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Gus Van Sant’s Northwest Passage

The director of ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ continues to explore uncharted territory with ‘My Own Private Idaho’

Gus Van SantGus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant

Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

“See that guy leaning on that car?” says Gus Van Sant Jr. “He’s hustling.” The movie director is strolling Third Avenue in downtown Portland, Oregon, one sunny afternoon in July, touring the offbeat sights of his adopted hometown, which he has featured in his films. Moving on, he amiably describes a statue in a section of nearby Washington Park that used to be a gay pickup scene: “It’s of two Indians, one pointing off into the distance, and it’s called Coming of the White Man. I always thought it was ironic.”

Van Sant wanted to get the pun into his new movie, My Own Private Idaho, but the statue was surrounded by too much greenery for his taste, so he found an elk statue downtown, enlisted a crew member to be covered in patina-tone makeup and Indian garb and hung a placard reading, THE COMING OF THE WHITE MAN – all for a shot that’s onscreen for only a few seconds.

This is hardly the side of Portland that Van Sant saw when he first moved here in 1970. His father had just been named the president of White Stag sportswear, and the family’s large Tudor house bordered the grounds of the Waverley Country Club; the only time teenage Gus made it to “Three Street” was for a bachelor party, when he and his friends watched a stag film.

But in the late Seventies, while he was living in Los Angeles and trying to break into the movie business, Van Sant became fascinated by the hustlers he saw on Hollywood Boulevard. “It was like watching another life that was as removed from my life as somebody in another country,” he says, “and yet it was happening simultaneously in our society. It suggested this otherworldly story, but filled with a lot of desperate, end-of-the-line, colorful characters.” Gus Van Sant Jr. had discovered the subject matter that would fuel his early career – the street.

He eventually returned to Portland and, for $20,000, made Mala Noche (1985), a skid-row story of unrequited gay love, which was named Best Independent/Experimental Film by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association; Drugstore Cowboy (1989), the droll tale of junkie thieves starring Matt Dillon that won the National Society of Film Critics’ awards for Best Screenplay, Director and Film; and now My Own Private Idaho, starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as a pair of young hustlers, one a narcoleptic searching for his mother, the other the mayor’s son gone astray who talks in lines appropriated from Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

Continuing his tour, Van Sant, who by turns looks like a bemused Dr. Seuss character and a grizzled Anthony Perkins, stops at Taylor Street and points up the block. “That’s where the Greyhound station used to be,” he says. “In the Thirties, people from all over the West would end up in the city by bus, with nowhere to go and no money. There was a seaport here, too, and hotels for sailors. On the corner was an empty lot nicknamed Camp because transients camped out there. Men would come by and pick up the kids staying there, and that’s how the whole hustling scene started.”

Van Sant, now thirty-nine, speaks in the measured, passionless tones of a clinician, but his fascination with seamy subject matter and his candidness about his homosexuality have confounded many in Hollywood, even though he’s basically a preppy from Darien, Connecticut, who golfs and drives a BMW (albeit an ’82). After Mala Noche won its award, Universal Pictures invited Van Sant to pitch projects to them; he described Drugstore, Idaho and Satan’s Sandbox – a prison tale about a psychotic killer, a transvestite and a young gang-rape victim – and was summarily ushered out the door.

It’s true that out loud or on paper, Van Sant’s ideas for movies seem like either cruddy drive-in fodder or almost willfully anticommercial, if not downright bizarre, films. Yet what makes them good are the nonverbal elements: Van Sant’s dry wit, painter’s eye, musician’s ear (he once fronted a band called Destroy All Blondes), openness to improvisation and anything-goes sensibility.

Though recently lumped with quirky Northwestern artists like David Lynch and Matt Groening, Van Sant has just as much in common with bohemian writers like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. He has a passion for the stories of seemingly dark and marginal worlds, finding in them a rich texture of poignancy, wisdom and hilarity. All of his films to date feature the same visual trademark – dreamlike sequences of turbulently rolling clouds, which Van Sant describes as “a different way of looking at what happens over a period of time.” His movies themselves exhibit a different way of looking at the world, an un-romanticized appreciation of the vicissitudes of life as it passes by.

Of course, once Drugstore Cowboy started winning prestigious awards, Hollywood began the big schmooze, flooding Van Sant with scripts, most of them about lowlifes – as he puts it, “vets that were cops, cops that were criminals and criminals that were getting away with it.” Yet no one wanted to supply him the pittance necessary to make the movie he wanted to do – Idaho – until after he’d enlisted accomplished heartthrobs Phoenix and Reeves to play the leads. Partly it was because his screenplay was intentionally vague. “Gus grows a little uncomfortable if you try to force him to say what he’s trying to do,” says Curtiss Clayton, editor of Drugstore and Idaho. “He just likes to experiment and see if it happens.”

Eventually, his producer, Laurie Parker, coaxed $2.7 million out of New Line Cinema, and filming began in Portland in November 1990. Several cast and crew members moved into Van Sant’s recently purchased three-story home, rendering the place a frat house, complete with guitar jams – Phoenix fronts a band called Aleka’s Attic, and another cast member was Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

“There was this great energy” says Keanu Reeves, “all of us living in a strange city, flying off the walls and off each other. It was really intense.”

And it stirred up Hollywood gossip. On Thanksgiving, a crew member who’d visited L.A. reported that “the word is that the film has been halted because we’re all drug users, Gus doesn’t know how to direct and the actors are having sex and prostituting themselves.” (In fact, when the company heard this, they were eating a homey four-turkey dinner that was, says producer Parker, “like. Father Knows Best.”) Still, an anonymous item in Movieline magazine that may have been referring to Reeves intimated that he went “way into” his role for Van Sant by “shacking up with drug-using streetfolk.” (Reeves says drugs were “not really” part of the scene – “We smoked a little weed once in a while, sipped some red wine.”) What’s more, the naysaying types who had warned Van Sant against making a nonjudgmental movie about drugs in the Reagan era were now telling him that Idaho, with its homosexual prostitution and Shakespearean dialogue, would alienate the small audience he’d mustered so far.

Yet My Own Private Idaho outstrips Drugstore in ambition, style and depth. The movie playfully mixes styles and moods, including porno-magazine covers that come to life, documentary-style anecdotes told by real street kids, home-movie dream snippets and updated Henry IV, all loosely stitched together by a pedal-steel guitar playing “Home on the Range” and those rolling Van Sant clouds. And it was selected to play the 1991 film festivals in Venice (where Phoenix picked up the best-actor award), New York and Toronto.

Idaho is like an inch away from being a mainstream, commercial movie,” says Van Sant. “Not like a mile. It’s not hard to take. It just shows you how stodgy, conservative and afraid Hollywood is today to even consider a project that isn’t like Home Alone. You only go this far away, and everybody thinks Keanu and River are playing with fire. I think they’re just bored with what they do.”

The most intriguing aspect of Idaho may be one that neither actor could’ve known when he signed on – what the movie reveals about its enigmatic creator. Van Sant is elliptical and reserved, even among friends: “You go out to dinner with Gus,” says Clayton, “and you don’t get the usual sort of things, like what he’s upset about. Often he doesn’t talk at all. He keeps a lot inside.”

Yet in Idaho he created Keanu Reeves’s character, Scott Favor, the mayor’s son, who rejects a life of wealth for the streets. At one point Scott declares, “It will impress everybody more when an incredible fuckup like me turns good than if I’d been good all along.”

During filming, Van Sant wracked his brain trying to help Reeves understand Scott. Then one day, he says, “I told Keanu, ‘I think I figured it out – Scott is me.'”

Hahahaha!” The crowd at this July screening of Idaho in Portland is laughing because they’ve recognized the actor playing the city’s chief of police. It’s a joke that won’t play anywhere else; the actor is Tom Peterson, a local appliance-store owner long known for his brash late-night TV commercials. But it shows the importance of Portland to Van Sant’s movies and also how he reshapes the city to fit his vision.

A city of some 400,000 nestled in a beautiful valley near snowcapped Mount Hood, Portland is “very isolated, cut off, and that gives it an originality,” says Van Sant. “It’s free of a lot of the pigeonholing that goes on in big cities. There’s a woodsy quality to the people, and a pride, whether you’re a bank manager or a hired killer that shoots heroin.”

Van Sant was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but within a year the family moved to Denver. “We were corporate gypsies,” he says. As his father worked his way up from traveling salesman, the Van Sants went to Chicago, then Atherton, California, before settling in Darien when Gus was ten. By then he was a quiet, self-reliant kid who learned to busy himself with his painting.

At sixteen, Van Sant got a job through his father at the Manhattan ad agency Cadwell Davis; after work he’d go see movies – anything from W.C. Fields to cutting-edge experimentalism. “I’m not a film-historian type, like Scorsese, who’s seen everything,” he says. “I’m influenced by what I happen to stumble across.”

During Van Sant’s senior year of high school, the family moved to Portland; he soon began making dramatic movies with an expensive Super 8 camera he had bought. “Right from the beginning, his subjects were unusual,” says classmate Eric Alan Edwards, who shot parts of Mala Noche and Drugstore and was codirector of photography with Portlander John Campbell on Idaho.

In 1971, Van Sant and Edwards both proceeded to the Rhode Island School of Design. Van Sant intended to divide his time between painting and filmmaking but soon realized he wasn’t a dedicated enough painter; seeing Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange during his freshman year helped him decide to concentrate on film.

Van Sant was of a different generation from that of today’s fast-track film-school students. “The camera,” he says, “was this little machine that could make images, like paintings, twenty-four times a second.” But after graduating in 1975, he did move to Los Angeles, landing the job of assistant to Groove Tube director Ken Shapiro after looking him up in the phone book.

During a trip back east, Van Sant paid a call at the New York apartment of William S. Burroughs – also listed in the phone book – and obtained the rights to film one of the writer’s short stories, “The Discipline of D.E. [Do Easy].” He filmed the tongue-in-cheek lazy-man’s guide in black-and-white in 1977, and it was shown at the New York Film Festival.

Back in L.A., Van Sant spent his spare time at the library, reading screenplays – everything from Citizen Kane to Jaws, but most notably A Clockwork Orange. “It had a completely different format,” he says. “The descriptions ran down one side in a single-word column that read like a poem, but it came out the exact same number of pages as a traditional screenplay. I thought, ‘This is wild; you can do anything you want!’ It doesn’t matter, because the movie is what counts.”

Thus inspired, he wrote a feature-length screenplay, borrowed $20,000 from his father and made Alice in Hollywood. It turned out choppy and unreleasable, and he returned to the East Coast, first working for his father, then again for Cadwell Davis, where he soon tired of hawking salt substitutes. He moved back to Portland in December 1983 to make Mala Noche out of his own pocket, operating out of a Volkswagen van with a crew of three. He made video copies of the 16-mm black-and-white movie and distributed them to anyone interested, ultimately finding an agent at William Morris.

He also embarked on an annual series of short “diary” films, recording whatever idea popped into his head: his parents’ maid golfing at their country club; a crush he had on a man who responded by giving him a black eye; his cat chasing reflections around a room; and, perhaps prophetically, the psychotic ramblings of a kid he’d met, who soon thereafter was jailed for murdering someone.

But it’s the 1986 Diary Film Switzerland that shows the true roots of the script for Idaho. In it, a kid who calls himself Mike Schweizer says his father is a farmer in Switzerland. Actually, the kid’s name is Michael Parker (no relation to Laurie), and at the time he was a Portland runaway, living in youth shelters, hanging out in a bowling alley, taking drugs and turning the occasional trick. “I thought if I told Gus how things really were,” Parker says today, “he wouldn’t want anything to do with me.”

Compared with the kids on Hollywood Boulevard, Parker and his set were relatively clean-cut. “Because Portland’s so small, the scene is pretty isolated,” says Parker, who today is twenty-one. “Most of the kids build up regulars; it’s all relatively safe. Everybody watched out for each other.”

Parker and another street kid named Scott Green are in Idaho, playing cronies of the fictional Mike and Scott. During the documentary-style segment in a cafe, each tells a harrowing story of a trick gone wrong.

Van Sant allowed Parker to stay in a room in his apartment, requiring him to be responsible for food and rent, and gave him a bit part in Drugstore Cowboy. Today, Parker lives in Seattle, working for a rock-management company and auditioning for other movies.

That’s about as close to the seamy side as Gus Van Sant Jr. has ever gotten. “I really don’t know the streets, don’t know how they work,” he says. “If we went there now, you’d find that out right away – we’d probably get mugged or something.” He chuckles dryly. “I’m the kind of person that just makes it up at home. I mean, certain people who lived that life were around during filming. It’s like if you’re making a film about boating, you have some boaters around or else a storm’s gonna come up and drown you. But half the time, you’re right anyway.”

As to the rumors regarding the production, Van Sant says: “I was encouraging people to understand the life, not live it. I don’t know anything about shooting up in my house. I wasn’t party to it if it happened.” In fact, Van Sant didn’t even stay in his own house during filming, preferring the solitude of his old apartment.

And after filming, when a crew member developed a drug habit, Van Sant and Laurie Parker were among those who encouraged him to go back into rehab.

I like the way it looks out here,” says Van Sant, gazing across fields of cattle grazing beneath lines of tall, graceful poplars. He’s parked along the bank where the Willamette and Columbia rivers converge, on the farm-dotted Sauvie Island, a short drive from downtown. “I used to come here in the old days, just to walk on the beach,” he says. Out the windshield, a Gus Van Sant sky is looming – orange clouds rushing across at hyperspeed, lightning cracking dramatically in the distance.

Though it’s a few months before Idaho opens, Van Sant is already mulling over the projects he’s lined up next: an adaptation of Tom Robbins’s lite-philosophy bestseller Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, a biography of Andy Warhol he’s writing with Paul (Eating Raoul) Bartel, maybe even a movie about Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. “It’s kinda weird,” he says. “I know what I’ll be directing in, like, 1999.”

Van Sant’s already feeling the heat of doing a higher-profile project with Cowgirls – gossip columnists have proclaimed it will star Madonna and Uma Thurman. “People are writing and saying all kinds of things,” he says, “but nothing’s been set.”

People have also been writing and saying all kinds of things about Van Sant’s sexuality. Last spring, a profile in Newsweek labeled him “openly gay.” Van Sant claims – a bit disingenuously – that it was the first time the fact had been so bluntly stated to his parents (yet he’s had a longtime boyfriend from Rotterdam, given several interviews to gay publications and even sat on the panel of a gay Portland public-access talk show alongside a black transvestite). Then again, even longtime friends say they’ve never discussed, sexuality with him, and he’s not an activist.

“I haven’t really personally felt any discrimination,” says Van Sant, “but I’m not really that, you know, spot-table as a gay male. Your sexuality is a private thing – and as far as culture goes, I don’t think of a gay culture separate from mass culture. I just look at it as human culture. I mean, it’s obvious that there’s all kinds of stuff oriented toward heterosexual culture, because that’s the majority, but it’s also oriented towards white culture, because that’s the majority. It’s not surprising, and it doesn’t bother me.

“Inside certain other cultures, artistic ones, a lot of friends of mine that are straight feel left out, because the major composers and artists of this century are all gay,” Van Sant says. “They feel inferior, to the point where they wish they were gay. So – it just depends on what group you want to join.”

Look at the banner on that chicken place,” Gus Van Sant is telling River Phoenix. “RUNNING ON EMPTY?” (It’s the title of the 1988 movie that won Phoenix an Oscar nomination.) Van Sant grins like a Cheshire cat.

Phoenix – sporting temporarily bleached hair – and his fresh-faced girlfriend Sue Solgot have driven up to Portland from L.A. in a white Mercedes to visit Van Sant, and the three are walking around Three Street.

The scene portrayed in Idaho no longer really exists quashed by urban renewal and AIDS. Street hustlers usually operate via answering machine, most of the porno theaters have shut down because of home video, and the block is dominated by the sleek new Justice Center.

But a few steps away remains Video Follies, a porn shop seen in Idaho. Phoenix has never actually been inside the store, so they venture through the red door.

Van Sant hails the man behind the counter, a woodsy Portlander with a droopy Seventies mustache. Looking around the dingy, creepy room, seeing half-empty magazine racks and peeling walls displaying a few dusty implements like the Deluxe Vibrosuck, Van Sant comments, “Gee, it’s changed.”

“Yup, you filmed here just in time,” says the counterman. “There’s new owners now; they want a more boutiquey kind of thing. Now it’s just a generic smut shop – though it still has vestiges of its former self.”

After standing awkwardly for a few more moments, the trio emerges to the bright sunlight of the street.

“Everywhere you look,” says Solgot, “it’s, like, ugh!”

“I couldn’t look anywhere,” says Phoenix. “You can’t stay in there, too long,” agrees Van Sant.

They turn and walk away.

In This Article: Coverwall, Gus Van Sant


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