Gus Van Sant has had a peculiar cinematic career. In the late '80s and early '90s, he made his name with a series of indie movies such as "Mala Noche," "Drugstore Cowboy" and "My Own Private Idaho." They were groundbreaking tales of hustlers and drug addicts on the gritty down-and-out of side of Portland Oregon, but told with a sense of whimsy and playfulness.
With the huge critical and commercial success of "Idaho," Van Sant was soon wooed by Hollywood. His 1997 movie "Good Will Hunting" got him his first nomination for an Oscar. Instead of following up this success with something that would solidify his standing as an A-list director though, Van Sant made one of the most curious studio flicks in Hollywood history: a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock's classic "Psycho." The end product baffled audiences and was largely panned by critics. It felt more like an expensive art project.
His 2002 movie "Gerry" was a much more successful break from Hollywood. The movie, which starred Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, was almost entirely improvise, featured long takes, and a very spare storyline. As Van Sant explains it below, "Gerry" started off as an experiment and ended up a revelation. His follow up work, "Elephant," was a refinement of the techniques he used in "Gerry." A controversial look at a Columbine-like school massacre, "Elephant" won the top prize at Cannes and is arguably his finest work.
This week his latest movie "Restless" comes out in selected cities. With this movie along with his previous Oscar-nominated film "Milk," Van Sant moves into a different phase of his career, one that still bears the hallmarks of his indie past but is much more accessible. "Restless" is a quirky romantic drama, based on a play, that follows Enoch (Henry Hopper) a young troubled misfit whose idea of fun is to crash funerals. At one such event, he meets Annabel (Mia Wasikowska) who, as it turns out, has terminal cancer.
I managed to sit down and talk with Van Sant the other day and chatted about his career, his latest movie, and how he almost got a chance to direct one of the "Twilight" installments.
Jonathan Crow: What drew you to this project?
Gus Van Sant: Well, I guess in this case, there was a script. There's not always a script. Sometimes there's a book or a setting or whatever. Usually what I'm looking for is a story. I felt that there was a nice story in this script and that's one of the main things that you sort of look for. You're still reading the script after page 25.Then I read it again to see whether all the scenes are making sense and are necessary, whether I wanted to cut anything out or change anything. And then I just kept realizing that yes, it was something that I wanted to do.
JC: Two of the themes in your work are death and youth. Is that something that resonates with you?
GVS: Well, I think a more common theme is like ad hoc families and youth. Youth is a common arena. Love stories or friendship stories are common, too. There are deaths in "Mala Noche" and "Drugstore Cowboy".
JC: Well, you also had "Gerry," "Elephant," "Last Days."
GVS: Yeah. Those are about death more so than maybe this film -- I mean, "Restless" is about living while you can. [Annabel, the female lead in "Restless,"] is going to die. There's a moment that she's going to not be here, so she's saying, "While we're here, let's hang out." Whereas my other movies were sort of about kind of spiraling into a fatal ending.
Yeah, this seems different to me. The story grew out of [screenwriter Jason Lew's] experience as the son of a pediatric oncologist in Maine and his familiarity with kids that have debilitating diseases. These kids need to forge friendships outside of their ordinary famililes because their ordinary families can't really deal with what's going on. They need friends because they don't really have somebody they can hang out with. They didn't have a life because they were a vision of sadness. There's a scene in the movie where Annabel is making jokes when she learns that her cancer is not going to go away, and her sister gets angry at her.
JC: Some of your earlier movies like "Elephant" were adapted from news events while this movie was from a ready-made script. How did you approach this differently? What were the challenges?
GVS: Well, with "Elephant", we were going to show these dioramas of high school life and high school existence. Show the usual suspects of the causes of high school violence like bullying or availability of guns or alienation in front of the audience and let them pick and choose their ideas of what happened.
In the case of "Restless," we were just following the road map that was already there and trying to make each scene come to life as much as we could, according to the script, which I guess we were doing also in "Elephant." It wasn't that much different but there were a lot more things for us to do in "Elephant" because there wasn't anything filled in.
JC: I'm kind of fascinated with your career. You started off with this great string of indie movies, and then you went on to studio movies. For most directors, that would be that. But you had this U-turn where you went on a streak of making very demanding films. And now, you seem to be kind of coming away from that with "Milk" and with "Restless." Do you see all of your movies as one giant work or do you see them in terms of phases?
GVS: They're phases, I think. After "Gerry," I wanted to make another film that was kind of telling the story in the same way, I guess. It was the first time that I've ever made a movie like that.
JC: And that was inspired by Hungarian director Bela Tarr, right?
GVS: Yeah. It was specially inspired by Bela Tarr, and Andrei Tarkovsky and Chantal Akerman's "Jeanne Dielman."
If the character is in a car driving from point A to point B in a TV show, you show them getting in the car, then you show them arriving at a parking space right in front of the place they're going to. The point usually is just get to the place where the dialogue happens and then go to the next place where the dialogue happens.
A lot of my films are just not necessarily about the dialogue but about the life of the characters. I wanted to try this method of filmmaking again after "Gerry," and so I did it. Originally, I was trying to get out of "Elephant" because I didn't like the script. I told the people at HBO that if I was to do "Elephant," I would throw the script out and I would cast unknowns and I would shoot very long, ponderous shots. They pretended like these were all really good ideas and that this is a perfect way to do it. And so I was like, "Alright, if you guys want to do it, let's do it," so "Elephant" came about.
JC: So are you going to return back to this spare, European-influenced style of filmmaking or do you see yourself --
GVS: I'm not sure. It sort of depends on what the projects are. I didn't intend to have "Gerry" be what it was. It wasn't pre-planned. It was more of a response to what we were coming up with when we were actually rehearsing. I intended for there to be wall-to-wall dialogue, like a John Cassevettes film made in the desert. There was no wall-to-wall dialogue, and so it started to become more like, "OK, what did these guys do? Where did they go?," and it went completely differently.
JC: Is it true that you were in the running to direct "Twilight"?
GVS: Yeah. In an interview, Robert Pattinson was asked, "What's up for the next Twilight?" They had been asked this a thousand times. So he said, "We want to get a filmmaker like Gus Van Sant to do the next one." I was surprised at reading this and I thought, "Am I actually considered? Am I in the running? Would they actually even think that way?" So I told my agent to put my name in the hat.
I went out to the interview and, naively, I wasn't aware that I was expected to sell [myself to] them. They wanted to see your plan even though the plan was to do the movie exactly the way the book read, because if you deviated an inch, you'd be killed by the fans. Of course, the other filmmakers who were much more savvy had long 45-minute displays of these ideas and they got the job. It was a really bad scene because I got really nervous and I realized it was just completely going down. Obviously, I screwed the whole thing up.
See the trailer from 'Restless':