Restless tells the story of Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska), a terminally ill teenage girl that falls for a unique young man, named Enoch Brae (Henry Hopper), who likes to attend funerals. Although Annabel is a cancer patient, her deeply felt love of life and the natural world is apparent. On the other hand, Enoch lost interest in living, after an accident claimed the life of his parents. When these two outsiders meet at a funeral, they find a common ground with which to share their unique experiences of the world, making the most of the time they have together.
For the film’s press day, Collider spoke to director Gus Van Sant, in both a roundtable and a 1-on-1 interview, about how the simplicity of this story is what he found most appealing, that he’s drawn to stories about young people because it’s the most vibrant part of life, how Henry Hopper and Mia Wasikowska had just the right chemistry that they were looking for, and that he used a technique of doing silent takes of the scenes, leaving the actors with only their eyes and faces to fall back on. He also talked about directing the pilot for the upcoming Starz drama series Boss, premiering on October 21st and starring Kelsey Grammar, and said that he’s currently looking at scripts to figure out what to do next. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: How did this come about for you and what was it about this story that appealed to you?
GUS VAN SANT: It was just a really interesting and very focused story about two people who meet and are friends for a certain amount of time in their lives. The simplicity was really the attractive thing about it. These two characters meet, in the very first scene, and then stay together through the whole piece. It was very much about them, the whole time, rather than maybe being divided up by sub-stories. It was very European, in that way, or French New Wave.
Since this came from a first-time writer, what did you think of this script, when you first read it?
VAN SANT: It had a great story, and something that I thought was important to investigate. Usually, when I read something, I’m looking for the story first. And then, when I re-read it, I check every part of it to see whether every scene is necessary. You imagine yourself watching the movie, to see whether or not you’re losing the through-line of the story because of repeating a beat or something not being necessary, but I found everything was necessary. So, I thought, “Wow, it has a great story, everything is necessary, the characters are great, and the overall situation and message is succinct.” Everything lined up.
This film really shows how everyone faces death in an entirely different way, with Enoch not really being interested in life anymore and Annabel being compelled by the value of life, and how those differences essentially allow them to teach and help each other. Was it important for you to show that everyone deals with death in different ways?
VAN SANT: Well, it’s not actually that different, if you compare it to other kids that have cancer. They don’t want to sit in bed and bum out. They want to go have fun. So, it’s actually quite common.
Why do you think you’re so drawn to stories about young people?
VAN SANT: There are a lot of reasons why, but one of the main reasons is that it’s the most vibrant part of your life. It’s the place where you’re learning things, for the first time, and maybe for the most important time. When you get to be 23, 24 or 25, you start to freeze up and become an adult. One of those favorite teenage oddities is [Arthur] Rimbaud, the poet. Apparently, at 20, he just stopped writing, but he lived until he was 35. When he was working in Africa, and people mentioned that he was this amazing, famous, young poet in Paris, he would say, “Oh, I guess I was, but all that was just fantasy and stupidity.” He would put it down. He turned his back on his childhood because he had grown up. I think that period of time is one of intense creativity, and when you’re the smartest.
Why do you choose to work with a lot of unknown actors?
VAN SANT: When they’re unknown, like Henry [Hopper], it’s a chance for the audience not to know what they’re watching because they haven’t seen that character before. It’s easier, at least for me, to imagine projecting into a character that you don’t know because there’s an unknown quality.
VAN SANT: We cast the film here, in L.A. There are a lot of young actors in Los Angeles, so a lot of them came in. At first, your possibilities are endless. You can cast anybody you want, so you try to think outside the box. There were a number of really great ideas. There were a lot of children of parents that were also in the business, like Bryce [Dallas Howard], Schuyler [Fisk] and Henry [Hopper]. Elvis’ granddaughter came in. There seemed to be a whole community of people like that, and I’d never really noticed that before. It was really interesting, in that way. There were a couple people from England that I was really interested in, but the accent was difficult to handle.
What did Henry Hopper and Mia Wasikowska bring to their roles?
VAN SANT: Mia was well known for her HBO appearance in In Treatment, which was her main thing in the States, and she was going to be in Alice in Wonderland. She became a very important choice for us. And then, Henry came in late because he was in Berlin. It was hard to find out where he actually was. So, he finally came in and was very adept, as was Mia, at making the words that were on the page their own and making them come alive, which is hard to do in an audition. A lot of times, you’re not necessarily off the page because you haven’t been able to take the time to prepare a character. It’s very easy to find even great actors reading it more like a reading. Things aren’t really coming alive yet, even though you know they will. But, those two actors were so good, they could make it come alive, instantly. They could just make it happen. So, I thought, “Maybe I should go with the actors who make it come alive, seemingly so easily.” For all I know, they practiced for weeks and weeks. Together, they seemed to also have the chemistry that we were looking for.
Did it take convincing to get Henry to audition, or was he actively pursuing acting?
VAN SANT: He was loosely, informally pursuing acting. He had done some stage work in school, and then he had tried out for one movie and didn’t get it. He was a painter in Berlin for a while, and came back just to try out for our movie, as a one-time thing.
What were they like on set?
VAN SANT: Like a continuation of when I first met them, in the auditions. They became the characters and were together a lot. Ryo [Kase], who played the Kamikaze pilot, and Henry and Mia were a group of friends that did stuff together, when we weren’t shooting. They were good enough at what they did that it went beyond my abilities of a technical director. I think there are directors that could have kept up with them and guided them into areas, but I was generally just trying to watch what they came up with and react to it, rather than guide them psychologically through the characters.
Both Enoch and Annabel have such a unique vintage look and feel to them that makes it feel like they’re living in their own world, among everyone else. Was that intentional? How did their look come about?
VAN SANT: Part of it was that Jason [Lew], in writing the script, had used somewhat anachronistic things. They were playing a game called Battleship, and I guess there’s a modern version of the game, but it’s really a game that I know from the ‘50s and ‘60s. They didn’t really seem to have modern communications. They didn’t have cell phones and there weren’t really any computers around. It just seemed like there was a suggestion that it was a timeless story. In the script, it said that Enoch wore a black suit, which suggested that it was something to go to a funeral in. We imagined that maybe he got that black suit at a thrift store, or it was his grandfather’s. And then, we had Annabel copying him and dressing in vintage clothes. That’s something that I’ve seen kids around Portland do because it’s more affordable than buying new clothes, so we had them dressed like that. We liked the timeless quality that it had.
Your actors always talk about how you run such a calm set and that because of it, they feel really trusted and free to explore. Is that something you do, in order to make them feel comfortable, or is that just who you are? Are you really that calm of a person, when you’re making a movie?
VAN SANT: Yeah, I try to be really calm. I don’t think I’m literally calm. I just try to make them calm, by seeming like I’m calm. It’s a trick.
What made you decide to have the actors perform a take of their scenes silently, without their dialogue? What do you find that adds to the work, when they only have their eyes and faces to fall back on?
VAN SANT: The reason we did the silent takes was about needing to make a scene shorter by having physical things to cut to. That way, you can manipulate a character to the other side of the room. But, if they say the wrong thing, it might locate that action in a particular part of the scene. It’s a mechanical need. But, in the end, we had so many silent takes that we were able to make a silent version of the film.
What made you want to try your hand at television, with directing the pilot for the upcoming Starz series, Boss?
VAN SANT: I was offered it by Kelsey Grammar and the writer, Farhad Safinia, so I thought it would be interesting to try it.
Were there specific things that you wanted to bring to the look and feel of it, to establish the mood of it for the run of the season?
VAN SANT: That’s the whole point of doing it. That was the job. That was the fun thing about it.
Many years ago, when you met Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who brought you the script for Good Will Hunting, could you ever have guessed they’d be where they are now?
VAN SANT: No, not when they had the script, but it’s always really good to work with unknowns, and they were very good. Matt came to an audition for To Die For, and he wanted to play the Joaquin Phoenix part. In the end, he just looked too all-American. He just wasn’t hurting enough. He was too Matt. And, he really tried hard and lost all this weight, but then I had to say no. But, I worked with him, and he was so good and so on his game because he just wanted the role. When he tries, he can really amaze you, so I knew he was a great actor. And, I had worked with Casey [Affleck]. He was in To Die For. I had met Ben, but I hadn’t worked with them. So, the criteria was that you had to use them, in the lead roles. I was looking at it as a project, apart from their futures. But, when we edited it together and we had it ready to show, I felt like they were going to break out. There was no guarantee, but it came true. Right at that moment, just before we were going to start showing it, I felt like something good would happen for them.
Do you have any idea what you’re going to do next?
VAN SANT: No, not yet.
So, you’re just looking at scripts now?
VAN SANT: Yeah.