Things I’ve Learned: Gus Van Sant’s Six Golden Rules of Moviemaking

Gus Van Sant is one of America’s most heralded, iconic independent auteurs. 

Based in Portland, Oregon, the low-key Van Sant has written, directed, produced and/or edited a surprising number of iconic independent features, including Drugstore Cowboy, To Die For, Psycho, Elephant, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, Paranoid Park, Milk, and Restless.

Van Sant has been nominated for two Best Directing Oscars and won the coveted Palme d’Or (the highest prize awarded at Cannes) among many other prestigious awards. Most recently he directed Promised Land, a film exploring the controversial issue of fracking in rural Pennsylvania,  which was released on DVD by Focus Features this Spring.

In this installment of MovieMaker’s Things I’ve Learned, Gus shares his Six Golden Rules of Moviemaking.

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1. PRODUCERS Be strong. Confident. Get enough sleep. And relax. You should feel comfortable, even when you don’t know what you’re doing. (And that might be most of the time.) Don’t be a wimp! Don’t let the bean counters push you around. Don’t worry if people are talking behind your back and rolling their eyes—they won’t understand until the film is finished.

2. STAND UP FOR YOUR IDEAS. Be direct, as in being a director. One of the reasons directors can lose a debate over an issue is because they’re not clear about their ideas, or they may, out of frustration, invite aggressiveness by digging in when they don’t need to. Take it easy, but don’t let them tell you how to make your movie.

3. MONEY PARANOIA You can control the budget, too. Everybody’s doing it, so why not you? Go through the budget line by line, and decide if the items in there are things that you really need—or need more of. The heads of all the departments will try and steal as much as they can from the line items in the budget, even when it’s not their line item. That is their job, to fight for their department. It’s initiative, but they should be stopped by someone like you, because the producer doesn’t necessarily care, or may be in cahoots with them. Don’t let the art department steal the special effects line item to build a set that you don’t need.

4. ACTORS The actors in your film are helpless and they know it. They will perhaps act out because of this. You are in a perfect position to help them as the true authority on the set. Don’t be a self-important asshole. You have the control in this particular area, whether you want it or not. The actor crying on your set is perhaps doing so out of an intense desire to make you happy. Help them to make you happy by being as clear as you can. Make the directions simple. Pretend that you know what they are talking about when you don’t actually know, then tell them what you want them to do.

5. SCRIPT The script is an idea, not a finished reality. Take liberties with it. Take advantage of stuff that is coming to you that is not written on the page. You can’t make a movie that is alive if it’s pre-planned. You will ruin it if you try. You have to loosen up and see why the things happening in front of you are good for the project, not bad. If bad things are happening in front of you, shake things up. Write some new lines—or improvise.

6. PHOTOGRAPHY Don’t get cuckoo with the lights; you don’t really need them anymore. Film stocks today can handle wildly different color temperatures and low light levels. Keep the pace lively. Don’t waste too much time making the shot look perfect, moving objects on surfaces, playing with the blocking—just shoot it. Don’t over-think. Get a really good director of photography, but don’t fight with him. He has the same control over you that you have over the actors, so he can make you cry.

Don’t forget to visit us next week for more movie knowledge! Previous Wisdom Wednesdays have shared the expertise of Danny Boyle, Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch, and Zack Snyder.

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