GUS VAN SANT

Talk­ing ac­tors, ac­co­lades and the avant-garde…

Total Film - - Teasers - JG/JM

For 30 years, Gus Van Sant has hopped be­tween main­stream ti­tles and in­dies with the likes of Drug­store Cow­boy, Good Will Hunt­ing, Ele­phant and Milk. My Own Pri­vate Idaho helped es­tab­lish the New Queer Cinema of the early ’90s, and his films of­ten deal with marginalised sub­cul­tures. His new film Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot stars Joaquin Phoenix as quad­ri­plegic car­toon­ist John Cal­la­han…

You be­gan work­ing on Don’t Worry… in the ’90s. Why so long?

It was ini­ti­ated by Robin Wil­liams. He had op­tioned the book. He knew Cal­la­han’s car­toons and his friend, Christo­pher Reeve, was a quad­ri­plegic from a horse-jump­ing ac­ci­dent. It was also a story about al­co­hol prob­lems, and Robin was fa­mil­iar with that. He in­vited me to help guide a screen­play along. But it was enough of a per­sonal project that the stu­dios were afraid.

How was it re­unit­ing with Joaquin Phoenix all these years af­ter To Die For?

He doesn’t seem to have changed. He’s older so he’s had more ex­pe­ri­ence. He was very thor­ough. He had a ver­sion of the book I’d given him and he’d marked ev­ery page.

You al­ways cast very well. What’s your se­cret?

I think there’s a type that ap­pears as you’re read­ing the script, but I don’t nec­es­sar­ily agree with the idea that it has to be a par­tic­u­lar per­son. Some­times a project comes with an ac­tor at­tached. Good Will Hunt­ing – Matt and Ben were al­ways go­ing to play the parts.

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in was in­spired…

My Own Pri­vate Idaho

Drug­store Cow­boy had just won the New York Film Crit­ics’ As­so­ci­a­tion and a few other awards. I met with Keanu, who wanted to do some­thing that was a lit­tle more artis­tic. River had done The Last Cru­sade, Run­ning On Empty, Stand By Me. He was friends with Keanu, who got him a script be­cause River’s agent was like, “He’s not do­ing this.” And River called back and said, “If Keanu and I do it to­gether, it will be fun.”

What made you think of Sean Penn as Har­vey Milk?

I gave it to Sean in 1997. Tom Cruise was go­ing to play [Milk’s as­sas­sin]

Dan White. Penn, at the time, was 37, not 47 as the char­ac­ter was. Then time went by and noth­ing hap­pened. And then [Dustin] Lance [Black] came to me with a new script and all the ducks were in a row. We went to Sean with that ver­sion and he was still in­ter­ested and now he was the right age. We went back to Tom, and then a few dif­fer­ent peo­ple, be­fore Josh Brolin.

Do you con­sciously switch it up be­tween the main­stream movies, in­dies and avant-garde projects?

The films all have their own per­son­al­i­ties. It’s ex­cit­ing to try and push your­self. But I don’t know. When an au­di­ence de­cides it works, I go, “Yeah, of course.” And when they de­cide it doesn’t work, I also say, “Yeah, of course it doesn’t work.” All the movies I’ve made are pretty much long shots. Good Will Hunt­ing was un­known writ­ers, un­known ac­tors.

Is it true that Ele­phant’s rov­ing cam­er­a­work was in­flu­enced by Alan Clarke’s Ele­phant?

I hadn’t seen it. It was called Ele­phant be­cause our pro­ducer said, “I can’t make Columbine be­cause it’s too much of a hot topic, but I can make Ele­phant.” I said, “What’s Ele­phant?” and he said, “It’s a film that was com­ment­ing about Protes­tant-Catholic vi­o­lence in 1989.” Even­tu­ally I saw it, af­ter I’d made my film. It was Béla Tarr’s Sátán­tangó [that in­flu­enced the style].

Are you ever fear­ful when you take on a risky project?

If you’re think­ing in terms of whether it will play or not, it will just give you fear. I try to be happy when ac­co­lades come my way, and if they don’t, that’s OK too.

ETA | 26 Oc­TO­bEr / DOn’T WOrry, HE WOn’T GET FAr On FOOT OpEns THis mOnTH.

‘ALL THE MOVIES I’VE MADE ARE LONG SHOTS. IT’S EX­CIT­ING TO TRY AND PUSH YOUR­SELF’

At tHe HeLM Van Sant’s lat­est film is an­other tale of a not al­ways like­able out­sider.

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