Desert Solitaire

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

CP: I like the way that the variable distance from figures in the frame mirrors the experience of hiking in mountains--in the sense that there's always this gulf between your sense of distance while you're hiking and the actual distance. It always seems like the thing you're hiking toward is just ahead: Your destination is just over the next hill that you can see. And then you get to the hill that you've been looking at, and it turns out there's another hill. So then your destination is just over that hill, and on and on. And your method of representing that also seems consistent with the film's strategy of striking a kind of mysterious balance between an intimate or sensual representation and one that's more elusive and oblique. Like, We can know these characters, but we can't really know them.

VAN SANT: Yeah. The part of the film that's about defining the characters is very minimal.

CP: As in the films of Tarr and Kiarostami.

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: Yeah. I think all four of those filmmakers have often worked against over-the-top renderings of characters--so that you have a character built out of our observations of the character rather than out of a set of instructions given to you by the writer and director. You're looking at the character rather than being told who he is. A lot of times in a film, a character is more of a device within the story: He's the hero or the villain or the sidekick. If he's the hero, you want to see him live through a miniature version of the story before he's applied to the main task. If he's a hero who's going to be put to the test, he's put to a smaller test first: He helps somebody across the street in the first scene, or saves a puppy's life--and then we start our story, you know?

CP: Is there a miniature drama of that sort in Gerry?

VAN SANT: I think there is. But you're observing it from the outside; it's not used as a device to instruct you about who the character is, so that you can assume he's going to do the same thing again later. In our film, the miniature story is probably just the first fork in the road: Which way should we go?

CP: How about the shots near the end of the film that appear as if they're being taken from a car? The image of the road is sped up and shaky: The shots look like hallucinations, but it's unclear.

VAN SANT: You could say they're sort of "imagined" shots. It looks like they're driving and getting lost on the road. I don't know if there's an exact interpretation. The shots are sort of frenetic and bizarre looking: Maybe they're flashbacks to something that happened even before the characters got to the parking lot to begin the hike. Or maybe they're just visual representations of the characters stopping, turning around, and hiking the other way--which is what they're doing in the desert when those shots appear.

CP: Another filmmaker might say that those shots take you out of the interminable reality of being in the desert--except that that the reality of that experience is bound to be surreal at a certain point.

VAN SANT: The characters are becoming rattled and confused. They're trying to retrace their steps.

CP: The shots remind me of the brief, almost subliminal inserts in the murder scenes of your film of Psycho--the non-Hitchcock shots of the animal in the headlights, of clouds moving fast, et cetera--and they function similarly.

VAN SANT: Right.

CP: How about that shot near the end, where the characters are walking very slowly at dawn--almost dragging themselves through the desert. The outlines of the characters' bodies seem to be quivering from the combination of heat and wind. What were the technical requirements of that shot?

VAN SANT: That's the longest shot in the film, I think. We used a very long dolly track--about 500 yards long. We weren't trying to get the figures to quiver: I think it's just a function of your eyes looking at the same thing for that long. And there's some jiggle in the frame from the actual dolly rig.

CP: What about the solid blue frames that appear at the beginning and end of the film?

VAN SANT: It was a choice to move away from the standard black [laughs]. I just thought, Well, why can't it be blue instead?

CP: And it is.

VAN SANT: I was trying to find the medium-blue that Derek Jarman used in his film Blue, which I had seen in Toronto. He called it an "Yves Klein blue." Before Derek made that film, I introduced him to Matt Dillon, because Derek had said that he wanted to use Matt Dillon's heartbeat on the soundtrack. I figured that I should get the two of them together, so that Derek could ask him. So we had this party in London at the house of a friend of Derek's, who's an art collector. I don't know if Derek ever got around to asking Matt: I think he was too nervous to ask him. Derek said that in situations like that, he just turns into a "young schoolgirl" [laughs]. But he talked about this film he was going to make called Blue--about how it was going to be just blue. He said it was going to be an "Yves Klein blue." But I wasn't looking for an Yves Klein blue for Gerry--because I didn't like Yves Klein blue. I wanted a lighter shade. I think I was looking for it partly because of Derek's film, but [pauses]...I don't know. I chose blue.

A version of this article originally appeared in Cinema Scope.

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