Gus Van Sant


How to describe long-take cinematography:

Gus Van Sant’s twelve feature-length films are multicolored magnifiers of disquiet, loveable investigations into death. His twenty-three-year career, which also includes a novel, music videos, a book of photography, a couple of CDs, and a slew of short films, falls into roughly three periods:

The early features—Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, and the recently rereleased Mala Noche—are gritty, lyrical portraits of small-time junkies and vagrants, heading for futile, youthful deaths. The mid ’90s brought a string of more commercial films—Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Good Will Hunting, To Die For, and the shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Made with bigger budgets and name-brand actors, they, in turn, led to Oscars and name recognition. In that period he tried his hand at writing a novel, Pink, often thought of as an exploration of the death of River Phoenix. Then came Gerry, a film of long, real-time takes, marking Van Sant’s return, with extraordinary force and clarity, to the subject of mortality. Matt Damon and Casey Affleck wander for a hundred minutes through the desert, in brute desolation, barely talking, before one dies. Here, the mundane and silent become metaphysical. Everyday details reconstruct the moments leading up to death, an exploration Van Sant continues in his most recent films, Elephant, Last Days, and now Paranoid Park, a set of elegies of extraordinary compassion.

On the occasion of this interview, Van Sant was attending the North American premiere of Paranoid Park at the Toronto International Film Festival. Compact and orderly, he appeared promptly for the interview at the Four Seasons Hotel Café, where he discussed his career and ate Belgian waffles.

—Alexandra Rockingham


THE BELIEVER: You went through a very interesting period in the late ’90s. You made two commercial projects, Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. You wrote a novel. And you remade Psycho shot for shot. To copy a film shot for shot, it seems to me an artist must either be having us all on, or be in a very dire place, or maybe both. But it really seems you were trying to get back to some understanding of the fundamental language of your medium. Is that in any way how you feel about that period now?

GUS VAN SANT: Sometimes I see a script and I just like it for one reason or another. Sometimes I’m doing things partially because I haven’t done them. When it came to Good Will Hunting, I guess I just had never made a film with a hero. They had always been antiheros, and I thought, Well, let’s just see if I can. And then, because of the way Good Will Hunting played—it did very well in the marketplace and Miramax got it nominated for a bunch of awards—it was the first time it happened where a studio was interested in making a deal with me, and they would let me do anything I wanted, and they would pay me more money than I’d ever made.

So, there were some projects I never really could get going, and one of them was Psycho. It was a project that I suggested earlier in the ’90s. It was the first time that I was able to actually do what I suggested. And the reason that I suggested Psycho to them was partly the artistic appropriation side, but it was also partly because I had been in the business long enough that I was aware of certain executives’ desires. The most interesting films that studios want to be making are sequels. They would rather make sequels than make the originals, which is always a kind of a funny Catch-22.

They have to make Bourne Identity before they make Bourne Ultimatum. They don’t really want to make Bourne Identity because it’s a trial thing. But they really want to make Bourne Ultimatum. So it was an idea I had—you know, why don’t you guys just start remaking your hits.

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Alexandra Rockingham wrote, directed, and produced films for fifteen years. She is currently writing her first novel and lives outside of Toronto.

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