One of the great joys of anticipating a new movie directed by Gus Van Sant is guessing what sort of film he’ll make this time around. Van Sant can be sparse and meditative with films like Gerry or Last Days. He can deliver a fairly straightforward story of love and triumph like Good Will Hunting or lead Sean Penn to an Oscar in Milk. He’s put his cinematic stamp on the city of Portland, in films such as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. He has an affinity for long shots of moving clouds. He remade Psycho.
With Restless, Van Sant has been tasked with a script about cancer in the Harold And Maude mode that leans heavily on the work of its stars Mia Wasikowska (as the afflicted Annabel) and Henry Hopper (as her mumbling and moody suitor Enoch). Talking with The A.V. Club, Van Sant spoke of how the young seem to handle doom best, Wes Anderson, and the music of Sufjan Stevens.
The A.V. Club: Annabel and Enoch are both teenagers, a time when everything seems important. Then you drape the idea of disease and time running out on top of that. At that age, you’re restless anyway; when you’re dying, you’re restless to see things and finalize things. Is that why the film is called Restless?
Gus Van Sant: [Laughs.] Well, that is a really good reason that it would be called Restless. The film was originally called Of Winter And Water Birds. It wasn’t a play exactly, it was a story—maybe originally a play—and maybe that sounds more like a play title. So, when it was being developed by the people that were developing it—Bryce Dallas Howard and her dad; Ron Howard was going to direct it—I think they felt like it needed a more immediate title. Restless was arrived at, but I had nothing to do with it. I’m not sure what it actually refers to, to spoil the secret of the title. I didn’t title it, but I think it sort of refers to, yeah, that restless period of life. And also, at least for me, I always get the feeling it refers to Breathless in its sort of singular focus on a relationship between two people.
AVC: The word “sentimental” is not necessarily a negative word. However, it is almost always used negatively when describing a film. Restless deals a lot with sentimentality. Were you conscious of trying to not make the kind of sentimental film that gets criticized for being sentimental?
GVS: Yes. I mean, I think I’m pretty sentimental. [Laughs.] I think that in some cases, I’ve made films that have a sentimental quality, at least as part of the film. I felt that it had, at the center of it, a sentimental aspect, but I also think that in the situation of Annabel, that the sentimentality is sort of overcoming her situation so that the relationship that she has with Enoch is partly a way of… They are pretty sentimental in their own relationship. There’s a lot of very sentimental aspects to what they do and also the way the story is being told. There’s more of a dire sentimentality that forces her to find friendships outside of her normal family circle. Because the sentiment is turned into a kind of pathology, or a depression, within her household because they can’t really deal with her debilitation. It’s not something we say directly, but it’s kind of what’s going on. She needs this guy, very randomly, but she needs somebody. And it’s not said, but it’s something that happens, especially with younger people.
It’s sort of why [screenwriter] Jason Lew was writing the story in the first place. His father is a pediatric oncologist and he had been around many different kids that had life-threatening diseases and cancers. I think he was often the one that they became new friends with; new friends for the very last part of their life. Here was somebody that would actually hang out with them and just not act completely overcome with depression.
I found that to be something that often happens. Our office is next door to a children’s heart-therapy office that also works with children that have catastrophic illnesses. The guy who runs that organization, he started as a guy who just went into the hospital with crayons and paper, but it is now a bigger organization. But he was the guy that they would latch on to because the parents could only hang out for 20 minutes. It was just too sad. So, when the parents would leave, the kids would look over at Frank and say, “Next!” [Laughs.] “Who am I going to hang out with now?” So they’d often hang out with interns or with somebody that they just met randomly, like the person at the front desk at the hospital, or wherever they could find a new friend. Because those friends were now going to be their true friends. And their family wasn’t able to be that because it was just too overwhelming for them. It’s kind of what’s going on in the whole episode of their relationship [in the movie]. She sees him and all of a sudden she’s like, “I want you to be my friend.”
AVC: Annabel seems to have the most joy, yet she’s the one that is afflicted. It’s everyone else around her that is sad and at times incapable of coming to grips with what is going on. Death seems to be the least complex to the person who is actually dying.
GVS: Yeah. I think that’s the main story element within the story that Jason’s writing about. We’re trying to show that in the movie. It’s sort of the most interesting aspect to their situation. It’s a common thing, especially with younger patients like that. Especially when they’re even younger. There is a way that a younger person can accept the inevitable problem that they’re going to die, whereas somebody a little bit older might be overcome. They might play the role better. That is what I was drawn to by the story, and I think what Jason was originally writing about. It was, originally, a storybook. I don’t know if it was completely just a storybook. Jason, at one time, did make a storybook out of the story, which is the first time Bryce Dallas Howard saw it. He gave her this little drawing book of characters of kids that were sick around the world. I think that’s what started it and why he started writing a story about it.
AVC: You spend a lot of time choosing the music in your films, and often the songs are mostly from one artist. In Restless, you use these Sufjan Stevens songs that become very memorable because you almost have to strain to hear these repeated refrains. There’s a scene where you can hear “It’s not your fault” very faintly, which is actually one of the memorable lines from Good Will Hunting…
GVS: Yeah, that’s right.
AVC: How deliberately were these songs picked for these scenes, or am I digging for something that isn’t there?
GVS: No, I have the same reaction. We have the songs in there because we liked that aspect. The songs themselves are Sufjan Stevens songs. The songs themselves have that quality, if you just listen to them outright, without a picture. They have a circuitous sort of repeating feeling—it’s hard to specifically place what they’re about. You have to make your own placement for those particular lyrics. “I’m happy” and “It’s not your fault” and there’s another one later, “You are my rock/You’re a rake.” The songs are already kind of like that. For whatever reason, we were trying really hard to find music that was actually working with the film and it was harder than it usually is for me. I think Sufjan was the one artist that seemed to make sense. And then there is also the Danny Elfman score. And we had a Beatles song in the beginning too.
AVC: In the end credits, it says you co-wrote one of them.
GVS: There was one little song that Danny and I co-wrote. It was a part of the score. Then there’s a Nico song [“These Days”], as well. It was a little hard for us. We worked on the music a lot. We were always feeling like it wasn’t fitting. And I’m not sure why that was, except that whatever we tried was wrong. It wasn’t an easy fit. So, what we have now are the things that we found that did fit, but it was longer process than I’ve had in the past.
AVC: The Nico song takes a very prominent role in the last scene. Was that one difficult to pick?
GVS: The Nico/Jackson Browne song was always the end song. That was the one song that was easy. We found it early on and we kept it there.
AVC: Restless shares some obvious similarities with Harold And Maude: the funerals, the dark house Enoch inhabits, dealing in some comic ways with death, the soundtrack, etc. Harold And Maude was once considered a cult film, but filmmakers like Wes Anderson have championed it to the point where it seems to have become a part of some modern canon. Was Harold And Maude as big of an influence on your film as it seems?
GVS: It was always there. I think when I first read the script, I thought, “Oh, Harold And Maude is a similar idea.” But there’s similarities and then there’s non-similarities. There’s a lot of music—Cat Stevens music in his film. And, yeah, then there’s this Wes Anderson quality. Well, there was always a Wes Anderson quality to our story, which I was kind of pushing a little bit. And Harold And Maude is, in some ways, like a pre-Wes Anderson. That’s probably what makes it modern, is because Wes Anderson exists.
AVC: When you say “pushing,” do you mean for or against it being a Wes Anderson-esque film?
GVS: It was just that way before I showed up. I wasn’t against it, otherwise I would have shot away from the story. [Laughs.] I wasn’t really for or against; it was just the way the screenplay was. Jason claims that he’s never seen that film. Either he secretly has seen that film, or else it is just something he had written that was similar.
AVC: Is Harold And Maude even a favorite of yours?
GVS: I can’t say that it’s a favorite film. I really enjoyed the film when I saw it. And the quality that I do like is their intense relationship—Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort’s relationship. There are a lot of things I do like about it. I do like Hal Ashby films. So yeah, I guess I am a fan, but it’s not something that I have ever really held dear or studied or anything. It’s kind of an amazing little film. I watched it while we were making our film and I found that things we were expected to do with our story—there’s always these sorts of expectations, things you can’t do. I don’t know. There’s all these showbiz-y expectations when you make a film. And in this case it was a studio film. When I looked at Harold And Maude, I thought, “The studio would never let them do this.” They would never let him jump off a cliff at the end. So many different things happen in Harold And Maude that were actually quite risky, story-wise, for a studio. I always felt like we were expected not to do anything like that. It being a more conservative time now, maybe, than in the ’70s. At least when you’re working in the studio arena. That was kind of an interesting aspect.
AVC: We should probably talk about Hiroshi, the ghost of the Japanese kamikaze pilot that follows Enoch around. There’s a memorable scene where Annabel brings up Nagasaki and you cut to stock footage of scenes from the bombing’s devastation. What are we to make of Hiroshi?
GVS: I think of him as an imaginary friend of Enoch’s. Either that, or he’s a ghost. I always thought he was this sort of projection of Enoch. The reason for who he is is probably wrapped up in his imagination. He’s invented him as a kamikaze pilot. He just thought that since he’s a kamikaze pilot, he died before he found out about Nagasaki. So when she brings it up, it’s all in his imagination. That’s the way I figured out Hiroshi’s character, that he wasn’t really a magical character so much. He was an extension of Enoch’s own imagination.
AVC: You dedicate the film to the memory of Dennis Hopper. This is Henry Hopper’s first major film role. It’s also a film about cancer, which claimed the life of his father. Was Dennis able to see the film before he passed away?
GVS: I think it was one of the reasons Henry was interested in the film. He had come back to the States because his dad was diagnosed with cancer. We did get to show it to him in January. We showed Dennis a rough cut. And Dennis, he thought it was too slow. [Laughs.] He liked it, but he thought when you fit it into the marketplace he was like, “Well, they don’t make films like this anymore.” I think that was funny.