A director who is capable of crafting both deeply unconventional independent films and mainstream crowd-pleasers, Gus Van Sant has managed to carve an enviable niche for himself in Hollywood. Since debuting in 1985 with Mala Noche, Van Sant has become one of the premiere bards of dysfunction, populating his films with a parade of hustlers, junkies, psychopathic weather girls, homicidal teens, and troubled geniuses. Following his first major success, Good Will Hunting, Van Sant directed a remake of one of the classic paeans to dysfunction, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.
The son of a traveling salesman who rapidly worked his way up the corporate ladder into middle-class prosperity, Van Sant was born in Louisville, KY, on July 24, 1952. Due to his father's job, the family moved continuously during Van Sant's childhood. One constant in the director's early years was his interest in painting and Super-8 filmmaking; while still in school he began making semi-autobiographical shorts costing between 30 and 50 dollars. Van Sant's artistic leanings took him to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970, where his classmates included David Byrne and other members of the Talking Heads. It was also at R.I.S.D. that Van Sant received an introduction to avant-garde directors like Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and Andy Warhol; this introduction quickly inspired him to change his major from painting to cinema.
After spending time in Europe, Van Sant went to Los Angeles in 1976. He secured a job as a production assistant to writer/director Ken Shapiro, with whom he developed a few ideas, none of which came to fruition. Van Sant channeled his frustrations into the 1981 Alice in Hollywood, a film about a naïve young actress who goes to Hollywood and abandons her ideals. It was never released. During this period, Van Sant began to spend time observing the denizens of the more down-and-out sections of Hollywood Boulevard. He became fascinated by the existence of this marginalized section of L.A.'s population, especially in context with the more ordinary, prosperous world that surrounded them. Van Sant would repeatedly focus his work on those existing on society's fringes, beginning with his 1985 Mala Noche.
Mala Noche was made two years after Van Sant went to New York to work in an advertising agency; saving 25,000 dollars during his tenure there, he was able to finance his tale of doomed love between a gay liquor store clerk and a Mexican immigrant. The film, which was taken from Portland street writer Walt Curtis' semi-autobiographical novella, featured some of the director's hallmarks, notably an unfulfilled romanticism, a dry sense of the absurd, and the refusal to treat homosexuality as something deserving of judgment. Unlike many gay filmmakers, Van Sant -- who had long been openly gay -- declined to use same-sex relationships as fodder for overtly political statements, although such relationships would frequently appear in his films.
Shot in black-and-white, Mala Noche earned its director almost overnight acclaim on the festival circuit, with the Los Angeles Times naming it the year's Best Independent Film. The film's success attracted Hollywood interest, and Van Sant was briefly courted by Universal; the courtship ended after Van Sant pitched a series of project ideas (including what would later become Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho) that the studio declined to take interest in.
Van Sant reacted by moving to Portland, Oregon, where he set up house and began giving life to the ideas rejected by Universal. With the assistance of independent production company Avenue, the director made Drugstore Cowboy, his 1989 film about four drug addicts who rob pharmacies to support their habit. Cowboy met with great critical success; in addition to furthering Van Sant's reputation as a gifted director, it helped to revive the career of Matt Dillon, who was remarkable as the junkie leader who decides to come clean. The film's exploration of the lives of those living on society's outer fringes, as well as its Portland setting, were mirrored in Van Sant's next effort, the similarly acclaimed My Own Private Idaho (1991). Centering around the dealings of two male hustlers (played by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves), the film was a compelling examination of unrequited love, alienation, and the concept of family (a concept Van Sant repeatedly explores in his films). The film won him an Independent Spirit Award for his screenplay (he had won the same award for his Drugstore Cowboy screenplay), as well as greater prestige. In addition, it helped Reeves -- previously best-known for his work in the Bill and Ted movies -- to get the critical respect that had hitherto eluded him.
Van Sant's next project, a 1994 adaptation of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, was an excessive flop, both commercially and critically. Featuring an unusually large budget (for Van Sant, at least) of 8.5 million dollars and a large, eclectic cast including Uma Thurman, John Hurt, and Keanu Reeves, the film was worked and then reworked, but the finished product nonetheless resulted in something approaching a significant disaster.
Fortunately for Van Sant, his next project, 1995's To Die For, helped to restore his luster. An adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel, the black comedy starred Nicole Kidman as a murderously ambitious weather girl; it also featured Van Sant favorite Matt Dillon as her hapless husband and Joaquin Phoenix, brother of the late River (who had died of an overdose two years earlier), as her equally hapless lover. It was Van Sant's first effort for a major studio (Columbia), and its success paved the way for further projects of the director's choosing. The same year, he served as executive producer for Larry Clark's Kids; it was a fitting assignment, due to both the film's subject matter and the fact that Clark's photographs of junkies had served as reference points for Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy.
In 1997 came true mainstream acceptance for the director, thanks to Good Will Hunting. Starring and written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the film -- about a troubled, blue-collar genius -- was a huge critical and commercial success. In addition to taking in more than 220 million dollars worldwide, it received a number of Academy Award nominations, including a Best Director nomination for Van Sant. It won a Best Screenplay Oscar for Damon and Affleck, and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Robin Williams. The unprecedented success of Good Will Hunting allowed Van Sant to pursue whatever project his heart desired, which ended up being an unusually faithful remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho. As opposed to reinterpreting the 1960 film, however, Van Sant opted to recreate the film shot-for-shot, in color, with a cast of young Hollywood A-listers. His decision was met with equal parts curiosity, skepticism, and derision from industry insiders and outsiders alike, and the finished result met with a similar reception. Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, and Julianne Moore, Psycho, if not exactly a failure, wasn't much of a triumph, either. However, its mixed reception didn't deter the director, who was soon busy again with a number of projects. In addition to directing, he also devoted considerable energy to releasing two albums and published a novel, Pink, which was a thinly veiled exploration of his grief over River Phoenix's 1993 death.
Van Sant fared somewhat better with 2000's Finding Forrester, a drama about a high-school student from the Bronx (Rob Brown) who becomes unlikely friends with a crusty, reclusive author (Sean Connery). Critical response was mixed but generally positive, singling out Van Sant's skill at melding the performance styles of first-time actor Brown and Hollywood legend Connery; however, those same reviewers were less impressed with the script's schematic, Scent of a Woman-meets-Good Will Hunting template.
In any event, Van Sant - longing to return to more-intimate production methods -- decided to leave behind big-budget studio filmmaking for his next two features. Inspired by the works of Hungarian director Bela Tarr and American maverick John Cassavetes, Van Sant retreated to the deserts of Argentina, Utah, and Death Valley for 2002's Gerry, a loosely devised, largely improvised feature in which stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck - both playing characters named Gerry -- wander through the desert, discussing Wheel of Fortune, video games, and nothing in particular. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the film earned as much derision as it did praise, polarizing audiences with its elliptical, staunchly non-eventful storyline, punctuated by cinematographer Harris Savides' stunning landscape photography.
It took Gerry over a year to make it to theaters, in which time Van Sant began production on his next film, the controversial Elephant. Approached by HBO and producer Diane Keaton to craft a fictional film based on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, the director chose to shoot in his hometown of Portland, employing dozens of untrained teen actors to chronicle an "ordinary" high-school day - albeit one underlined by an unexpected tragedy. Melding improvisational long takes like those in Gerry with Savides' fluid camerawork, the finished film provoked strong reactions from audiences at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, who either embraced or rejected Van Sant's aesthetic decision not to offer a definitive rationale for his characters' homicidal tendencies. The consensus from the Cannes jury was unanimous, however: In a surprise decision, they awarded Elephant with their top prize, the Palm d'Or, and Van Sant with his first Best Director statue from the festival. Van Sant followed up Elephant with Last Days, a fictionalized look at the end of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain's life. He described that film as the third part of a "death trilogy" that began with Gerry.
2008 saw the release of two more Van Sant films: Paranoid Park and Milk. Paranoid Park was a small film utilizing a largely on-professional cast, but Milk signified a resounding return to commercial filmmaking. Many directors tried to get the life story of slain San Francisco politician Harvey Milk to the big screen, but it was Van Sant who finally pulled it off. The film, starring Sean Penn as Milk, opened to strong reviews, and garnered a number of year-end awards including eight Oscar nominations. In addition to Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor nods, the Academy bestowed Van Sant's with the second Best Director nomination of his career.
~ Rebecca Flint Marx, All Movie Guide