Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Auteurs #4: Gus Van Sant



From renegade low-budget indie filmmaker to one of the most revered and influential filmmakers in American cinema. No one has had a very prolific yet daring filmmaking career than Gus Van Sant. From his early, gritty indie films that gave voice to homosexuals to the more mainstream yet unconventional films that get him worldwide attention. Van Sant has managed to keep people guessing with whatever film he seeks out to do as he returns with another film that balances his mainstream appeal with art-house aesthetics for Restless.

Born in July 24, 1952, Van Sant was the son of a traveling salesman where the family moved a lot during Van Sant’s early years. In 1970, Van Sant’s aspirations to be a painter while dabbling in small films changed during his studies at the Rhode Island School of Design where he was introduced to the world of avant-garde filmmaking. After traveling to Europe in the mid-1970s, Van Sant went to Los Angeles to develop his film career as he worked on a few shorts including a 45-minute called Alice in Hollywood. It was during making the film that Van Sant came across poor sections of the city that would inspire him to make his first feature film.



Van Sant’s 1985 feature film debut is based on the semi-biographical novel of Walt Curtis. Yet, Mala Noche was a film that was made at a time when there weren’t a lot of realistic portrayals of gay relationships as the film was about a hopeless romantic who falls for a Mexican immigrant. The film was set primarily in Portland where Van Sant would set up his home base for everything up till the present. For the entirety of the film except for the final credits, Van Sant and his then-cinematographers in the duo of John Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards shot the film in black-and-white 16mm film.

The look of the film is what made it very distinctive which was everything that wasn’t what was going with Hollywood films at the time while the budget for Mala Noche was a mere $25,000. The look of the film was very grainy and very loose as Van Sant used this cinema verite style to follow the life of this young man named Walt. What made it even more shocking was that Walt was very open about his homosexuality where in the mid-80s, AIDS was prevalent and homosexuality was considered sinful. With this film, Van Sant made something that is very daring about the fact that gays weren’t going to stay quiet as they’re just looking for love.

The film was released via an underground release in 1985 before finally getting a chance to be seen to a wider, though small, audience two years later where the L.A. Film Critics Association named it the Best Independent Film that year. For the people that did get to see the film, it marked as a turning point for gay cinema as the 1980s was a decade of groundbreaking films that explored homosexuality. It was also a film that was considered to be one of the key films that help start the new wave of 1990s gay cinema that was dubbed New Queer Cinema with the openly-gay Van Sant being one of its forefathers.



The independent success of Mala Noche gave Van Sant some attention from major film studios in Hollywood for projects to be developed. Van Sant managed to pitch a couple of projects only to be rejected as he managed to go on his own once again as he managed to get attention of various indie studios to fund his next film. Based on an unpublished novel by James Fogle, Drugstore Cowboy is the story of a drug addict and his family of addicts trying to steal pharmaceuticals in order to feed their habits and evade the cops. Van Sant co-wrote the project with Daniel Yost as he goes into an exploration of addiction and a man’s attempt to find redemption following tragedy.

Unlike casting unknowns for Mala Noche, Van Sant managed to get a cast of up-and-comers for the film while the real surprise was 80s teen idol Matt Dillon whose career by the mid-80s had floundered. With Dillon as the film’s protagonist Bob Hughes, the film allows Dillon to act like an adult as a young man trying to maintain his addiction and teach younger addicts the rope of how to steal and how to survive. The Bob Hughes character, like many protagonists in Van Sant’s films prior and since then, is an outsider who defies convention and tries to go out of his own. Yet, Hughes has a few people to help around such as his wife and the two young addicts they take in.

With Matt Dillon giving a truly charismatic yet gritty performance, Van Sant managed to get a wonderful supporting cast to surround Dillon that includes Kelly Lynch as Bob’s wife Dianne, James LeGros and Heather Graham as the two young addicts, James Remar as a cop who tries to go after Bob, and legendary Beat writer William S. Burroughs as an aging addict. Set in 1971 Portland, Van Sant creates a film that is polished but also free-flowing in its tone and energy while adding a sense of realism. The film also marks as a chance for Van Sant to get more room to create something unique from the way he creates tension and suspense along with his close-ups of actors to emphasize their own conflict as it would become a trademark of his work.

The film was released in the fall of 1989 to rave reviews where it would win several critics awards while giving Matt Dillon a major comeback. The film was also a breakthrough for some of the actors in the film like Kelly Lynch who would become a major indie film star. Heather Graham, who had been known for teen movies, would help her go into indie films where she would finally have her own breakthrough with 1997’s Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Anderson. Yet, the film came out at the right time when independent cinema was starting to become more evident to the film going public following the success of Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, & videotape earlier that year. The goodwill that Van Sant received with Drugstore Cowboy would allow Van Sant to create what would be his most personal project to date.



An entirely original project that Van Sant had been wanting to do for years, the film would become the director’s crowning achievements as well as a landmark film for gay cinema. The film was based in part by William Shakespeare’s Henry IV as some of its dialogue was used in the film about a mayor’s son who falls for a narcoleptic street hustler in search for his mother. The film is a mixture of Van Sant’s love for Americana as well as the rise of gay culture as he adds humor and pop pastiche to his vision.

The film’s cast was as unique as the one he used previously in Drugstore Cowboy as it featured German actor Udo Kier, film director William Reichart, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, rising Italian actress Chiara Caselli, and veteran actress Grace Zabriskie, who had previously been in Drugstore Cowboy. For the role of Scott Favor, the mayor’s rebellious son, rising Canadian actor Keanu Reeves was cast for the role as the film would be a challenge following his big star turn in the comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Though Reeves had been done dramatic work in films like Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge and Marisa Silver’s Permanent Record, a film like My Own Private Idaho would end up being Reeves’ finest performance to date.

For the role of the narcoleptic gay street hustler Mike Waters, River Phoenix was cast for the role as it would be the actor’s most successful transition into adult roles following years of being an acclaimed child actor and teen idol. Phoenix would end up being a very close collaborator to Van Sant as he wrote some dialogue for the film’s campfire scene where Mike professes his love to Scott. The film plays into three acts and in three different locations as it starts out in Portland where Van Sant allows the camera to dabble into the world of the gay hustler scene as it’s very stylized and also gritty. One of the key elements that Van Sant does with the film is in the love scenes where the actors would freeze during the performance as it cuts to another short of actors freezing in different positions.

The film also has a sense of improvisation that is prevalent with a lot of the films Van Sant would do later in his career. Even as he creates some chaos for scene such as the two funerals where the street hustlers go nuts while the people at the other funeral watch all the ruckus that is happening. Yet, it would lead to a poignant ending about the fates between Scott and Mike as Scott accepts his fated role following a trip to Italy that he and Mike took to find Mike’s mother. It is where Scott falls in love with a young Italian woman while Mike is suddenly lost and heartbroken. Scott’s reformation into a man who rejects the likes of Bob and the street hustlers is more to do with Scott taking in what is expected of him though remains conflicted in his feelings for Mike making it far more tragic.

The film also had some standout moments that includes Udo Kier’s improvisational musical performance that wows Scott along with a very chilling scene when Mike meets his brother Richard (James Russo) who offers a very horrifying revelation. Yet, it’s Phoenix’s entrancing yet fragile performance that is the heart of the film which won him the Volpi Cup Best Actor prize at the 1991 Venice Film Festival. The film became a bit hit in the art house circuit while garnering large amounts of critical acclaim as well as accolades including a Best Actor prize from the National Society of Film Critics to Phoenix.



For directors who always had great films, there is always a moment when they would face failure and have a dud or two in their career. For Gus Van Sant, his 1993 adaptation of Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a failure where a lot of things didn’t work. What is more startling is why would Van Sant adapt a novel that seemed to be un-filmable with its varying themes that Robbins talks about including homosexuality where the film’s protagonist Sissy Hankshaw falls for a sexually-open cowgirl named Bonanza Jellybean. The film is about a young woman with large thumbs who uses her defect as a gift as she travels all across America as a hitchhiker. Throughout her journey, she would meet various characters that would impact her life.

For a film that is based on a very unconventional novel, Van Sant chose to employ a large ensemble for the film as Uma Thurman was cast in the role of Sissy Hankshaw while River Phoenix, who makes a cameo in the film as a pilgrim, suggests having his younger sister Rain as Bonanza Jellybean. With appearances from people he’s worked with like Keanu Reeves, Udo Kier, Heather Graham, and Grace Zabriskie. Van Sant also brought in a who’s who of people to appear ranging from John Hurt, Angie Dickinson, Lin Shaye, Buck Henry, Roseanne, Sean Young, Crispin Glover, Victoria Williams, and Lorraine Braco. What happens is that Van Sant makes a film where the people who makes cameos or play small roles would end up being a distraction as even Tom Robbins would appear as the film’s narrator.

With his regular group of collaborators that would include cinematographers John Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards, editor Curtiss Clayton, production designer Missy Stewart, and costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor to help Van Sant with his vision. Van Sant’s approach to maintain a chaotic, loose style in tune with Robbins’ vision for his book proved to be difficult during post-production as Van Sant try to make a film that is coherent and accessible. While eccentric country artist k.d. lang provided original music to the film with Ben Mink, lang’s score would be the only highlight to what was a baffling yet incoherent film.

The film premiered at the 1993 Toronto Film Festival in September that year as it was set to be released later in the year. The screening in Toronto proved to be a disaster as Van Sant wanted to delay the film more so he can spend more time re-cutting the film as more than 30 minutes of the film was cut. During the re-editing of the film, River Phoenix died on October 31, 1993 following an accidental drug overdose outside of a nightclub in Hollywood. Van Sant would dedicate the final version of the film to Phoenix with a running time of 95 minutes as it was officially released in May 20, 1994. Yet, Van Sant’s effort to re-work and tighten the film was not enough to help it as the film drew negative reviews while flopping at the box office making only $1.7 million against its $8 million budget.



Despite the failure of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Van Sant still had some clout in Hollywood due to his previous successes as he went for another adaptation. This time around, he chose Joyce Maynard’s story of ambition that was based on the Pamela Smart story. With Buck Henry writing the screenplay, To Die For would become Van Sant’s most accessible and witty film of his career about a weather girl whose ambition to become a famous news anchor gets dark as she hires teenagers to kill her husband.

Taking on a more satirical approach in tune with the public’s fascination with the media plus told in multiple narratives through various characters. The film is a commentary on the public’s fascination with supposed murderers and their story as its protagonist Suzanne Stone-Maretto is a woman that is eager to become famous. Throughout the film, she talks directly to the camera to reveal her side to the story while other such as her sister-in-law Janice, family members, and two teenagers also give their side to this wonderful story.

The film was meant to star Meg Ryan in the lead but turned it down until rising Australian actress Nicole Kidman took the part for $2 million instead of the $5 million that was offered to Ryan. The film would also mark a reunion between Van Sant and his Drugstore Cowboy star Matt Dillon in the role as Suzanne’s ill-fated husband Larry. With a cast that also included Dan Hedaya, Kurtwood Smith, Illeana Douglas, and Holland Taylor along with cameo appearances from Buck Henry, George Segal, novelist Joyce Maynard, and famed Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg. The film also featured a trio of young actors to play the subject of Suzanne’s documentary as it included Alison Folland, Casey Affleck, and Joaquin Phoenix, the younger brother of River.

Throughout the film’s mix of dark humor and drama, Van Sant and Henry play off the satire as it includes a wonderful shot where Suzanne waits for Folland’s Lydia and Phoenix’s Jimmy to arrive as she stands in the room at day and maintains that same stance until their arrival. It’s Van Sant giving into style while using it as a crux for Suzanne’s ruthless behavior as she parties with them and later seducing Jimmy who would become a pawn in her game. The way Van Sant builds the momentum and to make Suzanne into a fun though unlikable villain is really key for the audience to want her dead. Just as it seems she will finally make it, the film ends on an ironic note where one of her documentary subjects end up getting a lot of attention while Suzanne’s fate ends on a very dark but funny note.

The film proved to be a major hit with audiences and critics giving Van Sant some much needed luster following the failure of Cowgirls. At the same time, the film helped Nicole Kidman, who was known primarily as the wife of Hollywood megastar Tom Cruise at the time, become a major film star as she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical. The film also helped Joaquin Phoenix break out of the child actor syndrome as he would become a star in his own right. The film would mark the end of an era for Van Sant as it would be the last time he would work with members of the Phoenix family though Casey Affleck would marry Joaquin’s younger sister Summer in 2006.



The success of To Die For made Van Sant viable as he was selected by two young actors for a screenplay they had created. The story of how Good Will Hunting was made is among one of the legendary stories of how two young actors in Ben Affleck and Matt Damon wrote their own ticket to success by creating their own screenplay. The two pitched the projects for years at a time when their careers weren‘t taking off due to lack of exposure. Though Affleck’s affiliation with Kevin Smith gave him work as he and Damon both appeared in Smith’s 1997 film Chasing Amy. The two needed a break as Smith’s help got the attention of the Weinstein brothers at Miramax where Van Sant officially signed on to direct the film that also starred Affleck and Damon in the respective roles of Chuckie and Will Hunting.

The film is about a young man at South Boston who works as a janitor at M.I.T. who is also a gifted mathematician. After catching the attention of a revered professor who wants him to succeed big, a therapist goes inside the troubled mind of the young man who falls for a young woman while dealing with his working-class friends. With Stellan Skarsgard as Professor Lambeau, Minnie Driver as Will’s love-interest Skylar, and Robin Williams as the therapist Sean McGuire. The film would be a poignant exploration of young man’s gift as people vie to win the man’s soul as Will Hunting was a complex yet haunting character performed with great depth by Matt Damon.

Van Sant’s approach to the film was to make it simple but also add some grit to it as he chooses to set it in South Boston to maintain the realism of where Damon and Affleck, along with Ben’s younger brother Casey in a small role, were from. With Van Sant also being known for allowing improvisation to happen, the sense of realism allowed the actors to bring their own ideas to the characters they played. Still, Van Sant still presented something that was very straightforward in the way he created a lot of dramatic moments including a quiet scene where Sean talks to Will at a park where it would allow Will to open up more. In Sean, Williams is able to play a character that was very touching as well as tough as a man who knows about abuse and being played as he tries to help Will find himself.

Another great scene that really allows Ben Affleck to have his moment to shine is where Chuckie tells Will to not become a laborer full time and not waste the gift that he has. It’s Van Sant’s simple yet controlled presentation to the restrained dramatic elements is what often keeps people seeing a film like Good Will Hunting. While it’s a film that might not have some of Van Sant’s more experimental yet unconventional tactics, it is a film that shows how gifted Van Sant can be when he does a mainstream film in a proper manner.

When it was released in December of 1997 for Oscar consideration, the film drew rave reviews with critics while also becoming Van Sant’s biggest hit of his career. The film would also garner loads of accolades including nine Oscar nominations including a Best Original Song to indie-folk artist Elliot Smith, Best Picture, and a Best Director nod for Gus Van Sant. The film would win two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor to Robin Williams and Best Original Screenplay to Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. It would be Van Sant’s official arrival to Hollywood as he was given anything he wants. Something that was very evident in the 2001 Kevin Smith comedy Jay & Silent Bob Strikes Back where Van Sant is counting money during the production of Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season.



When a filmmaker becomes hot in Hollywood, they can be given the chance to do anything they want at any kind of budget. With top film producer Brian Grazer, Van Sant decided to do a remake of the famed 1960 Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho. The idea of remaking a film as revered as Psycho seems like a shocking idea but to Hollywood, remaking films is a way to make money. However, Van Sant’s approach to remaking Hitchcock’s classic would proved to be extremely controversial.

Going for a shot-by-shot remake, setting it in contemporary times, and having Christopher Doyle to shoot it in color. The film would end up being one of the most interesting remakes ever presented from a Hollywood studio. While Van Sant made a few changes in terms of dialogue, set pieces, and some bits of music played in the background to keep up with the times. Van Sant chose to remain faithful to the script that was written by Joseph Stefano as well as re-create the same compositions and edits that was employed in the original film. In theory, it would’ve been a good idea but the final results ended up being one of the most unnecessary remakes ever made.

Whereas the original 1960 film had a budget of more than $800,000, Van Sant’s remake had a budget of $60 million that included a cast of top actors at the time that included Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, Robert Forster, and William H. Macy while playing the famed Marion Crane role that Janet Leigh made famous went to Anne Heche. For the iconic Norman Bates role that made Anthony Perkins synonymous with that character, Vince Vaughn was chosen. To many people, the casting was wrong as some enjoyed seeing Heche be killed at a time when she was famous for being very outspoken in her then-relationship with lesbian comedian Ellen Degeneres.

The film was a flop with audiences and critics as it only made $37 million in the worldwide box office while it won two Razzie awards for Worst Sequel/Remake and a Worst Director prize to Van Sant. Whatever reasons Van Sant wanted to do the film, some speculate that he was intending to make a film where he knew it was never going to be as good as the original. Some believe that Van Sant did something Hollywood would never do which was to make one of the most expensive avant-garde remakes of a much revered film like Psycho. Whatever the case, the film remains a failure of sorts as it would give Van Sant some notoriety.



After taking a break over the debacle of Psycho, Van Sant focused on various projects including two albums, a novel called Pink, and producing a film called Speedway Junky for Nickolas Perry. Still in need to recover from his previous film, Van Sant chose to go into more familiar territory with a coming-of-age drama called Finding Forrester about an African-American teenager who is accepted to a prestigious private school in New York City while befriending a reclusive novelist. The film was written by Mike Rich as Van Sant went on board with the project to create a film that has conventional story but something endearing in the relationship between an aspiring writer and a legendary reclusive writer.

With Sean Connery playing the role of the reclusive William Forrester, casting for the character of Jamal was difficult as Van Sant wanted a 16-year old African-American kid from the Bronx as Rob Brown took the part for his film debut. With a cast that included Anna Paquin, F. Murray Abraham, rap star Busta Rhymes, then-newcomer Michael Pitt, and a special appearance from Matt Damon. Van Sant also found new collaborator in cinematographer Harris Savides who would become one of the key people Van Sant would work in the coming years.

While a lot of the story involving a talented basketball player with a secret passion for writing and a brilliant yet eccentric author might recall elements of Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman and Van Sant’s own film Good Will Hunting. Van Sant chose to add a realistic film by shooting entirely on location in the Bronx and in Manhattan in order to maintain a sense of authenticity. During the production of the film, Van Sant and Connery helped out the in-experienced Brown to find his character as things went well. Particularly as Van Sant allowed a lot of improvisation such as a wonderful scene of Connery riding a bicycle around the Bronx to the tune of Carl Orff’s Gaussenhauser that was made famous previously from the 1973 film Badlands by Terrence Malick. At the same time, the film had some heartfelt moments involving Brown and Connery in their performance that elevated it from being more than just a conventional mentor-student drama.

When the film was released in December of 2000, the film drew some good reviews while it also did well in the box office. Yet, the film drew some criticism over its lack of originality though Sean Connery’s famous “You’re the man now, dog” quote became an internet sensation. While the film did restore some of Van Sant’s clout in Hollywood, the director was ready to move away from that world as he seeks a return to his experimental filmmaking roots.

The Death Trilogy: Gerry - Elephant - Last Days


After working for Hollywood for some years and making big-budget films, Van Sant desired to return to more smaller, intimate filmmaking that he enjoyed early in his career. Having found a new collaborator with Harris Savides from their work in Gerry, Van Sant also asked for sound designer Leslie Shatz. Shatz first worked with Van Sant as a sound mixer in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues as she would work with him again on Good Will Hunting where their collaboration would go on steadily as she moved up from re-recording mixer to sound designer. With Felix Andrews also helping out with the sound and Van Sant choosing to be his own editor, the four would collaborate on a trio of minimalist-driven films that were inspired by real-life events relating to death.

Van Sant’s Death Trilogy would be the turning point in his career as he would no longer worry about studio interference nor box office expectations. For the first film entitled Gerry, Van Sant chooses to create a fictional account on the real-life death of David Coughlin in the hands of Raffi Kodikian when the two got lost hiking in the deserts of Southern New Mexico. For this project, Van Sant turned to two actors he had previous worked with in Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. The two would help Van Sant write and edit the film with him as production began in 2001 on different locations such the Utah Salt Flats, Death Valley, and parts of Argentina.

The film would have Damon and Affleck play two men both named Gerry as they would go on a hike at a desert and suddenly be lost. Throughout the film, the two men would trek around the desert trying to find help where at one point, one of the characters is on top of a rock unable to come down while other tries to help him jump. A lot of the dialogue that is spoken in the film involves the men talking about various things like in many conversations while the majority of the film contained little dialogue. It was Van Sant in collaboration with Damon and Affleck to create something that felt real and to the point as if they were re-creating the Coughlin death.

With Savides providing a realistic yet unconventional approach to the cinematography, the film also included some long tracking shots as Van Sant cited the work of Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr as an inspiration. With Shatz and Andrews providing ethereal sound textures to enhance the haunting tone of the film, it would create a film that would set a distinctive tone for the following features to come in the trilogy. Even more startling was that Van Sant chose to open the film with no credits as it began with a car driving onto a road to the tune of Avro Part’s Spiegel Im Spiegel while the closing credits didn’t feature anything fancy nor the film’s title.

When it premiered at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, the film drew a polarizing reaction with audiences and critics with many wondering why would a big star like Matt Damon be involved with a project like this. Though Van Sant was able to get the film to other festivals and eventually get a limited theatrical release a year later, the film was able to later receive better acclaim over the years as one of Van Sant’s best films. Yet, it was just the starting point as Van Sant was already working on the second part of his trilogy.


Elephant was a film inspired by 1999 Columbine school shootings in Columbine, Colorado where two students killed 15 people and later themselves that sparked a national incident. With the incident still on people’s mind that was preceded by Michael Moore’s 2002 gun-control documentary Bowling for Columbine. For Van Sant’s film, the director with Savides, Shatz, and Andrews wanted to maintain the similar approach they had done with Gerry in terms of improvisational filmmaking. With help from actress Diane Keaton and HBO Films to help in aiding the production, Van Sant decided to go for a cast of mostly non-actors as he shot the film in his hometown of Portland, Oregon.

The film followed a group of young kids during a typical day in high school where one of them (John Robinson) saw a couple of young men (Alex Frost and Eric Duelen) enter a school with a bag as they tell the kid to not enter the school. Throughout the entirety of the film, Van Sant would create many scenes to gather different perspectives of the student during the incident. At the same time, Van Sant allowed the film to follow the two killers during the day before they’re about to kill and as they’re set to kill.

The minimalist-driven film with a running time of 81-minutes as opposed to the 103-minute running time for Gerry brought a much tighter approach to what Van Sant wanted. With Savides bringing more colorful palettes for the cinematography while maintaining a realistic approach, the film had a look that was truly more ominous. Van Sant also chose to changing the framing approach for Elephant as Gerry was shot in a 2:35:1 widescreen aspect ratio format. For Elephant and the next film in Last Days, Van Sant chose to go for a full-frame 1:33:1 theatrical aspect ratio for a more intimate approach to the presentation while he also allowed a widescreen format for its DVD releases.

The film premiered at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim as Van Sant won the Palme D’or as well as the Best Director prize. The film also became a major art house hit scoring $10 million in box office receipts making Van Sant more viable than ever. The film would also be put into many year-end best of films list along with Gerry as many indie and art house film fans welcomed Van Sant’s return from the mainstream.


For the third and final part of Van Sant’s trilogy entitled Last Days, Van Sant decided to make a film based on the final days of Nirvana’s lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain. In the early 1990s, Nirvana was the band that made grunge and alternative music popular though Cobain struggled with success and fame leading to his suicide on April 5, 1994. Van Sant, a fan of Nirvana, had been wanting to make a film about Cobain for years but never found the right idea nor the right time until the production for both Gerry and Elephant.

Shooting at the Hudson Valley in the state of New York instead of Portland, Van Sant chose to employ a different mix of non-actors and professionals. For the role of Blake, that was a composite version of Cobain, Michael Pitt was chosen for the role while other professionals such as Asia Argento, Lukas Haas, Scott Patrick Green, Ricky Jay, filmmaker Harmony Korine, and Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon make appearances. With this film, Van Sant chose to present an idea of what Cobain’s life would’ve been like up to his suicide.

Throughout the film, there’s multiple versions of scenes presented in different perspectives from Blake’s own perspective to the people living at his house at the time. During Blake’s day, he would meet various people dropping by to visit him or to discuss something with him. Yet, Van Sant would follow his camera around Blake as he wanders around in his own despair unsure about his place and dealing with the world around him. What kept the film be so engaging with its lack of conventional plot and minimalist style is through Michael Pitt’s nearly silent performance that is truly entrancing as he even gets the chance to perform a song in one of the most haunting moments of the film.

The film premiered at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival to great fanfare as it would win a Technical Jury Prize for Leslie Shatz’s sound design. Reviews for the film was mixed but the critics who did praise the film cited it as one of the best films of the year while the film gained an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Harris Savides’ cinematography.

The overall work of Van Sant’s Death Trilogy would not only revitalize Van Sant’s career with indie film buffs but it allowed him to reach a wider audience worldwide. The films that Van Sant created not only refined his work as a filmmaker but also allowed him to strip things down and not be overwhelmed by expectations or the vastness of these projects. What the Death Trilogy really did for Van Sant wouldn’t just further his status as a great filmmaker but also make him one of the most daring and fearless filmmakers in American cinema.



For his next project, Van Sant decided to adapt Blake Nelson’s novel entitled Paranoid Park about a16-year old boy’s accidental murder against a security guard as he tries to fit in with the elite skater crowd in the famed Paranoid Park skate park in Portland. For Van Sant’s adaptation, he chose to remain faithful but also keep in tune with the minimalist filmmaking style that he’s done with his previous films. For the casting, Van Sant once again chose to employ non-professionals through MySpace so he can maintain authenticity for the project. Gabe Nevins was eventually chosen to play the film’s protagonist in 16-year old Alex.

With a large cast of non-professionals along with Gossip Girl star Taylor Momsen as Alex’s girlfriend, Van Sant also chose to shoot the film entirely in Portland including the famed Burnside Skatepark as Paranoid Park. With Harris Savides unable to take part due to work for other productions, Van Sant asked Christopher Doyle, whom they collaborated on Psycho, to fill in along with Rain Kathy Li for the film’s cinematography. Working on different film stocks such as 35mm and Super 8mm film, Van Sant wanted to employ a different look that stood out against his work in the Death Trilogy. The result would have Van Sant create something that was poetic in the way he shot and edited skateboarding scenes in the film.

Many of the skateboarding scenes including for the Super 8 footage Van Sant used gave the film a look that is very different from his previous films. It is as if Van Sant gave it a home-movie feel to it where some of it is in slow motion where it adds to the poetic tone he wanted for the film. At the same time, Van Sant’s use of music such as the score pieces of famed Italian composer Nino Rota for some of the dramatic moments of the film as a lot of is told from Alex’s perspective as he’s dealing with what he’s done as well as the way he’s disconnecting himself with the people around him.

The film was released at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival where Van Sant also premiered his 3-minute contribution to the anthology film Chacun Son Cinema with his short called First Kiss. Paranoid Park received excellent reviews as Van Sant received the 60th Anniversary prize for his entire work. The film finally came out in 2008 in a limited, art-house release yet the film proved that Van Sant is still able to keep in tact with his vision as the film did well financially while ending up in several critics year-end list for 2008.



The story about openly-gay supervisor Harvey Milk who had been one of the first gay rights leaders in the 1970s was first told in Rob Epstein’s 1984 award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk. A dramatic version of the project had been developed for years as Van Sant was attached to it in the early 1990s with Oliver Stone serving as a producer. Yet, the project fell apart as it went into development hell for many years until 2007 when newcomer Dustin Lance Black wrote a script about Milk that brought Van Sant back to the fold. While Bryan Singer was trying to develop the version of the project that Van Sant was attached to, the project Van Sant took with Black went forward when Singer’s version fell apart due to the writer’s strike in the fall of 2007.

With collaborators in sound designer Leslie Shatz and cinematographer Harris Savides, Van Sant chose to shoot the film entirely on location in San Francisco and its famed Castro district. With Sean Penn playing the role of Milk, Van Sant also chose to employ a young cast of up-and-coming actors that included James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, and Diego Luna for parts as people in Milk’s life. For the role of Milk’s assassin Dan White, Matt Damon was cast but was unable due to schedule conflict as Josh Brolin eventually took the part. With Denis O’Hare playing Senator John Briggs and Victor Garber as Mayor George Moscone, Van Sant also allowed cameos from the real-life associates of Milk like Cleve Jones, Danny Nicoletta, and Carol Ruth Silver to make appearances as they also served as consultants.

For the film, Van Sant wanted to create a bio-pic that was a bit conventional but also unconventional as he wanted to recreate a period when homosexuality was just about to come out in the 1970s. Van Sant not only used Epstein’s documentary for guidance but to help re-create that period by allowing the people living in the Castro to be part of the film. For the characters that are in the film, many of which are real life figures, Van Sant wanted to create a more humanistic portrayal for audience to be engaged by as he also didn’t want to take many liberties towards those characters.

One of the people Van Sant and Black wanted to explore more was Dan White as they wanted to know what made that man tick and why did he kill Harvey Milk and George Moscone in late November of 1978. Though neither Van Sant nor Black brought any answers, they did give the White character something more than just a typical antagonist. With the Milk character, it gave Sean Penn a chance to loosen up after playing very serious characters for years. The result would have Penn play a more lively, humorous character that was true to Milk’s real-life personality. Van Sant also allowed younger actors like Franco, Hirsch, Pill, and Luna to flesh out their characters so it would be more of an ensemble film rather than the focus being on Penn.

The film premiered at the famed Castro theater in San Francisco in late October of 2008 during a controversial period as the California election that involved a bill to ban gay marriage was passed. Focus Features pulled the film Cinemark theaters because CEO Alan Stock gave money for the Proposition 8 bill to pass though the film was eventually released to a wide release in late November to critical acclaim and box office success. The film would win two Oscars for Best Original Screenplay to Dustin Lance Black and Best Actor to Sean Penn while receiving six more Oscar nominations including Best Picture and a Best Director nod to Van Sant who also received a nomination from the Director’s Guild of America. The film’s success not only brought Van Sant back to Hollywood but also maintained his status as one of the best filmmakers working today.



Van Sant’s fourteenth feature film about two young lovers and their obsession with death. The film is written by Jason Lew, which was based on his own play, as the film is another exploration of Van Sant’s fascination with death. This time around, Van Sant chose to create something that was less heavier than the more cerebral, minimalist tone of his Death Trilogy. Instead, Van Sant went for a more accessible approach in this love story between a young man and a girl that is dealing with cancer. The film also has the young boy talking to a ghost in the form of a Japanese kamikaze pilot to deal with the world of death.

The film was slated for a January 2011 release but was pushed to September for a limited release to mixed reviews and mediocre box office. Yet, the film did manage to open the 2011 Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival in May of that year though audiences and critics remain divided towards Van Sant’s new feature. Whatever opinion people have towards the film, it proves that Van Sant is still able to teeter around between the two differing worlds of art house and mainstream audience in his attempt to bring something for everyone with this film.

Through offbeat art-house films, quirky yet accessible mainstream films, or anything else in between. Gus Van Sant has already cultivated a career that is truly incomparable with other filmmakers. While there is definitely more to come from Van Sant including an upcoming TV pilot that he directed for the Starz TV drama Boss. He is a filmmaker that often works under the beat of his own drum while taking risks that not a lot of filmmakers will do. Even if it means failure as Van Sant is fearless in his attempts to try and bring something that no one hasn’t seen. These are among the many reasons why Gus Van Sant is one of the best filmmakers working today.


© thevoid99 2011

2 comments:

Aziza said...

Wonderful post, it's great to see someone who really puts effort in his writing and discovering of movies. I recently saw Restless and I absolutely loved it, and the cinema reaction was amazing- people didn't leave the theater during the credits and I saw a lot of people with tears in their eyes. I hope you will see it, too, soon! Have a nice day!

thevoid99 said...

Thank you. This took me more than a month to work on. I was hoping to see Restless but I had people coming over and I didn't have access to transportation and the film only played here for a week.

If I did see it, I think the portion on that film would've made the essay much better.