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