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When it comes to making a European debut, director Gus Van Sant has experienced the highs, taking home the Palme d’Or at Cannes for the Columbine-esque school massacre drama Elephant in 2003. And then there were the lows, like 2015’s Sea of Trees unveiling at Cannes, where it was savaged by critics. Based on the Sundance reaction to his latest, the Joaquin Phoenix starrer Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, the 65-year-old filmmaker should receive a warm reception when the movie screens in competition at the Berlin Film Festival. The Amazon Studios title, which centers on a paraplegic cartoonist struggling with sobriety, is based on John Callahan’s memoir. The two-time Oscar nominee spoke to THR from his home in Palm Springs about his film and his relationship with the Phoenix family, which began when he directed the late River Phoenix in 1991’s My Own Private Idaho.
You directed Joaquin early in his career in To Die For and now in Don’t Worry. How would you describe his evolution as an actor?
It’s very similar, but he’s 20-something years older, so he had has so much more experience in creating a role, all the experiences from the past. But otherwise, he seemed to do it in a similar way. He just gets very involved in the role — to the point where he’s kind of living the role — and then he shoots it.
What was the Phoenix family’s reaction to your documentary My Own Private River [which recontextualized footage from My Own Private Idaho]?
Well, it was James Franco’s creation. I gave him permission. They were very upset by it. It was something that I probably should never have done because I love the family so much. I wasn’t intending on a bad reaction, and I just handled it incorrectly.
You co-directed that film with Franco. Do you think he’s being unfairly treated as he has been swept up in the #MeToo movement?
I didn’t really co-direct. I allowed him to use the footage. I think that he gave me that co-director distinction. … I don’t necessarily have a way to differentiate James’ situation with anyone else’s. There’s been accusations, and I don’t know. I’m not close enough to him.
In general, what do you think of the avalanche of accusations hitting Hollywood?
It’s a really polarizing moment in especially Hollywood but [also] in many different communities. And the relationship between men and women and power and influence extends to so many things. It’s a very interesting moment, and it can be very difficult as well.
You worked with Harvey Weinstein on 1997’s Good Will Hunting. How was your experience?
It was great. He was always very hands-off. The amount of interaction was quite small. He came to the set one day, then I saw him at the screening, and then I saw him at the premiere.
You’ve tackled several films featuring real people, from John Callahan to Harvey Milk, and some loosely based on real people. What’s the biggest challenge in portraying real people?
Harvey Milk was a well-known person, but he’s not as well known as some [film subjects], so we had a certain amount of leeway. The same with John Callahan. I still haven’t done, say, Churchill. To me, they’re the same dramatically. They’re all directly connected to the reality, whether or not we’re using real names.
You played Dr. Campbell in The Canyons, among other roles. Why do you take on these parts?
The Entourage one was [supposedly me], but I don’t think they knew me very well, so they just invented a character that was more like James Cameron. I’ve accepted roles generally to see if I could actually pull it off. They’ve always been very instructional as to how actors feel on my own set. If your costume isn’t ready, it interrupts the whole flow. So I do acting as an experiment.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Feb. 15 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.
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