Gus Van Sant’s Northwest Passage
“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.'”
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