Gus Van Sant on Making 'Restless' and Not Making 'Twilight: Breaking Dawn'

The Oscar-nominated director of Milk and Good Will Hunting talks about his latest film

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Sony Pictures Classics

Gus Van Sant has made a career out of defying expectations. While the rap on the filmmaker is that he specializes in dreamy portraits of alienated young people, the reality is Van Sant has a lot of range.

Ever since launching to prominence with the one-two punch of Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy during the '80s, the two-time Oscar nominee has transitioned from small personal films set amid the sprawling Pacific Northwest (My Own Private Idaho) to inspirational dramas ( Good Will Hunting), to bizarre big studio misadventures (Psycho remake), impressionistic portraits (Elephant), and an acclaimed biopic (Milk).

On the surface, Restless—Van Sant's latest, opening in limited release today—finds him back in his most familiar mode. The story of the romance between death-obsessed teens Enoch (Henry Hopper) and Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) unfolds amid the vast woods, changing leaves and pervasive chill of Portland in autumn.

Yet strangely enough, given its focus on mortality, the film is a happier, more hopeful enterprise than most of Van Sant's movies about teenage outsiders. Here, the prolific director speaks about the project.

How does Restless fit into your overall oeuvre, which could be categorized as consisting of experimental works?

In Restless the script suggests, as did Finding Forrester or Good Will Hunting, that you're making a more traditional story because it has a beginning, a middle part, and an ending. It is about the friendship of these two characters, and there's traditional dialogue. Those are always the most experimental because I have the least experience with traditional dramatic storytelling.

What about Good Will Hunting particularly challenged you?

In Good Will Hunting's case, I rely on characters that are super outsiders. I didn't know if I didn't have the sort of extreme outsider status of the characters, whether or not my lead characters would actually read very well. So for me it was a big kind of experiment to see if that would work. And [Restless] was half-and-half because they were outsider characters, but they were friendly versions, they were warm-and-friendly versions.

[Mild spoiler alert] Given that a major character is stricken with terminal cancer (a detail revealed to the audience early in the film), how'd you avoid descending into sappy "disease of the week" territory?

I guess I noticed that [could happen] and I always kind of found it difficult when movies did that. There were some that really did it kind of amazingly. It works. It is sad. There was one where the littlest child of the dying cancer patient actually just cries. I watched that particular one with friends and the friend was going like, "awww," because it is so sad and they really are crying. … I really like that in films, although sometimes when it's extreme, you're kind of going, "You know, it's a cheap shot." It's not that I don't like it. It's just that in this film that didn't happen and I thought, "Oh that's kind of nice." It's more there are sad things that happen that aren't pushing you over the brink. And it can be truly sad rather than divisively sad.

What sold you on Henry Hopper, a first-time actor [and Dennis Hopper's son], and Mia, who is far better known now than when you cast her?

I think their reading. Just them reading in front of us. We had lots of choices. There were some choices that were quite risky, which I liked. I was afraid in some cases of the risky choices as far as casting. Henry was a very solid choice and Mia as well because they easily commanded the dialogue and they were able to make it their own without seemingly too much difficulty. Even when people are off the page and learn the lines you can be somewhat green, because it is green and they haven't really gotten into the character. But these guys, Henry and Mia, were probably the best as far as making it their own.

What's your take on Hiroshi, the WWII Kamikaze pilot ghost that's Enoch's best friend?

I think I started thinking of him as an imaginary friend and not so much what Enoch said he was, which was a ghost. I knew people who had imaginary friends, whereas I didn't have as many people that had ghosts around them all the time.

One of the people working on the film, a close friend of mine, he had this friend named Cowboy Joe, who was a full-size cowboy, a rough-and-tough cowboy, but he was only two feet tall. He made his grandmother and parents set a table for Cowboy Joe and Cowboy Joe would come and eat, so I could ask this friend, "Come on, you couldn't really see him?" And he said, "He was real. You could see him." That's not uncommon. A lot of people have that, so I understood it as that.

What was the experience of being short-listed to direct The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn like?

I didn't really get to have enough thought about what I'd do. There was an outline that followed the book religiously, and I guess the process was that you couldn't really change the story in the book. You couldn't start telling it backwards, or anything. I knew that was going to be the case and I didn't really get very far because I didn't get the job.

I didn't do a lot of pre-work, which I think is why I didn't get the job. I didn't have a way to sell myself when I went into the meeting. I wasn't really aware that as a director working with material that already existed, it was something that directors were expected to do. On a bigger show like that, they want to see a commitment. They want to see that you thought about the visuals and [to be] sort of like a writer. When a writer goes into these types of meetings it's become the norm for him to have already done all the work, which didn't used to be the case.

Could you see yourself working on that massive a scale?

I was trying to get the job. Yeah, I imagined I could see myself [doing it]. I have worked on projects that sort of feel like that. They were never as big as that. They were never projects that had three episodes that have preceded it and all these fans that were expecting things, but I just was going to give it a go.