Out and About
Gus Van Sant is back with “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” – giving life a reality check
In Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, the last day Portland slacker John Callahan is able to walk, he wakes up without a hangover —because he’s still drunk from the night before. That night at a wild party he meets a wisecracking drinking buddy Dexter (Jack Black), who insists they leave for an even better party he knows about. But when his new friend dozes off at the wheel, John wakes up confined to a wheelchair with only partial use of his arms. Though he initially has no intention of getting sober, he reluctantly attends a 12-step meeting run by a charismatic and dedicated sponsor named Donnie (Jonah Hill) and reconnects with Annu (Rooney Mara), a therapist he met at the hospital. With their encouragement, John discovers a hidden talent for drawing, channeling his impish personality into crude, politically incorrect — and often hilarious — cartoons, which develop a national following and grant him a new lease on life. Based on a true story adapted from Callahan’s autobiography, and directed by two-time Oscar nominee Gus Van Sant (Milk, Good Will Hunting).
Go see this movie, but don’t drink before or during the movie, unless you want to feel really guilty about doing that. This movie touches on the very deep, and real, subject matters of alcoholism and disabilities, the former which led to the latter. The film is directed by Gus Van Sant, and is more reminiscent of his Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, with depictions of the fringe of society.
The first third of the movie shows John and Dexter as two young-ish buddies hanging onto the party scene that they’ve been doing for perhaps a bit too long. Party after party, until the drinking becomes habit, the addiction, rather than a social platform. It’s all too real a story for many individuals, and with this being based on a true story, the impact strikes home that much more. Then one evening the party ends, very quickly, via car crash where both guys were leaving one party to head to the next, neither one suitable for driving in their inebriated states. Bang – John wakes up paralyzed, and Dexter wakes up with guilt that will last a lifetime.
From here, they each go their separate ways, and do have a meet up again later in life toward the end of the film when John is making amends with people in his life, part of the 12-stop AA program that he attends. Life does go on as the saying goes, and John forges forward adapting to his new life as a quadriplegic. He eventually begins drawing cartoons, that offend many due to their non-PC nature, but also draw praise from many as well, including publishers. He does find love by way of his caregiver, and friendship by way of his AA sponsor, both showing a man growing up.
The film also has a great cast of female musicians taking on acting roles, including Beth Ditto (The Gossip) who portrays one of the other members in the 12-step program, along with Carrie Brownstein (Sleater Kinney) Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth). Overall, a great depiction of life, and the cruelty it can sometimes deal you.
How The Film Came To Be
The idea of making a film about the remarkable life of cartoonist John Callahan first came to Gus Van Sant’s attention over 20 years ago when he got an offer from actor Robin Williams. Williams, whom Van Sant directed in the Oscar-nominated drama Good Will Hunting, had optioned the rights to Callahan’s 1989 memoir Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. He was interested in starring in and producing a film about the colorful Portland character, which he wanted Van Sant to develop and direct.
“John was a person that I knew from the ’80s in Portland,” explains Van Sant. “His single-panel cartoons appeared in our alternative newspaper, Willamette Week, as well as elsewhere. Around that time I had just started to shoot Drugstore Cowboy. So we were two artists trying to make our way in the world, although he became well-known several years before I did.”
Williams, who had optioned Callahan’s book in 1994, wanted to play the role partly as an homage to his friend, actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in a horse-riding accident. “He also liked it because Callahan was jokester, a sort of visual comedian,” says Van Sant.
Van Sant collaborated with several different co-writers throughout the 1990s and early 2000s to develop numerous drafts of the script, but the project never got off the ground. “I don’t think the studios could wrap their minds around it,” he says. “But all this time, we were hanging around with John Callahan and learning a lot about him and his life.”
After Williams’ death in 2014, Van Sant decided to take another shot at adapting the book, this time hewing more closely to the source material. “In our previous passes the script took a lot of liberties and was way wackier than the book, maybe because Robin was going to play Callahan. I think we also tried to fit in too much of his life. But the book is really strong and in the end I focused mainly on just one of the chapters, which is the story of John’s recovery from alcoholism.”
Having interviewed Callahan extensively, Van Sant was able to imbue the script with colorful details the cartoonist related to him, some of which were not in the book. Many of Callahan’s stories focused on Donnie, a magnetic and dedicated sponsor who “rocked a Tom Petty look” and was instrumental in helping Callahan turn his life around.
“We realized later that John was often being fanciful, both in the book and the stories he was telling us,” says the filmmaker. “He would exaggerate things. You couldn’t tell when he was veering off the actual story and making things up. And he didn’t care, because he’s an entertainer.”
Van Sant has based a number of his films on real people in Portland, Oregon — his adopted home of many years. He found Callahan, who died in 2010 at age 59, to be another compelling protagonist. “He was a well-known person who lived in the Northwest section of the city when it was still cheap,” he says. “It was the working-class area and a lot of punk rockers lived there because you could rent a house for $400 a month and everyone could live in it. You’d see him all the time moving very fast in his wheelchair down the sidewalk in the rain with his red hair blowing back.”
The Iconoclast Playing the role of the iconoclastic cartoonist is three-time Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix. The film
reunites Van Sant with Phoenix, whom he last directed in the acclaimed 1995 film To Die For. Phoenix was just 19 when he shot the breakout role as a high-school student who conspires with his older lover, played by Nicole Kidman, to kill her husband. “I wanted to work with Joaquin again and there were a few other projects we had gotten close on,” says Van Sant. “We were always in touch and talking about doing something and when I sent him this one he was into it.”
Phoenix was particularly excited to work on a film that Van Sant wrote as well as directed. “I’ve always thought Gus had — it sounds like a cliché — but a unique vision, and he does,” says the actor. “And because he knew John, I felt like this was not going to be a typical biopic. I’ve done one of those and I wasn’t really interested in that kind of traditional storytelling. And I felt the way he wanted to use animation in the movie was really interesting. But more than anything, Gus seemed really passionate about it, and that was the most important thing to me.”
The fact that the film had the blessing of Callahan’s family was also significant to the actor. “And it’s based on his book, so they’re his stories,” he adds. “These are things he wanted to say about his life, it wasn’t just some random director who thought this might make a cool movie about somebody’s life. I felt like it would be personal.”
Phoenix threw himself into the role, learning as much as he could about Callahan. “Joaquin is a very detail-oriented actor,” says Van Sant. “We went literally page by page through the whole script and talked about everything. And he had the memoir with him at all times, with all the important parts highlighted in yellow.
Whenever we were going to do a particular scene he would read that section of the book. His devotion to keeping on track with the character and the story was incredible.” Phoenix also studied interview tapes Van Sant had made at the cartoonist’s home, as well as a 1993 “60 Minutes” segment and the 2007 Dutch documentary about him, Touch Me Someplace I Can Feel. But his goal was never to mimic Callahan, according to Van Sant. “Joaquin was more interested in finding his own voice, rather than impersonating John. So he has created his own version of the character.”
Phoenix’s research even included spending time at the Downey, California, Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, the same facility where Callahan was treated after his accident. He spoke with a number of patients at the facility, although he acknowledges feeling uncomfortable about it at first. “It’s always an awkward thing when you do research, to come in and be like, ‘I want to examine your life.’ But a lot of the guys I talked to had been injured 15 or 20 years earlier and they wanted to talk about it. They would just kind of go, ‘yeah, ask me whatever.’”
The actor realized he needed to approach newer patients more delicately, however. “I met this kid one day who had just arrived,” Phoenix recalls. “I didn’t talk to him that much because you could tell he was in shock. That day helped me understand the level of trauma you experience in that situation. I also drew on John’s book because he goes into detail about what he felt during that period. Both were really helpful to understand that part of John’s life.”
Because Phoenix spends much of the film confined to a wheelchair, he also practiced maneuvering the motorized device Callahan used to race around his neighborhood. “The one we used in the film was really souped-up,” he explains. “I had been practicing in one for a month and I felt really good. But the chair I had been using went about four miles per hour and the one in the film went like 11 or 12. That doesn’t sound like a lot but it seemed way faster than that. I definitely had quite a few accidents.”
Despite his practice, the scene in which Callahan’s wheelchair tips over, prompting a group of local kids to come to his aid, was originally shot with a stunt double. “I was angry because it didn’t seem like a stunt and I was pretty sure I could do it,” says Phoenix. “So then I did it and the moment I did, I was like, oh it is more of a stunt. There was a rope tied to the chair so at some point it just stops and I go flying off the chair and I automatically moved my arm to control myself, which John wouldn’t have been able to do. So I think it took at least two takes before I actually got one where I didn’t move before I hit.”
Phoenix’s meticulous preparation paid off in the eyes of the cartoonist’s younger brother Tom, who visited the set with his family. “It was amazing to watch Joaquin,” he says. “My son and my wife and I looked at each other and were like, wow, he’s doing everything like John. I told him afterward that it was like I’d gotten to see John again. It was very exciting and emotional.”
Tom says he’s confident his brother — who had at one point optioned his memoir to Oscar-winner William Hurt — would have been thrilled to be portrayed by an actor of Phoenix’s caliber. “I think John would have really been happy with it,” he says. “We’ve seen some articles online complaining that Gus didn’t cast someone in a wheelchair, but I’m positive John would not have agreed with them. For one thing, the story isn’t just about his disability. It’s also about overcoming his alcoholism, and his life before and after he became disabled.”
The film stars Oscar nominees Joaquin Phoenix (Her, Walk the Line), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street, Moneyball) and Rooney Mara (Carol, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), as well as Jack Black (Bernie, School of Rock), Carrie Brownstein (“Portlandia,” “Transparent”), Beth Ditto and Kim Gordon. Produced by Oscar winner Steve Golin (Spotlight, The Revenant), Charles-Marie Anthonioz (Spring Breakers, One More Time with Feeling), Mourad Belkeddar (Heaven Knows What, One More Time with Feeling) and Nicolas Lhermitte (Heaven Knows What, One More Time with Feeling). Executive producer is Brett Cranford (Night Moves, The Wait). Director of photography is Christopher Blauvelt (Certain Women, The Bling Ring). Production design is by Jahmin Assa (Mid ’90s). Costume designer is Oscar nominee Danny Glicker (Up in the Air, Milk). Editors are David Marks and Gus Van Sant. Music is composed by Oscar nominee Danny Elfman (Milk, Good Will Hunting).
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.