Interview: Gus Van Sant Talks Restless

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Hitting theaters in New York and Los Angeles this Friday, Restless marks the first feature film from director Gus Van Sant since his Academy Award winning Milk in 2008. Teaming with actress-turned-producer Bryce Dallas Howard, he brings to celluloid Jason Lew’s stage play, “Of Winter and Water Birds” (with Lew himself adapting the piece for screen).

Henry Hopper stars as Enoch Brae, a young man who, after losing his parents in a fatal car accident, finds a disconnect with the living, regularly speaking with the ghost of a Kamikaze pilot, Hiroshi (Ryo Kase). Fascinated by death, Brae meets a girl his age, Annabel Cotton (Mia Wasikowska), at a funeral and the two quickly form a bond, both learning to share their own unwilling confrontations with mortality.

ComingSoon.net spoke with Van Sant about the choice of project, the unique qualities that it’s able to offer as a film and a stylish technique he employed for the shooting whereby each scene was given a special silent take, forcing the actors to tell the story without any dialogue.

ComingSoon.net: Its been three years since your last film, “Milk,” which met with a lot of success. What brought “Restless” your way and what made you decide that it was going to be your followup?
Gus Van Sant:
It was a screenplay that I had read and just kind of thought was a really interesting story. It’s actually been a while since we finished the film. About a year. But it was really the screenplay.

CS: One of the first things that strikes you when you’re watching this film is that it opens with a Beatles song. That’s something that is notoriously pricey and it’s surprising to see in modestly budgeted film.
Van Sant:
Yeah, it was expensive. I think we had saved some money by the end of the filming. We were able to buy it. I don’t think I’ve ever had a Beatles song in one of my movies. But it was hard to find music for the film in general. I’m not sure why. I think it was just the gestalt of the film or the nature of the film. That was one that we like. I think Bryce found that one.

CS: You’ve always had a great grasp of pop songs in films. In this one there’s also a Pink Martini song. Do you come across songs you like and kept a list for future film use or do you make a film and then set out to find the appropriate music?
Van Sant:
I’ve done both. In rare cases, I’ve had music before I shot the movie. I think that for “Good Will Hunting” I had an Elliot Smith record or a couple of them and I just somehow felt like the sound had something to it that reminded me of the story. So in that case there was music beforehand. In other cases there’s music that I play around with. I find it as we’re editing. There’s no real list but, now with iTunes libraries, there’s another kind of list. Each computer has its own list of graveyard collections that sometimes you don’t know where they come from. In a lot of cases I happen to be working from the iTunes that is on whatever computer I happen to be using, which isn’t necessarily my computer. I’m just trying all kinds of things.

CS: Can you talk about meeting Bryce Dallas Howard and what lead to the two of you collaborating?
Van Sant:
She had developed this over a number of years with Jason Lew through Imagine. I had made “Psycho” through them. I knew Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and their office had sent the screenplay over. As soon as I started talking to them about it, I had a meeting with Bryce. I had seen her in films before and she’s extremely nice and really organized and hard-working.

CS: How quickly did your cast come together?
Van Sant:
We casted in LA with Francine Maisler. We looked at lots of different actors and sort of found these two, Henry Hopper and Mia Wasikowska. We whittled it down to these two people that we loved.

CS: There’s a timeless quality to the film. It feels like it’s present day, but it could easy be 20 years ago. Was that a very conscious choice?
Van Sant:
I think it kind of happened naturally. Maybe it was partly the story. There were certain parts of the story that had a timeless quality or a storybook quality. We felt like some of the characters were people that we knew in our lives who were living outside of their peer group and/or their family because of certain situations in their lives. Enoch and Annabel’s situation were different, but they were both kind of living original, apart lives. We started to get into this idea that they dressed with vintage clothing. Some of the kids I know in Portland dress in vintage clothing and/or I used to. There was this quality to it that we introduced that had to do with that that starts to push it into a different time. There was a great worry that, unless you saw a modern automobile, people wouldn’t know what time it was. But I thought that was a good quality.

CS: Two key recurring themes in your work are a focus on outsiders and on elements of mortality. Is that something that you particularly look for?
Van Sant:
I think it’s something that I tend to work into stories. Either it’s already there or majorly there and something that I kind of become fascinated with. In this case, it was hugely the central theme of the story, which is maybe why I was attracted to it.

CS: Can you talk a bit more about Portland and why it was important to shoot there.
Van Sant:
Well, it’s because I live there and because it’s somewhat like Maine. It’s named for Portland, Maine. The original story was set in Maine and Jason was from Maine. We decided that, instead of shooting in Maine, which we could have done, we decided to go for Portland, which had less snow.

CS: You shot silent takes of key scenes on this project. Can you talk about what that does for the performances?
Van Sant:
I started doing that on “Milk” because Sean Penn had told me that Terry Malick did silent takes. After he was done with a particular take, he would do one that was completely silent. I started doing it on that film because a lot of the time you need something to happen when the characters aren’t speaking. In “Milk,” there’s a huge amount of dialogue and sometimes you need the characters to do the similar thing they’re doing in the scene without talking. The talking will connect it to a particular moment in time during the scene. Sometimes you need a character to go from Point A to Point B without monologuing. You need them to walk from one side of the room to another, just walking instead of walking and talking. I thought that that was what Terry was doing but, now that I’ve seen “Tree of Life,” I can see that he makes quite a bit of use of the silent takes that he uses. He can then throw in voiceover or whatever else, but he’s really using a lot of it. In our case, we were doing it just for editorial convenience. After we were done, we realized that we had shot the whole film silent and we constructed a silent version of the film. I’m not sure what will happen to it, but it exists.

CS: Does that mean that you have more fluidity in the editing? Could you potentially replace planned dialogue scenes with silent takes?
Van Sant:
In “Milk” we had a ton of dialogue. There was a scene where Harvey’s boyfriend leaves him. James Franco was the boyfriend and Sean Penn was Harvey. That was a scene where they were kind of talking about normal breakup stuff like, “You spend too much time in the office” or “You don’t come home enough.” That kind of stuff. You don’t really need to hear that because we’ve been hearing all kinds of other stuff. So you can just look at them and then have James walk out, which is stronger than to hear the reasons why. Because the reasons why are kind of a laundry list of the reasons why people regularly break up.

CS: Taking it to the complete reverse extreme, though, you did “Psycho” which, while obviously a sort of experiment in and of itself to match the original shot for shot, means that you have a very distinct road map of the final product going in. Do you have a preference for approaching a film in the editing suite with the assembly already in your head or do you like to figure it out at that stage? Or does it change project to project?
Van Sant:
Well, “Psycho” had a rigid road map because it was a copy. There’s a lot of films that have relatively rigid road maps because they have a script and others that are less rigid because they have less of a script, like “Elephant.” The road map becomes more interpretive, maybe, than one with a detailed script. Editing-wise, they all have their problems. With “Psycho,” we did edit according to the cut of the original, but it sort of became stale because it needed to be free of the exact rigidity of the other film. We started to edit when we felt like it was necessary rather than copying the editing of the previous films. They all have their own originality as far as cutting goes.

CS: One of my favorite details in “Restless”–and I couldn’t even tell you why–is when, on Halloween, Enoch shows up and his friend is wearing the same Kamikaze pilot costume as he is. There’s instantly a backstory there that is never explained and I wanted to hear your thoughts on doing it that way.
Van Sant:
Yeah, it sort of suggests that maybe Hiroshi is in his imagination and that his friend, maybe, had a fascination with Kamikaze pilots and that maybe Hiroshi is a manifestation of his friend. It’s kind of a red herring or an answer to who Hiroshi is. It’s not explained. It just sort of occurs right there.

CS: Can you talk about what’s coming up next for you?
Van Sant:
Right now I’m working on a TV show called “Boss.” It’s about a fictional Chicago mayor, played by Kelsey Grammer. It airs October 21st.

CS: Do you find yourself returning to any of your older films? You’ve had two releases through Criterion and there’s a lot of your past work I’d love to see on Blu-ray.
Van Sant:
I’m really happy that Criterion has two films, but I’m really not sure what formats they’re available in. But I don’t usually return to my films on my own. Sometimes things come up and you’re at a festival and you end up sitting through them. There’s a restructuring of “My Own Private Idaho” that James Franco did that’s showing at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 in New York right now. I’m involved with that sometimes because James Franco is involved and sometimes I’m presenting it. That’s really an art project. It’s not distributed. But I generally do it when the DVD comes out, which is close to the release.

Restless opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles this Friday.