MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
From his breakout film "Drugstore Cowboy" to "Good Will Hunting" to "Milk" about San Francisco's pioneering Mayor Harvey Milk, director Gus Van Sant has spent three decades telling stories about people whose biggest fight is often with themselves - characters facing addiction, struggling to find a sense of purpose or a cause bigger than their own demons. His latest film tells the story of John Callahan, a man who struggled for decades with alcoholism even after he was paralyzed after a drunk driving accident at the age of 21, until he eventually found sobriety and recovery through humor. His irreverent cartoons made him a celebrity in his hometown of Portland, Ore., and a national figure. Callahan is played in the film by Joaquin Phoenix.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DON'T WORRY, HE WON'T GET FAR ON FOOT")
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As John Callahan) The last day that I walked, I woke up without a hangover - ah, a pretty groovy day, huh? - I knew I had an hour of sort of grace before the withdrawal symptoms set in. And that was it.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Keep them coming, bro.
PHOENIX: (As John Callahan) Dexter (ph) had mistaken a light pole for an exit and slammed into it at 90 miles an hour.
MARTIN: The film is called "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot," which is drawn from one of the captions of Jack Callahan's cartoons. And director Gus Van Sant is with us now from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, Calif.
Mr. Van Sant, thanks so much for talking with us.
GUS VAN SANT: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: I was looking through our files, and I actually found the obituary for John Callahan. I just want to play a little bit of it from my colleague, Robert Siegel. This is what he had to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: Cartoonist John Callahan took humor to the edge of tastelessness. The artist, who died over the weekend at age 59, pushed the limits of what most newspapers would tolerate.
MARTIN: And, of course, it goes on. And I just got a kick out of the fact that, you know, Robert is so precise in his speech and in describing something that, in fact, did push the limits because every time he - you know, he was often the subject of irate letters from readers and so forth about his work. So were you a fan?
VAN SANT: Yeah, I was a fan early. Living in Portland, he was published in the Willamette Week, a weekly newspaper, and I saw his works in there in the early '80s.
MARTIN: What did you like about it?
VAN SANT: They were just - they were outrageous. They were confrontational. They were funny. I didn't know that he was quadriplegic himself. Sometimes they concerned disabilities. And I did know he was from Portland.
MARTIN: Speaking of the fact that he used a wheelchair to get around, that particular cartoon from which the title is drawn, do you want to describe it?
VAN SANT: Yeah, it's a cartoon where three cowboys apparently tracking somebody come across a wheelchair sort of stuck in the sand, and one of them turns the other one and says, don't worry, he won't get far on foot.
MARTIN: There's a scene in your film where Joaquin Phoenix, playing John, tips out of his wheelchair. And these - a group of boys - seemed like teenagers - you know, early teens - you know, help him back into it and kind of get him sorted out. And they have his notebook with him. And they seemed to get it right away. You know, like, he says in the film, well, you know, some people don't like my subjects or some people get a little annoyed with, you know, what I have to say. They don't like what I'm saying. Then they go, we like it.
And I wonder, you know, was it like that - is that, you know, he kind of found his tribe - like, people who liked it, liked it, people who didn't, didn't?
VAN SANT: Yeah, I think there was always sort of an element of pushing the limits, for John to see how far he could go. He was a daredevil in his wheelchair as well as in his comic series. And the crash that happens in the film - I think he often crashed in his wheelchair because he was going very fast.
MARTIN: And, you know, there's a poignancy to the whole project because, of course, there's - you know, there's the facts of Callahan's life but also because the late, great Robin Williams had wanted to make this film with you. But, you know, life happened, and that didn't happen. Do you remember what it is that Robin Williams liked about his work?
VAN SANT: Well, I never really sort of got the story from Robin. I was assuming that he knew his work from papers in the San Francisco area and probably, you know, was a fan. And also, John was a quadriplegic. I think he was partly attracted to it because his friend Christopher Reeve was a quadriplegic who had played Superman and had an accident and was in a wheelchair. And I think those were the two strong attractions.
MARTIN: And the film weaves back and forth through time. I mean, it chronicles the lead up to the accident that left him paralyzed and his road to recovery. There are a couple of threads that stand out for me. And one is the disability and him learning to live with it, and also his recovery.
How did you kind of decide which of those stories was going to take the lead - or how were you going to tell both of them, really?
VAN SANT: Yeah, we were trying to tell both of them. There were a few more scenes that we left out of the physical recovery, which was arduous for him. I mean, it was, I think, starting out in a place of complete desperation. It was very new. He didn't know how to handle it. He was basically crying or else sleeping. And then slowly, he kind of came around to reality, I think. And maybe - he was probably on drugs as well to ease the pain. That was a very compelling part of the story. But then I think our other side of the story - the other recovery, the alcohol recovery - was seemingly more compelling.
MARTIN: How does it feel to finally bring it to fruition?
VAN SANT: Well, I spent a long time working on this one project since '97 - so 21 years. And it's exciting, super exciting. And I mean, a lot of it had to do with sort of it being part of Robin's company and Robin perhaps being too busy to get around to it. So a lot of those years were just - I wasn't thinking about it so much.
Our John Callahan was on the edge of his seat the whole time waiting for Robin to do it. And he said after five or six years, he said, look, we're going to all be dead by the time this film is made. And he was partly right.
MARTIN: Well, how does that make you feel? I mean, is it sad or is it kind of...
VAN SANT: Yeah, it's quite sad. But it's still a fantastic story.
MARTIN: That's Gus Van Sant. He's the award-winning director of "Drugstore Cowboy," "Good Will Hunting," "Elephant" and many others. His latest film "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot" is in theaters this week.
Gus Van Sant, thank you so much for speaking with us.
VAN SANT: Thanks a lot.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say Harvey Milk was San Francisco’s mayor. In fact, he was a member of the city’s board of supervisors.]
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