TORONTO–Gus Van Sant’s new movie, Restless, about two awkward teenagers dealing with death, began life as a school project. Sitting in a Toronto hotel room awaiting his film’s North American premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, Van Sant (Milk, Paranoid Park) told the Georgia Straight the movie was born at New York University. It happened when then-student Bryce Dallas Howard (Spider Man 3) fell in love with a stage play by classmate Jason Lew about a dying girl who befriends a death-obsessed boy whose best and only buddy is the ghost of a kamikaze pilot.
Van Sant cast rising star Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) as the adorable optimist with incurable cancer. And in a nod to Hollywood heredity, the first movie produced by Howard—daughter of actor-director-producer Ron Howard—features Schuyler Fisk (daughter of Sissy Spacek) as the cancer patient’s concerned sister and stars Henry Hopper, son of the late Dennis Hopper, as the boy mourning the death of his parents and nursing a surreal bout of survival guilt.
Van Sant says casting wasn’t done by checking bloodlines but “by trial and error, finding different people and meeting them and just eventually putting those two together”.
For Van Sant, part of the script’s appeal was the approach it takes to terminal illness. “It’s a relationship between two characters who meet, where the girl is pushing the relationship for some reason, that turns out to be that she doesn’t have long to live. And she needs to find somebody out of her
normal circle of friends and family, so she just grabs this guy, this stranger, and makes him her friend, which is coming from the reality of kids who have cancer. They often make a new friend like that, an odd new friend, because their family can’t handle the grief and the kids don’t want to sit around and grieve. They just want to have fun.
“There was a kid who was in Paranoid Park who had cancer. He was, like, 13, but he had cancer at eight. And there was also an art therapist who lived next door to our office, and he often was the guy the kids chose as the stranger friend, the new friend. And apart from my experience, Jason [Lew], the writer, his dad was a pediatric oncologist, so he was even more aware of this. To me that’s the cool main thing about the story. To Jason, he’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, this happens.’ I think it’s so ubiquitous to him because often it was his dad who was the friend of the child who had cancer, or it was Jason.”
Van Sant, who was a painter before switching to film, drew inspiration for the movie’s visual style from the work of 20th-century author/artist Edward Gorey, “because it was mirthful but it was also very dire. Mirthful direness.”
Watch the trailer for Restless.