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Gus Van Sant Returns with Restless

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From left: Henry Hopper, Mia Wasikowska and Gus Van Sant. (Photo by Scott Green, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics).
Award-winning director Gus Van Sant is known for helming an eclectic mix of features such as Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting and Milk. Van Sant’s latest film, Restless, may be the most romantic film he has made, though it also sports the director’s signature quirkiness.

The story is a coming-of-age tale about a bittersweet relationship that develops between two adolescents. It’s shadowed by death and mortality.  Henry Hopper, son of the late actor and director Dennis Hopper (to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance), stars as Enoch Brae. Embittered by the loss of both parents in an automobile accident, he’s become a dropout from life and, in a gesture of aimless defiance, crashes funerals of people he doesn’t know.  At one of them he meets fellow funeral-crasher Annabel Cotton, played by up-and-coming Australian star Mia Wasikowska, who is a free spirit, dotes on Charles Darwin and does drawings from nature. A friendship blossoms into a love affair. It turns out, however, that she is dying of brain cancer and has only a few months to live.

Van Sant’s production team on the movie includes many of his collaborators from Milk – director of photography Harris Savides, film editor Elliot Graham, costume designer Danny Glicker and composer Danny Elfman. (Van Sant, Glicker and Graham all were nominated  for Oscars for Milk, which won two Academy Awards for Sean Penn as best actor and best original screenplay by Dustin Lance Black).  This is the first time Van Sant has worked with production designer Anne Ross, whose credits include Lost in Translation for director Sofia Coppola and  Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale.

Restless is the sixth time Van Sant has worked with Savides on a feature film. The DP is hailed for his aesthetic framing and expert capture of scenes with minimal lighting. “Some of his best work is in low-light or even no-light settings,” said the director.  The movie was shot in Portland, Ore., where Van Sant resides, and Savides captured the glowing autumnal look of the settings that underscored the film’s plot.

Van Sant and Savides initially talked about lensing Restless digitally, but ultimately decided to go with film. “Until recently film has trumped digital in terms of being able to shoot in lower light – at least that was the case when we did Restless two years ago,” said the director. “But this year it changed – some digital cameras are now way faster, and if we were to do the film today, I might have decided to shoot digitally.”

Van Sant and the DP have developed a close rapport and an intuitive way of communicating after six feature collaborations. They met years ago while doing a commercial for Levis. Nonetheless, the prep for each film follows pretty much the same trajectory.  “Because we’re always starting from scratch, we go through the same pre-production routine,” said the director. As a starting point, the two will look at photographs they have each taken, or watch films that are used as references. “We tend to get pretty experimental in our concept at the beginning,” he noted. “Then, for some reason, we fall back to something that’s more standard, such as using as much natural light as we can.  In many cases there aren’t any lights. And on some films we didn’t even rent any lights, so we wouldn’t be tempted.”

Mia Wasikowska as Annabel and Henry Hopper as Enoch. (Photo by Scott Green, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics).
One novel technique Van Sant has taken up is to do silent takes after the scripted takes with the dialogue are shot. “I’ve gotten in the habit ever since Milk of shooting an extra take in which the actors don’t speak,” he declared. “It’s something Sean Penn told me Terry Malick does. Now that I’ve seen Tree of Life, I see how he really puts the silences to use. He prefers to have action describe the scene rather than the words.”

Van Sant used silent takes occasionally in Milk, to cut down on dialogue and sometimes for editing purposes. “On Restless, we ended up with a silent version of the whole movie,” which may be issued as part of the DVD release, he said. “Silent takes are useful when you realize that the words aren’t needed to explain the scene,” he explains “There are other reasons – it sometimes helps us in editing to have that footage – but I have been shooting them because usually, somewhere, you need to let the silence tell the story.”

In the editing room, “Gus will always let me do whatever it is I think I should try with a cut,” editor Elliot Graham observed. “He’ll never tell me how to cut a scene in advance. He’ll rarely give me feedback the first several times I show him a scene. But because I’m not on the set, I have some distance from the scene, the script and the location, and he wants me to use that distance to explore the footage. He’ll let me try things out – different music, different cuts, cutting a lot, not cutting a lot – to see if I bring something new to the film.”

Costume designer Danny Glicker came up with a vintage look for each of the leads. “We had the idea that they were in a somewhat timeless setting – no computers, no cell phones – so much of the clothing they wore looked like it could have come from a thrift shop,” noted the director. Glicker used a combination of both actual and re-created vintage clothing in styling a wardrobe for Enoch. For example, he wears a shabby chic black morning coat to attend funerals. Mia Wasikowska’s Annabel also inspired a vintage look – combining clothes from the 1920s and ’30s with pieces from the 1960s to create a spontaneous but elegant look.

Restless has a soundtrack by composer Danny Elfman. “We needed something delicate, and I felt Danny could give us something quite nice,” Van Sant said. “He usually feels me out by playing some cues to see what I think is right. Then, after we settle on a sound, he fills it out, which is always so astounding to hear.” There are also expressive songs by Sufjan Stevens, and the first scene of Restlesss is accompanied by a Beatles song, “Two of Us,” from the “Let It Be” album, which is one of Van Sant’s favorites.

Paying for the rights to the song was pricey. “Restless was around $300,000 under budget when it wrapped so we had saved enough money to afford it, because it was quite expensive,” noted the director. And to help get the required permission, Van Sant wrote personal letters to the families of each of the Fab Four, stating how he had wanted to be a Beatle growing up.

Hopper is not the only person involved in “Restless” who is second-generation Hollywood.  Schuyler Fisk, who plays Annabel’s older sister, is the daughter of Sissy Spacek and production designer Jack Fisk. And Bryce Dallas Howard, who recently made a splash in The Help, and is one of the producers on Restless is the daughter of notable director and producer Ron Howard. She was a long-time friend of screenwriter Jason Lew and helped develop the script and then wound up bringing it to Imagine Entertainment, the production company headed by her father and Brian Grazer. Sony Entertainment Classics is distributing the movie.

Next up for Van Sant is his first foray into television. He’s directing the pilot of Boss, about a big city mayor, played by Kelsey Grammer, for Starz.

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