Patience of a Sant

Even Gus got the blues over Cowgirls but now heís back with a Vengeance

by Fionnuala Halligan

GUS VAN SANT looks a lot older than his 43 years. As far back as 1991 when My Own Private Idaho was released to international acclaim, ill-health forced Van Sant to cancel interviews and take to his bed. But it never seems to affect his movies, which positively vibrate with life. His latest, To Die For, was a surprise hit at the Cannes Film Festival this year. A smart take on the power of the media starring Nicole Kidman, itís also extremely arch.

"To Die For is camp and I donít know why," Van Sant admits in his slow, laconic style. "Iím a gay director, yes; but I donít think Iím a campy director. Somehow it came out."

It may have something to do with the fact that it features Kidman swanning around in every possible hue of pastel pink. It may be camp, but To Die For marks a return to form for Van Sant. In 1993 he stumbled badly with the botched release of his follow-up to Idaho, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, starring Uma Thurman. Even after being dramatically re-edited, it received a critical savaging and went straight to video internationally.
"Iíd think twice about working for a big studio again," he says ruefully.

For several years, though, Gus Van Sant could do no wrong. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Van Sant settled in Portland, Oregon - where he set Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. He graduated with a BA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and then went on to direct commercials for a Madison Avenue advertising firm for two years.

His 1987 directorial debut Mala Noce won the Los Angeles Critics Award for Best Independant Feature. Drugstore Cowboy, starring Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch, became an instant art-house hit in 1989. My Own Private Idaho was universally praised. Then came Cowgirls and devastatingly, the death in 1993 of River Phoenix, who had starred with Keanu Reeves in Idaho and was a personal friend of Van Sant.

Phoenix had won the Best Actor prize at Venice for his portrayal of a narcoleptic hustler, but rumours began to circulate that the supposedly clean-cut star had picked up a drug habit on Idaho and that Van Sant indulged his excess to coax an exceptional performance out of him.

"They said that River was stoned throughout the whole movie," says Van Sant, "which just was not true. It is extremely annoying.
"He was impulsive and careless - he took more drugs than I ever heard of anyone taking before... I donít know how anyone could take that amount of drugs without the idea that they were basically going to die."

Van Sant rejects the thesis that what happened on Idaho was somehow responsible: "It discredits his work on My Own Private Idaho to say that he was on drugs. He was too good in it. You canít be that good and be on drugs."

"Iíll let the actors do what they want to a point," he does admit. "I trust them. And probably they feel sorry for me or something like that. They feel unbridled: it can really help out - but it can also lead to disaster."
Van Sant likes a very closed set, and tries to create a relaxed, family atmosphere. To Die For is his third film to cast a member of the Phoenix family prominently: River in Idaho; his sister Rain in Cowgirls; and younger brother Joaquin in To Die For.

Nicole Kidman, who sparkles as the manipulative Suzanne Stone in To Die For, doesnít seem a natural choice for Van Sant to cast among his "family" of Joaquin Phoenix and Drugstore Cowboy star Matt Dillon. Tough and ambitious, Kidman is not known for laidback attitude.

"Itís true that Nicole is ambitious." he agrees, "and I think she played a bit of herself in this movie."

To Die For is also a new departure for Van Sant in that it is his first adaption of someone elseís screenplay - the work of Buck Henry, celebrated adaptor of The Graduate and Catch 22. His script tells the story of a girl with no talent or morals, just raw ambition, who claws her way to the top in television; her coup de grace is to have her husband (Dillon) murdered.

"My TV references are more from the Sixties and Seventies, you know," confesses Van Sant. "I donít watch TV any more, but I meet people like Suzanne all the time. Next year they are the biggest thing, and you remember the first time you met them, you thought they never would make it.

"Iíve seen a lot of people like that. Fame is an obsession," he says wearily.

The text on this page © 1995 Attitude

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