Gus Van Sant and the Windows to Other Worlds

By Michelle Donnelly · May 11, 2015

Films: Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, To Die For, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Paranoid Park, Milk, Restless, Promised Land, Sea of Trees

When opening up about his younger years, Gus Van Sant speaks with emotion about his “childhood being torn away from [his] family home when [he] was five” and his subsequent feelings of “homelessness.” The son of an executive, the Van Sant family was frequently forced to relocate due to his father’s job. This had great effect on Van Sant and he would revisit those feelings of loss often in his films.

In the early 1970s, Van Sant entered the Rhode Island School of Design to study painting. Disillusioned after the realization that there was a glut of artists in New York City with minimal opportunities, he looked elsewhere. Intrigued by his exposure to directors such Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, he switched his focus to filmmaking. Continuing his own education, he would scour the script archives of the American Film Institute, studying format, technique and style from such great filmmakers as Kubrick and Hitchcock.

Having briefly attended high school in Portland, he returned to the city after a stint at an advertising agency in New York City. His love of Portland is clear and it soon became a central figure in his movies. Attracted to its seedier side, Van Sant speaks about his interest in those living on the fringe, or those marginalized from society. Frequenting diverse clubs, he came in contact with a variety of characters, from punk rockers to poets. Having come from a middle class background, he claims to have felt like an outsider encroaching on the scene. In many ways, Van Sant is the ultimate observer and soon these people and personalities he met would come alive in his films.

Having always been vocal about his influences, Van Sant unabashedly emulates those whom he admires. The influence of Bela Tarre and John Cassavetes can be seen in Gerry and Harmony Korine has appeared in both Good Will Hunting and Last Days. Indie filmmaker John Sayles helped inspire his belief that film can be created out of little and Van Sant laments the massive machinery that comes along with making a film. He finds large crews ineffective and craves the ease, simplicity and creative expression found in the indie approach, which he steadfastly attempts to return to often. With reverence he talks of his experience on Mala Noche. While having done much prep work on the story itself (in the form of a strict story board reportedly 500 pages), the actual filmmaking was unorganized, yet creatively inspiring. Relying on the kindness of friends, acquaintances and strangers, most days the crew consisted of Van Sant, a cameraman, a sound person and the actors piling into a station wagon to search for locations. A process that he found infinitely satisfying.

Much has been made of Van Sant being openly gay and many remark about his role in the gay and lesbian filmmaking community. Older than the New Queer Cinema generation that arrived in the early 1990s, Van Sant sees himself outside of this sphere and while gay and lesbian filmmakers such as Derek Jarman forged new territory for the community, Van Sant has never aligned himself with their work. Van Sant’s characters are more about portraying the truthfulness about life. So whether they are gay, straight, married or single, they are incidentally so. Therefore in Milk, it was more about being committed to telling the Harvey Milk story and in My Own Private Idaho it was about exploring characters who strived to find alternative communities with which to bond. In fact, the idea for River Phoenix’s character to be gay came from Phoenix himself, not Van Sant.

Whether it is simple curiosity or human nature to search for commonalities, an examination of Van Sant’s work does uncover a few consistent themes such as the pain of unrequited love and the search family (usually in unconventional forms). Often depressing, they are nonetheless truthful considerations of situations and topics much of society would rather overlook. Through realistic, even if uncomfortable, portrayals of characters that don’t conform to accepted norms, Van Sant candidly approaches taboo topics.

On love: in Mala Noche the unreciprocated yearning of a liquor store clerk for a young Mexican immigrant and in My Own Private Idaho, the love a gay street hustler holds for his straight best friend. On family: in Good Will Hunting the companionship of friends and how a once abused young man grapples with the emergence of father figures in his life and in Finding Forrester how the loss of family “obliges us to find our family.” On nonconformist characters: in Drugstore Cowboy the transformation of a thieving drug fiend, in My Own Private Idaho a narcoleptic gay street hustler searching for his mother and in Last Days the desperation of a musician in the last days of his life.

In exploring these sometimes-taboo topics, Van Sant painstakingly conveys a specific realism. Elephant and Paranoid Park seem less than interested in glamorizing dramatic tragedies. The almost rhythmically choreographed fight scene in Good Will Hunting lacks a normal violent tendency and Elephant shows no glorification of the hideous violence brought about by two Columbine like shooters. Likewise, Van Sant has a knack for creating non-gratuitous sex scenes. Instead, he has been known to portray them as sensual and intimate or lacking any emotional fervor, depending on the situation. With no romanticism of either of these concepts, he transcends issues fraught with emotion. Some might consider these missed opportunities, but Van Sant prefers to rely on the strength of the story and his characters.

Consciously, Van Sant uses marginalized characters to not only reveal sometimes ugly truths about society, but to show an appreciation for the outsider, many based on characters he had observed in both Los Angeles and Portland. From the poetic, even lyrical nature of the dialogue voice over in Drugstore Cowboy, to the Shakespearean monologues in My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant seems intent on giving these alienated characters a voice. And its not that he intends to deliver a message about a certain way to live, but rather to uncover the unseen that often hides in plain sight.

Most observers break up Van Sant’s evolution into distinct periods. His Portland period (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho), his foray into the mainstream (To Die For, Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, Psycho), his death trilogy (Gerry, Last Days, Elephant) and his return to his indie roots (Gerry, Paranoid Park, Restless). The versatility that Van Sant displays is clear. At times defying categorization, those films that he serves as both screenwriter and director have a distinct feel and where he has the greatest latitude to express his originality. He has repeatedly expressed a desire to explore for the sake of exploring, which is admirable even when it fails in a conventional sense, because it is only within the exploration can one discover a true sense of art.

While having freely entered the mainstream throughout various times in his career, Van Sant steadfastly maintains his preference for low budget film because it encourages innovation. With pared down crews that allow him the flexibility to change directions on a whim, he happily breaks free from the rules of traditional filmmaking. He also speaks of his desire to work with non-actors and he is known for using locals in the towns where he shoots. With humility, he professes his inability to guide a seasoned actor beyond their own capability, therefore prompting his desire to work with non-actors. Of note, Van Sant views his screenplays as a sketch verses a map and he freely allows the entire crew to express their opinions. These sparks of imagination and inspiration mean that his movies tend to evolve instead of following a rigid structure, a process that he infinitely prefers.

Always an adventurous filmmaker, Van Sant maintains his audience with relatable characters and themes. His unfiltered look within the cracks of society make possible a view of the obscure or overlooked. His bravery in tackling the unorthodox and often radical has proven mostly successful. For an audience, Gus Van Sant is a voyeur in the best possible way, a distinct honor for any filmmaker.

Scripts from this Article