TORONTO – More than 20 years ago, actor Robin Williams asked director Gus Van Sant to help develop a film on controversial cartoonist John Callahan.
It seemed a good fit: the two were already working together on the Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting,” and Van Sant grew up in Callahan’s home city of Portland and knew of him.
But after submitting a couple of drafts and recording many hours of interviews with Callahan at his home, nothing came of it.
“It was disappointing that it wasn’t going ahead,” Van Sant, a two-time Oscar nominee for “Milk” and “Good Will Hunting,” recalled in a recent phone interview.
“By 2005 I think John joked we were all going to be dead by the time this film was made.”
Callahan died in 2010, followed by Williams in 2014 — but the film lives on.
Opening Friday in Toronto and Vancouver, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” stars Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan, an alcoholic who was left a quadriplegic after a car crash during a night of hard partying in Portland. Through rehab, he learned to draw using his hands.
Callahan’s irreverent cartoons caused a sensation and polarized readers with their combination of black humour and depictions of disability.
Jonah Hill co-stars as Callahan’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Rooney Mara plays his physiotherapist, and Jack Black plays his drinking buddy.
Other cast members include Beth Ditto and Kim Gordon, who play members of Callahan’s AA support group.
Van Sant directed and co-wrote the Amazon Studios film, which was inspired by Callahan’s 1989 memoir.
Van Sant said Williams had optioned the film rights to the book, feeling a connection to the material because of his close friendship with the late actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed from the neck down after a horse-riding accident.
Williams wanted to play the cartoonist himself and asked Van Sant to help develop a script. But two drafts later, Van Sant didn’t hear anything.
“I think between myself and the writer and John Callahan himself, we just felt, ‘Well maybe Robin is too busy, maybe it’s not the right thing, maybe the studio doesn’t like a quadriplegic, alcoholic cartoonist story.’ And the AA story wasn’t making money in other films that were about similar subjects,” Van Sant said.
“We really didn’t find out what the deal was but time just kept going by and I left it alone — because it wasn’t really mine, it was Sony’s and Robin’s.
“It wasn’t until Robin was gone that Sony saw that they had this book and they called about it.”
Van Sant decided to focus on Callahan’s alcoholism recovery, which was the central theme of his life and his cartoons.
In the extensive time Van Sant spent getting to know Callahan, the director heard about his close relationship with his AA sponsor and made him a central figure of the film.
“I like to do things that I don’t really understand,” said Van Sant, who also directed Phoenix in 1995’s “To Die For.”
“In the case of ‘Drugstore Cowboy,’ it was a world that I was unaware of. I didn’t know there were criminals who were targeting drugstores and trying to sell the drugs. I didn’t really know the world of male hustlers in making ‘My Own Private Idaho.’ I didn’t really know about cowgirls when I made ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.’
“There were worlds that I was entering into, and they’re fascinating worlds.”