Gus Van Sant on Restless, Test-Screening Nightmares and Why He Went Out For Breaking Dawn
After bookending the summer with prestigious appearances at festivals in Cannes and Toronto, acclaimed auteur Gus Van Sant brings his latest film, Restless, to theaters this weekend in limited release. The outcome of an unusual creative collaboration including co-producers Ron Howard and his daughter Bryce Dallas Howard, her former New York University colleague and screenwriter Jason Lew, and the visionary for hire Van Sant, Restless stars Mia Wasikowska as a terminally ill teenager who sparks up a star-crossed love affair with a gloomy, funeral-crashing, imaginary friend-confiding orphan (played by Henry Hopper).
The two-time Oscar-nominated director sat down with Movieline this week to discuss Restless's festival reception, the one-size-fits-all perils of test screenings, the 20th anniversary of his classic My Own Private Idaho, and what he was thinking when throwing his name in the hat to direct The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn.
You were up in Toronto with this, and you met a New York audience the other night. What's your sense of how viewers are receiving Restless?
It seems really positive. I'm pretty happy.
Do you actually like this part of the process? The exchange with the audience?
No, I don't. But I know they do, so that's nice.
Do test screenings or what audiences say in general ever influence you?
Yeah. I mean, I totally take advice for the audience, but sometimes the test is not just for advice. It might also be for approval. The tests have different ways you can count up the scores. It asks you, "Do you like the lead character? Who's your favorite character? Would you tell a friend about it? Would you rate it excellent, good, fair, poor?" There's a way to count those up so you get a score, but it's a score based on these arbitrary questions; the score is different than the other part of the test, like, "Are there any scenes that were too slow? Are there any scenes that are too fast? How did you like the ending? Did it begin too slow?" Questions about pacing, communication and so forth. Those can be one thing. But there can also be this concern about the overall adding of the score, because then it becomes more like a grade on a paper in high school or college ow wherever. So you want it to be A+. And a 90 is an A-, a 95 is an A, a 99 is an A+. And an 85 is a B, and a 75 is a C. So you want it to be 90.
Do you remember the highest grade you ever got?
Yeah. I've gotten in the 90s like... three times?
What's the lowest you ever got?
No, wait. 32.
To Die For was 32.
You got a 32 on To Die For?
And that's the reason I don't necessarily look at the score. You can interpret that wrong. The people who are interested in the score, then that's the score. To them, it's like high school: "If it's 32, it's failing. It's a failure. That means the movie's gonna be a failure." There thinking of it like a grade in college. Their bosses are thinking of it like a grade in college. Their shareholders are thinking of it like a grade in college. And what they do is based on their interpretation of that number. But you can get a score like that if you say, "Here's a really funny Robin Williams movie. Come to it and laugh!" and then you show them a serious downer Robin Williams movie like One-Hour Photo. They give you a 32 and you say, "What's wrong?" Like it must be a failure, you know? You didn't test it right. You can screw the test up.
And in the particular case of some tests, it can be that you're trying to change the profile of the movie. I often make dark comedies. [To Die For] is a dark comedy. The dark comedies tend to be in a non-releasable area. There can be romantic comedies. There can be dramas. But there's no "dark comedy" inbox for the advertising. So they might test it as a romantic comedy when it's actually a dark comedy, and as a result you'll get a low score. You're saying, "Bring your date! You're going to get laid on this one!" And then Nicole [Kidman] kills her husband, and the score is D or F because I'm not going to get laid now. And you wonder, "Gee, what went wrong?" And it's all because you're trying to make it into something it's not.
Are you ever enlightened at all about your past films by talking about them? Either with fans, or in interviews, or wherever?
[Long pause] Yeah, I guess. James Franco is recutting My Own Private Idaho, so I learned something new about that one because I've seen the old footage. But I don't really by talking about them. I like hearing people talk about them; maybe you learn something new about people's reactions to them. But I don't necessarily learn about the film.
My Own Private Idaho turns 20 this year. What are your reflections two decades later -- particularly in light of James Franco's work revising it?
That was the one film -- well, in that era, before 2000 -- it was the one film that was sort of my own. Some of them, I adapted other people's books. That was the one I kind of cobbled together with different elements. There was a little bit of Shakespeare in it. It was like this collaged story. So there's that aspect I like to remember.
Do you have a personal relationship with your films over time? Does your impression of them or their memories ever change?
No. I mean, they exist as films that other people mention, but there's no particular relationship.
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