Gus Van Sant: Swimming Against the Current

Graham Fuller interviews Gus Van Sant.

The following interview with Gus Van Sant mostly took place at his rented apartment near Castro Street in San Francisco in April 1993. Van Sant had located himself there in order to begin pre-production on The Mayor of Castro Street, a film adaptation of Randy Shilts's biography of Harvey Milk, the city supervisor whose 1978 assassination (alongside that of Mayor George Moscone) made him a martyr for gay rights. Shortly after we talked, Van Sant quietly withdrew from the project, unwilling to direct the version of the script that Oliver Stone and his fellow producers wished to make.

Van Sant was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1952, the son of middle-class parents, Betty and Gus Van Sant Sr., a travelling salesman who became a sportswear and women's clothing company executive. The family moved to Darien, Connecticut, and then to Portland, where Van Sant attended the progressive Catlin Gabel School before enrolling as a film major at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1976, after spending some time in Europe, he moved to Los Angeles, joining the Paramount-based staff of writer/director Ken Shapiro, who had spun a cult movie from hit TV show The Groove Tube. Having directed a short, The Discipline of DE, which was shown at the New York Film Festival, Van Sant was encouraged by Shapiro to circumvent the Hollywood machinery and raise independent money for his own projects, and in 1981, supported by his father, he directed his first feature, Alice in Hollywood. A screwball comedy about a would-be Hollywood starlet who does time on Sunset Boulevard before she makes it on TV, it was neither completed nor released and, disappointed, Van Sant returned to the East Coast. He worked in a warehouse and then with a Manhattan ad agency, writing scripts in his spare time. The money he saved enabled him to finance Mala Noche, based on a novella by Walt Curtis, an underground poet in Portland.

GRAHAM FULLER: What was it about Walt Curtis's novel that appealed to you?

GUS VAN SANT: In 1977 I had gone up to Portland to work on this film, Property, directed by Penny Allen. I was the sound man. One of the lead actors was Walt Curtis. He had, along with Mississippi Mud, a non-profit organization, printed this book called Mala Noche. It was Walt's first semi-novel; it was like a journal, in a way, one of the few prose things that he had written. I was writing a few things at the time but I thought Mala Noche was better than anything I was writing, and I knew that Walt would probably let me film his novella. Also, I could go back to Portland, which is where I wanted to live. There was a small film community there with one or two cameras floating around and some aspiring filmmakers who I could probably get to help me out.

I thought Mala Noche was the kind of story that Hollywood wouldn't ever make and it was my new philosophy that my next project should be something they wouldn't ever make. That way you could keep it pure, simply in terms of the subject matter.

GF: Were you consciously setting out to tell a story of unrequited gay love, or was it just unrequited love?

GVS: No, it was unrequited gay love for sure. But I thought that if it was a good movie, it would relate to anybody - not solely to a gay audience. I had seen some gay films in Hollywood before I had left and had been to a gay film festival in New York. I witnessed how basic the films were at those festivals, and how there was a large audience that came to see them but there wasn't really any product, not even in low-budget films. Taxi Zum Klo came out before I made Mala Noche, and I think it was really the first independent film about gay life that did well in the regular marketplace. I remember that being a cue that I could maybe film Walt's story and get my money back...

GF: [In Mala Noche], Pepper, in that macho Chicano way, doesn't want to acknowledge that he's having sex with a man. In a similar sense, nor does Scott in My Own Private Idaho fully embrace it. Isn't Pepper in some ways the blueprint for Scott in an early version of the script you wrote for Idaho?

GVS: I guess they're similar characters. I think the origins of Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho were John Rechy's novel City of Night, which had characters who admitted to being street hustlers but not to being gay - there was something about taking money for sex that validated that. After Pepper spent the night with Walt [played by Tim Streeter], he stole ten dollars. Certainly there was this whole machismo kind of thing going on, since he was from Mexico. In Scott's case, in My Own Private Idaho, I was fashioning those characters after people that I had met in Portland who are street hustlers; the same things that were in the characters in John Rechy's book existed within them. I wanted to expose that side. I don't know if it came out of Mala Noche. I think it came out of the paradox of people having sex with someone of the same sex yet refusing the label that this gave them

GF: Where does your affinity for street kids and junkies and hustlers come from and why do you seek to tell their stories? Is that in any way a reaction to your own middle-class upbringing?

GVS: It's certainly very much apart from my own upbringing. I think it's that Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, and My Own Private Idaho had settings that were unfamiliar enough to me that they seemed like fairytale land. In the case of Mala Noche, it was a land of transients and loggers and winos in a grocery on Skid Row. In Drugstore Cowboy, it was a land of holdup men and drug addicts. Then in Idaho, it was a land of homeless kids who sold themselves for money on the streets. All three of them are close to each other, but far away from the public, from the viewers, in the sense that Star Wars or pirate adventures are far away from them. It's a storyteller's technique to remove you from everyday life into a new area, so parables can be had.

GF: When you do shots like the magnified close-up of the printing on the light bulb in Drugstore Cowboy is that stuff that happens extemporaneously?

GVS: No, I had done that sort of thing in Mala Noche and I was hoping to do it again in Drugstore Cowboy. We never had time during shooting so we did them while we were editing. We chose specific places in the film where those close-ups would appear and then we got props and actually shot them in the editing room. That light bulb was from the editing table lamp!

A lot of people think it works well in the film because a drug addict might focus on something that small, a light bulb or a match or something like that, and just stare at it, which is true, actually. It was a stylistic device that I'd been playing with since I started photographing objects in the sixties. I remember buying bellows for my camera so that I could shoot things extremely close up. In my high school year book in Portland there're two pages of photographs of things that are so close you can't really tell what they are. There are things in my other films that relate to visual motifs that I've used. For example, the barn crashing into the road in Idaho was a motif that I had painted pictures of for about ten years...

GF: Do you rehearse each scene as it comes up, or do you rehearse the whole film first?

GVS: I usually have a rehearsal period where we read through the script and do some scenes. But things are locked down when we actually shoot them, so it doesn't help to get too specific before that. Generally we rehearse on the set.

GF: The best-known example is the fireside scene in Idaho, which was pretty much improvised by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves.

GVS: Yeah, they did that themselves. It was a short, three-page scene that River turned into more like an eight-page scene. He added a lot of things and changed the fabric of his character in that scene. He's a songwriter and he worked on it like he does one of his songs, which is very furiously. He had decided that that scene was his character's main scene and, with Keanu's permission, he wrote it out to say something that it wasn't already saying - that his character, Mike, has a crush on Scott and is unable to express it - which wasn't in the script at all. It was his explanation of his character.

GF: Idaho's central theme is the search for family, specifically, Mike's quest for his mother and Scott's for a father figure. The movie is dense with references to family.

GVS: All the stories that I have done so far have had some sort of family metaphor. In Alice In Hollywood, the girl falls in with a family of people on the street. In Mala Noche, Walt and Pepper form a couple that's more like a father-son relationship, and in Drugstore Cowboy, it's like a drug family. In Idaho, it's a street family again with Bob as the father figure, but it's a displaced, temporary family. The film's about why Mike's on the street - because his real family didn't work. In Scott's case, he has a very rigid family order which is cueing off of Henry IV. The reason Prince Hal is running around the villages around the castle is because it's his last chance to do that before he has to accept the responsibility of being king - the same with Scott as the mayor's son. Mike's family is cueing off of this Sam Shepard-like family that is eating away at itself.

GF: Where does all this come from? It is something that you just find affecting, or is it a personal obsession?

GVS: It's probably a personal thing. Families are interesting stuff. The dynamics of whatever kind of family you have is an orientation that you apply to the outside world. Even the Harvey Milk project was about finding a new family, the Castro Street community being a family of like-minded men who had a new style of relating to one another and had sexual relationships with one another. This was a very clear bond in the new Castro Street of 1975. Almost everything that I have considered doing has some sort of family theme, but you could probably say that about a lot of films.

GF: [All your films seem to have] a ritual sacrifice in which someone dies. It was Pepper in Mala Noche, Nadine in Drugstore Cowboy, Scott's father and Bob in My Own Private Idaho, and now Bonanza Jellybean in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. This would have obviously continued if you'd done the Harvey Milk film, The Mayor of Castro Street.

GVS: Maybe in writing something where you are trying to explore the extremes of certain situations, sometimes the characters that die provoke the other characters that remain alive to change, and often it's meant to do that...

Harvey Milk's dying was one of the things that made them think about making that movie originally. Maybe it's similar to the deaths in the other films, but the way I would have done it would have been to show him as a martyr for the gay movement. He became stronger, and the movement became stronger, because of his assassination. I would have had him as a larger, straight-on hero than the characters in the other films who are more like anti-heroes.

This is an abridgement of an interview that formed the introduction to the screenplays Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and My Own Private Idaho, as published by Faber and Faber in 1995.