Gus Van Sant speaks to Helen Barlow of his fondness for films that deal with disillusionment and death, as Restless opens in cinemas.
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2 Dec 2011 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:10 PM

Gus Van Sant's movies, probably with the exception of Psycho and Milk, tend to focus on disillusioned youths and in some way concern death. In his Palme d'Or-winning Elephant, the second in his so-called Death Trilogy of fact-based films, Van Sant cast non-professional actor John Robinson as a teen who goes on a shooting rampage Columbine-style. In the other two films he tested audiences' patience by going almost dialogue-free with his Kurt Cobain tale, Last Days, and with his foray into the desert, Gerry, which would never have been made without casting Good Will Hunting's Matt Damon.

Damon is one of many actors Van Sant has delivered to a star-making role, after River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho and Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix in To Die For. His discovery in his upcoming movie, Restless, is Henry Hopper (son of Dennis) while he essentially gave Mia Wasikowska her first lead role in a dramatic movie, just as she was starring in Tim Burton's effects-laden blockbuster, Alice in Wonderland. (Jane Eyre was made afterwards.)

Wasikowska plays Annabel, a terminally ill teen, who meets Hopper's recently orphaned Enoch at the funeral of somebody neither of them knows. They fall in love and have an intense relationship knowing it will be brief.

“The times that I have used death in my films it is not really related to real death so much, it is a metaphor,” Van Sant asserts. “If you have a story that has life in it, you might have death as a contrast, which I think is mimicking real life.”

After Milk, the story of slain murdered San Francisco mayor, Harvey Milk (played by eventual Oscar winner Sean Penn) Van Sant had wanted a change of pace. “Milk was somewhat of an epic, so I wasn't exactly looking for another epic. I was sent the Restless screenplay through the mail and it was something that was interesting to me.”

What intrigued him about Jason Lew's screenplay was the teenagers' reaction to their own mortality. The son of a doctor, Lew brought an insider's view to his story.

“Younger people react differently than older people to terminal illness,” Van Sant says. “I've had friends in their 50s who have discovered they have cancer and it is a revelation. They have learned to do things in another way; they have learned to appreciate what they have. Younger people I've known, like one of our actors in Paranoid Park, who was 13 but had survived cancer at age eight and wasn't expected to live, have needed, like in our story, to make connections with people outside their family circle in order to survive. Their families are so shut down and unable to spend long periods of time with their own children because it is too sad. So they start to inadvertently make friends with outsiders or strangers in an effort to, as Jason says, 'get permission to die'. And also to have some joy before they die.”

Ultimately Van Sant has made an upbeat, beautifully poetic film about death. Not the most commercial of ventures but it helped that Lew's old New York University friend, Bryce Dallas Howard, was keen to produce the film via her dad Ron and Brian Grazer's Imagine Entertainment. It helped that Imagine had previously produced Psycho and that Howard and Grazer had appreciated Van Sant's laid back sensibility. Wasikowska appreciated that too.

“Gus is very calm on set,” she says, “yet he builds up everyone's excitement about the project to the point where you feel a real ownership over the material. You never feel like it's him dictating what he wants; it's always very collaborative. I've been a fan of Gus's work since I was a teenager and my mum showed me his films. It's the kind of cinema that opens up your mind to the possibilities that cinema can offer and the power of the moving image. Gus has such originality of thought and expression, so it's always really cool.”

Van Sant was able to see “bits” of Alice in Wonderland as it was being made since the two films shared the same composer, Danny Elfman. Though it was Wasikowska's performance in the HBO series In Treatment that caught his eye. “Mia was sort of the new girl on the block, in Hollywood at least, and it was a very good episode. When she came to audition for Restless she did such a good reading and I wanted her to continue with her sure-footedness in making the dialogue come alive on the page.”