Desert Solitaire

Gus Van Sant goes his own way with a stark survival drama

CP: A nice seven-mile walk in 115-degree heat.

VAN SANT: It was so hot. I really didn't think I was going to make it. I was so frightened that I pretty much [pauses]...everything sort of tensed up, you know? It doesn't really do any good to get that scared, because it's so hot that you can easily pass out [laughs]. I was about a half-mile from the road when a car pulled in. The guy who was driving worked at the chemical plant nearby. I hitched a ride with him. He had rolled down the window to see whether I needed help--because I was flagging him down. I had figured that if he wasn't going to give me a ride, I was just going to dive in and grab the keys. Because I was really certain that I was going to have a stroke right then and there.

CP: What kinds of things were you thinking about?

VAN SANT: The things you're thinking about at those times are pretty desperate. One of the things I was thinking in terms of the film was that this was obviously some sort of a cosmic joke on me. We had had problems shooting in Argentina--it was too cold where we were shooting--and we had come up to Death Valley to finish the shoot. And I thought this was going to be the ultimate gerry of the film: that I would die.

CP: Well, in addition to being a personal film, Gerry is also a conceptual exercise, right? It's heavily inspired by the work of Béla Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, Chantal Akerman, and Jacques Tati--all of whom are mentioned in your introduction to the press kit.

VAN SANT: Yeah [laughs].

CP: Can you talk about those influences in greater detail?

VAN SANT: Well, all four of those filmmakers have used time in a way that's uncommon in our cinema in the West--even though two of them are Western filmmakers. There's a lot of Tati in Gerry. And I was very inspired by [Akerman's] Jeanne Dielman. But in terms of the pacing of the film, I was really thinking of [Tarr's] Satantango, which I saw two years ago in New York. It's about seven hours long, as you know, and it really lets you as the viewer go deeply into a particular situation--a situation that can seem somewhat simple. It's not afraid of spending too much time with a particular character doing something "undramatic"; it doesn't rush through things by showing them in a shortened way. Even at seven hours, [Satantango] is still an abbreviation of life: It's showing you an example of something rather than the real thing. But it's a lot closer to reality than most of what we see in Western cinema, where the rule is: So long as [the viewer gets] the idea, and the shot looks pretty, you know, then you're done.

CP: Should we blame it on MTV?

VAN SANT: Maybe. Before MTV came along, shots used to be a little longer; now, people are absorbing the ideas of a shot in, like, half a second. If you're showing a person walking across a parking lot, then it's enough--more than enough, even--just to see them walking for four or five seconds. We understand: They're walking across a parking lot. Walking is an element of the story as opposed to being the story. In real life, things like walking are crucial, but in film, most of the time, you're just using these pieces as elements, because you're in service to the story. And what I noticed Béla was doing--and the other three, too, in a sense--was that they were allowing those smaller moments to be a big part of the story, and not hurrying things the way Western films do. Someone--a reviewer, I think--made a list of ten things that happen in most films. For instance, when a character needs to make a phone call, there's always a phone booth right next to him. But if it serves the story, then maybe the phone booth won't be so readily available: It's a way to heighten the suspense [laughs]. I think that happened to Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears: He couldn't find a phone.

CP: Right--for half a second. Then the next shot came.

VAN SANT: Exactly.

CP: The prominence of credit to these four directors in the press kit struck me as being unusual, and very much in keeping with what you've done quite often in your career--stemming, perhaps, from your tenure at RISD in terms of this idea of appropriation as an explicit exercise. You mentioned in another interview that appropriation is taught at RISD the first year: You're supposed to go out and find an object and become obsessed with it--draw it and re-draw it until it becomes yours. In this sense, do you regard Gerry as a kind of credited adaptation?

VAN SANT: Yeah. Certain aspects of the technique, certainly, are borrowed. But I don't think the entirety of the film comes from any of those filmmakers. It's mostly the style with which we're telling the story that's borrowed.

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