Desert Solitaire

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

CP: There's a thanks to Ken Kesey as well, in the end credits.

VAN SANT: He died before we finished the film--very suddenly. He was someone who was an inspiration and an influence, and someone I got to know, because I lived nearby: I lived up in Portland, and he lived in Eugene, Oregon. So I dedicated it to him.

CP: He would have liked this movie.

It's getting hot out here: Director Gus Van Sant on the set of 'Gerry'
It's getting hot out here: Director Gus Van Sant on the set of 'Gerry'

VAN SANT: I guess he would have. I'm not sure. He liked others of my films.

CP: Are there other ways in which your background--at RISD or elsewhere--continues to inform your filmmaking, particularly in Gerry?

VAN SANT: I made a film at RISD called "Late Morning Start" that was like [Gerry] in some ways. I think the things I've generally been working on in my film career are attempts to break away from our standard storytelling cinema. The way that I used to try to do that was to tell stories that generally weren't being told: Mala Noche, for instance, was about an older grocery store clerk who had a crush on a 16-year-old boy. It was off the map as far as the general audience was concerned. Then the experiment became, like, forgetting those artistic impulses and playing directly into general cinema--like with Good Will Hunting [laughs].

CP: And Psycho.

VAN SANT: Well, no. Psycho was a very specific idea: It was meant to play directly into the public sphere, but it was also meant to create a new convention in Hollywood--where [shot-by-shot remakes] would be done again and again. Because hypothetically, if Psycho made enough money, other companies would be interested in doing exactly the same thing. But it didn't wow the box office enough for studios to bother trying to do that kind of thing again. So in that way, it failed. But it was a more specific idea: an anti-remake idea.

CP: Psycho seems to me to have been an experiment in, among other things, minimizing your own influence on the material--to the degree that even miniscule differences between the new work and the original, intentional or otherwise, become glaring. And perhaps disturbing.

VAN SANT: It has that going on, yes. But this RISD film was sort of like The Phantom of Liberty, where it started to tell one story, and then the camera went somewhere else and observed another story, and so on. The film was always going away from whatever story it had started to tell. Gerry reminded me of that project.

CP: In terms of your ongoing project, then, to make films that are in a style other than the conventional one--or other than the one that's expected of you--I'm wondering what you made of the reaction to Gerry at Sundance. It seemed to polarize the audience--to its credit. I assume you weren't greatly surprised by that reaction.

VAN SANT: I didn't have particular expectations.

CP: But to the degree that the film runs directly counter to, as you said, the conventions of Western cinema in terms of shot duration and the construction of time and so on, you couldn't have been too surprised.

VAN SANT: It was completely up in the air. I didn't know how the film would be received at Sundance. I did think it was very likely that the film would meet with some controversy [laughs]. But I liked the idea that everyone stayed in their seats--that was the first objective--as opposed to walking out. I liked that however people were feeling about it, they were at least interested in it.

CP: It seemed to me that the audience watching Gerry at that first screening was the most riveted audience of any that year at Sundance. It was only after the screening that people turned their backs on the film--rationalizing their discomfort with it on the basis of its being, for instance, "not a movie." That is: Not a Matt Damon movie. Not a Sundance movie.

VAN SANT: Being at Sundance is like being at the Kentucky Derby: There's a lot of speculation on films' performances and things. There are critics who are working for the industry, and they're trying to pick the winners: Like, Oh, this film is gonna make it big time. And guess what? It's for sale. And people should pay attention, because this thing could really clean up. There's that style of reviewing.

CP: Yes--to the point where Variety's comment that Gerry could only play festivals and "a few high art venues in France and elsewhere" becomes a liability of the film.

VAN SANT: They're writing for the distribution companies. That's always the case with reviewers, I think. Or maybe not all of them. Certainly they're thinking in terms of their readers. People were interested in Gerry at Sundance: We had a good turnout for the film. Almost no one had seen it. People came because it seemed like a good bet: It was me and Matt Damon. They thought, Hey--this could be like Good Will Hunting.

CP: That's what's subversive about the film: the degree to which it's not what people expected, and not what they believed they wanted, either.

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