FilmWatch Weekly: Gus Van Sant talks about his biopic of Portland cartoonist John Callahan

"Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot" follows Callahan's journey to sobriety after being paralyzed in a drunk-driving accident

One well-known Portlander tells the story of another in “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot,” Gus Van Sant’s new film based on the memoir by the late cartoonist John Callahan.

Van Sant has had his eye on Callahan’s life story for a couple of decades, with Robin Williams, who had optioned Callahan’s book, attached at one point to play the lead role. After Williams’ death, the project’s realization seemed unlikely. But Van Sant recruited Joaquin Phoenix, reuniting the two after Phoenix’s breakout role in “To Die For (1995),” and a fascinating supporting cast, and here we are.

If you lived in Northwest Portland in the 1990s, the spectacle of the orange-haired Callahan speeding down the sidewalk in his motorized wheelchair was a familiar one. Even if you didn’t recognize him on the street, however, you would have almost certainly been familiar with the outrage he frequently stoked with his squiggly, single-frame cartoons, which ran regularly in Willamette Week from 1983 until his death in 2010, and skewered race, gender, and other sacred cows (including disability) with politically incorrect impunity.

Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan and Jonah Hill as Donnie star in DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT.

“Don’t Worry” focuses less on Callahan’s notoriety than his journey to sobriety, which began some time after the horrific car accident in California that left him paralyzed and bitter. Among the members of the Alcoholics Anonymous group that Callahan reluctantly joins are characters played by the likes of Udo Kier, Beth Ditto, and Kim Gordon, who’s especially convincing as a wealthy Portland housewife with a drinking problem. The group’s de facto leader is Donnie, a self-mocking sober hedonist played with impressive savoir faire by an almost unrecognizable Jonah Hill.

The rest of the cast includes Jack Black as the drunk driver behind the wheel for the fateful wreck and Rooney Mara as Callahan’s almost too-angelic nurse/girlfriend. Newcomer Tony Greenhand deserves special mention as Callahan’s wry, stringy-haired caretaker, but the less said about Carrie Brownstein’s brief appearance as a bureaucrat the better.

Van Sant was in town last month for an advanced screening of “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” held at Cinema 21, with proceeds benefitting the John Callahan Garden at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center. I met with him the afternoon of the screening at a downtown Portland hotel, where he discussed the evolution of the movie, its visual aesthetic, and why he didn’t shoot it here in town.

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ArtsWatch: Given the dark nature of so much of Callahan’s work, it’s surprising what an earnest, almost sentimental tone the movie has. Did that stem from the memoir, or knowing Callahan personally?

Van Sant: There were three screenplays, one written in 1998, one in 2002, and then the most recent one. The first two were with two other writers, and the last one was myself. We spent a lot of time with John. During one visit, I filmed him the whole time, for like four hours. Joaquin used those tapes, so some of the heartfeltness could be Joaquin adapting John’s demeanor. Because he was, you know, very sort of sweet. I never saw him at his wit’s end or combative, except when he was exasperated because he couldn’t take the paper off of his straw or something like that. I’m sure that he could be—his brothers would tell us that he was an asshole and he would yell at them.

Director Gus Van Sant behind the scenes on the set of DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT

Remembering how he would tool around Northwest Portland in his chair, I had this image of him as much more of an acerbic character.

And you could paint him that way. In one of the other screenplays, he was, you know, yelling at people on the streets, and trying to engage them in combative discussions. The only time I saw him in what you’d call an altercation was with his neighbors. They seemed to be from outside of Portland, but they had bought the house next to him and now they were living in the city. They had a big German Shepherd that they had to keep on a rattling chain. They talked like truck drivers, not like a married couple. John was used to talking to them because he would always run into them. John had this little dog Snickers, who was a dachshund. And the moment I was there visiting, John said, “You better look out because my dog could kick your dog’s ass.” He was trying to speak their language. He was from The Dalles and he could speak The Dalles. It would upset these neighbors, and the woman would go, like, “Hardly!” And John would keep going at it, just to make her angrier.

It feels like there’s a metaphor there—Callahan, up against the world, not willing to back down.

Yes, for sure. And I also thought that there were things like that he was doing for us, while we were taping him. We were guests, we were the filmmakers who were going to make his film, so we were honored guests. I didn’t realize until later, but we were one of his projects. He was sort of performing for us, just to make us laugh.

Jonah Hill’s character, Donnie, flirts with stereotype but emerges as a really fascinating, three-dimensional person by the end of the movie. How much of that did Jonah bring to role, assuming that he was not able to meet or draw on the real person on which Donnie may have been based?

Yeah, some of the AA characters are from John’s book, some I made up, some are based on my own experiences of group therapy. Reba [played by former Gossip vocalist Ditto] and Donnie were John’s characters, Corky [Kim Gordon] was sort of hinted at as a West Hills housewife. There was a character who was a Greek shipping tycoon, but Udo [Kier] came in and took his place as a German auto parts salesman.

Was Donnie as big a presence in the book as he is in the film?

In the first screenplay I don’t think Donnie existed as much of a character. In the second screenplay, Donnie was much more of a solid character. And John, also, was really all about Donnie. Donnie became the guy who could speak his language and get him to embrace the Twelve Steps, which were really hard for him. I think Donnie was able to fool him into believing that it was worth it. And Donnie was an outsider. He was a gay man in 1970s Portland. He was wealthy. He was all these things John wasn’t. And John was so curious. “So you’re gay? What’s that like? What kind of guys do you like?” John knew that Donnie taught English as his job so he could do things like quote Chaucer, which John was very impressed by.

They had similarities as well as differences.

They were both forthright, not afraid of themselves. Donnie would say “This is what I do, I go have gay sex in New York on the weekends.” So he had a lot of power to him. But you’re right, there were a lot of stereotypical things about him that we needed to hope didn’t turn into problems—casting a non-gay actor for one thing.

Speaking of casting, was there any pushback or resistance to a non-disabled actor playing Callahan?

Before we showed it at Sundance, there was somebody that posted something, but I don’t think it had anything to do with a real community or a real organization. It comes down to the question of to what extent can you use people who fit the part, and when are you able to. There are also always questions about getting financing and things like that.

Were budgetary considerations also involved in the decision not to shoot the movie in Portland?

For me, even from “Drugstore Cowboy,” it was always the case that if the people here are not available or there’s not enough people in Portland to do a particular job, you don’t have endless choices. So you start bringing people up from L.A., and then half your crew is from L.A. I was living in L.A., and half the movie is set in Los Angeles. Also the changes in Portland, something like 21st Avenue, it’s tough to recapture that. But the really attractive reason to stay in L.A., at least for this film, is that, by now, everyone in my worker crowd has kids. They had really important graduations and other moments because their kids are fourteen, fifteen, things are happening. So we knew that if people were allowed to stay in L.A. to work, it’s super attractive, and people are available because they can’t just go to Atlanta or wherever it is people are going. We knew that as a low-budget movie—our budget was $7 million—that this would be a strong point.

It all makes sense when you explain it like that. And at least you’ll get to screen the movie tonight at a theater where Callahan prowled the sidewalks outside and saw movies regularly.

Well, I also saw when Miranda July did her first movie [“Me and You and Everyone We Know”], her Portland movie, it was all shot in L.A., but it still had the Portland streets. You can totally do it down there. These cities on the West Coast were all built in similar times, so you can find the right architecture.

Last question, and maybe the film-nerdiest: You used a lot of zoom shots in this film, which I don’t recall you having done previously. Some almost Altmanesque slow zooms in, and other more rapid ones. What inspired those choices?

Originally, the exact effect we got was planned for “Milk” because it emulated 1970s cinematography, things like “The Conversation.” 16mm zooms have a very particular feel. You can tell the difference between 35mm handheld and 16mm handheld for sure. So we didn’t get to do that on “Milk” because we were shooting in 35mm, and it started to look like a TV show or something. So we avoided it. Here, though, shooting on the Alexa, we were able to shoot on a small portion of the chip and use 16mm lenses, so we’re actually getting a true 16mm feel to the movie. Chris Blauvelt shot it—he’s shot a couple of Kelly Reichardt’s movies, and he shoots in 16mm all the time. So Chris designed it so that even though we were shooting in digital, we still had that 16mm feel going on.

So many people have been influenced by D.A. Pennebaker and the other verite-style documentarians—Richard Leacock, the Maysles Brothers, Frederick Wiseman. But somehow along the way one thing that MTV and Oliver Stone with “JFK” didn’t emulate out of all that stuff was the zooms. Those guys were always zooming because they were just trying to get a shot. A lot of the time they would intend to edit out the zooms and just turn them into cutaways. But then something would happen during the zoom so they would have to keep it in. Sometimes it’s a little move, just to adjust the frame, and it gives this feeling of spontaneity. So I threw it in.

(“Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot” opens Friday, July 20, at Cinema 21)

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