All the world's an art school
For reclusive director Gus Van Sant, films are his life. And, Hollywood schmaltz or avant garde, they all spring from his desire to experiment, he tells Simon Hattenstone. Is his latest the first interactive movie?
Saturday January 24, 2004
Gus Van Sant on the trouble brewing beneath middle-class society: 'People do things like play golf'
This is the conspiracy theory doing the rounds - there are two Gus Van Sants. One makes inspired indie movies (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) and is loved by true cineastes; the other is a mercenary who churns out Hollywood schmaltzbusters (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester). In recent years, the mainstream Van Sant has made the running, but his new film couldn't be more off the beaten track. Elephant, "inspired" by the Columbine school massacre, is about two students who go on the rampage. It has hardly any dialogue, no conventional narrative, and is little more than a series of tracking shots following the last 15 minutes of the lives of killers and victims. Van Sant doesn't make it easy for us. We have to watch closely, eavesdrop on elliptical conversations, and use our imagination to piece together the lives of sweet John who worries about his alcoholic father, the jock whose girlfriend may be pregnant, the aspiring photographer intent on capturing young love, the girl who so despises her body
that she wears long trousers for games, the pianist who plays Beethoven with such tenderness. By the end, despite being told next to nothing, we know the characters intimately. Elephant, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year, is Van Sant's masterpiece.
Portland, Oregon, where Van Sant lives, seems so familiar from his movies. The grey, swirling skies, the rain (151 days a year), the myriad bars, the cool dudes and weirdos, the glitzy and seedy, all side by side. This city in the Pacific northwest is made for students and artists, mavericks and misfits - repertory cinema after repertory cinema, the biggest independent bookshop in the world, and assertive beggars on most street corners.
Van Sant lives midtown, in a vast apartment block that has security codes to its security codes. Eventually, I work out how to use the entry phone.
"Hi, it's Simon ... from the Guardian newspaper in England."
"Ohhhhh ... Already?"
"Could you get me a coffee? Black, no sugar. Is that OK? It's just at the end of the block. When you get back, you need a code for the lift to get to my floor." He gives me an elaborate set of numbers. My mind and body are reeling. I've travelled 5,000 miles, am weighed down by two heavy bags, trying to remember Van Sant's various security codes, and now he's making me fetch his coffee.
I make it back to the apartment block and hitch the lift to his floor. Van Sant is waiting outside. My way in is blocked by chairs and tables that seem to be leaving as I arrive. I hand him his coffee, drop my bags and collapse on to the floor. His dog, Milo, licks my ears. Van Sant doesn't say a word. His hair is brown and lank, with white sideburns. He wears a shabby blue sweatshirt and jeans. He's 51, and resembles Anthony Perkins in Psycho more than ever.
There is something comforting in his silence. If he's not saying anything, I reckon I don't need to. So I just stay on the floor, stroke the dog and look around his apartment - it's huge, and crammed with guitars and records and videos and more guitars, a printing machine, a huge telescope, and yet more guitars.
I ask him how many guitars he has. He looks animated. "Ten? About ten." He says he spends most of his free time noodling, playing chords, and starts talking about how he was at Rhode Island School of Design with members of Talking Heads and how he used to be in a band and what a great era it was when groups were radical and formed for just one gig and then split. Suddenly there is no stopping him.
At that time, he had hoped to be a painter, but when all the art students came back from New York and said they didn't have a chance because there were 12,000 painters out there and only 64 galleries, he decided to concentrate on film, and has done so since.
He is obsessed with film. Just look at his walls - here is a poster of an African movie called Kunda that he has never seen but liked the sound of, there is a picture of Harmony Korine's Gummo, and by his bed is a poster of Elephant. He can talk film until the cows come home - from popular film to film theory to the interactive movies of the future that will enable the audience to take an active part in their creation. "Cinema will become something completely different, where you are in it, and it's no longer theatrically based." That is one of his main gripes about contemporary cinema - it is so conservative, he says, it is little more than screened theatre.
On the table in front of him is a copy of Guitar World magazine. He looks embarrassed when I point it out. "It's because I'm reading a piece on Kurt Cobain, it's not because I like Guitar World." He stops, realising it's pointless to deny his anorak tendencies. "Actually, I could conceivably buy Guitar World," he says in his deep, honeyed voice. He talks about why he first joined a band - to see if he had the nerve to perform live. "I didn't get stage fright in the end, but I didn't move very much. We only played eight times, but we had one guy who was like a really big fan ... "
Van Sant is a strange creature. In some ways so shy and naive, in others sure and assertive. He talks at tangents to himself, segueing from one subject to the next. He tells me about all the Christmas parties he avoided, and how as soon as he heard who turned up he regretted having skipped them. So why didn't he go? "I think it's just social anxiety. Most people don't want to be going half an hour before they're leaving for the party. But I let it get to me to the point where I don't actually go," he mumbles.
His films have always been full of mumblers - mumbling druggies, mumbling hustlers, mumbling students, mumbling psychopaths. His first three films focus on lowlife outsiders - Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho explore the world of hustling, while Drugstore Cowboy is about a household of thieving junkies. But his own background couldn't have been more different. His father was a successful business executive, his mother a housewife, despite her university degree, and they went wherever his father's job took them - from Tennessee to Colorado to New York to Portland. Van Sant says there was something repressed in his family. "It was an upper-middle-class, bucolic environment and then there's all this trouble under the surface ... People do things like play golf." He says "golf" with some distaste, though he has been a keen player himself. He compares his parents' world to that of Rick Moody's The Ice Storm, with its trendily permissive exterior and emotionally frigid heart. In fact, he points out that The Ice Storm is set in New Canaan, next door to where his parents lived in Connecticut.
Did he feel that he belonged to that world, that he would take his due place in the corporate hierarchy of life? "You know, I don't think I had a concept of what I would be or do," he says. "I think if I drew a picture of myself, I would have a tie, because everybody wore a tie. I mean, they wore hats before Kennedy. In 1962, they were wearing felt hats." It's a typical Van Sant statement - fractured, vivid and bordering on the autistic.
After college, he moved to Los Angeles to try his luck in films, and he spent long afternoons in cafes on Hollywood Boulevard staring at the destitute kids on the street - the boy-men who had come to the city full of dreams and had soon ended up selling themselves or stealing or begging to make ends meet. He was fascinated by them. "I'm normally drawn to something I haven't done and seen before. And in general movies weren't made about street hustlers. Midnight Cowboy was a famous streethustler movie, but in general this was a place Hollywood didn't go, and that was something I was attracted to."
It took him until his early 30s to make his first film. And it took him almost as long to realise that he was gay. For many years, he says, he had been out with women, hadn't been sure about his sexuality, but hadn't been overinquisitive - there were so many other things to be getting on with. In his 20s, he occasionally went to gay clubs with friends who assumed he was straight and told him to watch his back.
While his movies are not camp, they have a particular sensibility. From the off, there was something ecstatic in his directing. You could identify Van Sant films by their giddy images of flying hats and cows and exploding houses, dusty highways, time-lapse photography and fake home-video footage. At times, you could identify them from artistic overindulgence - his crazy desire to incorporate Henry IV into My Own Private Idaho almost destroyed the movie.
Art is a word he comes back to time and again. Indeed, his art school background informs all his work. He talks of experimentation and wanting to achieve something new, and complains that so many contemporary movies are produced on an assembly line. Yet critics point out that he has spent the midpart of his career making just such films - notably the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting and the slated Finding Forrester. Why?
Again, he returns to art school theory. "I became involved in the mainstream partly because I thought, in order to affect change, you needed to be able to do it." You mean, know your enemy? "Yep. You need to know the actual elements to be changed. But now I'm not sure. There's part of me that believes that," he says stammering towards his conclusion, "but there's also part of me that believes true change happens because the person affecting the change doesn't know how to do it any other way. When you look at, say, William Burroughs's writing, and he says, 'I've tried a hundred times to write a really good detective novel and I just can't', or Warhol, the movies that he made, that's all he knew how to do, he didn't know how to do the other part. But I was always ... it was part of a study working within the mainstream."
For many of his fans, it was disconcerting. He smiles - a rarity - and interrupts. "Ah, Good Will Hunting!" he says, and he's off again. He explains how artists originally made art for the community, then for their patrons and eventually for themselves. "The artist himself is actually the subject in everything after, say, 1900." He coughs to clear his throat before continuing with his now confident lecture. "Eventually, art becomes so removed from the community that you have to know about the artist before you can even look at the painting, because there is a conceptual idea going on. So the artist himself becomes the name, and the name is the value, it's no longer the art. So it has become like stocks. Uhuuuughm!" He coughs again. "So Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester was like me going back, or trying to, in sentimental movie fashion, going back to make popular art, art for the populace."
At times Van Sant talks like an academic. And all this could sound pompous, but, from him, it rings true - even when he says that these commercial movies have been his most experimental, because they were so alien to him.
Wasn't part of the attraction the thought of making loads of money? "No," he says instantly, "it had nothing to do with money, because all along the way there were films I could make for a lot of money, but not Good Will Hunting, because there wasn't the big pay cheque and the two actors [Matt Damon and Ben Affleck] weren't big stars. It was more the type of film it was - it was like On Golden Pond or Ordinary People, the kind of film I watched in the early 1980s, but I'd never actually made one, so it was a challenge."
Although both films are so different from his early movies, the subject matter is basically the same - they are about young men (or, as Van Sant says, older boys) struggling towards an identity, through maths in Good Will Hunting and through writing in Finding Forrester.
I ask him what is the attraction of these young men: their youth, their physical beauty, their turmoil? "I think that's definitely the age where there is the most vitality in a human's life, somewhere between 14 and 20. Even though you haven't quite got a life, you're adaptable enough to survive." In a way, he says, he feels about these boys similarly to how he feels about himself now that he's turned 50 - they don't quite belong anywhere, because society deems them surplus to its needs.
Van Sant soon found himself in favour when movie-backers realised that he could attract aspiring stars, and give them credibility - Damon and Affleck in Good Will Hunting; Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy; Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix in To Die For, his satire on celebrity culture; Keanu Reaves and, most famously, the late River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho.
In the late 1990s, Van Sant wrote a novel, Pink, about a director obsessed with the gorgeous boy star of his infomercials who has recently died - not-so-loosely based on Phoenix, who died after overdosing on drugs. It's dedicated to Phoenix and reads like a love letter to him. "Yeah. Yeah," he nods. Van Sant was distraught after his death: "It was really like the wrong person to have died ... because, of all the people that you know, there are some people who are very charmed. He was like the favourite person of a lot of people, and when he died it was, like, 'Why couldn't I die? Why couldn't that other person have died? Why would it have to be him?' " Until a couple of years ago, Van Sant lived next door to the Phoenix family in New York.
Was he in love with River? "No. We were just really good friends and collaborators." He sits so still, his arms wrapped protectively around himself. He says that they were always looking forward to doing their next movie together and never got the chance.
There seems to be something in him that is drawn towards self-destructive people - he was friends with junkie novelist William Burroughs, who featured in Drugstore Cowboy; is close to celebrated movie bad boy Harmony Korine; and to Elliott Smith, who wrote the music to Good Will Hunting, killed himself last year. Again, he nods: "I think that what I'm attracted to is people who are wild. But the self-destructive side comes out of the wild side. The wildness is very different from me. That's why I think I like it."
He asks me if I'm hungry. Yes, starving, I say hopefully. "Do you eat yogurt?" Hmm. He takes out two blueberry yogurts - probably the closest you'll find to junk food (or any food) in his apartment. He lives here by himself. He once had a long-term, live-in boyfriend, but they split up in the mid-1990s after seven years.
I look through the telescope while he is stirring the yogurt and ask if he is into astronomy. "Oh no," he says. "No, it was a present. The last thing I looked at was a Christmas party going on over there." He points and I look. I begin to feel as if I'm in a Hitchcock film. "And I like looking at the construction workers over there. They were just hanging there from that crane the other week, making jokes. Incredible." Like so many film-makers, there is something of the voyeur in Van Sant, from the days on Hollywood Boulevard right through to his new way of making films - by following characters with the camera and allowing the audience to hear only snatches of conversation, he makes us feel that we're spying on them.
Perhaps Van Sant's most famous (certainly his most infamous) film is his frame-for-frame coloured remake of Psycho. It was much criticised, but I thought there was something beautiful about it - the greatest art film never to win the Turner prize. He says that he had wanted to make it for years, but the studio bosses thought it was a ridiculous idea. It was only when he had proved himself truly bankable with Good Will Hunting that they gave him the go-ahead - and then they paid him more than he had ever been paid for a film.
Why was he so keen to make it? Well, he says, it was an experiment and, of course, we're back with art history. "One of the things we first worked on in art school was appropriation, or finding a found object that we obsessed over and painted and redesigned and made copies of. It was like a big version of that." At a time when the big thing in Hollywood was sequels, he thought it could provide a lucrative alternative. "Hollywood had decided what movie they most liked to make, and that movie was a sequel of a successful movie, but the problem with making a sequel is that you have to have the success first - so the movie they'd most like to make doesn't exist really because it's a sequel." This, he explains, is because the moguls had neither the nous nor the confidence to make the original, so here was the solution. "Psycho was a chance to make a sequel without having to make the original. And if it did actually make money, then Hollywood could endlessly spin copies of movies." And, he asks, if you are going to remake a classic film, why do away with the director's original work when you can pay homage to him by copying it frame for frame?
Van Sant's face is expressionless. I think he means what he says, but is mocking the system at the same time. It's hard to tell what's going on in the head of an enthusiast who rarely enthuses, a joker who rarely smiles. There is something gentle but also rather sad about him.
Was Psycho a joke? "I saw it as a prank, yeah. But a prank only if it was successful." What ingenuity: take one of the most famous mainstream movies to play an avant-garde prank, and produce another monster movie in the process. "Right!" he says, still poker-faced. "And the only way it didn't do its job was that it was supposed to make a lot of money."
Remaking a film frame for frame is a fairly obsessive thing to do? "Yes, and it's an obsessive film, too," he says, pleased with the symmetry. Is he an obsessive man? "Yes, where it concerns my art. I think that's what makes art in the first place." And, as he says, there isn't much to his life when you strip away his art.
Like Psycho, Elephant is a remake. But there the similarity ends. While Psycho is a literal copy, Elephant is the loosest possible reinterpretation of English director Alan Clarke's 1988 film about snipers in Northern Ireland. What both Elephants do share, apart from their title and pointless killings, is a radical style. Van Sant's foray into mainstream Hollywood seems to have made him all the more determined to do his bit to reinvent the cinematic wheel. He took inspiration from film-makers such as the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, whose movies are so slow they seem to take place in real time and whose "stars" are non-professional actors.
Van Sant's first film after Finding Forrester (his most clichéd stab at Hollywood convention), the predecessor to Elephant, was his most radical. Gerry is about two boys who walk in the desert and get lost - there is even less dialogue in it than in Elephant. It is an endurance test for both the characters and the audience. We feel nothing for them, but we do share their physical discomfort - when the sun glows, it blinds us; when the snow crunches, it goes through us. Elephant is a less purist version of Gerry, and more successful for it.
The evolution of Elephant was complex and messy. Van Sant originally wanted to make a quick-turnaround film for television about Columbine. No one would let him make something so specific, but he was told that he could probably get away with a film such as Clarke's Elephant, which had been made for the BBC. He had not seen Elephant, but Korine told him that it was his favourite film and said that he would write a screenplay for Van Sant's film. But he never delivered. Van Sant then asked the novelist JT Leroy to write the script. Diane Keaton, the film's executive producer, liked the result, but Van Sant thought it too conventional and lost heart in the project. He suggested that they strip Leroy's script of its plot and clichés, and that they make the film without a script or professional cast. "I was hoping to kill the project off, but they just said, 'OK, we'll do it that way', so I didn't get out of the job."
Clarke called his film Elephant because he saw Northern Ireland as the elephant in the living room: the taboo staring us in the face that we dare not acknowledge. Van Sant says that meaning is also applicable to his own film, but that what he had in mind when making it was the old parable about the five blind men who touch different parts of an elephant. "One thinks it's a rope because he has the tail, one thinks it's a tree because he can feel the legs, one thinks it's a wall because he can feel the side of it, and nobody actually has the big picture. You can't really get to the answer, because there isn't one."
The film has had its detractors in the US. For instance, Variety critic Todd McCarthy, who dismissed it as "pointless at best and irresponsible at worst". Van Sant says he still can't understand why it's fine to dramatise fictional or distant violence, but the moment it touches on contemporary truth it becomes "irresponsible". As for it being pointless, he says, that is the point - the whole thing is pointless. "Modern-day cinema takes the form of a sermon. You don't get to think, you only get to receive information. This film is not a sermon. The point of the film is not being delivered to you from the voice of the film-maker. Hopefully, there are as many interpretations as there are viewers."
As Van Sant talks about Elephant, I think back to what he was saying about the interactive film of the future and realise that this is his version of it - only, instead of pressing a knob or manipulating a mouse to decide who gets killed, Van Sant gives us clues and we shape the film for ourselves. I also think back to the conspiracy theory of the two Gus Van Sants, and realise how daft it is. The arty film-maker and the schmaltzbuster director are clearly of a piece - and, as he himself said before (then, typically, half-retracted), without Good Will Hunting, you wouldn't have got Elephant. It's a strange arc - arthouse to mainstream to avant garde - but one that makes perfect sense to Gus Van Sant.
I ask if he is fulfilled. "Workwise, I'm doing exactly what I want to do. Socially, I'm making myself crazy by being too reclusive, so I'd be less of a recluse. One of the things that is devastating is I realise I haven't been living a different life than when I was, like, 12. I'm shocked at how reclusive I've been since then. I was unaware of it until recently."
He comes to a stop, but he's still thinking about work. "Actually, what I'd really like to do now is try to lose the crew because they bother me. They make it so you can't do things. When I made Mala Noche, we had three people on the crew. So there'd be a cameraman, a soundman and me." That way, he says, you always create the most real characters.
Perhaps you could go one step further, I suggest - just pin a camera to the characters, let them do their thing, and there wouldn't even be any need for the director. His ears prick up and he smiles. The smile turns into a grin. I think he likes that idea
· Elephant is released on Friday.