Desert Solitaire

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

CP: Was there ever a question of which actor would take which role?

VAN SANT: Yeah. There was a lot of discussion of that. Because we had the idea all along that one guy wouldn't make it out alive. That was the overall story that we were working with.

CP: The reason I ask is because, in relation to what we were saying earlier about celebrity, that choice would appear to mean everything. In a survival-of-the-fittest context, and in the absence of conventional characterization, it sort of seems natural that the bigger star would be the one to survive.

VAN SANT: Right. I just left it up to Matt and Casey--like, You guys figure that one out. Although I think everybody knew that Casey was the one [whose character] was going to die [laughs]. And the reason for that wasn't celebrity status so as much as the fact that he seemed like the one who would die, you know? He's not the alpha male of the two. And that's partly because of age: Matt is about four years older than Casey; he's more experienced in the world. They could play against type, but because they were playing so close to their own characters, it seemed like a very big job to change what was already there.

CP: The protagonists appear more privileged than those in most if not all of your other films: They're driving a Mercedes, for one thing. I imagine that was part of the idea from the beginning.

VAN SANT: Yeah. We talked a lot about who these guys were. I originally thought of them as being two younger guys from Boston--like, 18 or 19 years old, maybe a little older. And I thought of them as being very naive characters, almost like Beavis and Butt-head. They weren't going to be that cartoonish, but they were going to be kids who were so insulated from the real world that they practically spoke their own language. And they were going to be lost immediately. Matt was really into the idea that as soon as these guys stepped out of the car, they were in over their heads. But at the same time, he and Casey wanted to make sure that the idea of these guys being total lame brains wouldn't become tiresome, an obvious joke. So the idea evolved that they would actually be intelligent people--sort of like Matt and Casey. And not suburban kids so much as, like, guys from Connecticut. I'm the one who went out and bought the Mercedes in Argentina. I was thinking it could be, like, Mom's Mercedes, handed down.

CP: It looks flat, like the landscape.

VAN SANT: It's also a different type of Mercedes: It's a lower [pauses]...it's a Mercedes that's more affordable [laughs]. It's still a very nice car, but it has a different profile.

CP: It helps to signify that the characters are concerned about image and status.

VAN SANT: We were going to have a golf ball on the dashboard. We talked about the idea that they might have tennis rackets in the back seat.

CP: How does their privilege make you feel about the characters and what happens to them?

VAN SANT: Well, it was easy for me to relate to them [laughs]. I grew up in an upper-middle class family.

CP: You mentioned Buñuel earlier. Is there a sense in which these characters deserve what they get on the basis of being so sheltered, so unprepared?

VAN SANT: Yeah. On a certain level, I wanted them to be Everymen, but they do have this [class] identity. I think they lose that identity along the way, and just become symbolic of humanity.

CP: Symbolic of the film's core audience, too.

VAN SANT: They're human beings: animals. It's just the landscape and them.

CP: Let's talk about the style of the film. In the first shot, where the camera follows the car down the road for several minutes, the distance between the camera and the car is highly variable throughout the duration of the shot. It's much like your strategy throughout the film of varying the distance between the camera and the characters. Can you talk about that as a structuring principle?

VAN SANT: It's sort of a factor of working within such a strict landscape. There are only two directions you can go: closer or farther away. You can go sideways, too--so I guess there's, like, three choices [laughs]. But you're sort of dealing with a limited number of directions because of the landscape. And within that, you're always playing with time, because to go from 10 feet away to 35 feet away takes a certain amount of time. So there's this kind of fantastic relationship to the past, the present, and the future in almost every instance: You have a shot starting off in one place, and then, as it's evolving, you're in the present--but you used to be in the past, and you're gonna be in the future. It's almost like the way we define our lives--this sense of travel. It's why the road movie is such an institution. The road movie starts at Point A, the present is Point B, and the future is Point C--at the end of the movie. And the same thing happens on the landscape: The travel itself becomes this great metaphor for life.

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