Interview Magazine, March 1991

My Director and I

interview by River Phoenix

Introduction by Graham Fuller

Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho - the title taken from a B-52 song and the story, in part, from Henry IV, Parts I and II - stars River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as street prostitutes in Portland, Oregon: one a narcoleptic, the other a modern-day Prince Hal to a gay, Falstaffian gang leader (William Richert). The movie maintains the affinity for strung-out rebels that the thirty-eight-year-old Van Sant, a Rhode Island School of Design film graduate and former adman and Roger Corman PA, had demonstrated in his two previous films. Mala Noche, shot with considerable verve on 16mm for $20,000 in 1985, was the story of a convenience-store manager's forlorn passion for a Mexican migrant labourer. Drugstore Cowboy, probably the best picture of 1989, was an agreeably grungy and bitterly funny slice of nostalgia for the low-life junkie culture of the early 1970s that sacrificed neither the jaunty skid-row lyricism nor the raw romanticism of its predecessor.

Drugstore Cowboy's star was the newly wise, swashbuckling Matt Dillon, its patron saint William Burroughs, whose story 'The Discipline of D. E.' Van Sant had filmed in 1977, one of several shorts he made prior to his first, now forgotten featurette, Alice in Hollywood. Van Sant's future films include an adaptation of Tom Robbins's novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and an elliptical biopic of Andy Warhol.

Just before the cast and crew of My Own Private Idaho left Scattle for the final days of shooting in Rome, River Phoenix interviewed his director over the course of a day as they ate, drove and ate again. It was appropriate that the conversation should take place in transit, for Van Sant's films are nothing if not investigations of uprootedness and the spiritual quest for home - 'home', of course, always connoting far more than four walls and a roof.

In a Seattle sushi bar

RIVER PHOENIX: In general, do you have fun ?

GUS VAN SANT: In general? Do you mean when I'm not shooting?

RP: Specifically, do you have fun if you like something that you're working on, or do you just enjoy yourself anyway?

GVS: No, I don't actually. I have fun sometimes when I'm not working, but when I'm working I just concentrate on the work. I guess if you get good results, then you start to have fun. But if you're not getting good results, you say, 'Well, how can we make this better? It's not sounding or looking right.' Then somebody says, 'What do you mean by "right"?' And you say, 'just better'. And they go, 'Well, sorry'. So in those instances you don't have too much fun, because it seems like you can't get what you want. I get frustrated.

RP: I see you smirking very often.

Gus: Really?

RP: You get a sort of perpetual-bliss glaze to your eyes.

GVS: During the work?

RP: Yeah. But it's also 1ike a creative spark at the end of takes, say. If you're getting new ideas, your eyes kind of vibrate.

GVS: Well, part of it's like I'm the audience sitting in a theatre. I'm not really pretending I'm in a theatre, but I'm looking at the scenes as I think it's being shot, because I'm not looking through the camera.

RP: Didn't you say that you kind of slip in, like a hand in a glove - actor being the glove - and share that sensation of being in the moment?

GVS: Yeah. Like I'm one of the characters.

RP: So you lose objectivity sometimes?

GVS: Yeah, so then -

RP: So you turn to your technical crew.

GVS: But I'm attached to them too. See, they're also like the actors. I put myself into each of those technical positions - sound, camera - so it's confusing in a way.

RP: Do you have a fragmented personality at the end of the day?

GVS: No, because I'm doing it intuitively. I'm not really doing it intellectually.

RP: As far as sitting down and applying motivation and drive to your ever-changing creative world, how do you discipline yourself? Is there any sort of philosophy that keeps you in line with that discipline?

GVS: When I see something - a film, say - that I think is a good idea, something that I might want to do, I don't really see it as a whole. I see an image that I think represents the whole film. And so then I start to work towards that image, and then I fill it all out, and it becomes very complicated, because you have to have a lot of elements to make the image come to life. And on the way, you usually lose that one image It becomes a new thing, a thing unto itself. You keep it going along the lines that it's got a mind of its own, and then by the end you say 'Oh yeah, I remember the first image of this particular idea. I thought it was going to be like this black-and-white, dark thing that was set in the l950s.' And you actually end up with a very colourful, bright story set in the 1990s.

RP: Referring to My Own Private Idaho?

GVS: Yeah, Idaho is a very good example, because it is very bright and colourful, and it is set in the 1990s. And I think the original ideas were dark and shadowy, but there's not a lot of shadow in it.

RP: Like there is in Mala Noche. So you start with a 'theme seedling', and then that sprout s into its own tree and don't really try to trim it. You let it grow and the end result is - whatever. Do you refine it? Do you try to reroute it back to what it was?

GVS: You refine it every step of the way. Usually I'm presented with new ideas. Like, our production designer, David Brisbin, showed up and said, 'I think that red and yellow are the colours of the film.' And I might have no conception like that myself.

RP: Right, right.

GVS: Except, actually, I gave him a book cover that was yellow, and that book cover did inspire the look of the film. So he was actually reacting to something. But it was a new idea to me when he said 'Yellow' and based the colour scheme on pornographic bookshop storefronts, which are usually yellow, and neons… the city colours. So, directions keep changing, because everyone's interpreting things in their own way. I know that you persuaded me against using black and white. You said, 'No, no, no. It has to be colour.' [chuckles] I don't know why you said that.

RP: I wanted black and white, and, for me, colour was wrong, and that's why I thought we should try for it because otherwise we might have ended up with something that really couldn't be redone, like Stranger Than Paradise or Raging Bull. But black and white is dated in a sense, and this is a timeless picture. One of the things that I really appreciate in working with you is that in that collaborative stage you have no fear of your ego being stripped or anything. You're not possessive, like some can be, but you let others ideas filter through without stopping them for fear of losing control, which would be rightful fear for someone who wants it to stay as pure as possible.

GVS: Yeah, that whole method of allowing new contributing factors to just enter in at will is the thing that I've personally worked on. Like here, for example, if you just walk around downtown, there are things thrust in your face, like, every ten seconds. And, like a documentary the film just absorbs that, or things that happen during rehearsal. Happy accidents, as we call them. Sometimes they're not so happy, and usually people can tell when they're not working.

RP: All these seedlings for different projects you have - Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the Andy Warhol film - are starting to grow. Is that really exciting for you?

GVS: Yeah, they're inspirational; they're, like, my favourite stories. My Own Private Idaho might be the only one of my own stories that I ever get to tell, though of course I do have a bunch of Shakespeare in the middle of it. It's the ability to actually do something about these things now that is pretty unbelievable. I was just telling Tom [Robbins] last night that the first time I met him was at a book signing in 1984, and I was standing in a long line of people with Walt Curtis, who wrote Mala Noche, and we were just fans. And Tom was signing books and you hoped that he'd write, like 'To Gus. Best wishes Tom'. I was a film-maker and I really wanted to Even Cowgirls Get the Blues into a movie. I had made one short film from a William Burroughs story, but I had no clout or power, or any money. I probably made, on average, like $100 a week doing something or other, and so I was penniless and without a portfolio. But I said to Tom, 'If I ever get the money, I want to come back to you and do the film.' He said, 'That sounds good', and signed the book. I figured it'd never happen, but I might as well say it. So now it's a pleasure to be able to have the kind of support to do dream things like that.

RP: Were you interested in film at art school?

GVS: Yeah, I majored in film. I changed from painting after my first year because I thought that maybe a career in the film business was a more moneyed career than a painter's.

RP: [laughs] A safe assumption.

GVS: It was a safety bail-out. But, also, films were more complicated, and I'd pretty much mastered - at least in my estimation - painting. But film-making was a big mystery, and I thought to get anywhere in the business I'd have to work really hard and forget about painting for a while. And that's what I chose to do.

RP: Did some of your paintings - particularly your more recent ones - conceptually influence Idaho?

GVS: Yeah, because you know those paintings are of Idaho. Idaho desert is what I'm painting. The Sawtooth Mountains and a road that leads to a house that's sometimes flying in the air and crashing to the earth. So, in a way, the story of My Own Private Idaho is the film version of the paintings. Because the paintings are about home, and they're about love, I guess. And they're about relationships and turmoil. Something to do with my upbringing in a middle-class family. And this is, like, the generic, box-like, red-roofed, white $17,000 home, smashing into a road. And a road symbolizes the journey of life, and the horizon is the future.

RP: Is it later that you articulate and identify the images as symbolic? Or is it something that you think out?

GVS: No, I think that it's something I think out after the fact. I have been obsessed with my family's house and where we lived when I was around six, which was in Colorado. Because I guess that's where I first lived, you know? That's my concept of home. Then we moved away, and I probably didn't like moving away. So then the house smashing in the road is like my destruction of the house that I miss. But when I painted the paintings, I never thought, 'Oh, I missed my childhood, and now I'm showing how that childhood has been smashed in 10 million bits' - though I can interpret them that way and then be sort of surprised.

RP: This is getting too close to home.

GVS: But the road also - there's been a lot of travelling. My family moved around alot, about five or six times while I was a child. So the road symbolizes the journey back and forth across the country: from Colorado to Illinois, to San Francisco, to Connecticut, to Oregon.

RP: Why did you move around so much?

GVS: My father was making it up the corporate -

RP: Ladder of success?

GVS: Yeah. And he made it to president.

RP: President of what?

GVS: Of McGregor Doniger sportswear.

RP: Great!

GVS: And actually that yellow thing that you wear is a McGregor. That's very symbolic, actually, but it wasn't planned that way. McGregor windbreakers were very popular in the 1950s - I should show it in the film. Yesterday you were lying in a White Stag sleeping bag, and my father was the president of White Stag. That's why we moved to Oregon. He changed his presidency from McGregor to White Stag.

RP: Wow. So what is your father doing now?

GVS: He's in the fashion business - he has a women's clothing company called Intuition.

RP: But he also does your accounting, right?

GVS: Yeah.

RP: Should we erase that?

GVS: No, no. You can ask me anything.

In a van travelling to location

RP: I had a Thai dinner the other day with some women on this shoot. On this film I've been around a lot of boys, but for variety I like sitting and listening to women talk about what they do. And I mentioned it to you afterwards: 'Well, I have some gossip about some gossip for you. And not to mention names, but these two people are trying to figure you out.' And your response was, 'What? Sexually?' And that was the first thing. But more, I guess, intellectually. Or what was your -

GVS: What makes me go?

RP: Yeah. Trying to figure out the Van Sant mystery.

GVS: Is that a mystery though? See, I have no concept of what -

RP: I know, I know. Me - I'm the same way. I mean… um, you just live. We're all just, like, living, hanging out, doing our thing.

GVS: But I'm fascinated by what they said.

RP: Me too. It was completely like a cliché.

GVS: You can say that about this film here.

RP: Oh yeah. It all came back to the film. You yourself said, 'What is Gus doing this for?' Does it bother you when people try to figure you out?

GVS: No, not at all, because I'd like to figure me out actually.

RP: Yeah, so would I like to figure myself out. So if they can give me a clue, I'm always interested to hear.

GVS: Right. Yeah, I'm pretty much in the dark about myself - I haven't done any psychotherapy. I don't know if that would help. I don't think that there's much to be figured out. I think that one thing about me is that I've worked pretty hard since I was twelve, and I don't know why exactly. Only on my own things, you know, which first was painting.

RP: You started when you were twelve?

GVS: Yeah. Some time during adolescence I just buried myself in my work. Before then, I was pretty much like a normal neighbourhood kid. So the work itself became pretty important, but it's impossible to figure out what the kind of art that I do is, because its progressed. You'd have to follow the progression and say, 'Well, he made this piece because this happened to him.'

RP: Right. But I'm surprised by the arrogance displayed by people who try to figure you out by looking at a piece of your work.

GVS: Well, maybe there's people in the business who have never written or directed before, so maybe it's easier to interpret their work. There's this thing where somebody was talking about this one director they had worked for - it's gossip, really, - and they were saying, 'He became obsessed with this one actress.' He would work for ten hours just lighting this shot where she walked through the door. It was like this sort of cuckoo obsession.

RP: That was true. I heard about that too.

GVS: I think it's really cool. I mean, I can become obsessed with something, you know. So far that hasn't happened in my work, but I guess it could happen. I tend to be pretty professional that way and catch myself if there's any inkling of that kind of stuff. It's like the door shuts.

RP: Right. How do you feel about the way women are portrayed in modern-day cinema?

GVS: It's hard for them to find themselves, really. They're not really portrayed at all, except in a man's world.

RP: How do you feel about that? Because in this film you have this character, Carmella, who's kind of a female cliché.

GVS: Yeah, she's one of those.

RP: But then you want to do Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which has to be one of the first books -

GVS: Tracing the notion of a female hero.

RP: Right, so you're doing that, so that balances this. Some people won't know that you're doing that when they see this film and I guess it's no big deal, except I've been kind of curious about that myself. I can't imagine being an actress today. If I was a woman, I wouldn't be who I am now. I wouldn't have had the chance to grow to this point. It's like a real hard road for someone to get to be like Sissy Spacek or Meryl Streep.

GVS: Most of time, [a film] is from a man's point of view. You know, the female characters are one-dimensional sex objects and pieces of property, and that's what Carmella is because she's seen from the point of view of the male characters in the film. It's like she's an attractive piece of flesh, you know? Like, it's pretty innocent and first-love-ish, but it doesn't really show Carmella's side of the story. In Cowgirls, though, you don't really get this sex-object angle, although at the same time you can get the feeling that the writer is living in a fantasy in sex-object land. It's sort of this other world, a city of women. So, it does have that quality which doesn't cleanse it completely from the point of view of the type of feminist who might think that dead men don't rape. But the whole project is a great women's film. It's a chance to make the ultimate remake of The Women, which is a beautiful Cukor film from the 1930s.

RP: How do you feel about sex in film today?

GVS: I don't see why it's such a problem, because there's a lot of death, so -

RP: Why should sex even be rated as something as extreme as death, or something as negative?

GVS: No, it should be more positive. But it's the mystery. You know, men are embarrassed by sex because they don't understand it. They can come to grips with death and use it as an icon. And they can use love as an icon, or sex even, but the actual involvement of that intimate moment - the sexual moment - is somehow embarrassing, because maybe we don't understand what it is.

RP: So what do you do about it?

GVS: Well, in my films I just try to be aware that people don't understand it. And I just try and walk in that direction and say 'Well, this is this.` But even when we did our scene - you know, when you're in the middle of it - it was tough to do.

RP: Well, when it came down to it, we were just doing it. We were just, like -

GVS: You're just trying to, like -

RP: To fuck.

GVS: Just to do it from the point of view of the partners involved in having sex. That's the way to get around it. And it you can get there and make the camera not a voyeur but a participant you can sometimes get away with a little more. But it's still a problem because of our own perceptions of sex. I mean, I'm embarrassed by certain things. Being 'bad' is part of it, although it doesn't have to be that way, and I think other cultures know that. But our culture's pretty uptight.

In an airport restaurant

RP: What else? Let's talk about favourites.

GVS: Yeah. What does that mean?

RP: What's your favourite car?

GVS: My favourite car? Well, I have a 1982 BMW-528E. And usually the car I have is my favourite car.[laughs]

RP: It's your favourite holiday of the year?

GVS: Probably Halloween.

RP: What's your favourite brand of coffee?

GVS: I usually buy Medaglia d'Oro espresso.

RP: The reason why I'm asking you your favourites is because I have none. I'm always split decision. But it's so neat to be able to hear people commit, and you're the kind of guy who can pretty much just say, 'It's my favourite.' What's your favourite pop artist?

GVS: I guess it would have to be Warhol. He was sort of the Capra of the pop art movement. With the Warhol project that I'm working on, I'm trying to make a correlation between early 1950s to 1960s Warhol and then intercutting that with the later Warhol of the ~g80s and his relationships with the younger artists, like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. It dawned on me that you look a lot like Warhol did when he was, say, eighteen to twenty-five. It would be a stretch, but you could pull off playing the young Warhol.

RP: What is your favourite colour?

GVS: Green. It's my middle name.

RP: What's your favourite city in America?

GVS: Portland.

RP: Do you have a favourite relationship that you've had. Sexual? You don't have to mention any names.

GVS: Do I have a favourite one? Yeah. The first one was the favourite one. But not always, actually.

RP: How old were you?

GVS: Thirty-two.

RP: That was your first?

GVS: It wasn't my first sexual relationship. It was the first one that was really, like -

RP: That you loved?

GVS: See, I worked all those other years, so I had to catch up.

RP: Wow, wow. What is your favourite year?

GVS: I don't know. Probably last year.

RP: Nineteen-ninety is my favourite year, too, which just means that it was consistent and decent and OK. What is your favourite word?

GVS: My favourite what?

RP: Word. Phonetically speaking. Oh, I know you have one.

GVS: [pauses] God, I can't think of one.

RP: Like 'carousel' or 'jagged'?

GVS: I like Italian words, because they're funny. We were just in Italy, and this big truck passed us, and it was called - it was a brand name - Bindi. B-i-n-d-i. Bindi. And that was like saying Hershey's chocolate. Instead of saying 'Hershey's', they say 'Bindi'.

RP: [laughs] What's your favourite desert?

GVS: Um, I don't have one. Chocolate cake.

RP: What's your favourite -

GVS: That's all. Let's just stop.

RP: Just one more. Who's your favourite interviewer?

GVS: River Phoenix.

RP: Oh, that's a good answer.


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