Desert Solitaire

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

VAN SANT: Yeah. But I didn't really mean to blindside people: It just sort of happened naturally. There was the question of whether we should go to Sundance or try to go for Cannes. Going for Cannes can work out adversely, it seems to me, if you don't get in. I just thought, If we can get into Sundance, let's just go.

CP: Well, I think the message of the film--Not even movie stars can go without water--is potentially most pointed as it relates to the stargazing audience at Sundance, whether that audience recognizes it or not.

VAN SANT: Yeah [laughs].

CP: And that blindsiding effect, whether you intended it or not, is precisely the sort of thing you'd feel wandering blithely in the desert until suddenly you realize: I'm lost. Where am I? It's probably fair to say that the majority of Matt Damon fans don't wish to see him wandering around the desert dehydrated and starving.

VAN SANT: Yes.

CP: But that's the point of the movie--to serve as a wakeup call. And in that sense, the timing of the film's debut at Sundance was striking--in relation to the post-September 11 discourse on the dangers of celebrity culture, both in terms of how that culture preempts discussion of real, life-and-death issues, and in terms of how it helps to inspire hatred of U.S. culture abroad.

VAN SANT: Some of this isn't new. Ever since the turn of the century--when cinema was starting to become a sensation, in the nickelodeon era--there has always been the appeal of seeing your favorite movie star again and again. It's just something that came about: I don't think anyone was expecting it. But the cinema hero was born. Women wanted to see Rudolph Valentino in another adventure, you know? That's an element of many different cultures, but particularly of ours. The star vehicle is designed to be a proving ground for the star, presenting a situation for our hero to be tested. We can go and watch him narrowly escape some sort of adversary. These days, that's the whole point: You go to see your favorite movie star in an adventure.

CP: It's certainly the ruling genre.

VAN SANT: Film has been diluted by marketing; corporations own more and more of the product. Even 15 years ago, there were corporate holders in the movie industry, but it wasn't as much of a corporate structure, wherein the movie gets distilled down to a quarterly report. At some point, films stopped being about art--they were really just numbers: This movie made this much money, therefore we're doing really good, guys. But even 15 years ago, executives were still saying, "I want to see a movie like this. I like this movie." They actually evaluated a movie in terms of what they liked. And now it's completely disconnected from anyone's taste: It's just a number. I suppose it's possible for things to get even worse. Everything is about [box office] performance now--to the point where a dramatic film, something that used to be standard in 1970, is now a specialized film. Good Will Hunting was a "specialty" item--whereas in 1970, it would have been part of the mainstay of cinema: storytelling. Now the mainstay is action.

CP: I like that Gerry seems to address some of these issues--in part by keeping the characters largely undefined. There's an extent to which we're made conscious of experiencing them purely as personalities: as actors, as celebrities as much as anything. Which in turn makes the punishing aspects of the film particularly provocative. Do you think there's a part of us that wants to see the hero fail? To see him suffer, even?

VAN SANT: In Russia, [the protagonists of adventure stories] have to die. In our culture, the hero survives. In Russia, it's an honor to die. I mean, this is just my interpretation: I can't claim to be a scholar of Russian cinema or Russian literature. But I've always understood it that way.

CP: Here, the expectation is the reverse, although the desire, I think, for some kind of suffering on the part of the hero or star is definitely there--albeit a bit illicit. How did the actors take to this aspect of Gerry? I assume they were conscious of the unusual way in which they, as famous actors, were being used.

VAN SANT: When we first went into it, we didn't really know what we were going to be doing. We were making it up as we went along. I think each of us [three] had his own ideas of what might come about. Personally, I was thinking along the lines of Cassavetes--but we ended up not having anything like a Cassavetes film. I had brought all these Cassavetes tapes with me [to the location]--and we also had Tarkovsky and Lawrence of Arabia. And we were reading adventure stories of people getting lost and either surviving or not surviving--like the book Into Thin Air. And we were relating to things we knew in real life.

CP: Not having a screenplay must have helped for the purposes of portraying disorientation.

VAN SANT: We were sort of in our own wasteland, trying to find our way out together. I think I knew after the first week of shooting what we were doing. It was my idea to have these long takes, these long pieces of film. I had the sense that these two guys should be driving in the car, that the car should stop, and that they should get out and walk for, like, 10 minutes. I put that idea out to Casey and Matt. And they grabbed it right away and said, "Oh, okay--and then these other things happen." They were coming up with ideas, too. It wasn't until we were actually shooting that we knew it wasn't going to be like a Cassavetes movie. But it could have gone that way--in the sense that there could have been a lot of discussion, a lot of sharing of ideas between the characters on the screen. There could have been a lot of dialogue.

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