portland cartoonist John Callahan. The new film, open now at both Hollywood Theatre and Cinema 21, stars Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan and focuses on the cartoonist’s life journey through alcohol addiction, paralysis and finding notoriety for his uniquely voiced, politically incorrect work. The new film also stars Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, and Jack Black.
Read on for a condensed version of my recent podcast interview with Van Sant. And if you like, listen to the whole thing at the episode’s 20-minute mark. Below, Van Sant discusses his group therapy experiences, Joaquin Phoenix’s all-consuming preparation, and nearly losing his crew on the set of Drugstore Cowboy.
Chance Solem-Pfeifer: In your career, you’ve had to cast for people of national renown, like Harvey Milk, and fictionally famous people, like Norman Bates. But what was it like casting for someone you knew in John Callahan? Does that present its own challenges?
Gus Van Sant: Well, I have done that before — in my first film, Mala Noche. I was casting Walt Curtis and the two kids in the story. There were real people that Drugstore Cowboy was based on too. With this film, the questions was how much are we trying to really be John Callahan. From the beginning, Joaquin says, “I need acne makeup.” And I said, “I don’t think we need to go so far.” Sometimes it gets in the way. It depends how much time and money you have.
CSP: What was his impulse to do that? Is that just an actor’s impulse?
GVS: Yeah, that was a trademark of John Callahan, the acne scarring. Having been through Milk, it just sounded like three hours of makeup every day. I didn’t think that was worth it. I did think the red hair was important. But also, Joaquin’s face is just not that round, like John’s was. You’re already going to not quite get there. You have to invent a character. Also, the way John spoke was so interesting and elusive, and Joaquin was working on that. It was difficult.
CSP: You worked with Joaquin in 1995 on To Die For. Coming back and working with someone again at a totally different point in their career, had he grown and changed as an artist in ways that surprised you?
GVS: I didn’t feel that. He’d done way more movies over the last 20 or more years, so he was seasoned. I had known him that whole time. I knew a lot of the things that made him cautious and the things that disturbed him. I was his neighbor in New York for awhile.
When he was 20, he hadn’t done that many things. He’d been in SpaceCamp and Parenthood. Now, he was seasoned and maybe grizzled [laughs]. But ultimately everything is the same. He gets into it to the point that he can’t think about anything else. His copy of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot was bent and annotated. He really works on it. With To Die For, he did the same thing.
CSP: Like Don’t Worry, another of your most famous films, Good Will Hunting, hinges on therapy scenes. And there’s a group therapy scene in Drugstore Cowboy too. I’m sure going from John Callahan’s story you’ve gotta have the 12 steps and have him in that room. But from a filmmaking standpoint, is there something appealing about the therapeutic relationship or that kind of dialogue?
GVS: Yeah, I was thinking about Ordinary People with Good Will Hunting. That whole movie has that running therapy scene. Again, this had it in the book. Chapter 5 was describing the things happening in John’s therapy. But I centered on it, you’re right. Maybe it’s a way of me working out my own problems [laughs].
CSP: There’s a lot of deflecting through humor in those scenes and then sudden anger. Is it compelling because the emotions are just so close together in those scenes?
GVS: I have done group therapy before, and I remember there were things happening that I hadn’t been clued into. I was new. It happens in our film: there’s these two girls who were pushing the buttons of another guy in the group because they were bored or something. And he blew his stack, and the counselor was like, “Down, down!”
There’s empathy, humor and people telling their life story. And then someone will say, “We know about your dad, your sister, your brother, but you never mentioned your mom one time…” And then their eyes start to spin in their head. It’s an interesting situation. I wanted to get in there and make it a bigger thing than it was in the book.
CSP: I wanted to ask you about making a movie in Portland this decade. What was it like to try and go back to places in a cinematic sense that you’d actually been in the ’80s?
GVS: I was here through all those years. I think there was an imaginary Portland in the screenplay where sometimes I would catch myself going, “Oh wait, in 1985, I was on 21st avenue.” I was there, so I could make it up, but sometimes I would forget what years were what.
CSP: I wanted to bounce a quote off you: there’s this featurette about the making of Drugstore Cowboy. You’re standing around in the video with Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch. And you’re wearing a great coat in the video; it’s a terrific coat.
GVS: A blue coat?
CSP: It is blue. And you’re saying, “When we’re in deep and things are really starting to go wrong, that’s when things get really fun for me.” Does that hold true, or are those a young man’s words?
GVS: No, I think that’s when you do have to really work, and that’s when things get fun. If things are going smoothly, it can get boring. I’m not sure what the “deep” thing might have been. On that movie, I had never shot with a big crew. On Mala Noche, I was able to get like 90 setups a day. I wasn’t that picky about the light. I would just pop around with the camera.
On Drugstore Cowboy, because we had all these different departments, each time we’d do anything, they all have to check it. All of a sudden everyone leaves the set so the lighting guy can work on it for 30 minutes. I was getting 13 setups today rather than 90.
CSP: So just a huge escalation of scale for you.
GVS: Yeah, but I didn’t know how to get rid of people. Like, I could have said, just leave me alone for a bit, and that would’ve been OK. But they had me worried because it was 35 mm, and we had to make sure it was all perfectly done. At the end of the movie, I really thought it was overdone and too polished. A large part of the crew had lost faith. You could see them acting like they weren’t talking about you. It was probably because of that.
Check out the full episode for a bonus couple of minutes in which Van Sant discusses watching Robin Williams improvise on the ‘Good Will Hunting’ set.