The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot.
What are the origins of the script?
Gus Van Sant: I live in Portland, Oregon. I had moved there, I think, in 1982. I had made a couple of films, and John Callahan was a visible, local character. He was pretty well known by that time. I had heard about this project by the mid-90’s. He had been on 60 Minutes, and he was mostly known for his cartoons. He had written this book and was getting widely published. Robin Williams, who I had directed in Good Will Hunting, strangely had bought his book and wanted to make a film about John Callahan which I thought was interesting because he was someone that I knew from my small town. So, I said yes, and we developed a few screenplays, one in 1998 and another one in 2002. Both of which sort of stalled out as sometimes they do. There wasn’t a big go from the studio, and it was also pretty challenging for the studio, maybe even for Robin. It never got made. After Robin died, the studio had bought the book from him, and they called and asked if I would still be interested in continuing.
“If you tell him this I’ll kill all of you, because he doesn’t like compliments.”
How did you create the Donnie that we see on screen?
Jonah Hill: I usually play characters that are going through turmoil at the moment, so it was nice to play someone at the other side of a tremendous amount of turmoil. And, then coming from wealth was a big thing that ended up unlocking itself, because he’s in this beautiful house. I don’t know, just playing someone that seemed to be on the other side of acceptance of how gnarly life is. I was probably never happier or better to be around in my life than when I was playing Donnie, because first of all that hair just allows you to be a far more relaxed individual. I would just play Tom Petty and the Eagles and just vibe out all day. Everyone else seemed so stressed out, and his role in all these other people’s lives was the anchor. So, what an enjoyable space to be in. And, Gus creates that space for everybody to be who they’re supposed to be.
In the group scenes, everyone is differentiated in a great way. How did you see your character, and what was it like working in that space?
Kim Gordon: My character was described to me as a wealthy woman, so that helped center me quite a bit. And the costumes helped since they were so specific to that time. Just having fake nails helped a lot! It was so surreal: There’s Jonah wearing this wig, looking like I’ve never seen him before, and in some of it… it’s just hard to figure what the tone is. Some of it was funny, but it was such serious subject matter that it created an interesting energy on set. And I got to improvise the details of my character, which was really fantastic to do. I was trying to imagine how she got to this place in her life, given that she’s a woman with money in the 1970’s, and just tried to base her in some reality.
In the book we don’t learn that Donnie is ill, correct?
GVS: This was something that when we were making the earlier drafts in the screenplay, we spent a lot of time with John in his house. Sometimes, we would go out on trips. He would like to go out in a cab that could take his wheelchair, and we would go to a park or a place that he would like to go. I think it was during the second draft of the script he started talking a lot about Donnie. He went to his house before he was dying, and Donnie was very sick. But, he was very into making Donnie as one of the main things that helped turn his life around, and Donnie had died after he wrote the book.
Can you talk more about the interactions between John and the other characters in the group scenes?
GVS: I think the group was treated lightly in the script. The beginning of the group scene comes from the book, but then the progression of John’s working out the twelve steps was an addition that came from just some things that I’ve witnessed and been part of in a similar group myself. Also, from imagination and other movies.
GVS: We were trying to build up the steps without laying heavily on “now you’ve passed step four.” We didn’t stop at each step, but sometimes they would come up in the meetings through Donnie. Donnie would announce where we were.
Could you talk about the dynamics of working with Joaquin Phoenix?
JH: He’s the best. If you tell him this I’ll kill all of you, because he doesn’t like compliments. But, he’s such a remarkable person and actor. I’ve never experienced something so special in the acting world than acting alongside him. He demands the truth and also is the most safe partner you could have in going to certain places. He’s just a remarkable artist.
GVS: When we first started working on it together, Joaquin and Jonah were going through some of their scenes. And, we would read through the scene word by word. Then I said, “OK, good. Let’s do it again.” Then, we would read through it again. Both Jonah and Joaquin were reading word by word without emotion. We did it about three or four times, and then they started laughing at me. We weren’t getting the scene on its feet or anything like that. I thought in my head, “well these guys are true professionals, and they know what they’re doing. So, maybe they’re not ready.” I never voiced this.
Could you talk about the camera strategy for shooting those group scenes?
GVS: Well, we had three or four days in that room. It was a very small room, and it had a lot of expensive looking things and cabinets filled with china. So, there were seven actors and about six more people on sound and camera with two cameras. I remember getting panicked, because I thought we were just going to smash something with our equipment. I was, for some reason, thinking about that. Although, the owner of the house didn’t really care. I think that, because you have so many people to cover, and a lot of people are talking at the same time we tried to take it one step at at a time. We usually had two cameras going on one side of the action or the other. As I remember, we were just kind of closing it down. I was working one of the cameras, and I was usually the one who was zooming in and out. So, if something was going on I might zoom in. We just tried to remember what we covered. We did miss one of Donnie’s important lines, unfortunately. There wasn’t really strategy so much as, maybe, kind of thinking of it like a documentary camera.