Gus Van Sant is the perfect picture of an American independent moviemaker. He grew up on both coasts—in Portland, Oregon and Darien, Connecticut—before earning a degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, and then settled in Portland, where he still lives and works. He made his first big impression in 1985 with Mala Noche, the slyly subversive story of a gay man with a crush on a Mexican immigrant who’s wrong for him in just about every way.
Van Sant earned another burst of critical acclaim—and a long list of awards—for the 1989 road movie Drugstore Cowboy, starring Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch as heroin addicts who fuel their habit with drugstore robberies. More praise came his way for My Own Private Idaho (1991), starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as a pair of mismatched hustlers. More awards rolled in, and even though Van Sant’s next movie—the 1993 adaptation of Tom Robbins’ novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—was disappointingly received, he showed growing mainstream appeal with the 1995 comedy-thriller To Die For and the 1997 drama Good Will Hunting, an Oscar-winner for supporting actor Robin Williams and screenwriters Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who also starred.
So far, Van Sant’s story reads like that of many independent auteurs who make their names with low-budget personal features, then go mainstream as quickly as they can. But this auteur is different. Right after the audience-pleasing Good Will Hunting, he directed one of the most idiosyncratic pictures ever made: A shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in color, with a contemporary cast. Hitchcock purists were dismayed, but Van Sant said he meant the film as an artistic experiment rather than a box office winner.
After directing the 2000 drama Finding Forrester, about a reclusive author (Sean Connery) and a black prep school student (Rob Brown), Van Sant went really radical, showing he still had a diehard independent vision. Gerry (2002) is a minimalist drama about two young men lost in a desert; Elephant (2003) won the Cannes Film Festival’s Golden Palm and Best Director prizes with its mesmerizing portrayal of two teenagers who unleash a Columbine-like Armageddon at their school; and Last Days (2005) gives a moody, elliptical account of a Seattle rock musician who resembles Kurt Cobain at the end of his rope.
Now there’s Paranoid Park, which won the 60th Anniversary Prize at Cannes before its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival last fall. Adapted by Van Sant from Blake Nelson’s novel, it’s about a teenage boy named Alex (Gabe Nevins) who hangs around the Portland skateboard scene, worries about the breakup his parents are going through and becomes more than a little paranoid when the cops start asking questions about the death of a local security guard, which Alex may somehow be involved in. Ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle filmed the movie in 35mm, using both tripod and handheld camerawork, and there’s also Super8 footage shot from skateboards. It’s the ideal style for Paranoid Park, one of Van Sant’s most powerful pictures.
An artist with many talents, Van Sant is also a rock musician, a music video director, a photographer and a novelist. He’s now in production on Milk, about Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor who was assassinated in 1978 after becoming America’s first openly gay man elected to a major public office.
I first met Van Sant as a member of the New York Film Festival selection committee when we invited My Own Private Idaho to Lincoln Center in 1991. It was a pleasure to catch up with him again more than 15 years later for a wide-ranging talk about his latest movie and his remarkable career.
David Sterritt (MM): With its edgy mood and offbeat structure, Paranoid Park is an unusual production, which isn’t unusual for you. How did the project start?
Gus Van Sant (GVS): I really liked Blake Nelson’s novel Rock Star Superstar, and when he sent me Paranoid Park in galley form, I really liked it, too. They’re both young adult novels, kind of like S.E. Hinton’s things, and [Francis Ford] Coppola did two movies [The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, both 1983] from her books… I think short young adult novels are kind of perfect for film.
MM: Your take on being young is considerably darker than S.E. Hinton’s view.
GVS: That’s certainly true in Elephant, and in Paranoid Park as well. There’s a kind of Dostoevskian air—a Crime and Punishment air—about Paranoid Park.
MM: You’ve made a number of films about adolescents and young adults. Do you have a particular artistic interest in this age group?
GVS: That’s a good question. One of the things about this period is that it’s the formative part of your life… Once you’re past, say, 25, your habits are kind of locked in place. I don’t consciously guide my filmmaking toward that age, but I do go there somewhat.
MM: Watching the film, it’s obvious that you’re totally in sync with this material.
GVS: Nelson’s novels are set in Portland, which I like; there are very Portland things about Paranoid Park. From afar, I knew the skate culture, which was always part of Portland life… The story is set in a high school, and I knew—because of Elephant—how to handle that.
MM: Were you a skateboarder?
GVS: A very long time ago, in the 1960s, when we had to use regular skates. I was 27 by the time skate culture reemerged in the ’70s, and it was brutal—it really hurt when you fell. I wasn’t really a skater after that, so I missed the hardcore skate culture.
MM: Alex is a pretty hardcore skater in Paranoid Park. Is his life anything like yours when you were young?
GVS: Yeah, actually. He’s a very suburban kid. He goes to the skate park because a friend knows about it, but it’s over their heads. I probably would have been like that when I was in high school. I was a suburban kid, and going into the city was a really big deal for us.
MM: The movie captures the uncertainties and insecurities of adolescence with great accuracy and emotional power.
GVS: There’s a sort of interior life to this story—a secret life. It’s typical of ordinary life that you wander around with thoughts in your head; but in this case, I think Blake was using Alex’s thoughts-—and the way Alex isn’t able to tell the secrets he has—as a metaphor for his feelings about his parents breaking up and the way he can’t share that with anybody. His guilt is associated with the things that happen to him, and also with his age; it’s an age when things become really blown out of proportion. I don’t have any kids, but people who’ve seen Paranoid Park and do have 15- or 16-year-old kids say, “That’s where my kids are at.” (laughs) They have stuff they can’t tell their parents because that’s part of the evolutionary process of becoming an adult, even though the problems may be things they can’t really handle.
MM: Looking at your career, it seems to me that you started out with a strong independent vision, then made some relatively mainstream films and then returned to a riskier, more experimental approach. Do you see it that way?
GVS: I started out in the 1970s living in Hollywood and making a film called Alice in Hollywood… about a guy who was, I guess, me, looking for work in Hollywood. It was an attempt to meet Hollywood on its own turf, with no money, and I realized this was going in the wrong direction. It was hard to meet even independent filmmakers on their own turf when you didn’t have money, and I only had $25,000 in my pocket to make the movie. So I kind of regrouped [working in Madison Avenue advertising] and saved money for my next film, which was Mala Noche. I tried to adjust my abilities and my interests and to work smaller—going into a place that was more personal, and picking a story I had almost never seen on the screen, so that its value lay in the fact that it was rare. That’s where I started, and I never really got out of that.
MM: But your films soon had major names and larger budgets.
GVS: Drugstore Cowboy was meant to be a low-budget project at first… and so was My Own Private Idaho. After those I was able to do bigger things, so I did Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which was sort of another Alice in Hollywood, except that now I had the ability to option a bestselling novel. To Die For resembled some of the earlier films, but it was done with Sony Pictures, and it was more of a constructed studio film. It wasn’t me finding the material, it was me signing on to a film.
MM: How about Good Will Hunting, which was an enormous hit and scored you an Oscar nomination for Best Director?
GVS: It was me signing on again. Good Will Hunting was me doing something very earnest and serious, which I’d never done before. I knew it was a challenge, even though it looked like selling out! (laughs) I wanted to see if I could just step in and do a Hollywood film… It was sort of an experiment. But the films like Psycho and Gerry and Elephant and Last Days and Paranoid Park have all been going backwards into the area I came from.
MM: Those pictures are made on a smaller scale, and they don’t aim for a multiplex audience. Can you continue making films like these indefinitely? Or do you have to make a mainstream film now and then to stay bankable?
GVS: I don’t really think of those films [as] being for a smaller audience. They have their own cinema language that isn’t trying to be the popular language, but I can never tell whether the audience might latch onto them or not. They are lower-budget movies, so they don’t have to over-perform.
MM: You come out of a great generation of independent moviemakers—Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch and many others. Do you feel an ongoing connection with directors like them?
GVS: Oh, yes. I was editing Mala Noche when I first saw Stranger Than Paradise, and Jarmusch definitely had an effect on me. He was doing something that was kind of similar—he would latch onto a frame and just hold it, and scenes would play out in a very austere manner. Eastern Europeans really influenced me—Béla Tarr is the big one, and Andrei Tarkovsky, Miklós Jancsó and Aleksandr Sokurov. But Stranger Than Paradise was doing a similar thing a decade earlier… David Lynch and John Waters are influences, too.
MM: Do you feel the American independent scene is in a healthy state at the moment?
GVS: Yeah, I think so. But things are kind of splintering, and there’s a different sort of communication with the Internet and YouTube… Somebody can make a film anywhere in the world, and that same day they can have it distributed internationally by posting it. It wasn’t like that when I made short films in the 1970s!
MM: Can you see yourself using the Internet in the future?
GVS: Sure I will, when there’s more standardization. Right now it’s a little low-res. (laughs) But as soon as it’s got its resolution together, I think all the filmmakers will want to use it.
MM: What’s in your immediate future?
GVS: Right now I’m just doing the Harvey Milk film, which is a pretty standard project. But as long as there’s financing to do the kinds of [unconventional] films I’ve been doing, I’ll keep doing them. And if you keep your budget down, it’s pretty easy. MM