By Iain Blair
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "Restless," the new film from Oscar-nominated "Milk" director Gus Van Sant tells a simple tale: boy meets girl, girl dies of cancer, boy mourns girl. But in Van Sant's hands, the film is anything but a sentimental four-hankie weeper.
Anchored by strong performances from Mia Wasikowska ("Alice in Wonderland") and newcomer Henry Hopper (son of Dennis Hopper), "Restless" hits theaters on Friday playing more like an intense adolescent romance than a tragedy.
Van Sant, whose credits include "Good Will Hunting," "Drugstore Cowboy," "My Own Private Idaho," "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," and "To Die For" spoke to Reuters about making the film and why he hates being photographed.
Q: This definitely has a touch of Romeo and Juliet and doomed young lovers about it. Was that the attraction for you?
A: "Yes, although I never thought of it as doomed love. It's more that her attraction to him is that she's trying to make the most of her last three months, so it's more about them falling in love and having fun until she goes, than wallowing in sadness with her family about the inevitable."
Q: This is Henry Hopper's first film. Were you worried that it was taking quite a risk casting him as the male lead?
A: "When you need an actor to convincingly play 17 (years-old), there aren't that many young stars out there -- just a handful. And there wasn't this big need to cast star names in this. Mia was already established and she was in "Jayne Eyre" and going to star in "Alice in Wonderland," and when I met Henry I knew he was just right for the part and for playing opposite Mia. So it wasn't a huge risk."
Q: Did you know he was Dennis Hopper's son when you met?
A: "I did, and I think he looks a lot like Dennis and he obviously inherited a lot of his acting genes."
Q: Mia and Dennis have great screen chemistry. Can you fake that as a director, or is it just a magical quality that's either there or not?
A: "It's a very elusive quality and something definitely happens on screen, but not even in front of your eyes. And it doesn't even mean that the people necessarily even get along. There's some great screen-chemistry couples that, in some cases, do not get along at all. So it's not a factor, whether they even like each other or not. It's that when they're on screen, something just happens between them, and you always hope for it but you can't control it or force it. And I've never cast for screen chemistry. I've always allowed the characters to just work their way into it. That said, I really feel that Mia and Henry do have it."
Q: Is it true that you often shoot scenes silently, without the dialogue?
A: "Yes, I started with 'Milk' when Sean Penn told me that Terry Malick worked that way. It's a very interesting way to shoot, with actors expressing everything but the words, and it gives you all this great footage you can edit together for reaction shots and so on."
Q: You've always liked period pieces, and this seems like another one, even though it's contemporary.
A: "You're right. Partly I think it's because it was set in Maine originally, and we moved it to Portland, Oregon, where I live, and both places are a little bit anachronistic already. The classic Maine character sounds like someone out of the '20s. And even though it's set today, the kids don't have computers, they're not on their cell phones all the time, he rides the bus, and they wear vintage clothing because it's just more affordable."
Q: Being based in Portland, do you ever feel outside the Hollywood loop?
A: "Not really. It's nice being based somewhere like Portland where you're outside the whole Hollywood scene. I've lived there a long time and it suits me."
Q: Ironically, even though you're a film director, you hate being photographed, right?
A: "It's true, and as I grow older I hate it more and more, as I don't think I look very good on camera. So it's a vanity thing." (laughs)
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)