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||I'd never met a film director before, so when index asked me to interview Gus Van Sant I was intrigued. I'd seen all Gus's films, had liked them, and felt that he was working in a way that seemed connected with the more personal film-makers of the past, like Truffaut or Fassbinder, and with ideas about how film can be art, the way modernist art is art. Gus had been an art student at the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1970s and had moved into film-making with a new generation's attitudes toward film and the interrelation of the arts. I was curious about how these things would combine with his increasing prominence and status as a Hollywood director, particularly after the success of To Die For.
Last May, my wife Jeannette and I flew down to Portland from Vancouver for a day, and took a cab to Gus's house in what the driver called the 'tony' part of town. Gus lives in a pretty large house which is filled with film-making and photographic equipment, books and pictures, sculptures and mementos, including some of his own art works, collages from high school art classes. He seems sort of 'cocooned' in his work and his past. He is very easy to talk to, friendly, amusing, and polite, and so our conversation went on probably way too long, filling up three 100-minute tapes.
After lunch he unrolled some of his photos, some shot on the sets of his films, some other things done in the casual, snapshot style that has become so dominant in the past few years. I knew only his book 101 Portraits, so it was interesting to see other photographic work.
At around six, we had to leave to catch our flight home, but had time to stop at Powell's bookstore, one of the biggest in America and a Portland institution. Jeannette got The Garden Makers by George Plumptre, and I got a used copy of James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
JEFF: After studying experimental film in the early to mid '70s, you went back to the codes of the classic cinema.
GUS: Well I tried to figure out what they were.
JEFF: To relearn them?
GUS: Just learn them because I didn't know them. It became more of a social investigation as opposed to what started out as a visual experiment. I got absorbed in the Hollywood notion of what a film is, the definition of a film ...
JEFF: As a Hollywood notion? Narrative film?
GUS: Yeah, narrative, but ... I think it was a result of showing my films to an audience. When you talk about two different types of film, there are two different types of audiences. One is an audience appreciative of a visual film experiment and the history of it. Like in an art school environment, which is where I was showing my first films. We had one project to make a film that was supposed to be three minutes, and it was supposed to take a whole half year to make. I made a film that I thought was experimental. It was a sort of deconstruction of a joke that didn't work, a stand-up comedy joke that I heard a guy tell at work, and nobody laughed. I was working on a dock at this chemical company in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where the people were really, really funny, like Brooklynites, or something ...
JEFF: You staged the story?
GUS: I staged it. So I made this film and I showed it to the class, to this really large audience at the end of the year, and it totally brought the house down. And so with the audience response, I started to get interested in that, as opposed to 'I don't care what the audience thinks because this is my piece of work,' which is where I think I was coming from.
JEFF: Your first film was Mala Noche, in '84.
GUS: Which came at a time in American cinema when there was no such thing as a gay film. There were foreign films that had gay characters and gay themes to them, but the American cinema never did.
JEFF: Well, they did it in a swish way with minor characters.
GUS: There were gay festivals where you'd see seven or eight Tennessee Williams films, a Dutch film, an Australian film, but I don't remember ever seeing an American film unless it was an upper scale gay porno film, something like that.
GUS: Yeah. It sells tickets too. And so I'm thinking, all right, this is a good thing. I had this book by Walt Curtis, and it was a story I really wanted to make myself. I really liked the characters, the sort of desperateness about the lead character. Then to top off the whole thing, I had this out which was, if all else fails, I'll still have an audience because there's no competition.
JEFF: You'd always have the gay festival audience ... But even if he weren't gay, this is a character that rarely appears in an American film. There are a lot of things you felt about that guy.
GUS: There was just something about this obsession that pretty much across the board people could relate to, whether gay of not.
JEFF: You made it here in Portland?
GUS: I made it here. It took about a year and a half plus another year and a half to earn the money. I was working in advertising, and each month I made, like, a thousand more dollars, and I was thinking, wow, now I have $5,000, I can probably go and make this film. But if I wait just a few more months, I'll have a few more thousand dollars. It just went on and on until I finally had $20,000, and I thought, I have to get out of here. $20,000 is probably enough. I was getting obsessed by how much money it was going to cost to make the film. The longer I stayed, the bigger the film became because I had more money in the bank.
JEFF: Infinite regress.
GUS: And it was my last chance. I was turning thirty. I was quite old as far as getting somewhere and doing something where you actually make a living at it. I figured I'd give myself 'til I was forty-five.
JEFF: It took a year and a half to make the film?
GUS: The problem was that the lead character, Johnny, was an Hispanic character. He was like sixteen, and you could find kids that were interested, but when it came to actually being in the film, it was like something they just didn't want to do because it was a gay attraction.
JEFF: Why was that?
GUS: Mostly because of the reverence for cinema in Mexican culture. You know, it's like the church. So you wouldn't make a film about it because films are films. So you can see what the problem was. It took awhile to cast. I went out to work camps and tried to find a real character. The person that played Johnny was a South American Indian. So he looked quite Mexican. After that the shooting took a month - not too long - but the editing took a whole year.
JEFF: Your next film, Drugstore Cowboy, was a very realistic story.
GUS: The story was written by a guy who spent most of his time in prison. He was fifty-four when I found the story. He had been in and out of prison since he was thirteen, and since we made the movie, he's been in and out of prison twice again.
JEFF: What Matt Dillon did in that film was very striking. In some ways I guess it changed his whole way of being an actor. Did you very consciously decide that you wanted to work with movie stars?
GUS: I saw Rumblefish at the New York Film Festival. It was the same year that I made Mala Noche. And there's a lot of things in Rumblefish that really influenced Mala Noche. So Matt was the lead in Rumblefish, and there was stuff in the New York press like, all he says is "fuck," and you can't hear him, and he's no Brando, that kind of stuff. But I was a fan of his, and I thought, well, I think he's a good actor and I hope I can work with him. When Drugstore Cowboy came along, we got the kind of money where you might talk to a star. So we were allowing ourselves the extravagance of deciding who we wanted, and we avoided Jack Nicholson because we assumed, which we probably shouldn't have, that he would never return phone calls.
Matt had seen Mala Noche and he said, this is great, this is like a new 1988 underground movie maker. So after he read the script, he really dug it and he instantly committed to doing the film.
The opportunity to work with somebody like Matt was really a fantasy more than anything else. But it was also distracting because you were handling not only an actor, but you were handling his career. The character in Drugstore Cowboy was supposed to be forty. He wasn't supposed to be twenty-six. We used Matt because he was a good representation of the character.
We changed the age of the guy in Mala Noche too. He was supposed to be thirty-six, but the guy who plays him is twenty-five. I wanted to make the relationship less lecherous than it already was, so it's not about this thirty-six-year-old guy going after a sixteen-year-old-boy.
JEFF: That probably helps the story.
GUS: Yeah. We thought it made it better as far as having them sort of bonding. It made it less lecherous. Although I'm not sure why a thirty-six-year-old interested in a sixteen-year-old is lecherous, but that's the way it is. Generational relationships are always viewed as lecherous.
JEFF: Matt's an old timer, and he's only a young person. Your films seem to have a special relation with a new, young generation of Hollywood actors and stars, like Keanu Reeves, River Phoenix, or Uma Thurman. How do you see that?
GUS: You mean outside their image? Well, being young they were sort of into the alternative cinema of the day.
JEFF: Like Stranger Than Paradise, for example?
GUS: Yeah, that particular film made it really super cool. And Matt was like Mr. New Wave at the time. So here he finds a film-maker who's making the kind of cinema that actors of his generation would actually want to make themselves if they were film-makers. The same could be said with Keanu Reeves later.
JEFF: Matt's image was like a teen star. It seems that with each film, the semiotics of the casting gets more complex, leading up to To Die For, with Nicole Kidman.
GUS: It was kind of like, all of a sudden I was a Hollywood film-maker, and being presented with these options was very interesting. I'm thinking, well, I can get these people, they want to be in my movie. That's weird, because I was used to begging the guy who's my waiter in the restaurant to be in my movie. I was used to working with people who weren't even actors. So, the idea that a movie star wanted to be in my movie was sort of shocking. Then, you find yourself also rallying around the idea that it's going to help people identify with the movie.
People are more willing to continue the process of making a movie through thick or thin when they have a light at the end of the tunnel - which is the star that's driving it. It's like they can imagine the marquee and they can see the people going into the theater, and the marquee says, "Starring Matt Dillon." But if it's some unknown person, they can't see the marquee.
JEFF: Do you think that changed your style?
GUS: No, it didn't really affect the way I dealt with the film.
JEFF: Did it change the deeper meaning of your films in certain ways that you can't control?
GUS: The thing that really changed the way I was able to make a film was the crew.
In Mala Noche I was able to place the camera, and I'd say, okay, rehearse, rehearse, and then I'd say, okay let's go, and sometimes the cameraman would say, hey, wait a minute, I haven't even focused yet, and I'd say, okay, focus. I'd go, like, take one, and they'd do the line, and I'd go, okay, let's move on. I would be basically running the show, and we'd get ninety-five shots in a day. We were just moving the camera wherever we wanted.
But in Drugstore Cowboy, it was like forty-five minutes to set the lights and everything, and I couldn't believe it. And it totally changed my intentions. And the actors were also used to doing more than one take. That was another thing that sort of slowed things down. They were used to getting comfortable with it, you know, instead of like, okay, that's good enough.
JEFF: In My Own Private Idaho the people are also outlaws. They are glamorized and you sympathize with them. They're human, they're victims, they have validity in their lawlessness. But in your story the Scott Favor character reconciles himself with his father's world, becomes a man with a wife, and returns to a straight life. The interpretation I take from your film is that it involves a certain form of betrayal, a betrayal of feelings, which is legitimate.
GUS: Well, there are two lives that are close for a time when it's beneficial to each one of them, and it falls apart when it's not. It's a street relationship. As long as these two characters are in need of each other, they're together, until that's no longer so and they split apart. It's a natural thing. Keanu Reeve's character is modeled on Prince Hal, it really comes out of Shakespeare, all this stuff with his father and taking over after he dies. And he warned them, he even said it, if somewhat to himself, that when he's older, he'll change. This was also my own interpretation of what I thought was one of the by-products of life on the street, which could be applied to life not on the street as well. I don't feel that he's betrayed his friend. He's assuming his father's identity and he's not going to have any fun. They take two separate paths.
JEFF: But to me, the unconventional thing was to permit the betrayer, the prince's path, which is coldness, calculation, self-interest, sovereignty, and power, to be seen as valid, not as some kind of cartoon of the straight life. I would say that there are two powerful identifications, one with the father, one with the child, and both exist in conflict.
GUS: When you're making a piece of work, hopefully, you're not really conscious of any particular thing that you're saying, but as many as you can possibly fathom.
JEFF: I'd like to talk about your experience with Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
GUS: I had read it in the '70s, and it was just one of my favorite books. It was sort of the first hippie novel even though there was Brautigan.
JEFF: Did you think it was interesting because it was a new generation's attempt to do an allegory of America, a comic allegory of America?
GUS: There were lots of things that attracted me to it - the voice of the characters, the belief system of the author expressed through the characters, the story. And I suppose it was the ideology of the '60s generation that has always stuck with me.
JEFF: Do you think that the ideology of your generation has changed over time?
GUS: It's become viewed as irresponsible and incorrect.
JEFF: Were you thinking that the politics of that time could be or should be allegorized now?
GUS: Well, there wasn't really a timing issue. I mean I would have done the movie in 1977 if I could. I still related to it the same way I always did, maybe because I hadn't changed, and I never felt that the direction of the '60s generation was misleading.
JEFF: So here's a boring question you have to answer. What do you think happened to it? It's the only movie you've made that wasn't successful.
GUS: Right. Well, it wasn't working early on in the festivals, and the film company said we'd like you to work on it some more, put some other music in, some other songs ... But I said, that's not going to fix anything. If you want to fix it, you really have to get in there and change it. And my editor who's cut all of my movies, the same guy from Drugstore until now, was working on something else at the time. So I had to do it myself. And my cut was really quite different from his, but it didn't seem to affect the audience any differently.
JEFF: Do you think the material's not cued to your sensibility?
GUS: It could be for a lot of different reasons. Could be people's interpretation of the era, although I tend to think that it's the dramatics of the film that aren't working more than any political interpretation of the '60s. I remember when I first showed Mala Noche to my friends, they said, 'well, I guess it's a movie,' like they just weren't into it. But then eventually people liked it, people got behind it. And it was the same with Drugstore. Everyone just thought it was a really big mess, which I didn't really understand, but I thought, okay, well, it's a mess. We assumed it would open and close in one week and that would be it. But it had a life. People got into it.
So with all the movies, basically, I've been in a position where I was watching them go down the drain, and they were just about to open and everybody had said, you know, nice try, but then they took off, they flew. Cowgirls was the same way, but then it just ... never flew.
JEFF: It's pretty striking that your first three films focus on men - some straight, some gay, so it's all very open, and clear - but then in Cowgirls the character has a kind of androgynous aspect to her, but still it's female. And I guess she's sort of a lesbian character.
GUS: She's sort of searching ...
JEFF: But it's definitely a woman, and then in To Die For it's clearly a woman. Does it mean anything to you whether the main character is a female character or a male character?
GUS: It's crossed my mind, but I don't really think that there are rules in my interpretation of characters.
JEFF: But Cowgirls is so focused on the main character that it would be a different film if it were a man's story or a woman's story.
GUS: Yeah, and Hollywood favors male lead characters. So it's sort of a departure which I really enjoy.
JEFF: To Die For seems much more implicated in Hollywood stereotypes of women's roles.
G.V.S. I think that's true. To Die For was a stereotype. But Cowgirls wasn't, and that was something that was really inviting.
JEFF: In To Die For all the characters are much more codified according to very well-known relations, you know, the dopey husband, the femme fatale who gets her way, the teenage delinquents who fall under her spell, and so on.
GUS: We had the book by Joyce Maynard who knew the character of Susan Stone extremely well, and Buck Henry, who wrote the script, had written The Graduate. So he knew the territory of the older housewife that seduces the young kid in high school. And it's probably Buck's favorite genre because he imagines himself as the young guy.
And it was my first studio picture so I always assumed that they wanted a certain kind of movie. It's more like entertainment. Everyone can relate to this kind of situation. But the thing that really draws you in is that the wrong people got married. And the fact that she sleeps with someone else is also a standard, but it's also kind of cracked because it's with a young kid. It's not like she's sleeping with the dentist.
JEFF: In terms of more mainstream film, it's still a little bit on the edge.
GUS: I think it's Buck doing that. He's pretty much fascinated with media. He constructed this really intricate web of times, and points of view, with the documentary camera crew, the television show, the testimonials which ended up on tape. He gave you a sense of the reporters following the trial and getting at the story. And it also commented on the exploitational value of the actual case with the international press descending on the Pamela Smart trial.
JEFF: I think of you as an auteur, or as someone showing some affinity with what an auteur was, or is. Do you think that role, and that kind of film-making is still viable today?
GUS: Well there is such a thing as an auteur. What it means is somebody who can handle every aspect of the making of a film - he can write it, do the photography, act in it, direct it, edit, and do the sound.
JEFF: I think an auteur is also identified as someone who knows what films to make, rather than making whatever film becomes possible in a business sense. With Bergman of Fassbinder, for example, we see people who managed to build a body of work that really could be looked at cohesively, and repeatedly. I feel you strongly relate to that.
GUS: With Mala Noche, there weren't very many people that actually believed in it. There was the guy playing the lead character, who just thought okay, you don't know what you're doing, but I guess it'll be good practice for me. That was his attitude. Then, you had your best friends thinking, well, I don't know if there's much of a story there. I don't think it will make a very good movie. And then the author of the book saying, you don't know this life that I've lead, so how can you possibly get it together? Essentially I didn't really have any kind of agreement, nobody was agreeing with me. That's a form of auteurship. You're just struggling to make the film against all odds, and you're the only one that believes in something until it's actually out there.