Gus Van Sant
A good film festival offers its copy-hungry journalists at least one rowdy, crowd-pleasing happening. The winner, hands down, at this September's Toronto Festival of Festivals is "My Own Private Idaho Meets the Press." There, at his microphone, sits River Phoenix mumbling adolescent "An Actor Prepares" jargon into his knuckles. A character called Flea, he a Red Hot Chili Pepper, praises My Own Private Idaho, in which he appears, as "one of the greatest films of all time," dismissing all cinema in which he doesn't appear as "spineless corporate drivel."
And then there is the film's director Gus Van Sant, calm and bemused in the middle of it all, explaining how he came up with the Private Idaho theme of narcolepsy while recalling a youthful reading of Silas Marner (at last, an ex-high-schooler who actually benefited from being forcefed George Eliot's miser's tale!), and how "I don't think of myself as a gay filmmaker. But I don't mind being referred to as a gay filmmaker. It's okay."
Interviewed the next day in his hotel suite, Van Sant apologizes for his wooziness from a late night on the Toronto town with his youthful cast, and he sends out for an Alka-Seltzer to soothe his hangover. "Actors know all about hangovers and clear skin," he says. "They drink down 10 glasses of water, and no hangover and no pimples on their nose."
Van Sant's press reputation is that of a monosyllabic starer-at-walls. See the recent profile in Premiere. Hmmmm. For our hour, he can't be friendlier or more forthcoming.
A nice guy all the way, without pretentions or affectations, and happy to explain how much of My Private Idaho is an homage to films by others he admires, incoluding Herzog's Heart of Glass and Stroszek, Wenders's Paris, Texas, and Welles's Chimes at Midnight.
He's been asked to death about his buddy-buddy stars, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, and how he got them to appear in his homoerotic tale of Portland, Oregon, street hustlers. "It was after Matt Dillon took the plunge in my Drugstore Cowboy. He was very brave, shrewd, and a good sport with good taste." But Van Sant is more eager to talk about his overlooked supporting cast, since they are essential to Idaho's success.
On film director William Richert (Winter Kills), who plays Bob, the roly-poly Falstaffian raconteur and lover of runaway lads: "He'd studied acting in the 1950s and never had done it. But River, who starred in Bill's A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, thought this larger-than-life rabble-rouser with a million adventures was right for Bob. Bill Richert is into some of the most beautiful women you've ever seen in your life. He's always getting into and out of stormy relationships. River loves Bill's whopping tall stories, like 'The Time I Almost Died in New York,' and River likes to tell stories too. They can go on and on for hours. Once at Bill's house in Malibu, there were apparently 24 straight hours of stories between them."
On German actor Udo Kier, who plays Hans, a customer involved in a threesome with Reeves and Phoenix: "I remembered him from Warhol's Dracula and Frankenstein. He's very handsome and yet strikingly odd-looking at the same time, and he's a naturally funny person without doing anything. He sees the world as a hilarious circus, which is why he's so good at comedy."
On Van Sant himself, the director is not so generous with information. He lived in Providence, Rhode Island, from 1971 to 1975 while attending the Rhode Island School of Design, where he learned about cinema through the WISD Film Society, savored the artsy collegiates ("The student body influenced me, not the teachers."), and wrote his first screenplay, The Last Living Model, a takeoff on Citizen Kane. He's also pretty sure he attended the first Talking Heads concert, featuring RISD peers Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and David Byrne.
"David's the greatest!" Van Sant proclaims. "He's so original. But I thought then the band was so bad, though they already had their sound and did 'Psycho Killer.' I talked to David sometime afterward in a coffee shop, and he said, 'I hate my job. I work as a dishwasher and I should work only with my band.' I felt sorry for him. I thought, 'This guy's going nowhere. He's the next RISD casualty.'"
(Boston Phoenix October, 1991)