Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot


The idea of making a film about the remarkable life of cartoonist John Callahan first came to Gus Van Sant’s attention over 20 years ago when he got an offer from actor Robin Williams. Williams, whom Van Sant directed in the Oscar-nominated drama Good Will Hunting, had optioned the rights to Callahan’s 1989 memoir Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot. He was interested in starring in and producing a film about the colorful Portland character, which he wanted Van Sant to develop and direct.

“John was a person that I knew from the ’80s in Portland,” explains Van Sant. “His single-panel cartoons appeared in our alternative newspaper, Willamette Week, as well as elsewhere. Around that time I had just started to shoot Drugstore Cowboy. So we were two artists trying to make our way in the world, although he became well-known several years before I did.”

Williams, who had optioned Callahan’s book in 1994, wanted to play the role partly as an homage to his friend, actor Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in a horse-riding accident. “He also liked it because Callahan was jokester, a sort of visual comedian,” says Van Sant.

Van Sant collaborated with several different co-writers throughout the 1990s and early 2000s to develop numerous drafts of the script, but the project never got off the ground. “I don’t think the studios could wrap their minds around it,” he says. “But all this time, we were hanging around with John Callahan and learning a lot about him and his life.”

After Williams’ death in 2014, Van Sant decided to take another shot at adapting the book, this time hewing more closely to the source material. “In our previous passes the script took a lot of liberties and was way wackier than the book, maybe because Robin was going to play Callahan. I think we also tried to fit in too much of his life. But the book is really strong and in the end I focused mainly on just one of the chapters, which is the story of John’s recovery from alcoholism.”

Having interviewed Callahan extensively, Van Sant was able to imbue the script with colorful details the cartoonist related to him, some of which were not in the book. Many of Callahan’s stories focused on Donnie, a magnetic and dedicated sponsor who “rocked a Tom Petty look” and was instrumental in helping Callahan turn his life around.

“We realized later that John was often being fanciful, both in the book and the stories he was telling us,” says the filmmaker. “He would exaggerate things. You couldn’t tell when he was veering off the actual story and making things up. And he didn’t care, because he’s an entertainer.”

Van Sant has based a number of his films on real people in Portland, Oregon — his adopted home of many years. He found Callahan, who died in 2010 at age 59, to be another compelling protagonist. “He was a well-known person who lived in the Northwest section of the city when it was still cheap,” he says. “It was the working-class area and a lot of punk rockers lived there because you could rent a house for $400 a month and everyone could live in it. You’d see him all the time moving very fast in his wheelchair down the sidewalk in the rain with his red hair blowing back.”

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