The Times of Gus Van Sant

Director Gus Van Sant relaxes after a hard day of work and explains where he was in the '60s, what Harvey Milk meant in the '70s, and why drugged whooping cranes could make for big box office in the '90s.

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Gus Van Sant sips an icy gray-green margarita as he describes, with his peculiar brand of tamped-down irony, how much this old hotel/spa he's staying in resembles the mountain resort where a snowed-in Jack Nicholson drinks himself into homicidal mania in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Indeed, the Claremont, which sits in the hills above Berkeley, is a dead ringer for the Overlook. Inside where we are, though, the gaping expanses that once housed the idle rich have recently been painted a vacuous, sickly pink ("What must the designers who lost this account think?" comments Van Sant), and the elevators unleash bland conventioneers instead of Kubrick's memorable deluge of blood. Van Sant probably knows every frame of Kubrick's horror flick, because back in 1980 he was living not far from the Mann Chinese where it opened, and every morning for a week he walked down Hollywood Boulevard to the 9:00 a.m. show (talk about bygone eras). "Not because it was such a good movie, but..." he says, not finishing his sentence.

Before too long, Van Sant orders another margarita. He will go on to have considerably more than whatever it is the Surgeon General recommends. But there is no reason to think that the director of the low-budget, low-life classics Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho has been off in some wing of this white elephant typing "All work and no play makes Gus a dull boy" over and over and over. On the contrary, for the last several weeks he's been hard at work doing the postproduction on his new film, an adaptation of Tom Robbins's novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. And during much of the time he was making Cowgirls, he was also working on what looked to be the Cowgirls follow-up, and his first studio film, Oliver Stone's production The Mayor of Castro Street.

Cowgirls, an indie made for $7.5 million (that's high for Van Sant), was once going to be the director's first big-studio project, back when Mike Medavoy was its shepherd. But TriStar backed off from their commitment to it and finally allowed Fine Line Features to buy it away. Castro Street, a Warner Bros. project that's based on Randy Shilts's book about San Francisco's assassinated gay city supervisor Harvey Milk, was then to have been Van Sant's big-studio debut, and in some ways this made perfect sense: Van Sant is the kind of gifted original the studios inevitably try to appropriate; moreover, as he has never advertised or hidden, Van Sant is gay and would perhaps bring insight as well as talent to the mix.

In other ways, though, the Castro Street project never made any sense at all: Oliver Stone and Gus Van Sant? Sure, they're two talented film-makers who both have distinctive voices. But Jesse Helms and Jesse Jackson are two talented politicians who both have Southern accents, and they know better than to run on the same ticket. Van Sant and Stone inevitably came upon creative differences. The specific differences centered on the script by Becky Johnston, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Prince of Tides.

"The thing was," says Van Sant, as night falls over Berkeley and the window next to us shows a San Francisco blinking on the whole way to the Golden Gate Bridge, "that Oliver's autonomy dictated that whatever he said went. Didn't matter what it was, so long as he said, 'This is it.' My problem was that it wasn't 'it,' and there was this guy saying, 'This is it.' So you say, 'I want it to be "it," but it's not "it."'"

Van Sant had written and thrown away one whole draft of Castro Street by himself, after Johnston's first draft. While Johnston was writing a second draft, "I kept saying, 'I want to start writing on this project,' and they said, 'No you can't, we want Becky to write.' There might have been something in her contract that said she had sole credit or she got to get her shot. It makes sense actually. A writer like she is--she was up for an Academy Award the year before--you'd imagine that she's under siege, and she gets a write and a rewrite and then that's it. She checks out and you pay her a million dollars and she's off to do the next one. She's a big ICM writer and she makes money for ICM and they keep her going. She doesn't hang around for a year. She doesn't labor over things. She's like a taxi--every second has to click. So when there's a director who says, 'I want to start writing,' they go, like, 'No, she was up for the Academy Award, not you.' And so she does her rewrite and they go, 'Perfect, we love it.' So I go, 'Okay, then go do it.'"

"How much did Oliver Stone have to do with all this?" I ask.

"The way they market the whole project is 'Oliver Stone Presents,'" Van Sant says. "I don't think Warner Bros. cared about Harvey Milk. I don't think they cared about me. I think they cared a little about Becky. They cared a whole lot about Oliver. Somebody sold me to Oliver and Oliver sold me to Warner Bros. They weren't apparently that excited about me.

I think they went, you know, 'Oliver, we don't really like this guy.' And Oliver said, 'No wait, he's gonna be great.' I never had an argument with Oliver. I don't think Warner Bros. was particularly excited about doing that story. I think Oliver talked them into doing it. I was always saying, 'If I were Warner Bros, and I was thinking of making a film with a gay subject, I wouldn't make this film.' I mean, I might make it, but I'd never design a film like this to make money. I think it was Oliver's willfulness that said, 'Dammit, this is gonna make money.' I was interested only because it was happening. But, in fact, it wasn't really happening. It was only happening in Oliver's head. And Warner Bros. let it happen in Oliver's head. Warner Bros. was just kissing Oliver Stone's ass."

As to the involvement of Robin Williams, who was the actor consistently mentioned for the title role, Van Sant explains, "He was always mentioning it himself. I met with him many times, but he was never involved. He said he wanted to do the role, but he never committed to it. But how could he commit, when I could get fired? He commits and they go, 'Your director will be Ted Danson.' And he goes, 'What happened to Gus Van Sant?' And they go, 'Well, he's just not very good, but we have Ted and he's very good and he's made a lot of money for "Cheers" and he's gonna be your director, and we have you on contract.' Guys like Robin Williams never sign anything. I've done whole films with stars that don't sign. I don't think Matt Dillon ever signed his Drugstore Cowboy contract. It's sitting somewhere unsigned."

Van Sant did not direct films as inspired and intelligent as Mala Noche (the story of a convenience store clerk's unrequited love for a young Mexican migrant worker), Drugstore Cowboy (the story of a junkie who knocks over pharmacies) and My Own Private Idaho (the story of a narcoleptic gay hustler) by lacking a point of view. These films speak faithfully of worlds that, though they may be marginal, seem oddly relevant. In fact, it's that because they are marginal, they haven't had all the reality drained from them by the withering spotlight of the popular media and so remain rich reservoirs of the pure products of America.

Idaho, Van Sant's most personal film, takes place in the milieu of homeless gay hustlers, but it is essentially the story of one person who can never have an actual home because he can't find his long-lost mother, and another who can never have an emotional home because he can't escape his powerful father. A compelling portrait of the divided, unmoored psyche of our era. Van Sant is an ambitious artist. No wonder he keeps his personal contact with Hollywood to a minimum.

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