Desert Solitaire

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

A bleak and beautiful drama about a pair of pretty boys (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who wander lost in the desert without food and water, Gus Van Sant's Gerry marks a triumphant return to form for a director whose recent round of goodwill hunting in Hollywood appears on hold. Not counting his cameo in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, it's the 50-year-old's first work since Finding Forrester--a Sean Connery vehicle that, like Van Sant's preceding trilogy (To Die For, Good Will Hunting, and Psycho), could have been made by someone else. Come to think of it, the director's shot-by-shot Psycho remake was made by someone else: Van Sant, borrowing not only from Hitchcock but from Warhol, simply put his name on it.

Albeit unique within the arid landscape of American film, Gerry represents another audacious act of appropriation--a movie directly inspired by the snail-paced, site-specific work of world-cinema giants Béla Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, Chantal Akerman, and Jacques Tati (give or take Derek Jarman). Whether or not it would qualify for extra credit at Van Sant's pomo alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design, Gerry earns the highest marks for being a star vehicle whose stronger impression is made by the supporting cast: blinding sunlight, waves of intense heat, endless rock and sand, the sky, the wind. What this thrillingly subversive movie communicates to the audience seeking pleasant diversion--another Good Will Hunting, perhaps--is precisely what the situation itself communicates to the characters: How dare you take the natural elements for granted.

Speaking by phone from the safety of his L.A. apartment, the filmmaker (who'll cap off Walker Art Center's current Van Sant retro with a Regis Dialogue on February 28) told me what it takes to survive on the desolate outskirts of Hollywood these days.

 

CITY PAGES: At least a couple of us critics at Sundance [2002] read Gerry as an allegory of roaming the barren "indie" wilderness: seeking nourishment against all odds, becoming delirious. In fact, one of the things that's enticing about the movie is that it seems applicable to all sorts of metaphors. Which are most interesting to you?

GUS VAN SANT: I guess the film does contain some things I'd had in mind about the [film] industry. But I never thought of the desert itself as being like the landscape of the industry. It's kind of a good comparison, though--I like it. For me, the foremost thing is that the film is a metaphor for life. When the characters get out of the car, it's almost like they're being born. They start to walk, and they slow down as the journey progresses. And of course the film is ultimately about death.

CP: It's a universal story. And yet at the same time, at least some of the film comes from your own experience, right? The unauthorized biography of you mentions that you rode the rails when you were younger. It quotes you as saying, "It's sexy in the sense that your whole job is to survive. When I traveled across country as a hobo I learned about survival."

VAN SANT: Yeah. The experiences are kind of similar. During that particular trip I took on the trains, I was out in the middle of the desert--although, in that case, you are on a moving vehicle [laughs]. So it's a little different. I had other experiences--about three or four--where I literally got lost in the wilderness and felt like I wasn't going to be able to find my way out. I think a lot of people who've had experiences like that can relate in a different way to the film. I know that [Robert] Redford--he came to the screening at Sundance--said that he had been lost in Palm Springs, in the desert, and he didn't think he was going to make it. When you're in that situation, like the characters in the film, it's very peculiar.

CP: Where were you when you had these experiences?

VAN SANT: Well, one time in Idaho, at Sun Valley, I skied off the wrong side of a mountain. I thought, Well, I'll just ski down this way, and there's a road over there that goes around. You're sort of thinking in general terms--that you can just walk around and get to the road [laughs]. But the road could be 10 miles away. You're not really calculating the distance. The road as you think of it goes around the mountain--but maybe it goes around a different mountain or a different hill. Anyway, I ended up very far away.

CP: Didn't you have something of a scare during the location scouting for Gerry?

VAN SANT: Yes. I was at the place where they shot [the original] Planet of the Apes--it's about an hour south of Death Valley--where there are those rocks that stick out of the ground. I had driven in there in a rental car, about seven miles off the main road, and I got a flat tire. It was 115 degrees. I tried to fix the tire, but there was no tire iron in the car. So I decided that I would walk and I loaded up water--about eight bottles of it in a pack. And I left everything else behind. I thought, It's just seven miles--it's not going to be that big a deal. I thought it was just going to be a nice walk.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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