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Gloomy Gus: Van Sant puts his spin on tragic love in ‘Restless’

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By Lynda Gorov
Globe Correspondent / September 25, 2011

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LOS ANGELES - Gus Van Sant is explaining that he’s more of a visual person than a word person and he’s doing it in as few words as possible.

This doesn’t appear to be intentional. Instead, Van Sant just naturally lets long pauses hang in the room. He has no need to fill the silence, or say an extra syllable. He appears entirely without the Hollywood urge to charm.

But that of course is why Van Sant is here: to sell his latest film, “Restless,’’ which opens Friday in the Boston area. It’s about two teenagers with tragic back stories who fall in love. He (newcomer Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) has two dead parents, a kamikaze pilot ghost as a best friend, and a hobby attending strangers’ funerals. She (Mia Wasikowska of “Alice in Wonderland’’ and “The Kids Are All Right’’) has a mom who drinks, a devoted sister (Schuyler Fisk, daughter of Sissy Spacek), and a terminal brain tumor.

It’s clearly a quirky film with an inevitably unhappy ending, but the director says it is not intended, as writer Jason Lew once put it to him, as “misery porn.’’ The emphasis is on the relationship, not the illness. The girl gets slightly thinner but, except for a single seizure, her illness is never ugly. She seems to suffer most of all from what Roger Ebert terms “Ali MacGraw’s Disease,’’ a movie convention in which “the only symptom is that the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches.’’

“We weren’t trying to gross out the audience or play into the extremeness of what could easily be very horrific in reality,’’ Van Sant says.

“We didn’t want to get into that part of it that is sort of trying to make you feel very, very sad. The reality is it can also be something else that is not like that.’’

Van Sant says he was drawn to the singularity of the relationship between the teens. “It wasn’t really about anything else,’’ he says. “It was really about the two of them.’’

“Restless’’ is set in Portland, Ore., but could be any city with weather. There is no technology, no texting, no talking on cellphones. The clothes are shabby chic, both vintage and vaguely timeless. Even the music that loudly telegraphs emotions throughout the movie has an older generational feel.

“I think we were going with something that was speaking to us in its own time by having them wear older clothes,’’ says Van Sant, who is dressed nondescriptly in a black blazer, baggy jeans, and black sneakers. “People were alarmed we were using older music: ‘Come on, we don’t want people to think this is a period movie.’ I’m not sure why they cared.’’

So far, in early reviews after “Restless’’ played the Cannes Film Festival, critics haven’t cared much for the movie. Sony went so far as to scuttle a January release, and “Restless’’ is now under the moniker of “Sony Pictures Classics,’’ the company’s indie label. It’s an indication that no one expects another “Milk,’’ Van Sant’s 2008 gay-rights biopic starring Sean Penn, which was his biggest hit since “Good Will Hunting’’ in 1997 introduced Ben Affleck and Matt Damon to the world.

Still, Van Sant was not only first choice for director, he was the fantasy director all along, says first-time producer Bryce Dallas Howard (“The Help,’’ “Twilight: Eclipse’’). Screenwriter Lew, who grew up in eastern Maine, is a college chum from New York University and Howard was there at the inception of “Restless,’’ and through its various incarnations over the years.

“Jason and I had always talked about Gus when we were fantasizing about our dream director,’’ Howard says. “Having a director who understood how to capture emotion but in a very honest, almost understated way was something we were looking for. And of course the movie is odd.’’

Howard, the daughter of Ron Howard, whose Imagine Entertainment helped produce “Restless,’’ laughs. She understands “Restless’’ isn’t an easy sell, but unlike Van Sant, she is selling her heart out over a cellphone: “There is an element of magical realism and that was another thing we didn’t want to become too significant. . . . Gus could play the delicacy of that. There’s a subtleness and honesty to all his movies that is distinctive. It was very centering for us just imagining him as the filmmaker.’’

Howard has nothing but praise for Van Sant, 59, whose career has been nothing if not eclectic. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, he has made far more than just movies, which he sometimes acts in (uncredited) and also writes, edits, and produces. He’s the guy who did a scene-by-scene remake of “Psycho.’’ He’s also a musician who has released two albums and directed music videos. Earlier this year he showed bold, large-scale portraits of young men reminiscent of the characters in “My Private Idaho’’ at a gallery in Los Angeles.

And he directed the pilot episode of “Boss,’’ an hourlong drama starring Kelsey Grammer as a fictional mayor of Chicago, for Starz. He also executive produces. How did that come about? “They offered it to me.’’ He adds that he liked working in television “a lot,’’ and if “Boss’’ gets picked up, and if his schedule allows, he would happily direct the second season opener.

“There’s nothing planned,’’ says the even-spoken Van Sant. “I’m just doing whatever I think is right.’’

Right now that means no movie projects on the horizon. Van Sant plans to go back into his studio and not come out until he has plenty of paintings to show for his time. He says it’s harder than filmmaking, which lured him away from the easel before he found his way back.

“I like doing both; they’re close,’’ he says. “But I’m only going to paint next. I’m going to go into a room. I don’t talk to anyone. It can take months.’’

Van Sant waits to see what’s already in a room or park or whatever location before deciding how a scene should look. He’s adaptable, easygoing, and approachable.

“A lot of filmmakers who have very distinctive styles, it’s almost as if they’re creating every single time from nothing,’’ Howard says. “Where with him, he wanted to honor what was already there and build on it.’’

Or, as Van Sant himself puts it, “You see something in your head but you don’t necessarily get that thing. So you learn to kind of adjust it.’’

Lynda Gorov can be reached at

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