PRINT November 1993


GUS VAN SANT EASES borders into oblivion. In all four of his feature films—Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, and now Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—characters test the margins by way of drugs and sex and sometimes love, much as Van Sant himself defies esthetic limits. In Drugstore Cowboy, Matt Dillon leads a crew of pharmaceutical pirates as visions of spoons and syringes dance in his head; in Idaho, the doors of perception swing open on a stretch of asphalt, only to close whenever River Phoenix takes a dive.

At first glance, Tom Robbins’ creaky ’70s novel, with its soft-core feminist whimsies, seems strange territory for Van Sant. Take another look, though, and there are plenty of clues as to why he decided to make time with Sissy Hankshaw, the hitchhiking beauty whose massive thumbs take her from coast to coast, woman to man, and back again. “They were not a handicap,” goes the book, and so too the movie, “rather, they were an invitation, a privilege audaciously and impolitely granted, perfumed with danger and surprise, offering her greater freedom of movement, inviting her to live a life at some `other’ level. If she dared.” Suck on that.

I talk to Van Sant by phone. He’s at home, in Portland, Oregon, where he’s lived and often worked since he left Madison Avenue and headed west. Just by chance, I ask him if he’s been following the Menendez case, the one in which two young men claim they shot their parents because Dad had sexually abused them. Just by chance, Van Sant is watching Court TV (“There’s Woody Allen”). Though he hasn’t been tracking the trial, he tells me, almost by way of apology, that “Buck Henry thinks it’s the biggest thing since Leopold and Loeb.” I wonder if he’s pulling my leg, and I worry he won’t put down the remote, feelings that linger, even after I hit stop on the tape recorder.

MANOHLA DARGIS: A friend of mine has this idea he calls “waiting for Elvis,” which has to do with whether someone in the movie business could create the sort of seismic shift Elvis did in music.

GUS VAN SANT: Ha, ha, ha.

MD: Instead of Bing Crosby you’re listening to Elvis, instead of Hollywood you’d be watching Kenneth Anger. Could a filmmaker shake up the apparatus?

GVS: The person who shook up the apparatus before was D. W. Griffith. He invented a new way of looking at the image, he used cutting, close-ups, and so forth to present the story. As far as someone coming along and changing the way we look at movies I think that’s very much possible. I guess David Lynch with Twin Peaks kind of suggested that: what he does is present the emotions, as opposed to logical dialogue and stories.

MD: More like music.

GVS: Yes, presenting the emotion as opposed to the logic. I thought that was a jump in a different direction. You could watch movies in a string of, say, emotions, so eventually that would be the story, more like a poem as opposed to prose.

MD: You do that.

GVS: I have done it in parts of my films but I haven’t done it throughout. I’ve pretty much stuck to the narrative style.

MD: Still, you’re fearless enough to drop a house in the middle of a scene.

GVS: The barn crashing to the ground was the character crashing to the ground, emotionally, which was a more abstract explanation of his point of view.

MD: In Drugstore Cowboy objects fly though the air, in Cowgirls Sissy stands over a mountain range like the 50-foot woman. Where does that come from?

GVS: The house flying and the barn crashing were directly taken from my painting. With Drugstore we were trying to make a visual montage of what he was up to when he was shooting drugs. When we got to the point of actually shooting it I thought what I would do instead was draw on a previous image, which to me had a lot of time and emotion invested in it, which comes from my paintings, which are usually landscapes with things floating around in the sky, and then occasionally there’s a house, in some of them there’s a house crashing into the road, which I think comes from just a childhood traumatic emotional period where we moved away from the house. It was a white house with a red roof. If I were to explain what that image meant to me, it would be a childhood thing of moving away, having the house or the home life destroyed, dashed into the road. The reason I chose that image was because it was my own central image, my most powerful image. I took it from the paintings and put it into the film because I wanted it to have a very strong impact, and it was the strongest image I had.

MD: Do you storyboard?

GVS: Not anymore but I used to. Mala Noche I did. Drugstore Cowboy, because of the size of the crew, I didn’t have time, or at least, the storyboards I had already drawn up I was unable to film because they were too complicated so I had to restoryboard on the set. When Idaho came up I was kind of storyboarding in my head as we shot.

MD: That’s a lot of pressure.

GVS: Well no. Well I guess it could be. When you get to a place where you’re going to shoot, whether it’s a road, or an interior, or wherever it might be, you have the opportunity to do whatever you want with the actors, and you sort of start working on it very freely, allowing the actors to go wherever they want. Then after they decide what they’re going to do we can decide what we’re going to shoot, we can take advantage of what they would do as opposed to deciding before we get to the location.

MD: Moments in Cowgirls almost feel like different movies. The scene in which Sissy goes to that jet-set apartment, for instance. The way you crammed bodies in the frame made me think of Vinyl, impossibly cool but very funny.

GVS: Hmm. I wasn’t thinking of Warhol but I’ve been really influenced by his work so it’s possible there’s an influence.

MD: Were you apprehensive about doing a girl’s own story?

GVS: Um, no, I wasn’t really concerned about it, I was curious whether or not, since I’m a guy, I would be able to capture it. I wasn’t positive whether being a guy telling a woman’s story there would be something missing, just an unknown thing. But I had Uma [Thurman, who plays Sissy] with me. I think having the lead character as a coconspirator helped.

MD: I understand your attraction to Cowgirls, the innocent adrift, but your style and humor are very different from the book’s. What was the attraction?

GVS: I think one of the main things was its playing with forms of all kinds—a female romance novel as interpreted by a sort of Burroughs cut-up method of playing with the narrative in a very fanciful way, a collage of styles, of attitudes, of philosophies. It seemed to me very much a collage.

MD: That’s what I meant about scenes feeling like separate movies.

GVS: I’d done that a little bit in the other films. In Idaho in particular we played with a lot of different film sensibilities. When he was on the road it was more a minimalist thing, and when they were in the old hotel it was mimicking a Shakespearean play, and then when they were in Italy it was picking up on Italian cinema, as a stylistic reference.

MD: In terms of Burroughs and cut-ups and your use of insert shots, do you ever imagine pushing that farther?

GVS: Yeah, I probably will do something like that. There’s a Burroughs story I am interested in, The Wild Boys. The Wild Boys, as it’s written, is quite a bit like his other things, like Naked Lunch. My first choice really is Naked Lunch.

MD: It’s considered unfilmable, hyperviolent, pornographic.

GVS: Probably it would be if you did it like the book.

MD: The sex scenes in your films are really discreet, which seems incongruous with Naked Lunch.

GVS: Yeah, that’s true. But maybe it would just be not as discreet.

MD: [Laughs]

GVS: I’m sort of interested in that area, what you can show and what you can’t show and why that is, as a frontier. I think a lot of filmmakers are really interested in that, in pornography, and what makes pornography pornography. A regular Hollywood movie starring big-name actors, when they have a sex scene they don’t . . .

MD: Fuck.

GVS: Yeah, they don’t have a sex scene à la a pornographic film. I don’t know what the reason for that is except that it’s something the audience isn’t used to.

MD: It was strange watching Lorraine Bracco drop her pants in Cowgirls since Harvey Keitel [her ex-husband] has dropped his in a couple of recent movies.

GVS: For an actor that’s a frontier. Why doesn’t that work? Why can’t you be naked?

MD: Well, I thought, Oh my God, there’s Harvey Keitel, he’s naked—again. It totally took me out of his character.

GVS: I think it’s because it’s not set up as a convention yet. People don’t do it. Because they don’t do it it’s not watchable. I’m not sure that the original D. W. Griffith close-ups weren’t laughed at because they hadn’t been done. That interests me a lot. Anything that for some reason is not doable is very interesting to me because there has to be a reason why.

MD: What other frontiers interest you?

GVS: Sex is an obvious one. [Pause] Well, there are small little ones that present themselves all the time, rules of storytelling and film. I guess the house crashing in the road is an example. It’s not a convention so you wonder how it can work.

MD: Do you worry money-people might be scared off by some of these frontiers?

GVS: Oh, yeah, they’re scared. They get scared.

MD: What do you do to placate their fear?

GVS: You just work cheaper.

MD: Do you see yourself doing that?

GVS: Yeah, I probably will. The project I’m working on right now is for American Playhouse and Red Hot, an AIDS fundraising organization.

MD: That’s before the feature?

GVS: The feature, To Die For, is a more traditional Columbia studio project. It’s loosely based on Pamela Smart, the substitute teacher in New Hampshire who had her student kill her husband. Already the story is pretty straightforward Hollywood fare.

MD: Do you have final cut?

GVS: No I don’t. So that doesn’t scare them. [Laughs] I think they’re curious as to what I’ll do.

MD: Then why hire you?

GVS: Well, because they like my filmmaking and they want me to make their kind of film. And I do want to make a film that they like. I don’t want to do something that they don’t want to do. As long as I can make it work, whatever it is, they’ll probably like it and so will the public.

MD: What’s the American Playhouse film?

GVS: It’s about five men who live in a doorway, I wrote it about two years ago as a one-act play.

MD: Are they street people?

GVS: Yeah. It’s sort of based on five guys who really lived in my doorway.

MD: Do they still live there?

GVS: The doorway’s still there, I don’t see them there anymore, I don’t live there any longer. I would see them every day, and sometimes I would talk with them.

MD: Was it depressing or was it bizarre?

GVS: It was depressing and bizarre in the same way Samuel Beckett’s settings and characters are.

MD: So you had Vladimir and Estragon in your doorway.

GVS: Yeah, they’re quite a bit like that. Their day-to-day life has a different time frame than my life.

MD: They don’t have watches.

GVS: No, time is measured more by sunup and sunset. That’s one of the things that happens with the project, the element of time being an abstract thing for them. I think they’re also people, in the story as well as in the life, who haven’t fit into society. They’ve been trying to, basically, do what they want to do, disconnected from responsibility. So they’ve ended up in the doorway.

MD: Is that attractive to you?

GVS: To live in a doorway?

MD: No, not living in a doorway, but dropping out. Your movies are always about people who haven’t mainstreamed, at least not very successfully.

GVS: I think as an artist everybody has that quality to their work and their life. I think every artist has to go through a period of suffering. It might have been short-lived, but there must have been a period of wondering whether what they wanted to do was going to keep them going.

MD: Do you see your films as your art?

GVS: Yeah, my films have become my art. I kind of bailed out of painting for those reasons, whether or not I was going to make it.

MD: Bailed out is a pretty nasty way of putting it.

GVS: [Laughs] I know. It was a couple of different things. The time I went to school, from ’71 to ’75, art was whatever you wanted it to be. I guess it is now, too. Maybe it always has been. It was pretty exciting for me. I was influenced by a lot of different things. I had, by then, painted for eight years pretty much exclusively, and had done photography and film along the way, but hadn’t really arrived at any expertise in those areas. Painting, however, I had, in my estimation, mastered. And I was, maybe, tired as a painter. I’m not sure. I was at a stage where it wasn’t a challenge any longer, where the next thing for me to do was to try to exhibit and sell, to move to New York and get things going. That’s all I had to do. Whereas filmmaking presented a whole lot of other challenges. I had to learn how to do it, for one thing. I guess because of that challenge I worked on that harder at school and then I just got swept up in it. Also, in the back of my mind was the idea that there were a lot more markets for film, there were a lot more places that you could end up.

MD: Do you get a lot of pleasure from making movies?

GVS: Yeah I do. You have the idea of where you want to go with it, the end product in your head, then as you’re working toward that end you encounter all these different things that change the work until finally you’ve arrived at the finished work, which is a combination of the journey, this thing in your head, and the new stuff you found along the way. I would like to get to the point where I do it all, which is what I did with Mala Noche, where I did everything from the catering to recording the music and editing.

MD: Does that mean you want to go back to smaller films?

GVS: Or a large film you do all yourself. I think that’s something Stanley Kubrick does.

MD: Kubrick left the country.

GVS: He’s not able to do whatever he wants, but he’s able to finance the pictures he wants and do them basically the way he wants and then hand in the results and have them market that end result. I’ve been able to do that with Cowgirls and Idaho. Those two films were essentially made the way Kubrick works. I think it takes more time. I wasn’t able to take the time but I wasn’t asking for it, either. I didn’t know to ask.

Manohla Dargis lives in New York City.