I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Conversations with Gus Van Sant often turn on the subject of luck, roll of chance in artistic career. If Van Sant hadn’t been talked into attending Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival seven years ago with his low budget Mala Noche, and if the film hadn’t won a prize, his friend Christoph Eichorn might not have talked him into staying on (at an earlier period, Van Sant had tried the Hollywood hustle for several years, and given up), and the deal for Drugstore Cowboy, would never have come together—and, in that case, you wouldn’t be reading an interview with Gus Van Sant right now.
Since his luck has been very good, Van Sant—who is one of very few artists with a sensibility distinct enough to leave a powerful mark in several media, including filmmaking, photography and writing—now has the enviable reputation in Hollywood of being a director who, “Should be able to do whatever he wants.” This includes living in Portland, Oregon and shooting most of his films close to home. His latest feature, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues opens this October.
Interview #1, Sushi on Sunset, 8:30 PM, Tuesday
Gary Indiana Tom Robbins’s book, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, seems like an odd source for a Gus Van Sant movie. What’s the attraction?
Gus Van Sant Cowgirls was one of the first hippy novels to come out. So far, I don’t think my films have shown their roots as “hippy.” They’re more a modern art school graduate sensibility. But I came of age in the ’60s and wore a top hat and a marine jacket in my suburban neighborhood. I was a hippy at 16. That ’60s movement and sensibility wore off very quickly. By the mid-’70s it all looked stupid. But I like it, and I always pushed Cowgirlsaround town as something to do.
GI You lived in L.A. a long time ago, didn’t you?
GVS I lived here from ’75 to ’81, trying to play whatever game I could find. Nothing ever happened. I left and made money in advertising in New York. That’s how I paid for Mala Noche.
GI Why did you leave New York?
GVS It was too hard to figure out how everything works. Like how the electricity gets to all the buildings, and the sewage systems. How does it all work? That bugged me enough that I didn’t want to live in Manhattan. I lived in my parents’s house in Connecticut and commuted.
GI Don’t take this amiss, but I’m glad you aren’t doing the Harvey Milk movie. I just had this weird feeling that you shouldn’t. I could see you doing the film and then being attacked by everybody in the world because it wasn’t politically what they wanted. I mean, we belong to this minority group where you’re always wrong as an artist, because there’s already an establishment who’ve appointed themselves the custodians of this identity.
GVS That’s true. I was aware of that. The Harvey Milk story wasn’t so much about the actual incarnation of Harvey and the Castro district in San Francisco, but the emergence and importance of the gay movement, which to me is the great subject. And it can be fabricated, and explained—maybe it didn’t happen exactly that way—but you understand it. I don’t think we’ve seen that on film. You know, the gay movement is one hundred years old. Maybe it’s older.
GI No, I think it’s about one hundred years old. Last night they had an incredible documentary on PBS about sexuality: homosexuality, lesbianism, and desire in Germany from 1900–1945. People only started talking about “homosexuality” in like 1880 or something. I think they called it “urning.” Uranians.
GVS One hundred years ago reality became standardized by the Industrial Revolution, so a thing like homosexuality was hidden or stuck out because it wasn’t conforming.
GI What made you walk off the Harvey Milk movie? Did dropping out of it create bad blood between you and Warner Brothers?
GVS The script lacked humanity. It was too like a circus, a regular Hollywood script. I needed more time with it. The Randy Shilts book didn’t do the kind of things you want to have happen in a movie. Harvey wasn’t funny in the script; in real life he was hilarious. He was corny. He had a lot of depth. I couldn’t personally do that script; the film would have been a cliché.
I was also very wary of getting into a position where, if I had to fill out stuff from a sketchy script, the producers could object to what I came up with. A sex scene, or whatever. I had no guarantee that the film wouldn’t just be taken away from me at the first hint of trouble. I wanted everything we were going to shoot to be in that script, so if they objected I could say, “Look, you signed off on this.” But I don’t think Warner Brothers considers that bad blood. I mean, I had a meeting today at Warner’s. I wasn’t banned from the lot.
GI People often target you about politics because you’re openly gay, but they think you’re not political enough.
GVS I get accused of not toeing the line. One of the guys who said that is Michelangelo Signorelli, who’s a gay gay-basher. I saw him on this TV show of gay personalities. He said, “When I was a teenager I used to fag-bash. I’d go around with my friends and beat them up.” As soon as I heard that I thought, “I get it. He’s basically still grabbing fags and beating them up.” So, if I ever met him we’d maybe even fight. I bet I could beat him up.
GI What are you going to do next, now that you’re not doing the Harvey Milk film?
GVS I’m working on a middle of the road domestic thriller called, To Die For. It was a Joyce Maynard novel that Buck Henry wrote a screenplay from. I really connected to it because it reminded me of my home town of Darien, Connecticut. I’ve always been intrigued by this class difference between the Italian kids in that community and the WASPy daughters of the New York bedroom commuters. The tough Italian kids end up dating the blonde IBM president’s daughters, and it’s this mismatch of backgrounds.
GI What about the Andy Warhol movie? You were going to film Victor Bokris’s book on Warhol’s life. All these people who were around him are still alive.
GVS With Harvey Milk, there were people like Cleve Jones who I really got close to. Cleve was Harvey’s street man. I thought the street activity and protests and marches were a fascinating part of that story. So, in Cleve’s case, I rented his place, he was my roommate. I had him cast an actor who was younger than he is now. In other cases, like Warhol … there are so many superstars in the Warhol entourage, you can mix and match, you can make up a superstar. These people who surrounded Andy, like Viva …
GI Viva has five sisters. They all have different variations on the Hoffman speech impediment. Jeannie is married to a neurosurgeon in Buenos Aires, we went to their pied-a-terre in New York one day. Jeannie came to the door and said, “Ooooh my God, hiiii … pretty hot out, HUUUUUH?”
GVS They all have that Up-State drawl, Upper Class. Viva played a pretty significant part in some of the more dramatic scenes. She was on the other end of the phone …
GI … when Andy was shot. She was having her hair done for Midnight Cowboy and talking to Fred on the phone.
GVS That was in one of the screenplays. There was a falling out between my co-writer, Paul Bartel, and I, because I wrote a version of my own while he was working on a draft. I wasn’t in touch with him, he was in Europe or something, and I handed in the thing I liked best, which of course was the one I was writing. So he won’t speak to me any more. Anyway, Universal passed on the script.
GI Who were you going to cast as Warhol?
GVS Well, we had a lot of different ideas. The young Warhol, the aging Warhol … I had three different periods of time. The ’50s art director kid, I wanted River Phoenix to play, because they look alike. They’re both Romanian, Yugoslavian, that area. They have these sort of block heads. We needed to do much more research. I wanted to show how the Abstract Expressionists were, at one point, laughing at the Pop artists, screaming, “You’re fools! You’re mining the art world!” When it was actually because Pop artists were getting the shows.
GI That whole Cedar Tavern period.
GVS Were you around then? In New York?
GI Gus, we’re the same age. I was a baby. Well, actually, I was in Boston. When I was 16, I used to hitchhike from Boston to New York to see the Velvet Underground at Max’s.
GVS I have the Cedar Tavern in the script, Andy visiting it in ’58 feeling, like, “Well, I don’t like this too much, it’s too weird … “
GI Yeah, and they made fun of him because he was a pansy, even though Johns and Rauschenberg were both gay. They were not that kind of fag. Andy was a big swish.
GVS I wanted to have that as a centerpiece, and then the last act was called The Factory and Beyond. The Factory, the success, the money that came with it, how it all went into this really weird channel, like a ridiculous Alice in Wonderland scene. It dissipated, that Factory scene, but it actually ended with the shooting.
GI Well, that’s when it did end. He kept all the weird people off him after that. How did you end up in Portland, by the way?
GVS I wanted to go someplace that I really loved and make a movie, using a book I knew was a really great story and also available, like cheap. This was Walt Curtis’s Mala Noche. It wasn’t On the Road, or Catcher in the Rye. It was this other novel that was almost as good, or as good, but cheap, like nobody was buying the rights.
GI It’s such a different process than what a writer does, although there’s a way in which it’s very similar. You take a chance on your material seeing you through.
GVS It’s like you’re writing somebody else’s story. The stuff I’d dug up was quite similar to Mala Noche, but it wasn’t as good because I didn’t live it. Walt Curtis lived Mala Noche, and it was very apparent. He was really funny, and the characters are really vibrant. Compared to what I was writing, which was green. Maybe My Own Private Idaho could be an example of something I wrote, but still that’s a film, it’s not a beautiful piece of writing.
GI Looking for stories, do you reach a point where you’re self-consciously looking for something? It’s not like your heart beats so strongly that you have to tell it.
GVS You’re talking about finding an angle. Everyone’s looking for an angle. Usually, young filmmakers make a horror film, because it’s easy to sell. It’s a cheap angle. My angle was—Gay Cinema was just starting to happen. In 1982, Taxi zum Klo had done record box office, and the New York Gay Film Festival was just starting up. The films were terrible, but everyone went anyway. It didn’t matter. They were speaking to an audience who didn’t have anything anyway, they would see anything that related to them. And I just thought, “Well, if it doesn’t work on a global scale as a film, if it doesn’t translate to a wider audience, maybe it can fall back into a gay audience.” It’s like choosing your subject as a writer.
GI It’s odd to hear you say that, because I think of you as somebody who circumvents those calculations.
GVS But I came from Hollywood and all the traditions of how to “make it” in the movie business. You study this, over ten years … which direction you might take. I just took a variation, recognizing a market that I was part of. It was good business. You only have a certain number of shots with a film. With a novelist, you have time … with a film it’s about money. Well, I guess it’s the same thing.
GI As a writer, you have a certain luxury. But you don’t have a choice to make either Mala Noche or Jurassic Park, it really is one thing or the other. There is no popular way to write a novel that has anything in it. The things a novel can uniquely do are things the mass audience is not interested in. People like me fucked themselves up. We grew up in a time where there was still immense prestige attached to writing literary novels. So we trained ourselves to do this, and in the process of our learning how to do it, which is a long process, the audience for whom we were doing it disappeared.
GVS There’s no money in it either.
GI No money, no mass audience … and shitty publishers who don’t back up their own product. So the best you can hope for is some type of late “genius award” like Cormac McCarthy.
GVS After a point, it’s not important what medium you’re working in. You just continue moving forward. But you don’t know that, starting out. Look at [William] Burroughs—he was 50 when it “paid off.” Wouldn’t it be better to die the rock star he is, than have an Orson Welles bit—where you were cool at 25 and then tried to live up to it for the rest of your life?
GI I was in Toronto with William a couple of years ago and someone asked him if he regretted anything, and he said, “Well, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t regret something, but the great thing about being a writer is, when bad things happen to you, you can use them.” It’s true. Artists can retrieve all the crappy experiences and make them into something.
GVS Not long ago, I met Anthony Perkins at the Four Seasons. Funny thing is, we met at the Four Seasons when we could just as easily have met at the Chateau Marmont, but we didn’t know what each other’s image was, so we met at the Four Seasons, which is very hoity toity. Now there’s this guy writing a book about Anthony Perkins who wants to know what we talked about. And it was this really brief meeting. I know that he died and that he had AIDS and was hiding it from everyone. But then I felt, well, this guy just wants to know the little things, like the way Anthony Perkins said things. And I do know those, because I remember them, but in fact it was just an idle chat. But the biographer wants to know what it was like, because it was one of the last idle chats that he might be able to get on record. And that’s pretty important to a writer of a biography. There was this one really great image. We get to the front door of the restaurant, there’s this yellow Rolls Royce 1963 convertible, the doorman has the door open, and Perkins says, “I remember the Chateau Marmont in the ’50s, when you might go down for a swim, and you’d see Natalie Wood and James Dean sitting by the side of the pool laughing, those were really the days … ” And then he bounded off toward this Rolls Royce, and I thought, “It’s like young Hollywood, he’s driving off in his Rolls.” And he walks past the Rolls and out onto the street. I’m walking down the street and I hear this beep beep, and it’s Perkins, he’s waving from this small mini-station wagon. And there we were pretentiously meeting at the Four Seasons. I had parked out on the street, too. You know, Tony Perkins was going to play the Countess in Even Cowgirls Get The Blues.
GI I talked to you one day when you were going to see Peter O’Toole about playing The Countess.
GVS I met with him in London. He was fantastic, like Lawrence of Arabia, very funny, a great raconteur and show-off. He flaked out on us.
Interview #2, Chateau Marmont, 5:30 PM, Friday
GI Am I enabling you?
GVS No, but as soon as you came in I just sort of poured a new drink. But really because I want a drink.
GI I’m having dinner with Carol Kane.
GVS Say “hi” for me.
GI Carol’s in the movie, isn’t she?
GVS Yeah, she’s great in it. It’s not a big part, but everyone really likes her part because she plays a drunk. She’s like the Liz Taylor character in Virginia Woolf, it doesn’t get that involved, but she does these classic things, like, “Hey … HEY!” You know, talking too loud …
GI I just met her a few months ago. She had these little dogs with her. We’re going to Mr. Chow.
GVS You picking up the check?
GI Sure, and spend a few hundred dollars I don’t have. I think it will be dutch treat. Everybody throws in his credit card. They do that out here.
GVS Do you get paid if this interview isn’t printed?
GI I get a kill fee.
GVS I wrote one thing for a magazine so far, for LA Style. I was unaware that editors rewrite your stuff …
GI In the big magazines they will. Completely, if they’re really big.
GVS This editor was this New York Jewish Liberal. He was my age or younger, but a totally different kind of person, and he was a political activist. My article was about censorship, but I was dealing with it from my point of view, jokes and stuff. But by the second paragraph, I started to sound like Abbie Hoffman. He had rewritten it, and put in what he wanted me to be writing. I mean he wrote it exactly in his own voice, this raving political activist. I sounded like a schizophrenic.
GI I just had a gig like that, every time the thing went in, they didn’t like my attitude, and kept suggesting a different approach. This was for a national publication. So finally, I wrote down everything the editor said on the phone, verbatim, and just stuck it into the article in his own words. Fuck it.
The last time I talked to you in an interview situation you mentioned that all this press here said, My Own Private Idaho would open doors for Gay Cinema in Hollywood. And you said, “Hollywood is much more specific, it will probably open doors for movies about male hustlers.”
GVS That’s true. There’s this one study that says Hollywood figured out the movies that make the most money, collectively, are sequels. It’s like … Siamese Hollywood. They make movies that are kind of like sequels, ideas that are similar.
GI I might get into the script thing again. Rudy Wurlitzer told me there isn’t much out here for people like either of us these days.
GVS It changes all the time. So maybe this year there isn’t. I dunno. Personally, I can’t tell any more, because I don’t think I ever really knew. Also, the saying goes that nobody really knows how this business works. People who have made a billion dollars out here say that. But that’s why anybody can make it, because nobody really knows what’s going on. It’s like the street. Nobody knows what’s really going down on the street, so all kinds of things can be going down, because it’s whatever you dream up, right?
GI What is your fascination with the street?
GVS It’s a world removed from the one I know. One that can take the place of the world I know, and become a voice for my own life. But one that’s removed from my own life … You know, there are people who write scripts who are million dollar writers, who’ve never had anything shot. If you get anything shot, your stock goes way up. Minimum scale is like $100,000 for a script, so you can’t make less than that if you’re a Guild member. When I did Drugstore Cowboy, and got the writing fee, I just couldn’t believe it. I was afraid they’d ask me to return the money! “Oh, no, we’re sorry, it’s not that much … “
GI Is it harder being a rebel or being normal?
GVS I think you can be a normal rebel. Normal sometimes is being rebellious. I don’t try to be either, but just doing what you do is sometimes interpreted as rebellious. For me, that’s normal.
GI I don’t know if you really kicked open the male hustler doorway enough. I’d like to sell Rent Boy to Hollywood. It has that organ snatching ring stuff, so it’s got this thriller potential, too.
GVS It’s just like any other scene or business. If you are here writing, eventually the person you wrote the first script for, five years later, is the head of the story department and remembers you, and if they liked you … or their best friend is the head of the studio. It all starts to network until you’ve met everybody and you actually exist as a character in this town. And then, that’s when you can kind of relax. You don’t have to get nervous. If something falls through, you can bounce back. I don’t think it depends on the actual material. Because that changes always. There’re businessmen running the industry, just like the fashion business. My sister works at Victoria’s Secret, and she says that they don’t even use designers. The buyers design the clothes. The buyers! They travel around and buy a bunch of stuff, then steal the neck from this, take the buttons from another shirt and make this interpretation. They have it made in Taiwan. It’s a little bit like that in Hollywood too. The production groups are all just numbers people. They don’t really want you to run the show, and tell them what to make, they just want you to do the art part: get the actors to say the lines right. Then everything else they design.
GI You are dealing with studios now.
GVS I’ve written scripts for studios, but I’ve never filmed a movie that’s been a studio movie. Cowgirls started out as a Tri-Star movie, but it ended up as a New Line, Fine Line picture. New Line is getting big enough now that it’s becoming more substantial, like the studios. I suppose the reason Hollywood can’t eliminate the creative side, the writers and directors and actors, which I think they’d like to do, and where clothing places like The Gap can, is, if you can find a shirt in a store in Milan, you actually have the thing there. You can say, “I want this part,” and a technician can measure and reproduce it. That’s not really creating a shirt, that’s more like copying a shirt. A designer can tell you why that’s bad, why certain things might not have energy if they’re done that way or whatever. But a film is more complicated than a shirt, and ultimately, the studios think you should be able to just take bits of screenplays and have a technical writer restructure the dialogue. Design a screenplay, give it to the guy who knows how the camera works, then eliminate the director, and just let the camera guy set up the shot. Then have the actors do the performance part. But when they do that, and sometimes they do that in a way, I think … there’s always something missing, like the conductor in the orchestra. Things start to go out of time, and when they don’t know why things are getting out of time and how to get it back into time, the guy they didn’t use in the first place is the one who knows how to fix it.
GI What is it that a director can do, that a technician can’t?
GVS You have to con people. A lot of directing is trying to orchestrate a magic trick, to give the appearance of something happening that isn’t actually happening. That’s the drama. The end result is essentially always the same thing: it’s always a film that has images, pictures, people, and the soundtrack. When you read about Hitchcock’s experiences making Psycho—and there are some really good books about Psycho—you think, “I’ve heard this one before, this is an old story, that happened on The Maltese Falcon. Didn’t this story of the actress too drunk to do her lines, doesn’t that go back to the 1920s and D. W. Griffith?” The responsibility of the director orchestrating this—ultimately it’s like a magic show where you saw the girl in half, it looks like she’s really in half, and she’s not, hopefully. As a director you’ve gone through experiences where it didn’t work, where the audience didn’t fall for the sawing the girl in half routine, so you watch for the things that are going to show up, where you go: Wait a minute! We can’t do that, because the last time I did that it didn’t work. You watch out for these things coming at you that are going to blow the whole effect. Sometimes it’s the screenplay not being ready, that could be a signal for the director to say, the magic trick at the end isn’t going to work. The script isn’t in the right proportions, things aren’t happening at the right pace. The protagonists aren’t being challenged, they aren’t coming to life … .
Orson Welles was an amateur magician. I always found that significant. I think as a theater producer/director, he was putting on a magic show that extended into dramatics. In the same way, his films were attended to by a sleight of hand artist. Making things seem a certain way when the things he had weren’t really the things he was showing you. All story telling is based on that. It’s all related to the guy telling a story around a campfire. Stanley Kubrick says people who make bad movies get bad reviews and get drummed out of the business, but if a caveman told a bad story, he’d probably have been stoned to death. He’s the same guy, an entertainer.
Gary Indiana’s latest novel Rent Boy, is due out this February from Serpent’s Tail. Gone Tomorrow is available from Pantheon.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee