PUSHING THE MEDIUM
My Own Private Dialogue with Director GUS VAN SANT
By Tyler Malone
Great artists are often those who push their respective mediums into new directions, questioning, through technique and tropology, that which came before. They needn’t necessarily invent whole new ways of thinking about or experiencing art, but it is important that they slightly fray the edges of the tapestry that makes up the “canon” of their artistic discipline.
When I spoke with director Gus Van Sant, I was pleased to learn that this concept of pushing the boundaries of cinema was an idea that was on his mind. Whether he makes big Hollywood movies or small indie films, Van Sant as artist is always interested in the “art” of cinema.
While Van Sant certainly has some stylistic idiosyncrasies which the discerning viewer can pick up on from film to film, the uninitiated might find it surprising to realize that the same guy who made My Own Private Idaho went on to make Finding Forrester, and that the guy who made Milk had made Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
His resume is long and impressive: Drugstore Cowboy was his early critical success, Good Will Hunting his biggest from a commercial standpoint, but later it was the small film Elephant which won him the coveted Palme d’Or (the top prize at Cannes).
Some of Gus Van Sant’s films, admittedly, work better than others–some are praised, some are not–but most critics can agree that his films are always interesting, the work of a true auteur. For someone with such a varied career, I was surprised to discover the endearing fact that Van Sant claims he loves all his films equally–though he has no pretense that they’ll last forever. Celluloid isn’t stone, and digital files even less so.
Tyler Malone: Ever since I visited Thomas Jefferson’s grave at Monticello a number of years ago, and the glaring omission in his epitaph was pointed out to me, I’ve been intrigued by what great people and great artists want to be remembered for. (Jefferson doesn’t mention his presidency, nor any accomplishment he achieved during it, on his gravestone–just that he authored the Declaration of Independence and the Statute for Religious Freedom in Virginia as well as that he founded the University of Virginia.) Do you have a film or a few films that you really want to be remembered for? Ones you personally think stand above the rest regardless of whether or not they’re the ones that get the most critical or popular acclaim?
Gus Van Sant: I like all of them, so I don’t really have any things that I want to stand out. I always figure that the things that remain, if they are like tombstones, will be things like car keys, or ripped shirts, probably not films of mine. Maybe a few frames of one of them, but judging by what we have left over from the past, most of it is made of stone, so film probably will not last.
TM: You’ve made big Hollywood films and small independent films, and continue to kind of vacillate between the two worlds. Do you prefer one or the other? And what do you think is the benefit of being able to move between the two?
GVS: Some of them are made in collaboration with others, which are the Hollywood ones, then the other ones are coming from me alone, and those are the smaller less Hollywood ones. I haven’t yet made a really big Hollywood film on purpose, but that’s what I’d like to do next if I can.
TM: In addition to being a filmmaker, you’re also an accomplished painter. How does your painting influence your filmmaking? And vice versa?
GVS: I guess it relates in a visual way. I have in the past taken images from the paintings, like the barn crash in My Own Private Idaho is from a painting, or floating images in Drugstore Cowboy are also from paintings. But there isn’t too much of a relationship, at least that I know of…
TM: I know you’re friends with Harmony Korine, and he’s the one who got you interested in Alan Clarke’s Elephant, which I’ve read had an influence on your Palme d’Or winning film of the same name. I’d be curious to hear what your thoughts are on Korine’s newest film Spring Breakers…
GVS: Yes, Harmony had told me about when he saw Elephant and said it was his favorite film. And Harmony was supposed to write the script to my film, which was only called Elephant because Colin Calendar of HBO who produced the film, who had previously worked at BBC, referred to Alan Clarke’s film as a work that commented on Northern Ireland violence right during the time when it was at its height in 1989. He said he couldn’t do “Columbine” (he meant making a direct dramatic unfolding of the Columbine events) but he could do “Elephant” (by which I think he meant a more universal comment on high school violence). I actually didn’t see Alan Clarke’s Elephant until later, after we had made our film. I was influenced by the long tracking shots because of Bela Tarr, a Hungarian filmmaker, who himself may have been influenced by Alan Clarke’s filmmaking, so the greatest influence was just the title. I used the title because Colin would refer to our film as Elephant, and so I asked Danny Boyle, a producer of Elephant, if he though it would be okay. But there have been a few red-faced Brits who feel I ripped off Alan Clarke. Harmony never made a script and I wrote it later after a few years of procrastination.
As far as Spring Breakers goes, I have seen it, and I thought it was a pretty nice cautionary tale…
TM: Another 2013 film that I wanted to ask you about is the much-talked about Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis collaboration, The Canyons, starring Lindsey Lohan, which you’re also an actor in. Tell me a bit about your role, and about how that opportunity came about. Have you seen a cut of the film? Any thoughts on the production?
GVS: I haven’t seen The Canyons yet. I played a psychiatrist in it, and I knew the producer, and he and Bret Easton Ellis asked me to play the role.
TM: You’re well-known for great casting decisions, for picking the perfect person for the right role, whether they are big name movie stars, lesser-known actors, or even untrained high school students. Is there an actor or actress you’ve been dying to work with but haven’t yet because you just haven’t found the right role for them? Or for some other reason you’ve just never been able to collaborate with them?
GVS: Not so far. I would ideally like to cast unknowns, but it’s not what I’ve been doing, I use a lot of well-known actors, but the ideal to me is an unknown actor.
TM: Speaking of perfect casting, your use of River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho still is one of those phenomenal choices that comes to mind. What a great film and what a great performance! This Halloween will mark the 20th anniversary of his passing. Do you have any thoughts on River Phoenix looking back two decades past?
GVS: Yes, he was great, and he is very missed. He was the one person that in my life, it just seemed impossible that he would stop being, like JFK.
TM: On Milk and on Restless, I read that, inspired by Terrence Malick, you did a lot of silent takes. You even released a “silent” version of Restless on the DVD stitched from those silent takes. Is that something you now do with all your films or does it just depend on the story you’re telling whether or not you would film silent takes of each scene?
GVS: It is a way to have material where there is no dialogue, sometimes the scenes don’t need dialogue–and if the script has a lot of dialogue, you do some takes without, just to have some choices later on.
TM: As a filmmaker who oscillates between directing your own material and directing others’ scripts, what draws you to a script and makes you decide that it is the next film you should make? And also, what makes you decide you want to write for a specific project as opposed to having someone else write it?
GVS: It’s mostly an artistic inspiration, not something that you could explain, other than an irrational compelling reason to propel yourself into a particular project for reasons you can’t quite understand to yourself. I can write some things, but I can also be limited as a writer, so I sometimes want other people to write for me.
TM: I know Milk was in the works for years before it finally came to fruition. Is there any other project you’ve always wanted to make work, but that has still always continued to elude you?
GVS: There are a few projects that have never been made, some are just thoughts. There was one recently that just came back into being, and it’s always interesting when an old idea becomes fresh again..
TM: In an interview with Bruce LaBruce a while back, you were talking about your interest in challenging the narrative techniques of film, and you said: “Otherwise I might as well be directing Superman or X-Men. Either go for the money or actually try to question the medium.” Could you ever see yourself making a superhero film? Couldn’t you “try to question the medium” in the context of a bigger Hollywood production (which I think you’ve certainly done, but obviously not in a superhero film, or a big tentpole style franchise film)?
GVS: Yes, I think that you can do big projects that are pushing the medium in new ways, that would be the ultimate. It’s just that the audience has to be able to, in some ways, catch up to you. Otherwise, you can lose them quite easily. When you go a little too far, there is trouble, which is what some artists are pushing for, and sometimes what I’m pushing for. Yes, I could do a big film and would like to.
TM: I always love the THR Oscar Roundtables, and in the directors’ roundtable this year, you quoted Dennis Hopper saying that something harder than making a movie is not making a movie. You went on to talk about those odd moments between making movies, where you’re happy to be done with a film, and yet you’re happy to get to your next project. I feel like I’m potentially interviewing you at an interesting time in that context. Are you between projects right now or are you already on to your next project? If so, what stage are you at and can you talk about it? We’d love to know what you’re doing next…
GVS: Not sure what is next, but yes, Dennis [Hopper] was probably saying that it is nice to be working on something, to be able to direct your energy someplace, to ward off boredom.
Gus Van Sant is an Academy Award nominated and Palme d’Or winning director. He has made such iconic films as Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Elephant, and Milk.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography by Patrick McMullan, Andreas Branch, David Crotty & Nicholas Hunt for PatrickMcMullan.com
Design by Marie Havens
Gus Van Sant, SUPRA Footwear Presents the SPRING BREAKERS LA Premiere and After Party, Arclight Cinemas and Emerson Theatre, Hollywood, CA, March 14, 2013, Photography by David Crotty for Patrick McMullan.com
Ryan McGinley & Gus Van Sant, The Cinema Society with Dior Homme & GQ host the after party for “Restless,” Electric Room at Dream Downtown, NYC, September 14, 2011, Photography by Nicholas Hunt for Patrick McMullan.com
Gus van Sant, Greg Gorman, & John Waters, Ed Ruscha PSYCHO SPAGHETTI WESTERNS Opening, Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills, February 24, 2011, Photography by Patrick McMullan for Patrick McMullan.com
Juliette Lewis, Gus Van Sant, & Kyra Sedgwick, Sally Singer and Jacob Brown host the T: The New York Times Style Magazine pre Golden Globes Party, Garden’s of Taxco, West Hollywood, CA, January 13, 2011, Photography by Andreas Branch for PatrickMcMullan.com
Gus Van Sant & Ron Howard, GAGOSIAN GALLERY Opening of GUS VAN SANT and JAMES FRANCO’S: Unfinished, Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills, February 25, 2011, Photography by Clint Spaudling for PatrickMcMullan.com
Gus Van Sant & Usher, THE CINEMA SOCIETY with DIOR Homme & GQ host a screening of “Restless,” Landmark Sunshine Theater, NYC, September 14, 2011, Photography by Nicholas Hunt for PatrickMcMullan.com