When Gus Van Sant began working on Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot more than 20 years ago, the movie looked a whole lot different. Back then, Robin Williams, at the height of his considerable fame, had optioned the memoir of the same name by John Callahan and was set to star as the quadriplegic, recovering-alcoholic Portland cartoonist. And when Robin Williams is in your movie, it looks different.
“It was always thought of, I think, as a Robin Williams film – people, including Robin, thought of it like Good Morning Vietnam or Dead Poets Society, one of his films where he’s being both humorous and serious,” Van Sant says. But after the underperformance of comparable movies like Clean and Sober and 28 Days, that was beginning to seem like a risky prospect. “I think the powers that be were like, OK, this is not looking like it can hold up the weight of however much money, $40 million, that they would put into it. That’s my interpretation – I was never told for sure what was going on.”
Van Sant set the project aside, and the next two decades brought plenty of highs and lows. Across 17 features as a director, including his latest, Van Sant has ranged from the poignancy and subversion of early indies like Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, and My Own Private Idaho to the crowd-pleasing polish of To Die For and Good Will Hunting to the experimentalism and ripped-from-the-headlines vitality of his so-called Death Trilogy, which includes Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. But his movies haven’t always hit. His most recent, 2015’s The Sea of Trees (Matthew McConaughey is a math professor who visits Japan’s so-called “suicide forest”), received some of the worst reviews of his career – the New York Times called it “a numinous meditation on grief that’s more likely to inspire laughter than tears”– and grossed just $20,000 domestically.
Even as he explored the cinematic spectrum, however, Van Sant couldn’t shake his interest in Callahan. After Williams’ death in 2014, the director arrived at an approach that would finally bear fruit: focusing on Callahan’s recovery from alcoholism as a way of considering the many other remarkable details of his story, such as the car crash that put him in a wheelchair, the cartoons that made him a local celebrity and the life that he lived after his accident. (Callahan died in 2010 as a result of complications from his quadriplegia.) And he ended up reuniting with Joaquin Phoenix, whose career he essentially launched by casting him as Jimmy Emmett in To Die For way back in 1995. Those decisions – as well as his first screenplay credit in more than 10 years – have resulted in Van Sant’s best film in a while. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot manages to convey the remarkable breadth and versatility of Van Sant’s filmmaking and deepens his examination of a career-long theme: the different ways people cope with the indignities life foists upon them.
With Don’t Worry, Van Sant takes a microscopic look at the different elements of Callahan’s existence – the day-to-day experience of being a quadriplegic, the mechanics of AA and the 12 Steps, the art of cartooning. The verisimilitude of the film is enhanced by its cinematography; Van Sant chose to shoot in a documentary style, and the story of how he arrived at the film’s precise aesthetic offers a glimpse into his process.
“Gus is so open to finding things,” says Christopher Blauvelt, the director of photography on Don’t Worry and a longtime Van Sant crewmember. “We started with that little seed of him wanting to be very free like a documentary, so that if something was happening we could be unobtrusive and zoom in to John drawing or anything we instinctually wanted to see. But we went through every single film camera, all the way from 8 mm film to video cameras to phones to 65 mm IMAX cameras. He’s literally open to any possible recipe of equipment or tools or lenses to make it what it should be.”
The vivacious performances of actors like Phoenix, Jonah Hill as AA mentor Donnie and Jack Black as the partier who inadvertently helps Callahan reach rock-bottom – as well as the musicians Beth Ditto and Kim Gordon, playing fellow AA members, and the musician-turned-actress Carrie Brownstein – are another calling card: If the Robin Williams version would’ve been a Robin Williams film, this is very much a Gus Van Sant one, filled with talented and committed actors who’ve clearly bought into their director’s approach. The return of Phoenix to the fold – Van Sant often works with the same people, including Danny Elfman, who scored Don’t Worry – comes more than two decades after they first teamed up, though Van Sant says they’ve frequently talked over the years about trying to find another project to do together. Blauvelt explains that a key element of Van Sant’s signature work is how much trust and freedom he gives to collaborators in creating the world.
“To me, he’s a visionary, and part of what makes him so adaptable to creating new imagery for whatever film he’s doing is the hunger for finding something new,” Blauvelt says. “There’s an openness there that’s incredible, and it’s so fun to work with someone like Gus, because you really do feel like you’re going to get the chance to explore. We were in the screening room for a month or so before [production], and we were borrowing footage from friends at Six Stair Films, who make these amazing skate films and had shot stuff on VHS, and we were looking at everything. It was just so fun to go through this process and say to ourselves, OK, that’s Callahan, that’s our film right there.”
But there’s another reason Don’t Worry could be considered a quintessential Gus Van Sant movie: It’s his first screenwriting credit since 2007’s Paranoid Park. Even though Van Sant has done great work with other peoples’ scripts, including To Die For (written by Buck Henry), Good Will Hunting (written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) and Milk (written by Dustin Lance Black), he felt the writing process was something of a homecoming – and the experience seems to have shown him the path forward.
“I started out writing my own screenplays,” Van Sant says. “It was always sort of a more solid feeling when I was writing them than when I was doing somebody else’s material, so in this case I was going back to something that I liked doing. I’m planning on trying to write the next movie myself, and it just seems to be more what I should be doing, rather than indenturing myself to another screenplay.”
This dovetails with the part of the process that most excites Van Sant at this point, some 30 years into his career as a director of feature films. As much as Don’t Worry is a character portrait, it’s also an exploration of communities, from that of Portland – Van Sant’s adopted home – to the residents of the rehab facility to Donnie’s tight-knit AA group. For Van Sant, investigating new cultures and environments is a major part of the allure of making a movie.
“The most exciting thing for me is when there’s something that I don’t really know about,” Van Sant says. “There are certain worlds out there that are very big, but you forget that they exist – like, the world of horticulture or something like that, where there’s a very, very large group of people at flower shows, and I know nothing about it. I like to realize that there’s a whole background that you could play a story on there.”
Even though Don’t Worry is a feature film in the traditional sense – it premiered at Sundance, it will debut in theaters, it’s just under two hours long – it was produced by Amazon, and will stream on Amazon Prime after it finishes its theatrical run. Van Sant has worked in the studio system, but he’s well aware that the type of drama he makes, the kind that used to be the bulk of the studios’ slate, is now a “specialty item,” sidelined in favor of big-budget action blockbusters. For a director like him, Amazon has stepped in to at least partially fill that void.
Beyond the world of features, too, even the most cursory look at what’s popular right now shows how the needs of the streaming companies versus the traditional studios have had an impact, and in a much more substantive way than just changing who puts out what. Van Sant has already worked in television, documentary and other forms aside from the feature, and as the landscape shifts, longform storytelling such as serialized TV could play a larger role in how the rest of Van Sant’s reliably eclectic career might take shape.
“There didn’t used to be as much of an opportunity for longer-form storytelling, but now it seems like that’s all anybody wants, that a feature doesn’t really fill enough time,” Van Sant says. “It’s kind of a new thing that you can actually do the stories that you otherwise would shy away from because they were too long. I went to pitch at Netflix and I felt like, ‘Oh, they would much rather have something that could fill 10 hours rather than two hours.’ ”