The Face - No 42 - March 1992

by ??

River Phoenix has a maddening habit of finishing other people's sentences for them. Although sometimes annoying, the results are just as often clever and perceptive. The actor is currently seated next to independent film-maker Gus Van Sant on a well-worn couch in the director's suite at Sunset Boulevard's funky Chateau Marmont hotel.

We're here to have a "serious" discussion about issues -art, gay politics, drugs -raised by their film My Own Private Idaho, which features River as a narcoleptic street hustler in search of his family and the love of a good man. But River is in a hyperkinetic, playful mood (due in part to jetlag, he's just flown in from winning best actor for the film at the Venice Film Festival), and Van Sant's slow, measured speech provides plenty of openings for his wordplay. He dodges in and out of the conversation, tossing up verbal smokescreens whenever the opportunity arises. Various unidentified young men with indeterminate functions wander in and out of the room vying for the actor's attention. One in baseball cap and T-shirt, whom River introduces as "JK, my manager", carries a wine bucket and seems to be responsible for procuring cold beer.

I knew we were in for an interesting ride when River bounced in ten minutes late looking like James Dean in wrap-around shades (which he kept on throughout the interview) and short brown jeans that revealed several inches of his hairy ankles above side-zip leather pointy boots, and asked to use the bathroom. A few minutes later he returned, introduced himself, and plopped distractedly on to the couch next to Van Sant. My female friends lately had been salivating about what a hunk the 20-year-old had become. Frankly, I never understood what they were talking about until this afternoon.

Van Sant had been quietly expounding on how he tries to make his films work more like novels. "I was interested in taking those literary styles I loved and having them work in a movie," he says. "Sometimes it's sort of like avant-garde writing, Joycian or Burroughsian style, and people are reacting the same way they did to Joyce or Burroughs, which is like, 'It doesn't work."'

My Own Private Idaho takes far more risks than either of his two previous features, Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy. At the core of the movie is River's character Mike's journey in search of his family.

Accompanied by his best friend Scott (Keanu Reeves), a slumming rich kid, he travels from Portland in the Pacific north-west to the barren terrain of rural Idaho to Rome, Italy, and back.

The most memorable, poetic- and visually interesting moments, however, tend to be Gus' digressions from the plot: a decrepit wooden house crashes on to a road from out of the sky (Van Sant, an artist, uses this image frequently in his paintings); male models come to life on the covers of gay porn mags; clouds move in fast-motion above timeless fields of grass; salmon leap tirelessly and futilely in a rushing stream. Further adding to the surrealness are whole sections of plot and dialogue torn from the pages of Shakespeare's Henry IV; with Keanu Reeves doubling as Prince Hal and William Richert as a Falstaffian street guru.

Why, Gus asks, can you use digressions in a novel but not in a movie? "I think it's the convention that you don't. Audiences aren't used to certain things in films. Films have a lot less of a history and you don't have as many stylistic forms as you do in writing.

"It's obvious this discussion isn't working for River, so I flip the focus to his character, asking Gus why he chose to afflict Mike with narcolepsy, a relatively rare chemical disorder that has the sufferer nodding off unexpectedly in the middle of, say, a rural highway or in the midst of sex with a bored housewife, to use two examples from the film.

"It was a nice metaphor to make about his helplessness, his vulnerability," the director says. " And it was an interesting way to go from one place to the next. And a comment on time. Time literally flew by with him because he was sleeping so he didn't notice it going by."

Was it perhaps also a euphemism for tripping on drugs, where you also frequently lose large chunks of time and find yourself in strange places without a clue how you got there? River suddenly springs to life: "What party is this? Are you speaking of a party tonight? There's some humour in there somewhere, I know I can find it. There's humour in there somewhere." Then, in a distorted voice: "Yes, yes, save us from the birth canal!" A pause. "I'm distracting attention from Gus."

"You did that on purpose?" asks Van Sant incredulously.

"I have a way of manipulating news people. Sorry. Oops. Hello, my name is River." River sticks out his hand and then jumps up and wanders over to chat with one of the unidentified men.

WHEN RIVER WANDERS back a little bit later, I inquire about all the gossip circulating Hollywood about drugs and partying on the My Own Private Idaho set. Surprisingly, it is River who protectively chooses to squelch the rumours, while Gus takes the opportunity to advance a little theory he has been evolving.

River: Of course, they will gossip. In the film you have drugs. It's like on the set of Robin Hood. Oh, I heard they had lots of bows and arrows. Kevin Costner, is this true? It's not my fault, I didn't want them on the set, props demanded it.
Gus: Props usually has the drugs. Did you know that little tidbit? And then the drugs extend to drugs drugs instead of just aspirin. For some reason, props has to have everything you could need to have.
River: Prop masters are more keen to the realism of the props -does this match true cocaine?
Gus: I don't think that's what it is.
River: I'm joking. I'm joking.
Gus: They also have a lot of drawers and things. Lots of places to hide things. But they really have just a lot of stuff. From skull rings...
River: To plastic vaginas.
Gus: Everything that they could think of. Because they're always needing something at the last minute. The actor will say I need a...
River: (giggles) Orgasm.
Gus: A pipe, and they'll have a pipe. Then they'll say I need some hash, no. I don't know why the prop person has drugs, but they do. Not all prop persons.
River: I think he's joking.
Gus: I mean, if you were on the set and need anything like...
River: Tylenol, which is a drug, the prop master has it. If you needed some anti-itch cream for your crotch rot, the prop master has it.
Gus: If you were on the set and you had like an hour to find a tab of acid, I would run to the prop person. I would not run to the producer, or the director, or the actors. You'd think it would be in the hairdressing room because that's where the party is. But in fact. ..
JK: (from over my shoulder) How does this associate with, uh, like other films, past films you have worked on?
River: Excuse me, excuse me. I am now limiting our discussion to the interviewer. Thank you assistant. Counter help, JK. Carry on. Sorry.
Gus: The prop people out there who read this will probably freak out.
River: I must say, and this is only a theory which might evolve in like 2020, but so far prop people I have met are advocates of parenting magazines and How To Get Rich Quick and Antiques Are Essential.
Gus: See, that's interesting. It's probably totally bogus, my theory.
River: Of course, they're going to believe the director over the fucking stupid, silly actor .

IT'S SOMEWHAT IRONIC that Van Sant and Phoenix would feel compelled to make a film about drug addicts and homeless street kids given that ties to both of their families are strong and comfortable. Van Sant grew up in a middle-class household in Connecticut, settling, after stints in New York and Los Angeles, in the relative backwater of Portland. Here he made short films and won critical acclaim with his first feature in 1987, Mala Noche, the gritty film about the gay romance between a migrant labourer and a skid-row liquor store clerk. Drug Store Cowboy, which starred Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch as thieving drug addicts, followed two years later.

Phoenix's own family history is the stuff of legend. Born in rural Madras, Oregon, and named after the River Of Life in Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, he spent his early years travelling with his family who laboured as migrant fruit pickers, worked as missionaries in South America for a group called The Children of God (oddly paralleling 1986's Mosquito Coast in which he played Harrison Ford's son) and eventually settled in Los Angeles. River and his sister Rain were soon doing warm-up for a kid's TV show, and at 12 he got his first regular acting gig on the kitsch TV pioneer saga Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. He went on to Joe Dante's Explorers and Rob Reiner's Stand By Me, then in 1988 he was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for playing the son of radical fugitives in Sidney Lumet's Running On Empty.

River, a vegetarian and rainforest advocate, now officially resides at the family homestead in central Florida with his girlfriend Sue, who he met three years ago after breaking up with actress Martha Plimpton. He and Rain play local gigs in a band called Aleka's Attic.

"Family is a theme everyone can relate to," explains Gus. " And I'm happy that I'm doing movies that want to encourage or seem to be about family. I'm just lucky. I aim for that but I'm not really in control of it. So I'm glad that I intend to go there because I think an audience can relate to the story .I could just as well be an artist who would rather make films about something maybe less accessible, like alienation, which is another theme in all of my movies. But alienation could be the main thing, it could take over and family would go away."

Despite the universality of the theme, Gus faced an uphill battle getting financing for his film for a variety of reasons, not least of which was its flirtation with homosexuality. After Hollywood turned up its collective nose, he found distribution through independent Fine Line Features. Although the director has been open about his own homosexuality, he is uncomfortable taking a political stance, and wants to be known as a film-maker who is gay rather than a gay film-maker. The gay movement in the States would like to adopt him as a spokesman, but he keeps his distance. For whatever reasons -artistic, commercial or personal -Van Sant in interviews is ambiguous about the sexual orientation of Reeves' and Phoenix's characters. Viewers, for reasons discussed below, will likely come to a different conclusion, but he steadfastly maintains that, in his view, they are "confused" about their sexuality.

That didn't stop the warning lights from flashing when Van Sant asked Hollywood to consider his script. "I took it to some studios," he recalls. "They just sort of shied away because of the subject in general. It's not even like [Scott and Mike] are gay characters, although they tended to think of them like that. They're more like street characters whose job it is to have sex with men." Since Hollywood likes to typecast actors, cautious agents and managers usually advise their clients to shun gay roles, fearing they will be labelled too "soft" when macho (ie more lucrative) roles come along. I ask River if he was pressured by his advisers not to take the part.

"I only have two people giving me any sort of important advice, as far as I'm concerned, which is my mother and father," he responds. "My agent takes care of the business. Of course she has emotion invested, but the decision is up to me completely. I thought the script was very innovative in the way it cut through time and space. I thought it had a surreal time, that is very hard to find in modern-day cinema. And that makes it very new, and I want to do stuff like that. All I thought about was the script after I read it. I couldn't get it out of my head."

"It was really interesting," interjects Gus, "you could tell how your reaction was pretty, pretty..."
"Honest," says River.
"Intense," says Gus. "It was an intense reaction which was what I was so interested in. It was something I really liked. I was holding out for the screenplay, and to have support was really great."
"You could never tell me this before," says River.
"Because everyone else was saying things like..." begins Gus.
"Crazy motherfucker," River breaks into a rap. "Crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube."
"...We like it but we could never do it," finishes Gus.
"...Burn, Hollywood burn. I can smell a riot in the streets. Boom ta boom. Thank you, Roger," says River, as one of the quiet guys has just placed two Marlboro Lights on the coffee table in front of him. "Once you got past that layer where people try to cut you off at the pass, bring up career, once you get past that -you are connected. You're talking by phone and basically all the liaisons fade away. I had this phone number 503 area code [Portland], and he had my 904 area code [Florida]. Then we were just people."

RIVER IS SUDDENLY reminded that his buddies, The Red Hot Chili Peppers (Flea plays a street kid in the movie), are about to be interviewed live on a local rock station, and bounds over to the TY/radio console in the corner. He fiddles with the knobs, and Midnight Oil thunders out. "This is the best song," exclaims River. "When I was doing Mosquito Coast in Belize, I taped this from the radio."

As River starts to sing along, I ask Gus if this is anything like the "creative chaos" I heard he likes to have on his sets to foster spontaneity.
"No, this isn't like business chaos. This is like destructive chaos," he says, sounding somewhat pissed off. -
"This is?" asks River. "OK, I'll turn the radio off. Sorry. "

I start to ask Gus a series of questions about his personal life. "I don't answer gay questions because I get all bent out of shape," he says. "I get very angry." When I mention an amusing childhood anecdote from a recent interview in the American gay men's magazine The Advocate, recounting the discovery of his sexual orientation, Gus insists it's not true -he told the interviewer to make something up because he couldn't think of anything funny to say.

River senses Gus' discomfort or my dismay, and comes to the rescue. "Same thing I do," he says, returning to the couch. "I plant decoys all the time in the press to completely divert them from my private life because, of course, they want to come into my private life and say, 'Can I have an interview at your house?' So then you have to make up the set and the atmosphere and do what you do best, which is (points to Gus) direct, or in my case act, and you just give them something that's entertaining...It's a nice way of reflecting the idiocy of it all."

It starts to become clear why Gus allowed River to rewrite a crucial campfire scene midway through their movie -he was just trusting his soul mate to complete another one of his sentences. In the rewritten scene, River clarifies the sexuality of his character by having Mike profess his love for Scott and then ask to kiss him. His love remains unrequited, however, as Scott soon falls for a farm girl he meets in Italy. Still, River has done what commercial American cinema has not attempted for a decade: have one man profess his love for another. In the process, he has given the film a political agenda Gus hadn't envisaged. Why would you let an actor get away with that? I ask him.

"I've never really had an actor wanting so hard ,to' rewrite a scene," responds Gus. "So I said all right. They were much more confused before. That's what he wanted to do."

Adds River: "My motives were just that I felt very close to the character, that I understood the script. Gus shared so much intimate knowledge regarding the script's needs that I just wanted to voice it. I felt that the scene was a nice comer in time to best represent Mike and Scott. It was a time when the character could speak out and they could get close to each other. "
"Was it political at all?" asks Gus.
"Well, no. It was very personal," says River. "Political comes from the viewing process. Nothing is ever political if it's genuine. In the reaction, yes, it can be political. But the motives were based completely on a deep need to communicate and share information." But the audience will make it political, I offer .

"Well, they should," responds River. "I'm glad to hear that you think that they will. The film language has evolved enough that you should get people interacting with the film. It's exciting for us to exhibit it, and it's exciting for people to watch it...I think it's very important for the gay community to have random characters that represent nothing more than people...I think it's part of a wave that will set a precedent of some sort so that you will no longer need a label."

Then, pulling up his trouser leg to get at an itch, he disappears behind another smoky non sequitur, "Did you notice the beards on my kneecaps?"

The text on this page © The Face - No 42 - March 1992

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