The cathartic scene from Good Will Hunting, directed by Gus Van Sant, might come to mind when watching Van Sant’s newest, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. The film, which was released on Friday, is based on the memoir of John Callahan, a paraplegic alcoholic and cartoonist in ‘70s Portland, Oregon.
After a drunken car accident leaves Callahan, played by Joaquin Phoenix, paralyzed at the age of 21, he’s left with nobody save an apathetic attendant and a white hamster named Snickers. Miserable years pass before Callahan resolves to embark on a 12-step trudge to recovery—from alcoholism and debilitation, deep-seated rage and shame. He finds a sponsor in Donnie (Jonah Hill), a wealthy gay man who wears silk kimonos and conducts group sessions with wry humor and panache.
The echoes of Will Hunting in Callahan are clear: They’re both outsiders. They both heal under the watch of a mentor who’s part-charitable counselor, part-sassy compadre (both embodied by comedic actors, Hill and Williams). And like Hunting, Callahan’s breakthrough can only come once he roots out his immense fury at the world, and an even immenser fury at himself.
“The basics kind of end up in the same place: unresolved feelings about whose fault something is, or unresolved feelings about forgiving people,” said Van Sant earlier this week as he reflected on the characters’ parallel experiences. In Callahan’s memoir, “he focuses on having a breakthrough, but he doesn’t focus on how the breakthrough came about,” Van Sant explained. “So I chose the group as a place where he could actually learn. And it was very much related to the type of scene that Good Will Hunting was about.”
Oddball outsiders have long been an area of interest for Van Sant, who began his illustrious career in 1988 with Mala Noche, a sexual coming-of-age from the vantage point of a lonely convenience store clerk. Since then, he’s continued in the vein of youthful angst (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, To Die For, Good Will Hunting) with portraits of young men experiencing life from the wings.
Then there was that one time Van Sant tried out to direct Fifty Shades of Grey. “I made a short film as an example, as something they could look at. But I don’t know if that was a good idea,” he reflected. “I thought of it kind of like 9½ Weeks, or something that was really sultry and really sensual because the book was,” he said. “I think if I had done it, I would have been either fired or dismissed.”
But mostly, Van Sant’s work fits in theme. Even his biopics, of Kurt Cobain and Harvey Milk, are centered on social outlaws—ones who channeled their outsider status to become visionary figures of hope and accomplishment.
Callahan, in Don’t Worry, fits into a similar biopic mold. After becoming sober, he turns to drawing comic strips, ultimately climbing to moderate fame as an irreverent humorist and local troublemaker. The cartoons, which Van Sant cuts to and animates throughout the film, break all the rules of propriety, poking fun at the disenfranchised while humanizing the bad guys. They’re funny in an unexpected way, and their breezy wittiness is something that the film—while largely a drama—achieves as well.
“On all fronts, I was trying to make sure that there was comedy in the film from these different places—from the book, from the actors, from my own handling of the situations,” Van Sant said. “I hire comedic actors generally. Like as an effort to, when possible, grab some comedy, or a line here or there, to make use of their talents as comedians.”
When asked about working with Robin Williams, Van Sant turns buoyant, letting escape a rare chuckle as he recalls their early friendship. “I think when I met him, during that period he was very serious. Even when I cracked a little joke, it wasn’t really recognized and he didn’t follow it up with a joke. He didn’t say anything which was funny. And I assumed that was because he was being serious, like a serious actor,” he said.
“For him, comedy was almost like a whole obsessional world in itself, so it was either full-on make the person die laughing, or just have no comment there,” he continued. “He never tried to make me laugh, but he would try and make Matt [Damon] laugh. And the crew was like a little audience that he had all the time, so he would sometimes just start doing stand-up in front of them, and he wouldn’t stop until I’d say, ‘You have to start working again.’ And then he was like, ‘Oh yeah, alright, boss,’” he recalled.
Today, there’s a small black cloud cast over the legacy of Good Will Hunting in the porcine face of its producer, Harvey Weinstein. At the time of the film’s release, Miramax was reaching its apex, and, as we now know, Weinstein was escaping blame for multiple accounts of harassment and assault. When broaching the subject, Van Sant seems cautious yet thoughtful. “I always think of the movies that Harvey has made as artistic achievements that he facilitated,” he said, “but his troubles—the accusations, or the demise of Harvey—to me doesn’t all of a sudden wipe out my relationship to the film.”
Van Sant acknowledges that filmmaking can be complicated—“like doing a jigsaw puzzle”—but he also knows that overthinking a scene won’t get you anywhere. When directing, Van Sant says his advice to his actors is often very basic: “It finally just comes down to getting the character in the frame and in focus, and recording the sound. That’s all we’re doing. We’re just trying to keep you in focus. And you just have to say your lines.” He added, “All these motivations and reasons for the action—you don’t really have to worry about that. You just go through the motions and it will magically, hopefully, connect together.”
Reflecting on his seminal 2003 school shooting drama Elephant, Van Sant described a similar kind of filmmaking restraint. In order to cut against didacticism, he was intent on keeping the movie’s pace slow and sedate, like an opera. That way, he explained, “It’s able to allow the audience to consider things while they’re happening as opposed to dictating things. It’s more like, ‘What do we think collectively?’” He added, “It was trying to be a therapy.”
Callahan’s therapy hinges on a similar message in Don’t Worry. In the end, Callahan’s upswing relies on his ability to relinquish control over his future, to commit to a calmer mindset and simpler lifestyle. When Callahan bombards Donnie with convoluted questions and anxieties, Donnie often merely responds, “Drink water.”
Sometimes, the best answer—be it in therapy, or cartoons, or filmmaking—is a simple one.