In Depth

People In Film | Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant | An American Filmmaker

Co-written by Matt Damon and John Krasinksi, PROMISED LAND tells the story of a small American town struggling with itself, being offered hard cash for drilling rights by a natural gas rep and his assistant (played by Matt Damon and Frances McDormand) while, at the same time, being challenged to do better by a mysterious eco-activist (John Krasinski), who suddenly appears in town. For Gus Van Sant, who over the last few decades has focused on unique and powerful, often untold, American stories, the subject matter was very attractive. “America is a big place and we are all part of it, so it’s hard to really get a grasp on our identity sometimes," Van Sant commented, “What I loved about John and Matt’s screenplay is that they tackled big issues but with a lot of humor and humility. It’s a story about real people, with all their foibles as well as their greatness.” Understanding perfectly the wondrous imperfection of his characters defines Van Sant’s filmmaker, as does the way such imperfect people come together to form friendships, relationships and communities. In his filmmaking, Van Sant not only showcases new talent that he wants to share – like, for example, his use of songs by the band Milk Carton Kids in PROMISED LAND –– but also creates a community of creative people he continually works with. PROMSIED LAND reunites him, for example, with Matt Damon, with whom he’d previously directed in Good Will Hunting and collaborated with on Gerry. “When you work together you become friends and you wonder what else you can do together again and Matt and I became friends,” Van Sant told Movieline. If Van Sant often returns to the need for community in America, as he does so poignantly in PROMISED LAND, one suspects that he recreates that community in the cast and crew he works with on each film.

Gus Van Sant | An Artist as a Young Man

Born in Louisville, KY in 1952, Van Sant lived his life in various corners of America as his father climbed the corporate ladder. At age 10, his family settled in Darien, Connecticut, an experience that helped shaped Van Sant’s sense of home and place. Van Sant told Juxtapoz, “In Darien, the families didn't seem to have a heritage or a family infrastructure. The grandparents were not around because everyone in Darien were sort of like corporate gypsies.” But for Van Sant, this isolated suburban world also became a grand art studio. He started painting in junior high school because of an inspiring art teacher, and later, he relates,  “I also had an English teacher who was showing us films from the Canadian Film Board… We would make films because some of the kids would get cameras and then we'd show them in class.” By his senior year, Van Sant and his family moved out to Portland, Oregon where he spent a year at the progressive Catlin Gabel School. In 1971, with his friend Eric Edwards, he made his first longer form film there, a 20-minute work called The Happy Organ. The two would go to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and later collaborate on a number of independent films. And while Van Sant ostensibly studied painting at RISD, he never lost sight of his love for films. As Eric Edwards later recounted, “I remember Gus and me sitting in a cinema in Providence watching A Clockwork Orange and Mean Streets. In the early ’70s we watched lots of European films and cinema vérité and witnessed the greatest cinema you could look at.” From the start, Van Sant was interested in all art. Later he formed a band, Destroy All Blondes, and released two solo albums, Gus Van Sant and 18 Songs About Golf. In the early 1990s, Van Sant also published Pink: A Novel and the photographic tome One Hundred-Eight Portraits. In the last few years, he’s had  two photography shows – “One Step Big Shot: Portraits by Andy Warhol and Gus Van Sant” at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art and “Cut Ups / Gus Van Sant” at PDX Contemporary Art – in his hometown of  Portland.

Gus Van Sant | Cinema of the Streets

While at RISD, Van Sant discovered the work of avant garde filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas and decided that he was better suited to put his images on the big screen rather than on canvas. Van Sant’s first feature, the black-and-white, Portland-set Mala Noche (1985), reflected not only his personal, avant-garde approach to cinema but his preoccupation with chronicling the lives of street hustlers and beautiful destitute youngsters. “I'm normally drawn to something I haven't done and seen before,” said Van Sant in a 2004 interview. “In general this was a place Hollywood didn't go, and that was something I was attracted to.” He would return to subjects living on the margins with his follow-up movies, Drugstore Cowboy (1989), a scuzzy depiction of a group of junkies, and My Own Private Idaho (1991), a story of two gay street hustlers (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) which strongly referenced Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II. Van Sant also discusses his storyteller’s fascination with street hustlers with Graham Fuller in “Gus Van Sant: Swimming Against the Current”.

Gus Van Sant | A Move to the Mainstream

After the success of both Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant began to gravitate towards more Hollywood fare. His 1995 dark satire on ruthless careerism within the entertainment industry, To Die For, had a cast headlined by Nicole Kidman that also featured Matt Dillon (reteaming with Van Sant after Drugstore Cowboy) and a young Joaquin Phoenix. Van Sant reached his biggest audience so far with the Oscar-winning feel-good drama Good Will Hunting (1997), written by and starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Explaining his decision to make more conventional films such as Good Will Hunting and his 2000 feature Finding Forrester, Van Sant said “I always wanted to sort of see if I could apply myself to films that maybe I was use to seeing in the 70's, like Ordinary People, and since I hadn't really done a film with those types of characters at least, I wanted to see if I could and so I attempted that at the time. It was just something that I hadn't done, so it was new to me.”

Gus Van Sant | A Return to Minimalism

After Finding Forrester (possibly his most mainstream movie so far), Gus Van Sant then made Gerry, an oblique and individualistic two-hander in which Matt Damon and Casey Affleck walk through the desert. He continued his much sparser, minimalistic approach to filmmaking with his next three movies, loosely termed the Death Trilogy: Elephant, a film about the Columbine massacre; Last Days, which focuses on the end of Kurt Cobain’s life; and Paranoid Park, about a Portland skateboarder who accidentally kills someone. After making movies with huge crews, Van Sant was happy to return to a smaller, more intimate set-up, while also admitting that making these pared down productions was, as he told Film Monthly, “a reaction against the 20th Century film making. It's not necessarily like specific in my career, Hollywood or anything like that.”

Gus Van Sant | Portland Poet

As a director, Gus Van Sant is very closely linked to Portland, Oregon, which has not only been his home for the entirety of his career as a filmmaker but has provided the setting for the majority of his films, starting with Mala Noche in 1985 and going through to his 2011 feature Restless. Portland, a city with a rich film and music culture, seems the perfect set-up for Van Sant, as it’s an intimate, inspiring location where films are easier and cheaper to make. “It’s really low budget here,” he said of his home city. “You can do things you’d never be able to almost anywhere else. Thirty years ago there were film co-ops and …there was always this structure of things you need to make a film. It’s a great place to come, and people get really excited.”

Gus Van Sant | A Filmmaker with a Personal Perspective

A director who has always been open about his sexuality, Gus Van Sant was the perfect person to make Milk, the Oscar-winning biopic of slain gay politician Harvey Milk, to the big screen. Ironically, Van Sant originally chose to make gay films because it gave him an “angle” as a filmmaker. He admits that his thought process at the time he made his debut film Mala Noche was, “Well, if it doesn’t work on a global scale as a film, if it doesn’t translate to a wider audience, maybe it can fall back into a gay audience.” However, his movies featuring gay central characters  have achieved success not because of their subject matter but because of the skill and artistry of Van Sant’s filmmaking. A.O. Scott’s New York Times review of Milk speaks directly to Van Sant’s power – “That power lies in its uncanny balancing of nuance and scale, its ability to be about nearly everything — love, death, politics, sex, modernity — without losing sight of the intimate particulars of its story.”  Moving from his small experimental work to his larger Hollywood films, Van Sant’s scale may change but the particularity of the story telling doesn’t. He manages to tell gay stories that are universal, and historic dramas with the peculiar edge and perspective of being a gay man.


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