Script Doctor
Weissman on Van Sant

I MOVED TO Portland, Ore. from San Francisco last summer, and right away I got a bunch of press: "Cockettes filmmaker moves to Portland." It seemed rather ridiculous to me, a medium fish in a small pond. But Portland loves its filmmakers, and Gus Van Sant is its favorite son and biggest celebrity.

I've known Gus since 1986, when we met at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Since then, he's defined a unique position for himself in American cinema, creating works that range from his mainstream studio fare, such as Finding Forester and To Die For, to uncompromisingly vague indie films, such as Gerry and his latest, Last Days. We recently sat down for a chat in his electric guitar-strewn loft in downtown Portland.

Bay Guardian: Do you like being interviewed?

Gus Van Sant: I don't like being on camera, but an actual print interview isn't horrible. I like talking, so that part's fun, but sometimes it's taken out of context.

BG: How many times have you been to Cannes?

GVS: Three.

BG: Is it getting easier?

GVS: I started going in the '80s – I've always found it quite easy to go to any festival.

BG: You don't stress out about the reaction?

GVS: It can go wrong. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues in Toronto was probably the worst screening I ever had. The stress comes when you're making the movie and you try and make it the best you can; when you're screening it, you let go and listen to people.

BG: Did it go well this time with Last Days?

GVS: I think so. Every year at Cannes is a big drama. The year I was in with Elephant [2003, when it won the Palme d'Or], people were complaining about the lineup. This year the lineup was so strong and had so many great filmmakers, I thought, "They can't say this is a bad year." But they said it anyway. They said there were big filmmakers but [these] weren't their strongest films. There was an article by Todd McCarthy in Variety criticizing everybody's gray hair.

They will always find something to complain about in the press when it comes to Cannes. It's always hypercritical at that particular festival. Which is amusing.

BG: You've said that Last Days is inspired by Kurt Cobain but isn't really about him.

GVS: Except for the fact that Michael [Pitt] makes himself look just like Kurt Cobain.

BG: Was that your suggestion?

GVS: No, it was his idea. I was afraid of it. He said, "My sister really knows how to do hair. She does, like, Axl Rose." And he had lightened his hair, grown it long. I kept getting worried that he was gonna look fake, strange, or weird, and he kept saying, "We can always change it. Don't worry."

It looked like Kurt's hair, but I wasn't sure how I felt about that. One reason I had cast him in the first place was because he didn't look like Kurt Cobain and he had a totally different Leonardo DiCaprio haircut. Eventually I grew to like it. But the story was always designed as a tiny, two-day period of somebody's life that somehow said something about the rest.

BG: How did you think it would have been if it was a black kid in that role, or a girl, for instance?

GVS: That's sort of what it originally was. It was supposed to [star] a 14-year-old Danish kid named Holger Thaarup, who was part of a short film I had seen by Thomas Vinterberg, who made The Celebration. It was going to be more like Godard's Hail Mary.

BG: In the end, do you think it served the initial vision to have him looking more like Cobain?

GVS: The only reason I didn't want him to look like Kurt was that I thought that it might look bad. Trying to look like Andy [Warhol], you're always going to end up with, "It's kind of like Andy, but it's not really Andy."

I thought Michael actually did look like Kurt in the end. He was doing all this other stuff to make him look like Kurt – the way he moved. He worked on it for a long time.

BG: You seem to thrive on this kind of fluid process.

GVS: I wouldn't insist on chance taking over all the time. But there [are] ways that you can kill the thing by having [it] controlled. You're evaluating as you go. I don't think that there is that sort of division between the planned-out thing and the free-flowing thing. It's just using your wits while things are in motion.

BG: Does your background as a painter influence the way you make films?

GVS: Yeah, it comes from painting. Your idea is to paint something that looks just like it is in your head. Then you start painting and it turns out completely different. And that's OK, that's good.

BG: Your recent films have become progressively more unconventional. How do you rate your industry clout at this time?

GVS: I don't. I've always thought that if you're willing to make a good deal, if it's cheap enough, they're willing to let you get away with stuff that you wouldn't normally be able to get away with.

BG: Is this an equation of what they are willing to lose weighed against the prestige of working with you?

GVS: Yeah. And then I weigh it against what I want to be able to do.

BG: You're often described as being reclusive or enigmatic. How does that play in an industry that tends to be driven by powerful personalities and egos?

GVS: Lots of guys down there [in Hollywood] are [enigmatic]. I mean, famous guys like Kubrick, Phil Spector –

BG: But if you see yourself described that way in print, do you laugh? Do you think, "That's not me at all," or "Yes, that's me"? You're not an enigma to yourself, obviously.

GVS: Enigmatic is probably pretty true. I guess enigmatic would just mean hard to read. But if I say something like, "I want to make a movie about these street hustlers in Portland, Oregon," and I'm talking to somebody that just got out of merchandising who's working at Sony as a junior executive, they just go, like, "Uh-huh," and I become enigmatic just because what I'm saying is too off their charts, not because I'm really enigmatic. Sometimes people just think you're enigmatic because you're not a Republican Christian and they're not understanding your ideas.

BG: Can you imagine making another movie as mainstream as Finding Forester or Good Will Hunting again?

GVS: Yeah. But I don't know if there will be any. There are no plans.

BG: But it appeals to you?

GVS: When I made those films, I had read this essay by Jamake Highwater. He had drawn this wild timeline of art and artists. How in Greek times images on vases were not about the artist per se but about representing things that would be understood by the whole community. And then, through the centuries, art started to be relegated to represent biblical stuff, and eventually it gave way to portraits of people that were wealthy enough to afford the portraits, and so the subjects became the rich guys. That gave way to artists making pictures about commoners and then making their own expressionist creations. Until eventually you reached a time where the artist's name was the only thing – whatever you were looking at was more about the name then it was about the representation. I was really into this one article and thought of Good Will Hunting as an example of populist art. Like it was made to be recognized by the general population, and one of the reasons that I made it was just reading this [essay]. The same with Forester. So, yeah. It still appeals to me. (David Weissman)

David Weissman is the producer and codirector of The Cockettes.

'Last Days' opens Fri/22 at Bay Area theaters. See Movie Clock for show times; see Openings, in Film listings, for a review.