Lessons on Art, Failure, and Film Making with Gus Van Sant

Main picturePhoto by Johnny Le

Gus Van Sant is a director who has never forgotten his independent roots. When you’re not directing multi-award-winning studio photos such as Goodwill hunting (1997) and Milk (2008), he spends his time working with actors who are entirely fond of the elephant (2003) and Paranoid park (2007). Preferring to rely on the outlines of the scenes and the natural improvisational talents of its actors, Van Sant’s films are characterized by a certain verisimilitude released by the actions and dialogues of its characters that no scenario can truly reproduce. .

In a new book by art writer Katya Tylevich – titled Gus Van Sant: The Art of Making Films – fans have the opportunity to take a peek at Van Sant’s vast body of work and hear about the making of each film from the point of view of the man himself. To coincide with the release, we caught up with Van Sant by phone to discuss the new book, his influences, and the risks he takes as one of the most essential directors of the past 40 years.

Barry Pierce: The book is basically a retrospective of your career to the present day. What attracted you to such a project?

Gus Van Sant: Well I got a call from Katya and I had seen one of the other pieces she did, a book about a few artists that I really liked, so I was like, Yes of course ! [Laughs.] I will be the subject of a book.

BP: It’s quite an interesting book because it covers not only your filmography but also your artistic production, your paintings and your photography.

GVS: I authorized [Katya] go where she wanted to go, I wasn’t trying to guide her in creation. I think because she was doing, in her past writings, things about art that it would naturally include my art.

“When you don’t have a script, all of a sudden your speech patterns become natural. You move forward without a flashlight ”- Gus Van Sant

BP: There is a part of the book where you mention that one of your first influences in cinema was that of John Waters. Pink flamingos (1972). What opened your eyes to cinema in this film?

GVS: Well, at the time Pink flamingos came out that I was in the middle of art school as a film major. At this school I knew a few students who had attended the Maryland Institute College of Art where John Waters and many Pink flamingos had also been. My attraction to Pink flamingos It was mainly because I had heard that it was done by a small group in Baltimore – the budget was around $ 10,000 – but it attracted so much attention. It was living proof that you could operate outside the system. So I went down to New York and saw him at the Quad Cinema near 8th Street, near the Village. It was like Rocky horror image show; many people in the audience all seemed to have seen it before. When things happened – like when Edie the Egg Lady appears in the living room cradle – audiences just lost them, but they obviously knew what was to come. It was very inspiring, the wild abandon with which John Waters was creating his film and the script and the mix of characters was as extreme as it gets. He got off the charts.

BP: You had a pretty tough road to cinema, you made your first feature film with your own money and it failed. How do you see that time now?

GVS: Yeah, I did a feature film in Hollywood in 1978, I think, and it just didn’t quite fit – the story, the writing, the execution, and the concepts. It was called Alice in Hollywood and it was shot on Hollywood Boulevard with a bunch of different characters that I knew. It didn’t go into any festival and I finally put it aside and started working on the next thing. I wanted to continue and not just quit because of the performance of this film. I remember showing it in New York, it was on videotape, and we had a little party for the movie but it was in a place where a room was the screen, and then there was a next room where all the drinks were. Slowly everyone migrated to the room with the drinks as the movie continued to air on its own [Laughs.].

BP: You chose William S. Burroughs in both Pharmacy Cowboy (1989) and Even cowgirls have the blues (1993). What was it like working with such an influential and counter-cultural personality?

GVS: Well, Burroughs was gone, and then he came back to New York in the mid-70s and he was seeing a kind of revival. There was a lot of interest in Naked Lunch at the time. Some of my friends were talking about it, and that’s when I first heard about him and how he appeared in a number of Kerouac’s books. So, I was in New York at one point and looked in the directory in 1975, and he was there. His address was there too. William S. Burroughs. I was like, fucking shit! So I called him and he told me to come after Christmas. We spent about an hour and a half talking about all kinds of stuff and he gave me a number of people to call in LA, because I had just moved in there, and was really helpful. Then, 15 years later, when I was doing Pharmacy Cowboy, there was a character called Old Tom and he was perfect for that. So I called him and he wanted to do it. But he made us promise to shoot everything in one day, which we did. We did it all in one day.

BP: In Pharmacy Cowboy and in My own private Idaho (1991) you broke with traditional script convention and used these simple script outlines instead – often just minimalist descriptions of scenes, with very little concrete dialogue. What drew you to such a risky way of filming?

GVS: I think it’s just something that happens naturally on set. I think it started with Pharmacy cowboy. Kelly Lynch and James LeGros were in communication with the real people who were in the original book, so they were getting all of this information that was not in the original screenplay or in the book. We tried to fit these things into the movie, and I liked it a lot better. When you don’t have a script, all of a sudden your speech patterns become natural. You walk without a flashlight. When you have a script, there is a lot of energy in remembering what the script is. A lot of My own private Idaho was very cowardly, at that point I didn’t care if the characters were doing the script or not. Gerry (2002) was the first movie where I didn’t have a script at all, and we didn’t have a lot of dialogue in that movie either. the elephant (2003) was done in a similar way where the script was maybe about 15 pages long of descriptions of what the scene was meant to be and then everything else, if there was any dialogue, became a addition.

“At this point in our film history, a documentary has as much wrong stuff as a dramatic film, and a dramatic film has as much real stuff as a documentary” – Gus Van Sant

PA: the elephant, which is the film that won you the Palme d’Or, is described in the book as your most relevant film. Why do you think it is?

GVS: Well I’m sure because of all the shootings. Columbine arrived before we shot Gerry and it became one of those mega-journalist stories, kinda like the death of Kurt Cobain, which was the movie I made after the elephant. In the Columbine and Kurt news cycles, there was this element of psychological inquiry. What happened to Kurt? What happened in Colombine? And because of the protocol around taste, there was no room for a dramatic performance or a dramatic investigation. And I thought at this point in our film history a documentary has as much wrong stuff as a drama movie and a drama movie has as much real stuff as a documentary. I had a problem with the vibe that you weren’t allowed to make a dramatic film on this topic right now. We met Colin Callender who had worked at the BBC [when they aired] Alan Clarke’s movie the elephant, which was about the unrest in Northern Ireland, and it was up to the real problem and it was broadcast on the BBC. So he had seen a project like this come to fruition, so he called our project “Elephant”. He said he couldn’t call her Columbine because it was too hot a problem, so we called him the elephant.

BP: I want to end by talking about something that happened recently online, which is the resurrection of Die for (1995), even though the film was critically acclaimed upon its release, it is currently going through this great cycle of rediscovery.

GVS: Wow, I didn’t know that.

BP: Yes, it appears quite often on my Twitter feed. What do you think of its development as well, decades later?

GVS: Well I saw this happen with Idaho. But I didn’t know it was happening with Die for. It’s great, it’s fantastic, you always worry about your movie disappearing in the past but if there is a new audience it’s fantastic. It’s a very cool thing going on.

BP: It’s one of Nicole’s greatest performances.

GVS: Yes I have always heard that and it is true. She really put it all in. She’s amazing in it.

Gus Van Sant: The Art of Making Films by Katya Tylevich is now available from Laurence King Publishing.

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