By JOHN SEMLEY
Special to The Globe and Mail
Thursday, July 19, 2018
BERLIN -- Meeting Gus Van Sant, one doesn't immediately get the sense that he's one of the more exciting, critically vaunted, eccentric filmmakers of the past quarter-century. He is placid to the point of dullness, his stony visage given only to the occasional inkling of a smile. Van Sant presents like a pasty cubicle drone pushing paper at an H&R Block; the kind of apparent nonentity who one may reimagine as a secret serial killer, like the motelier-murderer of his 1998 Psycho remake, if only because such a secret double-life might make him more interesting.
This mild manner belies unassuming depths of artistry and creativity.
Van Sant's films still generate interest among those interested in American independent cinema's past and present. A new Van Sant movie is always a minor event, like a visit to one's favourite pseudo-upscale chain restaurant, Red Lobster or the Keg. And his latest is no exception. The night before a round-table interview junket at February's Berlin International Film Festival, for his new comic biopic Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, Van Sant was spotted at a party, chatting with German filmmaker Wim Wenders. The cinephile mind reels, imagining the topics of conversation: the current state of independent filmmaking, the difficulties of securing financing, the talents of James Franco. "We talk about material things," Van Sant reveals, unemphatically. "Not politics or football ... mostly cameras."
Photography is a longstanding interest of Van Sants. He is well known for snapping candid Polaroids of stars who have appeared in his films over the years: Nicole Kidman, Matt Damon, Renée Zellweger, Keanu Reeves.
And in a Berlin hotel suite, he uses the moments between interviews to shoot photos - real photos, captured on film - of the chilly, grey-brick borough of Mitte, viewed through a tiny window.
It's a revealing moment. Despite his ostensible unassumingness of manner and dress and self-presentation, Gus Van Sant is always creating. He can't not create.
His latest film is a testament to that compulsive spirit. Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot stars Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan: a real-life Portland alcoholic who reinvented himself as a satiric cartoonist after a car accident rendered him quadriplegic. As a cartoonist, Callahan took shots at organized religion and American hypocrisy, drawing particular attention to the disabled. (In one cartoon, two cowboys in wheelchairs square off, with one snarling, "This town ain't accessible enough for the both of us!") Callahan is a figure familiar to Van Sant's cinema, halfway between the hardbitten addicts and drifters of his earlier work (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) and the indomitable spirits of Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester and Milk.
As with Van Sant himself, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot is a film hovering between a few different places.
It's both a feel-good story about a mean man overcoming addiction, and a vulgar comedy co-starring Jack Black and Jonah Hill; it's at once conventional in its storytelling and inventive in form, jumping between timelines and cutting in animated sequences that bring Callahan's cartoons to life; it's an awards-baiting drama with the heart of an indie - or vice-versa.
Scanning his filmography, Van Sant seems like an archetypal "one for them, one for me" filmmaker, dividing his energies between mainstream Hollywood dramas (Good Will Hunting, Milk) and more personal projects (Gerry, Last Days). Although he admits to making some movies "out-of-body," Van Sant rejects such a clear delineation. "The only films I worked on that I intended to be commercial and that ended up being popular are Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester," he says.
"For them was Finding Forrester," Van Sant says. "Then, for me was Gerry and Elephant and Last Days and ... it goes on. There's rarely a clear divide. It gets mushed together."
Don't Worry is a bit hard to discern through this mush, for reasons beyond its hodgepodge of tones and styles. Before its premiere at Sundance, and its European bow in Berlin, the film was submerged in a critical morass for casting the ablebodied Phoenix as the quadriplegic Callahan. The Ruderman Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization advocating for the social inclusion of people with disabilities, claimed the movie, "overlooks the opportunity to cast actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities."
Responding to this public denunciation, Van Sant notes that casting a disabled actor would raise issues for the large swaths of the film that occur before Callahan's accident. And, perhaps even more importantly, the real Callahan, who passed in 2010, wanted to be played by a major star. "When John was alive, Robin Williams was going to play him," Van Sant explains. "I think if a quadriplegic actor were going to play [Callahan], he would have done it himself. And he would have done a good job. But he wanted Robin to do it. I mean, at the time, Robin Williams was one of the most recognized actors in the world."
Yet there is, for Van Sant, a more substantive problem inherent in criticism of his casting. "I've been thinking about that a lot," he says, convincingly. "If you make a film about characters, where you haven't lived their lives, you're less credited. So if you've lived the life of a drug-addicted robber, as in Drugstore Cowboy, you're given more credit than if you're telling someone else's story. Same thing with acting. If you've lived the life, you're given more credit. But that bypasses the entire point of storytelling. And acting. And the idea of commentary from the artist. And that's what it is: It's about artists commenting on life. So ... um ... that's my defence."
As defences go, it's semi-persuasive. Yes, art is not life but a comment on life. And the commentators should be afforded creative latitude in developing their commentary.
Yet filmmaking is also an industry - one in which certain groups are drastically underrepresented, often at the expense of the drastically overrepresented. Don't Worry poses particular difficulties, which aren't easily resolved by casting a disabled lead. It's also tricky to name a mainstream-ish American filmmaker more sensitive or quietly intellectual than Van Sant who could better tell Callahan's story - one which might otherwise be left untold.
This is another problem that emerges in debates about onscreen representation. Simpler, more straight-ahead discussions about the necessity and virtue of more diverse casting are reduced to zero-sum ontological problems. It's not about whether a given movie is good or bad. Or even about whether it should exist. It's about how its existence compromises the hypothetical existence of some other film (or novel, or TV show) that does not yet exist.
Van Sant's concerns are considerably plainer. He just wants to tell Callahan's story in the best way he knows how. "Someone looking for help and receiving help is a universal story," Van Sant says of Callahan's story.
"If I respond to it, I normally assume there's a number of people who will respond to it."
And as Don't Worry suggests, Van Sant is also willing to mire himself in that muck and mush, making a film that draws together different tones, embraces different forms and signals several larger questions swirling around Hollywood. While mileage on Van Sant's films may vary, there's something artistically noble in his sustained compulsion to create.
"That's another thing I talked to Wim Wenders about," he says, cracking one of those rare smiles.
"We like to make a different movie each time. It's the only way to do it, or else you're repeating yourself." Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot opens July 20 in Toronto and Vancouver before expanding to other Canadian cities.
Gus Van Sant attends the premiere of his new movie Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival in February. The movie is about a man who reinvented himself as a satiric cartoonist after he became a quadriplegic following a car accident.
THOMAS NIEDERMUELLER/GETTY IMAGES