How a cult car­toon­ist be­came the next out­sider to in­spire a Gus Van Sant movie.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By JAMES ROBINS

Gus Van Sant’s story of cult car­toon­ist John Cal­la­han, RBG, The House with a Clock in its Walls

Asign hangs in the win­dow of the Anorex­ics Café: “Now closed 24 hours a day.” At an aer­o­bics class for quadriplegics, the in­struc­tor says, “Okay, let’s get those eye­balls mov­ing.” Two Klans­men trot off to a cross-burn­ing, their hoods and robes pure white: “Don’t you love it when they’re still warm from the dryer?” A trio of hardy cow­boys en­counter an aban­doned wheel­chair in the wilds. “Don’t worry,” the cap­tion reads, “he won’t get far on foot.”

These are some of the gags by Amer­i­can car­toon­ist John Cal­la­han. It’s not hard to see where his sur­real, pitch-black hu­mour comes from. A heavy drinker from age 12, Cal­la­han had his spine sev­ered in a car ac­ci­dent in 1972 when 21. It took an­other decade to get clean, to re­gain enough move­ment in his arms to be­gin sketch­ing. His car­toons were syn­di­cated na­tion­ally.

It has taken al­most an­other 30 years for Cal­la­han’s life to be made into a ther­a­peu­tic od­dball film called, aptly enough, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. It’s di­rected by long­time in­de­pen­dent cin­ema dar­ling Gus Van Sant and stars Joaquin Phoenix as Cal­la­han.

Phoenix wasn’t the orig­i­nal man for the job, Van Sant ex­plains down the phone from Cal­i­for­nia. Rather, Robin Wil­liams wanted the role. “It wasn’t un­til Robin had bought the book and in­vited me to make a film that I got in­volved.”

The direc­tor has a dead­pan de­liv­ery punc­tu­ated by hack­ing throat clear­ing. There’s clat­ter in the back­ground. I won­der, but do not ask, if he’s do­ing the dishes.

“Robin was prob­a­bly hes­i­tant about how he was go­ing to play the part,” Van Sant ven­tures. Both Wil­liams and Cal­la­han – who died in 2010 – were ad­dicts, af­ter all. “I al­ways felt Robin was more in­ter­ested in the char­ac­ter’s quadriple­gia, be­cause his friend [ Su­per­man ac­tor] Christo­pher Reeve was quad­ri­plegic.”

Other sto­ries got in the pair’s way. One was Good Will Hunt­ing, which launched Van Sant as a main­stream direc­tor. Cal­la­han’s story re­mained in limbo while Van Sant al­ter­nated be­tween pop­ulist fluff such as Find­ing For­rester and the out­right avant-garde in Gerry and Ele­phant.

Then Wil­liams died, in 2014. “It kinda freed up the pro­ject,” says Van Sant, who has lived on and off in Port­land, Ore­gon, where Cal­la­han resided.

His char­ac­ters have al­ways been out­siders: wasters, chancers, work­ing-class sa­vants, pioneer­ing gay may­ors. Now a re­formed-al­co­holic quad­ri­plegic car­toon­ist. Where does the in­ter­est for the fringes of life come from?

“I’ve won­dered that my­self,” Van Sant says. “I don’t know. The out­sider’s view is in­ter­est­ing rather than the in­sider’s.

“A lot of the char­ac­ters I have made films about weren’t so much out­siders as de­feated from the be­gin­ning – and re­mained so. They didn’t grow out of that de­feat, so they weren’t heroic.”

He cor­rects him­self, com­par­ing the car­toon­ist to bad-boy-done-good Will Hunt­ing. “The Cal­la­han story – he does per­se­vere and he has a heroic change.”

“Heroic” might be stretch­ing it a touch. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is a charm­ing study in re­silience, re­solve and courage of the quiet and unas­sum­ing kind. Above all, though, it’s a re­minder that if you can’t do any­thing else, crack a joke. It might just help.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot opens at cin­e­mas on Oc­to­ber 4.

Sur­real, pitch-black hu­mour: Joaquin Phoenix as John Cal­la­han. Be­low, Gus Van Sant.

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