In the 33 years since he made his first feature, the now classic Mala Noche, director Gus Van Sant has occupied a rare position in the film industry, comfortably moving back and forth between Hollywood studio assignments and idiosyncratic experimental films—and in one case, his 1998 riff on Psycho, combining both in the same movie.
His latest release, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, occupies the space where Van Sant often does his best work: that of the modestly scaled, character-driven dramedy. Based on the memoir by Portland cartoonist John Callahan, whose alcoholism led to his paralysis following a devastating car accident, the film is vintage Van Sant in its delicate balance of humor, poignancy, romance, tragedy, and salvation. It’s devastatingly moving without relying on false sentiment, and profound in its insights yet completely accessible and casual in tone. It’s the work of a director so confident in his own skill and the strength of his material that he doesn’t feel any need whatsoever to force his effects. It helps, of course, that he has one of America’s greatest living actors on board to play Callahan. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the lead role is as subtle in its power as Van Sant’s direction, and as layered and filled with nuance. As is usually the case, the actor transforms himself so completely that he seems to be playing himself—a feat that never fails to astonish, given the variety of his oeuvre.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot reunites Van Sant and Phoenix for the first time since their collaboration on To Die For (1995), a film Phoenix credits with transforming his ideas about how to act and make films.
“Most of my experience prior to that had been guest spots on TV shows, where they tell you, ‘This is the scene; this is your mark; this is exactly how it goes down,’” Phoenix explains. “There’s some real value in learning how to do that, but it isn’t satisfying. Even at a young age it felt confining. Working with Gus was the first time I dealt with a person in charge who said, ‘Who cares what the line is? If you feel like going up over there, do that. If you jumped up on the table and said the line, maybe he would do that. Maybe that would make sense.’ Suddenly this mad rush of possibilities went through my brain, and I realized it was the thing that I had been searching for and I didn’t even know it. I felt an incredible sense of freedom, and that was really important for me.”
Van Sant had met Phoenix through his brother River, who starred in Van Sant’s seminal 1991 film My Own Private Idaho. “I had gotten to know him and different members of the family, and I had seen him in Parenthood when he was really young,” Van Sant recalls. “When we were doing To Die For I wasn’t sure whether or not to offer him the part, because he had stopped acting for a while. But he was really responsive. I think right at that moment, he wanted to act again.” Phoenix concurs, adding that he had always known he and Van Sant would work together. “I had been wanting to act again for around a year, and when I read the script for To Die For I responded to it in a really visceral way,” he says. “I met Gus four or five years prior when they were shooting Idaho, and he wanted me to be in a scene as an extra. I remember saying ‘no,’ and I didn’t tell him this, but in my mind I was thinking, ‘I’m going to work with you proper one day. I’m not just going to do this little part now.’”
The opportunity to work “proper” came when Van Sant offered Phoenix the role of Jimmy Emmett, a high school student seduced into violent crime by an ambitious news anchor (Nicole Kidman) who manipulates him into killing her husband. The part earned the actor major critical accolades and confirmed his kinship with his director. “Gus is really smart about guiding you and making suggestions without it feeling like he’s asking you to do something,” the actor says. After the experience, Phoenix felt confident that he and Van Sant would reunite, but nothing came up. “We spoke a few years ago about something and it just didn’t feel right for me,” Phoenix recalls. “But I’d always wanted to work with Gus again, and I knew it would happen someday.”
The project that would bring Phoenix and Van Sant back together had in fact been gestating since just a couple of years after To Die For wrapped. “Robin Williams brought it to me,” Van Sant recalls. “It was after Good Will Hunting, and he and his wife had a number of projects they were developing. One of them was Callahan’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, and I knew Callahan personally through our circle of friends in Portland. I had never read the book, but I knew his story and had seen his cartoons a lot.”
Van Sant came on board to develop the script, but over the course of several years could never quite get it off the ground. “People would get excited and then nothing would happen. I don’t know if it was the subject matter, or the fact that there were three different films about alcoholism that didn’t do well, or what. I’m only guessing, because I never really knew what happened in those rooms,” Van Sant says. “When I first worked with Robin he had had a string of hits, but after Bicentennial Man [flopped], he wasn’t in a position to get a personal project made.” The book came back to Van Sant after both Callahan and Williams had died. “Sony now owned the book,” Van Sant explains. “They had bought it, so Joaquin and I pitched it to them using one of their old drafts, and then I wrote a new draft because I never felt like I had the draft that I wanted. That’s what we started working with.”