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Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper / Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Two sub-genres of relationship films – the doomed romance (Love Story) and the hipster romantic comedy (500 Days Of Summer) – are satisfyingly blended together in Restless, the latest film by Gus Van Sant. And truly, is there any director more suited to doing this sort of genre mutation than Van Sant? He’s been fascinated by young people and death throughout his career, from the uncertain youths of My Own Private Idaho to the tragic deaths of teens in Elephant to the young musician’s suicide in Last Days. Of course, one also can’t neglect to mention 2007’s Paranoid Park, which saw Van Sant telling the story not of a teen who suffers an untimely death, but rather, a teen who inflicts one.
What’s interesting is that, morbid subject matter aside, Restless is actually a fairly light film by Van Sant standards; the film’s romance between a young funeral crasher (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) and a cancer-stricken young woman (Mia Wasikowska) could easily have been treated with somber heaviness, but instead the film’s script, written by newcomer Jason Lew, treats the young lovers’ relationship with a kind of lightness that might be found in a quirky indie romantic comedy. Of course, the spectre of death hangs over the proceedings. So, too, in the film’s most inspired quirk, does the ghost of a WWII Japanese kamikaze pilot, an ghost visible only to Hopper. Shot in the Pacific Northwest with the cool grey/white light that Van Sant has made his aesthetic signature since 2000’s Gerry, the film, lensed by perhaps the world’s most talented cinematographer, Harris Savides, is as visually beautiful as anything filmgoers are likely to see this year.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Van Sant at the Regency Hotel.
Tribeca: Two films ago you did Paranoid Park, another film about teenagers and death, and now you’re revisiting the theme with Restless. What do you think it is about the idea of morbid topics being dealt with at a young age that piques your interest?
Tribeca: There’s a strong romanticizing of what you do when you’re a teenager – the music you listen to, the adventures you have. Do you think perhaps part of it is that when you’re a teenager you’re able to confront big ideas like death and morbid thoughts in a more honest way than what’s possible when you get older?
Gus Van Sant: Yeah. I think that’s true. Or at least a more direct way. It sounds funny to older people, the way that somebody that’s like, nineteen, will refer to someone who’s dead. They’ll say, yeah, he was on the ground, he was dead. It’s so immediate. I think that it’s less sentimental, in some ways - death, to younger people. I’m not sure if it’s because of not having formed a sentimental side, or not having kids yet. When people have kids, they value life so much. Also, it’s when kids do really dumb stuff, like when they’re fourteen, they’ll do things that are really, really dangerous, because either they’re not afraid or they’re naïve.
Tribeca: They’re almost more accepting of danger, too.
Gus Van Sant: Yeah. How old are you?
Tribeca: I’m 24.
Tribeca: In terms of my attitude about death?
Tribeca: Hmm. No. But I’m going to be 25 in a month, and the music thing is palpable – I listen to a song that I loved when I was a teenager and it brings back a very strong kind of emotion, and a nostalgia, and the feeling isn’t the same if I listen to music I’ve gotten into more recently.
Gus Van Sant: Right. Something else when you’re young, I noticed – there’s a huge amount of nostalgia for all ages. You can be nostalgic when you’re fifteen. And then somewhere around 30 you lose – you can be nostalgic, but it’s not as important. I think the importance of the nostalgia is really important when you’re 20. But when you’re 40 and you remember when you were ten, it’s not as big a deal. It’s not as magical. But when you’re young – like, I remember when I was 20, remembering when I was twelve, being overcome with this intense feeling about being twelve. Now, I remember being twelve, but I can’t access the feelings or something.
Tribeca: You’ve worked with a wide variety of actors – so many amateurs in Paranoid Park and Elephant, one of the best actors in the world in Milk, now with Henry Hopper as one of the leads in Restless, who’s not an amateur, but this is his first real role. Do you change how you work with actors depending on the situation?
Tribeca: You’ve worked with Harris Savides on a number of films, including Restless. What is your working relationship with him like? How do you come to settle on your films’ aesthetics?
Gus Van Sant: Each time, I think we start out with the idea that we can do anything we want. He often wants to shoot in 16mm, because he wants to see grain, and 35mm's grain structure is so good now that you don't see any grain in it. So he thinks if we shot 16mm, the grain would look good. We haven’t done that.
The other idea is to shoot digitally. We tested digital cameras, but we haven’t shot on digital either yet. I think we will, eventually, because digital cameras have now surpassed film in the sense that the latitude is actually greater and the speed is faster and it's detailed enough. You can actually manipulate the grain in digital. There’s a lot of things you can do in that area. So I think digital is more malleable, and I think Harris is looking into it.
Tribeca: I saw Paranoid Park for the first time at the New York Film Festival, and after the screening Richard Pena asked you, mistakenly, when you were going to go back to celluloid – because the looks of the films are so similar to the digital aesthetic, the cool tones, the creaminess of the images. So you do see yourself going there?
Tribeca: There’s a sort of Gus Van Sant signature look at this point – the white light, the creaminess, as I mentioned. Can you tell me a bit about how you arrived at this aesthetic? It seems like it started around the time of Gerry.
Gus Van Sant: Yeah, it started with Harris. I think Chris Doyle, who shot Paranoid Park, and Harris have been operating with similar ideas. When you see Wong Kar-Wai movies, they do have a kind of creaminess. Harris often uses that word – creaminess. They tend to kind of look sometimes alike. But Harris has his own thing, which you can see in all the films that we’ve done together. Chris has his own thing too. Jean-Yves Escoffier, who shot Good Will Hunting, kind of had that look too, but it wasn’t as apparent on Good Will Hunting because we had to move fast, so he accommodated that request.
Tribeca: It’s really interesting how you started off with independent films, rose through the ranks of Hollywood, then went to the most experimental phase of your career, and now are back in Hollywood. Are there different things you like about working in the different realms, in terms of appeasing your artistry?
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