From writer/director Gus Van Sant and based on a true story, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot follows the path to sobriety after a life-changing accident pushes John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix, with one of the best performances of the year) to discover the healing power of art, willing his injured hands into drawing often quite controversial cartoons that bring him attention and a following. Seeing what led up to that turning point in his life and how he copes with it afterwards, provides a fascinating perspective on the relationships in his life, whether it’s with his old drinking buddy (Jack Black), his sponsor (Jonah Hill), his girlfriend (Rooney Mara), or the eclectic individuals in his 12-step group.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Gus Van Sant talked about the film’s 20-year journey from Robin Williams obtaining the rights to John Callahan’s autobiography to the film we see now, how the script changed once Joaquin Phoenix was set to play the role, what he knew of Callahan prior to telling his story for the big screen, the freedom he gave his leading man to find the character, and the film’s unexpected casting choices.
GUS VAN SANT: Great, thanks!
What’s it like to finally see something that was first brought to your attention over 20 years ago, fully realized in this way? What does it mean to you to be able to tell this story and to share it with audiences?
VAN SANT: It’s nice. I’ve had that experience, a few times before. I think the screenplay for My Own Private Idaho was first attempted about 15 or 16 years before we shot it. I think some of the smaller films like Last Days were about 12 years, before they finally were made. So, I’m used to it. It’s not that unusual.
When you’re waiting so many years, trying to get something done or hoping that something gets made, do you always think that maybe it isn’t going to happen, or do you always have hope that it will happen?
VAN SANT: Well, the projects are in a file and you run across them or you get re-inspired by something that maybe you were inspired by, in the first place. In the case of this particular one, it’s a little different because it was in the hands of Robin Williams. He developed it. I had worked on it with a writer, on a couple of screenplays, but it really was still in the office of Robin Williams and it was his inability to commit to the project that he had developed, probably due to having lots of choices and lots of things that he could do. It wasn’t unusual. Aside from John Callahan, himself, who was very despondent, on the edge of his seat waiting for this to happen, I wasn’t really in the same situation. I was just hopeful that maybe something would happen. I was very surprised when Sony called with the story.
Did you ever think that once Robin Williams was gone that you just weren’t going to do this anymore, or did you get re-inspired by having Joaquin Phoenix get involved with it?
VAN SANT: When Robin died, I wasn’t really thinking of this project. It wasn’t what came to mind. I didn’t really think about it. As a result of his dying, the studio was housecleaning and they found this investment they had made, in buying this book, and since I was connected to it, they said, “Is there something you think you would want to make with this?” That was when I was given the chance. It was also a new offer. I wasn’t sitting and waiting for it. The first step was whether I wanted to revisit it, which I thought I did, and then to find out if there was somebody that I liked that could play the role. Joaquin responded positively, and it was a great opportunity to work with him.
Was it your idea to talk to him about it and work with him, having worked with him before?
VAN SANT: Yeah, that was my idea. He and I had talked about other projects, some of which were books that he knew about, or stories that he knew about, or screenplays, and some of them were ones that I knew about. In this case, this was one that I knew about.