Gus Van Sant Opens Up on How Robin Williams Shaped 'Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot'

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Gus Van Sant

Joaquin Phoenix replaced Robin Williams after the late comedian's death in the humorous recovery story, which premiered Wednesday in Los Angeles.

About 20 years after Robin Williams bought the rights to Portland, Oregon, cartoonist John Callahan's autobiography, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, the film adaptation finally premiered Wednesday in Los Angeles, with Joaquin Phoenix filling in for the late Williams as its star.

Director, screenwriter and editor Gus Van Sant shepherded the '70s- and '80s-set story of a man with alcoholism who becomes paralyzed in a drunken car accident. After Williams' death in 2014, Phoenix was tapped to play Callahan, who readjusts to life in a wheelchair alongside his new stewardess girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and spiritual AA sponsor (Jonah Hill).

As Callahan discovers his talent for drawing non-politically correct cartoons that he publishes in a local paper, he learns to forgive his friend (Jack Black), who was the driver of the car during the accident, and his mother, who abandoned him at birth. (The film’s title — Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot — references one such cartoon, in which sheriffs on horseback stumble upon a wheelchair in the desert and deliver the line.)

Williams bought Callahan’s book in the mid-1990s, around the time he worked with Van Sant on Good Will Hunting. “He wanted to create a screenplay to star in and that’s where it started. We developed a couple of screenplays and as time went by, Robin never got around to it,” Van Sant told The Hollywood Reporter at the film's premiere at the ArcLight Hollywood.

When Callahan died at age 59 in 2010, “Robin was sort of distressing that he died suddenly,” Van Sant said. 

Then, after Williams’ death, “I wasn’t thinking of Callahan. I was sorry that Robin had gone,” the Milk director said. “All of a sudden, Sony Pictures had the book, and they called to see if I was interested in it. And I was, so I started working on a script.” Now the credits include a special thanks to Williams.

Van Sant is not sure what Williams would have ultimately wanted in the film: "Robin never really criticized our screenplays. There might have been something he wanted, but he never really said what it was. I think he was concerned with how to play the character."

He added that Phoenix was also eventually concerned, but "Joaquin was just really excited to do it."

The film has already received some criticism for casting an able-bodied actor to portray a man with a disability, as reported by IndieWire.

"[Phoenix] went to Rancho Los Amigos [National Rehabilitation Center], and he learned how the chair worked and learned about the lives of other quadriplegics that were there. It was the same place that John recovered in a long time ago," Van Sant explained to THR about how the actor tried to be accurate. "Otherwise, I think he used a lot of imagination." 

The director aimed to stay true to Callahan’s story when adapting the screenplay, he said. “Some of the earlier scripts were sort of going off, and making it bigger because it was a Robin Williams story. I think the latest version, it's more things concerning John in the book," said Van Sant.

Black told THR that he wanted to be involved with the film because of its visionary leader: “When Gus calls, you answer the phone. And I came a-runnin’. He said, 'I have a part for you.' And I didn't even need to read it. I did read it, of course, but I already knew I was doing it no matter what it was, because I just love him as a filmmaker.”

Black recalls working with the “Zen” director as being “very relaxed. He's very real. He's got a quiet calm. … When we were shooting, he knew what he was doing and he trusted us to do what we thought was right, which was very cool. That's what you look for in a director.”

Composer Danny Elfman also became involved because of Van Sant, whom he worked with on 1995's To Die For, as well as with Phoenix. “I was just so curious, because whatever Joaquin does, he makes unique from everything else. So I was waiting to finally see what he did," said Elfman.

As to how the team tried to make the movie authentic for a character with a disability, Black related: "You felt like you were in the '70s in the first half of the movie, and when you're in a scene with Joaquin, you really feel like you've got to get real. You've got to be really in the moment like he is, and it was just an amazing experience to be part of."

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot opens in theaters Friday.