Gus Van Sant, a descendant of Dutch emigrants, was born on July 24, 1952, in Louisville, Kentucky. He received education at the Rhode Island School of Design, worked as assistant to the “B-movie king” Roger Corman, and admired Stanley Kubrick’s films. He debuted as director and scriptwriter in 1985 by making, at his own expense, the black-and-white gay drama Mala Noche. Van Sant achieved his first success in 1989 after the film Drugstore Cowboy starring Matt Dillon, and My Own Private Idaho (1991) with the superb Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix made Van Sant almost a living classic.
He also excels in photography, music (two albums under his belt), and prose writing. As for cinema, Van Sant managed until a certain period to combine working in Hollywood with making low-budget auteur projects, the latter being, as a rule, more successful.
In the thriller Elephant (2003), Van Sant’s peak achievement, there are no stars, teenagers play themselves, and most of their dialogs are improvised. It is a nonlinear narrative film based on the Columbine High School massacre, but it deals not so much with violence as with a distorted perception of oneself and others, the break of ties among people, which leads to murders. Elephant won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
In general, Van Sant’s talent is particularly conspicuous in two things: accurate choice of actors and the ability to maintain tension in the story even if it is about the routine of a mathematics college (Good Will Hunting, 1997) or the wandering of unlucky tourists (Gerry, 2002).
Gus Van Sant’s new film Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. After the premiere, the director answered the questions of the press and the audience.
Please tell us about yourself as a teenager. What kind of a boy were you?
“Very sheltered. My family moved around. My father was a traveling salesman, so he sort of worked his way up the company ladder.”
Who did you associate yourself with, say, in the film Elephant? With which group of schoolchildren? With nerds or cool guys?
“The secrets. I was, I think, all of them at some point.”
You finally went to the Rhode Island School of Design, where you studied painting, but then you changed you major to cinema. Why?
“In the community Darien, there was very influential art teacher named Richard Levine. He would be painting while we were in class, we saw him painting, and it made us want to do what he was doing. Meanwhile, there was another teacher David Sone, who was an English teacher, but he was very into showing us short films, he showed us Citizen Kane of all things. And similarly all the kids were making short films. I did eventually make one, but when we would tell the art teacher this, he would say ‘What are those art films?’ He was very jealous of the English teacher, because he was moving into his territory, but both teachers were very influential, and so I was doing both things – painting and filmmaking. And the New York underground cinema was happening. Jonas Mekas and like all the underground filmmakers were at their height right then, they were making a lot of films.”
So you left the school and took up internship?
“I didn’t skip school, but eventually, when I was working in New York as a summer job at 16, and I would go to the Anthology Film Archives or to the Museum of Modern Art and see a lot of these filmmakers, that were making things with their friends, like Jack Smith or Ron Rice or Jonas himself, I think eventually Warhol was making things.”
Then you ran away from home and set out to Hollywood. Like in Scott’s novels – a boy from a wealthy urban area in search of adventures.
“Oh, no, no. Well, that was the Scott favor based on a Shakespeare character Prince Hal.”
Is it at that time that you discovered characters who eventually became heroes of the film My Own Private Idaho?
It was like an explosion of a new variety of cinema for me, as if avant-garde collided with mainstream.
“Yeah, I think it was coming directly from those filmmakers I was watching in New York and also it was something we were doing in the editing room. We had the whole bunch of different things that we had shot, intending it to be something other than we sort of ended up, we sort of didn’t finish the shooting so we were using the shots in a different fashion than were in the screenplay. It was a draft, that was taking many different drafts and sort of boiling them down into one draft, which was actually quite short, but it had all these different elements from the different drafts – elements of probably Samuel Beckett and Sam Sheppard in the story and even Shakespeare. I was definitely doing whatever I wanted to do at that moment.”
What kind of scripts do you prefer?
“In the end I’ve figured, it’s always a little more rewarding to actually write the screenplay yourself. After having done many different things and worked with lots of different outside screenplays that came from elsewhere, I think the ones that I’m writing myself are far more solid.”
And what about the process? For when you were making Gerry and Elephant, you cast performers with certain traits of character and modified scripts together with them, making dialogs. It looks more like a theatrical production.
“There were different ideas that came at different times. The Gerry being the first one was actually the later concept. We decided to do it very inexpensively, but it turned into something that was a little bigger, but we were going to use just handheld video cameras and go into the desert and make this piece. Casey Affleck and Matt Damon [co-scriptwriters and leading actors. – Author] were improving ideas, scenes basically, and I was writing down the concepts and we were actually typing the script at one point, which we kind of left behind.”
“It was used to start fires in the cabin, that we were renting, because we needed a favor and we inadvertently had actually burned the script – the one that we had been thinking was on the computer, but the computed jammed so it was a whole story… Elephant being the next one was based on the Columbine High school attack. I wrote a piece that was about 10 pages long and then the dialog was improved by those kids. We just would tell them to talk about what, you know, would maybe give them something to talk about and they would just go.”
What exactly do you search for in actors?
“I’m usually trying to find somebody who’s going to best represent character. I think one of the most interesting examples on this new movie Don’t Worry... is Beth Ditto, who was a singer with the Gossip. When she came into a casting session she wasn’t really able to do a traditional reading of the lines with another person, but when she was talking off the cuff, just talking to you or even talking as a character, she was amazing. So I think I’m usually looking for people who can become the character, whether they’re trained to do that or not.”
In the drama To Die For, you seem to have drawn Nicole Kidman out of her customary image. Do you often work like this, choosing opposite-type people?
“I mean sometimes if you cast against type, it seems like it comes alive. In the case of Nicole, we were thinking about using another actress, but she was busy and Nicole called me directly and said, ‘I know you don’t want me for this role, but I’m destined to play this part.’ And I thought like ‘destined...’”
Yes, this word also stirred me.
“I tried to say, ‘No, it’s not that we don’t want you’ and she goes, ‘Look, I know you don’t want me,’ so she started bulling me and I thought, maybe she would be really good, so after the end of the call, I decided she should play the role. It seemed like she had already done the homework, put a lot of time and energy into working into that character.”
Speaking of celebrities again, how come you decided to involve William Burroughs [legendary American writer. – Author] as an actor?
“Burroughs was a part of a story of Drugstore Cowboy – a story written by James Fogle, who was a lifetime robber and drug addict and he wrote a story based on his friends and his adventures during the period of time they weren’t in jail. We visited them in jail and there was a character named Old Tom that we just thought Burroughs would be perfect for. I had made a short film using one of his short stories so I had met him and I was in touch with him and his assistant. I offered him a role and he said he would do it, but requested to shoot everything in one day. So we shot all of his scenes, which were like seven scenes in one day, and he also renamed Old Tom as Tom the Priest and he added all the priest’ things and with his assistant rewrote all of his dialogs.”
So you did not write this?
“Yeah, a lot of the things that he’s saying, he’s written them himself.”
A FLYING HOUSE
You are an overt admirer of the old school of special effects: the house that flies like in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz falls in My Own Private Idaho and in Drugstore Cowboy. Do you like to see clumsy objects, things from a different epoch, fly across the sky?
“The clouds and things floating and the houses crashing were things that I painted in my first year in Rhode Island School of Design. I was thinking of majoring in painting, and I kind of bailed, because the senior painting students coming back from their attempts to get a show in New York were so discouraging, I thought maybe I should major in something else. Film was another attractive thing for me. But at that time I was painting things flying in the sky and houses crashing into a road, so they came directly from the paintings.”
We did not want to release them.
“Yeah, they were in my past, they were something that I relate to roads. House crashing, is possibly just like me as six-year-old being told that we were moving from our house, I didn’t know what that meant. It was very strange and shocking and disturbing idea.”
The characters of many of your films are young people, teenagers. Whence is such love for this age category?
“I’m asked that question a lot and I can never really answer it, because I don’t really think I’m aiming towards that age group. It’s an age of discovering and so you’re working with characters that sort of learn something during the story. But I’m not quite positive.”
Maybe, it is connected with the period of your reticence?
“Yes, I may have stuck in teen age.”
Many new cinema platforms have come up now. Do you think they are ruining the way we watch films?
“It’s a big question because all is ending up online. And I really think that a place like this hall here – is really a nice way to actually see something together in a big group. But everything is on your phone now, the technology has changed and changed maybe for the worse, like the way you watch a film.”
So you would like a large group of people to watch films in a place like this?
“I mean there’s a lot of value in seeing it together as a group, just because it’s a group, it’s a meeting place. I might be old-fashioned.”