Gus Van Sant's 1985 feature film debut Mala Noche made waves with attentive producers, and four years later, the director released Drugstore Cowboy, a breakthrough, counter-cultural film about drug addicts in the Pacific Northwest. Ever since, Van Sant has toggled between studio-funded and indie films: My Own Private Idaho, To Die For, Good Will Hunting, the Psycho remake, and Finding Forrester. Van Sant also works as a photographer, musician, and novelist, but I spoke to him during promotion for his latest film, Gus Van Sant's Last Days, which caps an informal trilogy comprised also of Gerry and Elephant. I spoke with Gus Van Sant at San Francisco's Hotel Palomar on June 27, 2005.
Groucho: So the script for My Own Private Idaho was about seventy pages. And Elephant was about twenty, and Last Days is about thirty-five. Do shorter scripts, with perhaps increasingly manageable settings, represent a reaction to your experience on Drugstore Cowboy—a way to buy yourself a greater freedom?
Gus Van Sant: Well, Idaho, I guess, was the first thing I had written that was so short. But I had—before Drugstore Cowboy, I did have a script for Mala Noche, which was probably like 110 pages. I had written a lot of scripts, and I was studying scripts in the seventies when I was living in L.A. And I would go to the AFI, and I would check out all the scripts of the films I had seen, like the Citizen Kane script or a Kubrick script, or Rosemary's Baby, and there was, like, a very standard thing: they were always about—at least—over ninety pages but under 120, generally—that's what I wrote when I did Mala Noche and then Drugstore Cowboy. And I realized with both those films that you threw a lot of film away. And you ended up with movies that were like two-and-a-half hours. And if that's not what you wanted to be doing, just the sort of idea of shooting that many pages—it may be...because of the way I shot. Or embellished scenes. Or whatever I did to make it longer. Because there are ways to shoot a movie that's 118 pages and make it 80 minutes. Which is: the dialogue's fast and you're going fast. I guess I'm just not fast, and I let scenes just sort of go on and on. So I guess with Idaho I wasn't really worried. I guess I was assuming that we'd work it out, or we'd add a scene or something. And then Idaho ended up to be too long. It ended up to be, like, two hours. And then Gerry had kind of no script. And so many other films like To Die For, Good Will Hunting—Good Will Hunting was too long. We had to cut a bunch of scenes out—it was like 2:30. Finding Forrester—I mean, like every single film was at, like, 110 pages—it just was too long. And so I had this idea, I guess, of just writing something short.
G: Does it kind of break the scheduling of a film, or do you still have to—to some degree you have to approximate where you'll be at what point in your shooting schedule.
GVS: Well, the last three movies were all designed to be basically in one place so the schedule was always the same group of characters and at the same locations. So you could shoot in order, and you didn't have to move it around. You didn't have to shoot the ending first because of some reason. And that was another concept of how to make the movie, which is to let it unfold. It solved a lot of problems like continuity problems and story continuity problems, and if you had an idea to do something, you'd know halfway through the movie how that contributed to, say, the ending of the movie—because you're shooting it in order. A lot of times you're guessing because you're shooting the ending in the middle, or whatever it is. So part of it was to schedule—to make it all happen in one line. And also, they were very short shooting schedules. Each of those last three films are like within twenty days. Elephant and Last Days were done in seventeen days. And Gerry was like twenty-four, but we ran into some problems.
G: Those three films—Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days—make an informal trilogy meditating on real-life events. And each one invites the viewer to take on maybe a greater degree of responsibility about the meaning of the film. To what degree are you subsuming your own point of view in handing the mystery over to the audience, and, if you are, why is that a valid artistic choice for you?
GVS: Well, the last three films were news items. So part of it had to do with—each one was also a mystery. Each news item was a mystery. In Gerry, the news item was that two best friends went hiking, they got lost, and one killed the other with a knife. So what happened? And Columbine—like, what went wrong? And Last Days, same thing—like, what happened? And the first one was simple enough because there were two friends, and it had a kind of—sort of existential quality to the two walking in the desert and one coming back. Its story was somewhat universal: that if people had been lost, viewing the film—even lost driving in town, or walking in town—it would have some meaning to them. The other two were kind of banking on the idea that there was already a lot of information in the viewers' head[s] before they watched. And if there wasn't, generally everyone watching would have been to high school. So it was sort of cuing those emotional ideas about being in high school—if they had never heard of Columbine, for instance. Or, in the case of Last Days, you know, you're going in with a certain amount of information. If you don't know anything about the life of Kurt Cobain, or many other types of rock stars, or other personalities that have committed suicide, it can be about other things in your life. Yeah, it's handing over a lot to the viewer because of there being a lot inside the viewer, I think, that can contribute to the activity of watching the film.
G: A thought that occurred to me while watching this film, and while watching Elephant and Gerry, actually—all three—is that it's sort of like a cinematic gallery. Maybe that comes from your background in painting, but there's a experience of sort of wandering through this story and looking and yet ascribing meaning to it. Are you conscious of that carry-over from your work in painting and photography when you're making a film?
GVS: Yeah, I'm sure there's a lot that comes from my kind of visual orientation...originally as a painter when I was younger. And probably just the way I see things. I mean, I think what I see a lot in the films are just my point[s] of view of things. It's me creating something that's reflecting the way I see these types of events. Or the way I think about them. Whereas in other projects, there's a little bit less of me because there's—except for something like My Own Private Idaho—there's a sort of other authorial voice; there's another person telling the story. But I'm helping them tell the story. Even though these stories have been told by other people, I'm sort of retelling it.
G: Did you find yourself drawn to these three stories by your own need to understand them?
GVS: Yeah, there were things—they were almost like paradoxes. You couldn't quite ever figure them out. At least from where you were standing. Last Days: I think there is a, perhaps [it is] figure-out-able. There is more of a chance that you could arrive at it—at a conclusion. I don't think that the other ones could ever really be answered. There's a whole lot of information about Columbine that we don't really know about. But there might be some things in there that—definitely pinpoints. But they're kind of enigmatic—all three of them are very enigmatic.
G: If film is voyeurism, these are very inherently voyeuristic stories, right? Taking you inside that experience that you've been held outside of?
GVS: Yeah. They're sort of like dioramas in the Natural History Museum.
G: What turned over this story from one about the boy in the house to a character inspired by Kurt Cobain?
GVS: Oh, my original?
GVS: Well, it always was the boy in the house. It was never really changed. Except that the only difference was Mike grew a little older than when I first cast him, because it took a while to find the money. And then the extra little spin was that he grew his hair, so that he—the hair looked almost exactly like a recognizable Kurt Cobain. And then his clothes, which were basically his clothes—a lot of the clothes in the scenes are Mike's own clothes. The clothes were also like of that era—a lot of them. They're mostly Blake's—the character of Blake's clothes. So there was that too, and...I was kind of a skeptic—I sort of went along with it skeptically. I was intrigued by it. It even made it more kind of interesting. But it wasn't really the original concept. That was something that came from Mike himself.
G: Inescapably for me—it took me maybe two-thirds of the way through the film to have this thought—but I thought this is not unlike the mystery of what happened to River. Was that something that was prevalent for you in dealing with this material, thinking about that?
GVS: I don't really think of it like that. It's a really separate issue for me. And they're kind of inverse—they are guys that are a little bit similar in age, and River was younger—was 23. I heard that Kurt actually dedicated a song to him at an L.A. show. Thurston Moore told me—which was kind of interesting and unusual because it wasn't something that he normally did; he wouldn't dedicate songs to people. They were both sort of representatives of their wing—Kurt was like the rock-and-roll wing, River was the actor wing—of their generations. I thought they were very different in the way they sort of seemed to operate. They're both tragedies. One was—I always thought of River's death as a misadventure. Whereas, because he was sort of seen as like a poster child for vegetarianism or saving the forests and so forth, the idea that he would die from anything that involved drugs was somehow something that made him appear to be a liar to the public. And so people were very angry about his death. And they didn't accept it. Whereas Kurt was more—you know, people knew about—because of reading about—his drug addiction. The idea that there would be this end was a sorrowful thing because it was something that wasn't sort of hidden. But I thought of him as being quite different, like one guy really winding down and going into a really dark place, whereas River was sort of just trying to let off steam—just partying basically.
G: Blake—his character seems more connected to the universe around him than the society around him—talking of winding down. And the film starts with him wandering through the elements and the wilderness there. Did you see Blake in mythic terms? There are these religious echoes, too, in the imagery.
GVS: I think of rock stars as—you know, they're made into that. I think they aren't that—I think they're people. So I think there was always sort of that idea that there is a deification but its not really—I mean there is this sort of way that we go about things as a society where heroes are kind of assembled. Visions of politicians are visions of—our royalty of today would be sort of the rock star: the pinnacle above—maybe not politicians, but above—they're our fantasy: unknown deities. And then in the end, it's sort of this flesh-and-blood person is sort of there. There's always a sort of—in the movie, it's kind of what it's about; he's been put into a place that he's positive he's not—he knows for sure he's not.
G: But there is a kind of mystical element, too, about the way the world is communicating with him, it seems.
GVS: His outside world? In the movie?
G: Well, maybe his perception of—you know, there's the songs. One is the music video and one is the record they listen to. There's the echo in there of this phrase "On bended knee" that seems—
GVS: Oh, right. The whole world. Well, the film is sort of—communicating in what way? A mystical way?
GVS: Well, the world does—if you listen to the world, it will communicate to you in a very mystical way. It's like serendipity, or somebody just said something twice, or you hear the same—that thing with the "on bended knee," I discovered that a couple weeks ago. It's been like that for a year. But it just so happens that Lou Reed is also singing about a guy going on a bended knee, and we just—that's sort of the world talking to us as well, not us controlling it.
G: I want to ask you about a thing that has run through some of your films, which is this tension between outsider and mainstream culture. Drugstore Cowboy's addiction versus going clean; in Idaho, underground street-life versus so-called success. And in Last Days, I think there's that tension too. Is there a kind of autobiographical dialogue going on here about resistance to selling out?
GVS: Yeah. I mean it comes from—I lived in Hollywood for about six years. And I think it's sort of like the thing that you see: the first thing you see when you hang out or work there is that it's all like a false front—like in an old western set—that the storefront can fall down, and there's nothing in back of it. And that it's all an illusion—that these sort of cinematics or powers are—they're actual; they're real people, even though they're not necessarily acting like real people. I mean, sometimes they—the people that are there, and everywhere else too—it's true of the rest of society, just sort of more pronounced there. But there is this class structure within our country, which is a hallucination, to me. I mean, that's just the way I see these class structures. It's the way, in various forms, that society's formed itself for centuries. And it's kind of like the source of a lot of problems in the world, and it's kind of like always the central theme of a lot of the movies because it just is part of life that I find—
G: It's another un-resolvable question.
GVS: Yeah. I find all the different facets of it—I was just thinking the other day that some of the things that it seems like are going on now are even so much more stupendously fabricated that its like I can't believe it. Just politically. Political fabrications. And scary. Like really scary.