TIFF Dialogue: 'Restless' Director Gus Van Sant on Cancer Comedies, Kids on Facebook and Remakes Like 'Psycho'

TIFF Dialogue: 'Restless' Director Gus Van Sant on Cancer Comedies, Kids on Facebook and Remakes Like 'Psycho'

Sep 10, 2011

The Toronto International Film Festival hosted the North American premiere of Gus Van Sant’s latest film. Restless is a love story between Enoch (Henry Hopper), a teenager who’s lost his parents and Annabelle (Mia Wasikowska) who has three months to live. It’s not a downer. They met at a funeral Enoch was crashing (an idea inspired by Will Ferrell in Wedding Crashers perhaps) for another children’s cancer patient. As Enoch and Annabelle spend time together, they have fun with mortality, visiting the morgue and planning Annabelle’s final moments like a game.

Full disclosure: I have a bit of an obsession with “death movies.” If a movie really deals with dying in a healthy or provocative way, I’m sold. For me, Restless joins the ranks of Seven Pounds, The Notebook and Love Story. Van Sant handles young characters as he has in Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and Good Will Hunting among many others. Only 12 hours after his TIFF premiere, Van Sant offered me a private course on the right way to handle morbid subjects in an entertaining film.

Movies.com: I’ve found in the last few years that I really like films about dealing with mortality and death in a healthy way. Of course some people might not want to see a movie about a girl dying of cancer. Why do you think some people can find that subject entertaining?

Gus Van Sant: They can’t. I think it’s very common for films to have themes of mortality and death. So I think they do actually.

Movies.com: Even you just came around to it right there.

GVS: Well, there’s another one at the festival, 50/50.

Movies.com: And they’re both comedies!

GVS: They’re both comedies. I think the attack of both films is to deal with the subject but elevate it so that you don’t get too depressed.

Movies.com: Isn’t it a healthy subject for us to explore artistically?

GVS: I think so. And I think it’s also a subject that is very often approached depending on what era and what films. There are some well known films that have had similar themes.

Movies.com: Maybe the resistance comes from the bad ones. For me something like The Bucket List does not speak to me. It feels contrived and cheap.

GVS: Why was that?

Movies.com: I just felt that it was not sincerely dealing with death. It was “look at us acting like we’re dying. This is so serious.” Even when it was lighthearted they were manipulating us for the end.  

GVS: Which is only a tone thing, right?

Movies.com: Right. What would be the right tone versus the wrong tone?

GVS: I only saw a little bit of The Bucket List. I didn’t get to see the whole thing. I think any movie there’s always a tonal right way and wrong way no matter what the movie is. Just like a comedy has a tone and it’s either funny or not funny sometimes based on the tone. I don’t think it’s a function of the story. It’s more like how you’re handling material. Even a chase movie, if the tone is ingenuine. I saw a movie the other day which was basically just an action/adventure movie and they just went over the top. They exposed things at the wrong time and they overstated certain action elements. They made them too big in an impossible way so you’re already questioning like this isn’t possible. Why are they doing this, just to draw me in? It was sort of a tempo and tonal thing in an action movie. So when it comes to debilitating disease movies, again it’s the details. The feeling that you’re imparting as you’re telling the story. But I think for us, we were always adjusting and trying to find that as well from the very beginning. It was in the script so you want to follow through and as you’re taking it from script to the screen, you’re always correcting yourself and making sure that in visualizing it, it’s the tone you want as a viewer and that hopefully talks to other people.

Movies.com: Was that at the festival?

GVS: It was on the plane.

Movies.com: Would you share what the action film it was?

GVS: I don’t want to say but it was a big action movie, as there are so many of them these days. It seemed to be an action movie that was going to be easy and yet it was made hard because of these small elements. It wasn’t so much what happened. It was the way it happened.

Movies.com: We can imagine the summer movies that may have been showing on your flight. You also said the tone wasn’t a function of the story, rather it’s the handling of it. Does the tone not start on a screenplay level?

GVS: No, the tone starts with the script but then you have to make sure that you’re not losing it with taking something that exists on the screen. In every film, like Good Will Hunting, if the tone were off it might just become not acceptable.

Movies.com: Or Milk?

GVS: Or Milk for sure. Basically every film has that exact problem of what movie you’re making. There’s always the discussion of are we making the same movie? That kind of thing. And things can be difficult. There can be fatal errors or perceptions of fatal errors made in certain places. When you’re watching a film where you actually think it doesn’t work or does work, there are usually indicators of well, it doesn’t work because of this one thing. It can be that one thing that sets off a series of things.

Movies.com: How have you stayed in touch with the youth as they have become more obsessed with technology?

GVS: I hadn’t noticed any difference. There are certain things that kids can do and do on the internet that are surprising. I was pretty late coming to the internet. It was like 1995 I think when [I joined] AOL, you had e-mail. But in ’95, I was 43. I had gone through pretty much all of my childhood with nothing close to connecting to the computer. It’s interesting how kids that have grown up with it, it’s just part of their life. It’s a technical thing that I guess I had when I was a kid, a relationship with particular technical things that my parents didn’t. I don’t keep in touch with it. I just observe. It doesn’t seem to change the youth of today but the specifics of exactly what goes on, say, on Facebook are interesting.

Movies.com: Not that the characters in Restless deal with it, but 20 years from My Own Private Idaho, everyone has not only a cell phone but a tablet on their lap.

GVS: I didn’t know about Facebook until a couple years ago and then I noticed that a lot of the young people that I knew were in touch with each other solely on Facebook. They didn’t have phones. They just had abilities to find computers different places and leave messages and times and things as far as visiting with each other or communicating with each other was solely Facbeook.

Movies.com: In an era where there are so many remakes, nobody has tried a shot for shot remake approach like you did with Psycho. Yet there are so many remakes, why do you think not one filmmaker has tried that approach again?

GVS: Well, they’ve always been doing remakes. But they didn’t do shot by shot remakes for whatever reason. That’s why I did it was because it seemed like every remake was a retelling. There was The Man Who Knew Too Much that Hitchcock remade. He was retelling his own story. I suppose one of them was British and one was U.S. So I think I came up with the idea because people were making remakes. There was one of D.O.A. and I was in a meeting at Universal. They had introduced a group of executives to me, but the president Casey Silver introduced the vice president of the library. The library contained all their films and screenplays that hadn’t been produced and remakes. He said, “If there’s anything that is your favorite film that you want to remake, he’s the guy to talk to.”

That’s the moment I suggested making a remake where you don’t change the shots. It seemed the practice of a remake was really to just take the script only and not only that, but usually change the ending of the script because in a 1950s script, it usually ended darkly because they were usually detective stories that were people’s favorite detective stories or film noirs that were being remade. You would change the ending because the film noir would be too dark. You’d make it a modern 1980s or 1990s ending and then refashion it, shoot it the way you want and they would leave everything else behind like the director’s work or the costumer’s work. I thought it would be interesting to not leave all that stuff behind, not only take the script but take the directorial input and everything else.

Movies.com: I just would have thought as the remake movement continued, at least one filmmaker might have said, “Let’s try the Gus Van Sant approach one more time.” Even if you didn’t like Psycho, give the style one more shot.

GVS: Michael Haneke remade his movie pretty much shot by shot.

Movies.com: Funny Games is, yeah. I guess I meant on a bigger scale, not just translating his own movie into English.

GVS: Well, Psycho didn’t make a bunch of money so that was one of the drawbacks. Hypothetically it was an experiment to see if that would work. Since it didn’t seem to work, people weren’t that excited about doing it.

Movies.com: But an experiment needs trials and control groups. You need more samples.

GVS: Yeah, that’s true. I agree.

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