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.