Gus van Sant began making films that were uniquely idiosyncratic before changing gears with a group of films that were much more Establishment than one would expect, from the likes of Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester and the critically maligned Psycho.
With his latest film, the provocative Gerry, it seems that van Sant has turned his back on mainstream Hollywood. The film’s minimalist plot a la Samuel Beckett is set somewhere in the American southwest, and revolves around two guys named Gerry (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who set out on a wilderness trail, get lost and spend the rest of the film having inane conversations while slowly dying of thirst. Is it a reaction against American film in general or is Van Sant interested in more profound issues? Paul Fischer attempted to find out when talking to this idiosyncratic of directors.
Question: I was wondering if whether or not, in some ways, Gerry was conceived as a kind reaction against the later, mainstream Hollywood films that you made, things like Psycho, Good Will Hunting, etc.
Answer: No, not really. I think it’s a reaction against the 20th Century film making. It’s not necessarily like specific in my career, Hollywood or anything like that.
Question: Against 20th Century film making in terms of what, form or structure?
Answer: Well, I mean like in the U.S. yeah, not in content, but in style there’s an effort to kind of do something about like a type of film making that I’ve always done, whether it was a small budget or a big budget, where you know, you’re shooting in small increments, you’re shooting it like in shots that can be reconstructed later to make the scene work, you know, rather than doing something like that, shooting in longer pieces that are really, perhaps a way to get closer to the action, without like sort of dividing it up later.
Question: I mean it seems to be more common against AMERICAN film making rather than against film making as a whole.
Answer: Yeah, I mean, it depends on what part of the world. Like modern American film making, has that in mind, but I think it’s the whole thing, starting from like D.W. Griffith, which is like an amazing invention, you know like the close up, over the shoulder, medium-wide shots and cut-aways and also montage, combined, construct, and are ways of telling our modern film stories. But also, I’m having the sneaky suspicion that it is also hand in hand with an industrial product that the actual, film vocabulary is somehow going hand in hand with the assembly line attitudes of the industrial progress of the earlier part of the century.
Question: In defying convention and despite your track record commercially, what challenges did you face in trying to get a film like this off the ground?
Answer: It was pretty easy because I had the money for an unspecified project and so when I was talking about this particular thing with Casey and Matt, we just already had the money and I did have to cover it by taking out a loan, but we had the guarantee for delivery of the money.
Question: So where did the idea for Gerry first come about?
Answer: The idea was from a news item about two guys who’ve been lost and how one had killed the other. That was an inspirational aside. Also from other stories of people who’ve been lost, and my own accounts of being lost.
Question: How collaborative was the project from the beginning?
Answer: We started thinking about it when Casey and I were next-door neighbors and Matt had just moved to New York to redo an apartment. They started joking about how they’ve play these characters; we started off with two characters that resembled Beavis and Butthead and ended up with people that resembled Casey and Matt themselves. We constructed an outline and I was really interested in how that outline evolved. Casey and Matt were alone a lot of the time, developing scenes like the rock scene. And then we reunited in Argentina five days before the shoot. It was in those five days we came up with the script.
Question: What are you hoping audiences will derive from the experience of seeing Gerry?
Answer: I hope some sort of divine elimination. [Laughter]. I think it depends on the person. I think that the experience is something that gives them some kind of energy.
Question: Do you see this as an audience friendly film?
Answer: I mean, you actually do get all energized by watching it. Unless you get completely frustrated, which I think is possible too, if you have the ability to give it like, you know, some patience, there’s a lot of energy.
Question: So did making the film reenergize YOU as a film maker?
Answer: Yeah, actually making the film gave me a lot of energy.
Question: How would you intend to utilize that energy in your future work then?
Answer: Well, I’ve already made a different film. It’s called Elephant, since this was completed and it’s somehow related to Gerry, although it’s about a different subject, the subject is high school violence.
Question: Oh, that’s very timely.
Answer: Yeah. And you know, I think there’s a sort of communication with the actors and a certain style of working that is the relation between the two. You know, there are differences too. There are a lot more characters and the setting is different and the subject is different.
Question: Who’s in that?
Answer: Unknown actors from public schools in Portland.
Question: Do you think that audiences will react to a film as timely as that suggests?
Answer: Yeah, definitely they’l react to it, I think.
Question: What do think you’ve learned the most as a film maker over the years?
Answer: That’s a good question. I don’t know, I’m still learning stuff. I guess it’s sort of a process of continually learning things. I don’t know if there is a defined final nugget of information that I’ve gleaned.
Question: You did a kind of a trio of what you can call conservative, mainstream, Hollywood films. Good Will Hunting, Psycho and Finding Forester were of a particular ilk. Is that how you see that collection of films and do you have interest in going back to that style of narrative cinema or are you happy to try and be more experimental?
Answer: So far, I’m sort of continuing with the somewhat experimental side.
Question: What did that section of your career teach you, that section of mainstream, major Hollywood, aspect of your career?
Answer: Well, I always wanted to sort of see if I could apply myself to films that maybe I was use to seeing in the 70’s, like Ordinary People, and since I hadn’t really done a film with those types of characters at least, I wanted to see if I could and so I attempted that at the time. It was just something that I hadn’t done, so it was new to me.
Question: Are you sick of defending Psycho?
Answer: No, I’l defend it.
Question: And do you still get asked about it?
Answer: Oh yeah, a lot of people ask about it.
Question: It’s probably not something you regret having done, but do you expect a backlash?
Answer: I think we did. You know, I first told Danny Elfman about the idea and he told me that the critics would kill me.
Question: And he was right.
Answer: He was right and I didn’t know whether I was going to completely agree with him, but you know, with the idea that perhaps that would happen, I guess it’s somewhat like, you know, a protester going in and somebody saying, “Well, the police will beat you up,” you know, it’s noble going in, but it hurts when it happens, you know. And I kind of assumed that might happen There was sort of a misconception which I think was based on a competitive concept. I guess I was competing with an icon and, which wasn’t really the case, it was more like, I wanted to make a remake that was not only a film that was sort of not forgotten about, but also a film that where you remake or preserve the intentions of the director and not just, sort of, take the screen play and remake it. That was the practical application of it. I guess there was also the artistic appropriation angle to see what an appropriation of something like that would be like, you know, see if it would actually resemble it or not. And in the end, I don’t think it really does. I mean it resembles it mechanically, but it doesn’t sort of spiritually or emotionally.
Question: What other film makers have influenced you the most?
Answer: Well, I think there’s Chantell Acroman was very influential, Bill Attar and a lot of the experimental film makers from the 60s.
Question: After Elephant, what are you plans?
Answer: To keep going, I guess. We’re going to maybe make something in Russia.
Question: Really? Why?
Answer: Because we had a friend who was telling us about it and because there’s like 20 hours of sunlight in the daytime in June.”