An Interview with Gus Van SantJuxtapoz // Tuesday, 26 Apr 2011
Gus Van Sant
Interview and portrait by Joshua Blank
In the late 1980s Gus Van Sant began directing major motion pictures fascinated by that straddled the border of normal society. In Mala Noche, his first full-length film, examined the subject of underage gay prostitution. This theme was again reconsidered in his classic film My Own Private Idaho. Elephant presented a fictional version of the Columbine massacre with a perspective that was sympathetic to the antagonists, and Gerry, Last Days, and Paranoid Park completed his so-called “death trilogy.” In the midst of these counter-culture projects, Van Sant explored redemption in Good Will Hunting, and to some extent, Milk. For a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho he created the classic film scene by scene. Soon, Van Sant will release his newest project, Restless.
In his over twenty plus years of directing, Gus Van Sant has had the opportunity to oversee casting calls with many young actors who would later achieve stardom on the big screen. During these moments, he photographed actors with his Polaroid camera, producing a compendium of art works, capturing not only actors, but other friends such as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Three books of his Polaroids have been published and has exhibited as well.
I had the pleasure of meeting him on a cold and rainy morning at his home in Portland. We talked about his life, career and process. The following are excerpts from our conversation. —Joshua Blank
The following interview appeared in our March 2011 issue, n122. All photography by Gus Van Sant except otherwise noted.
Joshua Blank: How did your life change when you moved out here to Portland; can you compare it to where you lived before?
Gus Van Sant: Well, Darien, Connecticut was like a bedroom community. Even the downtown part was very quaint. Everyone there had business in NYC. All the fathers in the town either took the train or drove to work. Out here in Portland, there weren't really suburbs, although Oregon did have a few classic residential communities, too, but it was a small enough city, that there wasn't enough space for people to lose their families. Whereas in Darien, the families didn't seem to have a heritage or a family infrastructure. The grandparents were not around because everyone in Darien were sort of like corporate gypsies. The fathers had been transferring from city to city, and they just happened to bring their families to Darien. My parents moved away as soon as I got out of school because it was always their plan to just be there for the time being. When I moved out to Portland, all of a sudden I wasn't living in a suburb.
While in school, you started painting, but then switched your focus to film?
Yeah. When I was in Junior High school, I was painting because we had a really good art teacher who painted his own paintings in class. And there was a certain group of people that were like the art kids, who got attracted to this one teacher. I also had an English teacher who was showing us films from the Canadian Film Board. So, I had this film side. We would make films because some of the kids would get cameras and then we'd show them in class. I would actually make experimental films, but they were like the films that painters like Stan Brakhage made. You'd make a Stan Brakhage-like movie. You'd print on it, draw on it, paste moth wings on it. At the time, you are outside the city but influenced by what's going on in the city, which was this American Avant-Garde underground cinema revolution. Lots of people were shaped by the movement. Andy Warhol was greatly influenced by the movement, but there were others like Kenneth Anger, Stan Vanderbeek,the Kuchar Brothers, and Derek Jarman, after he made his first film, Jubilee, which was kind of trying to be too traditional, Jarman just tossed it and started shooting in Super 8 and made all of these amazing films like The Last of England. Later, I got to know him and he was telling me that he got his inspiration from the filmmakers in NYC in the early ‘60s.
I realized that being in the city at the time I could go to the anthology film archives in the MoMA and see some of the films. Each filmmaker had created their own language. You looked at Hollywood films, like even Citizen Kane, which was one of the best of the Hollywood films; they didn’t go as far as the experimental films, and as a kid that was very exciting.
Can you explain your characterization of Elephant being in the Dogme tradition?
Thomas Vinterberg told me about Dogme 95. He explained that they were collectivizing and creating this thing, and he explained some of the rules, which emphasized story and acting. Later when I saw The Celebration, which was the first Dogme film, I was mostly blown away by the way Anthony Dodd Mantle shot it. He was the guy who shot Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours.
Early on, I didn't have the finances to do my films any way other than Dogme. And doing Dogme films early on helped me learn to not allow the system to overtake me. Because if you don’t watch out as a filmmaker, and if you don’t set rules, then all of those rules will be handled by the props manager. And they'll end up setting the same rules that they used on their TV movie two weeks ago. Dogme was a good thing for a filmmaker, like me, who was running into films without of control crews. All of a sudden, you find yourself with a huge amount of equipment and the equipment getting in your way. After that realization I started to work small. The crews job is to be prepared, and if they don't know what you’re up to, they're going to over prepare. Part of it is the unions as well. They’re so used to adding unnecessary personnel. It wasn't until Gerry where I tried to get a small crew but it was almost impossible. I wanted five, and then I got twenty.
It was five when you shot Mala Noche?
There were actually just three, well four and then the actors. That’s because everything was for free. It was easy to have a small crew because we didn't need anyone and there weren't any paying jobs or unions. On Gerry, we started to have Dogme tenants and weren't going to use any lights. If we did use lights it was a campfire, or the work lights in the equipment truck or headlights from cars. We just started paring down and got rid of things we didn’t need. A lot of it was just taking the unions out of it.
The next film like that was Elephant. We would use lights in the school but it was different because we were also finding locations like Dogme locations, like Vinterburg’s case, where he had the hotel or the big house. With Gerry, we had one giant location that was Death Valley and in Elephant we had the school. We had numbers of crews but they all got lost in the classroom offices that they would make. The whole school was abandoned.
Is that school in Portland?
Torn down; they were about to tear it down because of mold. It looked like the school had abandoned itself, as if a nuclear bomb was about to hit. Everything was actually there, untouched, with basketballs in the gym. There was even a coach’s jacket with hall passes in it. We used the overhead lights sometimes and we really tried to use the window light. The next one with no lights was Last Days. If there was a lamp there, then we’d use the light from the lamp.
But when you had a budget, sometimes you’d make commercial films, like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester.
To Die For as well. It was a lower budget Sony film but it was commercial. The other films were conceived by me, I knew everybody and I hired the producer. In the case of To Die For the producers put it together, not me. It wasn't exactly a job we had written the script for, but we got in on it early. It was a studio picture. Good Will Hunting was Miramax, which was a small company. They had this script that suggested a certain type of film; you read it and it felt like a script that I had seen before, like a Robert Redford film or something. Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, and My Own Private Idaho, those three films were all non-commercial ideas. A film about a gay wino, grocery store clerk falling in love with a younger Mexican boy is just not something you’d see in a theater.
And it proved hard for you to show that film?
It was even hard to show at gay film festivals. It just didn’t have any place. Which is kind of why I did it. Same thing with Drugstore Cowboy, it wasn't the usual. It was written by someone who had lived the druggy life, It was like pulp fiction, but also authentic. Then My Own Private Idaho was like that, too. So, those three had something in common and then To Die For was a dark comedy. It wasn’t particularly a cozy movie, it didn’t fit anywhere. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was my attempt to make something that was commercial, but the whole transference of Tom Robbins to the screen was something the public wasn’t into. It was quite different than many of my films because it was my take on commercial filmmaking. I chose something that was hard, a screwball comedy, and that was the way I read Tom Robbins.
What I hadn’t done was something super straight and that was what Good Will Hunting suggested. Ben and Matt wrote it like straight American Cinema. The story was about someone who was enigmatic but also was flawed and needed help, a traditional story, which I liked a lot but had never considered doing. It was one movie of mine that made a lot of money, and it was intended to make a lot of money. The writers were writing it like all of their favorite films— there was even an action side to it. The idea was that Will Hunting was so smart that the government kept an eye on him, and monitored him because he would be a liability if anyone else got a hold of him. There were black cars always following him around and sometimes for fun, Will Hunting would try to ditch them and there would be these big action scenes.
Psycho was the result of Good Will Hunting. I could do whatever I wanted because Good Will Hunting made money. When you make money people invite you to do stuff. I had a choice of what to do, and I made something experimental. I was reacting against the general habit of people doing remakes. People would grave-rob the scripts from the ’50s and change the ending because the ending was too dark. I thought, why don’t I make an actual remake. For odd reasons, one of the things I was interested in was keeping Alfred Hitchcock’s hand alive, to try to keep the original in tact. For other people like academia and teachers at UCLA and executives in Hollywood they thought I was challenging Hitchcock, when in fact I was copying him.
Psycho looks more like one of your movies than Good Will Hunting.
Probably because I learned more from Hitchcock than I learned from ordinary people.
I was guessing you would say that with Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester you just made them so that you could fund your own movies.
No, I didn’t do that, but yeah, sometimes filmmakers do that. Good Will Hunting didn’t have any more promise than Cowgirls or To Die For or Drugstore Cowboy. It was a hypothetical script. It seemed warm and fuzzy. But warm and fuzzy don’t always pan out. The two actors had never been leads particularly. I embraced that but the studio wanted to get Brad Pitt in there instead of Matt Damon. They wanted Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio to play those rolls. In the end, they thought they couldn’t actually use Matt and Ben. Matt and Ben wouldn’t step aside, they were screamed at, offered money, but they wouldn’t give up. They were smart because it worked for them and now they're giant movie stars. This was their baby.
Weren't you also their choice?
Yeah, they wanted me. They dug my films. I knew Ben because his brother Casey was in To Die For. They just wanted it to happen more than anything. I think there were like 30 people who came and went, and I was one of them. Matt and Ben wanted to just go. And in the end, it all worked out. It was different and it wasn't like I was doing anyone a favor. For me, the one that I was really cashing in was Psycho. It didn't seem like I was selling out. Finding Forrester was a really good payday, but it was trying to see if I could go back into Good Will Hunting territory.
Did you want to go back to that Good Will Hunting territory?
Yeah because Finding Forrester read sort of like Hunting because it was warm and cozy and life affirming. It didn’t pan out to be a big hit but it did well. I decided that with Gerry I would just go small. I hadn’t made a small movie since Mala Noche.
You just had a book published, One Step Big Shot.
The book has 30 portraits. The guy who made this was aware of my old book, 108 Portraits, so he was trying to make a grouping of photographs that didn’t appear in 108 portraits. Like that one of Minnie Driver or Matt Damon. The 108 Portraits had been printed when I took that picture. The one of Ken Kesey, also in this book, was also in 108 Portraits.
So the stuff you showed with Andy Warhol in Eugene?
The one in Eugene with Warhol was one of these, yeah. It was the same curator, Larry Fong fromthe University of Oregon, Jordan Schnitzer Museum. There were Warhol’s photographs that were little SX70s he’d make prints of and put them next to the photo. He made a print of Mick Jagger. My side of the room were small Polaroids and then six blow-ups. They also showed a William Burroughs video where he was reading a poem and one for Allen Ginsberg that I had done, which was a video for one of the poems that he made into a song. That was really my first art show, which was last June. And then I showed at the PDX Gallery.
Did you ever expect to have a show of your photos?
Well yeah, I used that film, Polaroid 665. But all the films are discontinued, and after taking a few pictures of people I realized that if I used the film that had a negative, I would have a huge detailed negative and you could have a show. Actually, the Eugene show wasn’t my first; I did have a show at Jameson Thomas Gallery in 1993, which was quite extensive, their whole gallery filled with big blow-ups. I was meeting a lot of interesting people, and in the end, a lot of the people I shot in ’89 ended up being famous, like Noah Wyle, or John Cameron Mitchell. They were geeky 19-year-old kids trying to be actors who hadn’t gotten too far. So now, those photos are very interesting because these people who I shot are now more established.
I had the negatives and I had the little Polaroid print, which is not as detailed. I was trying different things, and I arrived at this way to print which was on a “comp maker color printer” which would print a little bit sepia, but acheive all the nuances and the grey areas that were being missed by the black and white print. I was in the process of making a book with Twin Palms. I was trying to make good prints for this book they were curating. I was making color prints for that reason; I used some of these prints for the show.
You do interviews, too, and you have interviewed quite a few people. You even interviewed Zac Efron from High School Musical. How did that come about?
They asked! I knew the people at Interview, so sometimes they’d ask me to do interviews. I did James Franco, Madonna and Zac Efron. James Franco I had worked with, but Zac I didn’t really know, but think I had said something good about him in “Variety” or someplace like that. Then Madonna, they just asked and I couldn’t say no!
So, you don’t consider yourself an interviewer as well?
No, I can do it, but the way I interview people is the same thing you’re doing, I just let them talk. I try and guide them, I mean keep them talking. I think that people want to talk. But I’ve been interviewed a bunch of times where the interviewers have an agenda. They want you to talk just about a certain thing, because they’ve already kind of written the article. So, it can be really stilting, because they can kind of signify that they are not happy with what you are saying.
My idea of interviews is that it doesn’t matter what the person is saying, as long as they are saying something and they are excited about it.
To get a copy of the March 2011 issue, featuring this interview and interviews with Emory Douglas, Jo Jackson, and ALex Lukas, click here.