GUS VAN SANT
Talking actors, accolades and the avant-garde…
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.