Gus Van Sant's new film Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot is a biographical dramedy about controversial newspaper cartoonist John Callahan and his struggles to beat alcoholism.

Why did you want to make this film?

It wasn't my idea. It was John's book and Robin Williams wanted to adapt it to play in it himself. I knew the story of John Callahan, but I hadn't read the book. I signed on to it and Robin and I made a few screenplays. It was like a job. But I knew John and I always thought it was an amazing story.
When Robin died, there was a certain amount of his library that came back and, in this case, this film came back to me, or it was suggested by Sony, which had the rights to it. But I had to reconsider.
I always thought it had a lot of amazing things about it. He was an amazing person and he'd been through a lot and was able to make cartoons and be funny about his life.


As this wasn't your idea does that affect your directorial approach?

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No, it doesn't really. You're still trying to figure out all the different aspects of the story. Sometimes you're building it from scratch, from an idea that you had, other times there's a whole book that exists.
Something like My Own Private Idaho came from three different screenplays mixed together. But they were all things that I'd dreamt up. But in this case, it was John's biography about his life.

How faithful to his book did you feel you had to be?

I wanted to be faithful. There was a lot of information in the book but also we could ask John whatever we wanted when we were first doing the screenplays. When I did my recent version of the screenplay, John had died. But we'd asked him a lot and spent a lot of time with him and got to know him really well. It was always going to be very much based on his truth.

So this is how he really was?

Joaquin isn't really doing his voice. He had a very soft voice. Puns were the source of his comics so he would always be trying to figure out a pun and how it could work and he might be mumbling the pun to try and figure it out. And he was always trying to think up jokes. If you were doing something in particular he might make a joke about it or find the joke within whatever it was you were doing. He was always working, in other words, I guess.

His comics caused controversy, was he a deliberate provocateur?

Yeah, of course. His cartoons were provocative. But that's something in the film that we're not really centring on, we didn't show him doing that so much. Sometimes he is but not in the way that he really did.
Like, his little dog was a dachshund, and when we went outside his house John was telling his neighbour that his dachshund might have a fight with their German shepherd and hurt him and beat him up because it was funny.
The dachshund was so tiny. It was a joke but the neighbour didn't think it was funny, which made him insist more. So John kept going, "Oh yeah, my dog will kick your dog's ass". He would push it, you know.

By keeping that stuff out, you've focused on his alcoholism and addiction. Why?

I knew that I couldn't tell the whole story. When you try to tell the whole thing there's too much story. I was used to tearing down stories in other projects and that's how I found the way to get a certain essence of what he was all about. His whole life was centred around stopping drinking. Mostly because he didn't think he would have lived and never would have been a cartoonist if he'd kept going. So he felt that everything that he had was based on that event of quitting. So we decided to tell that story.

Joaquin Phoenix was really speeding around in that wheelchair. Was that a custom chair you had made for dramatic effect or is that really the top speed?

That's the kind that he had in our photographs of John. He had a fast one. I think they make them so you can get away from things that might be coming at you. They're not super slow because then you'd get hit. They're quite fast, they can go 20mph (32km/h). Some people put different wheels on and drive in traffic.

Lowdown
Who: Gus Van Sant
What: Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot
When: In cinemas today