Gus Van Sant

Interview and photography by
Bruce LaBruce


I first met film director Gus Van Sant when he was shooting To Die For in Toronto in 1994. I walked into Gus’ rented house in Forrest Hill, a moderately upscale yet tasteful neighborhood, not knowing what to expect, only to be greeted by a boyish-looking man with an impish smile who had absolutely no Hollywood pretensions whatsoever. That summer I invited Gus up to my parents’ farm where I grew up, about a hundred and fifty miles northwest of Toronto. My parents had no idea that probably the most famous living gay director and his boyfriend were sleeping on separate couches in their house that weekend. My mother kept on referring to them as ‘the boys’. It was very old school. Gus and I have kept in touch ever since, and I often make a point of visiting his movie sets. I saw him on the set of Good Will Hunting, and Easter, and Psycho, where we partied in his trailer on the Universal lot right behind the Bates House. Someone had arranged a tank of nitrous oxide, and we all spent the evening getting ridiculously high by inhaling the gas from large yellow balloons and laughing like hyenas. I caught up with Gus again recently by phone. I would have preferred to have been sipping a martini with him at Sneakers, Toronto’s latest hustler bar, where I once saw Gus sign a contract for a movie project, but you can’t have everything.

Bruce: So how are you?
Gus: Good.
This is for BUTT magazine. They seem to be inordinately fond of talking about auto-fellatio and pornography and stuff like that, as am I. So let’s talk about pornography first. Do you watch pornography?
Um, on the Internet I see different things. But outside of that…
You don’t have a dirty videocassette collection?
I don’t have a collection. I have one cassette that somebody gave me a long time ago in LA, and it was made by Bon Ami?
Bone Ami?
Which is like a pretty famous company. And then I ran into a guy who inherited, through a will, one of those San Francisco male porn companies. I can’t remember the name, but the guy who inherited it is a local guy here who was a San Francisco activist in the seventies named Terry Bean. He inherited this porn company at a time when I was hanging around with him, and I thought, wow, can I direct one? And he said, “Sure, we have to pump them out all the time.” And the budgets were like $250,000…
What? That’s huge for a porn movie.
I think that’s what he said he could get.
What year was this?
This was about two years ago? Maybe that was a special budget for me.
I think so. For you they’d pump up the budget a little bit, I suspect. Because usually now they make them for about five thousand.
Oh yeah?
Well, ten tops.
Really? What do the actors get paid then?
Oh, nothing! You see that’s the big myth about porn. That everyone’s rich. They pay them per sex scene, and the average is only a couple hundred dollars.
That’s pretty good. But I did know a local pornographer back in the seventies and eighties, and a bunch of us used to hang out at his studio because he had equipment and we were all trying to make movies. His name was Tom Shaw. He died. He would make porn movies because he had three porn shops here in Portland and a couple in LA, and he made them only to put in his loops for this 16mm machine that he designed — this was before video — to show in his shops. He would shoot ten-minute loops in his studio, but he would have to keep it a secret so that the bigger mobsters who controlled the industry wouldn’t find out about it and demand a percentage. So he had to talk about it in a whisper in his office. I said, “Why are you whispering?” I never was involved in any of them, but I was fancying directing a couple of them.
Would you have used a pseudonym?
They didn’t have titles. It was just for these loop machines, so there weren’t really any credits. It was just an opportunity to make something with a small scenario, like maybe people having dinner and then having sex or something. (laughs)
The direction you’ve been going in with your films, it would make sense for you to make a porn movie. The style of filmmaking.
(laughs) Long, ten-minute shots.
Exactly. That’s basically what porn is.
I was really thinking hard about it, and I even asked people their advice. But you know John Cameron Mitchell actually just did it.
Did you see his movie Shortbus?

I saw it at Cannes, and he pulled it off. Because everyone’s trying to do it, but they always chicken out and cut the scenes out.
I was on a panel with John in New York and I was being very nay about it. I was saying good luck making a mainstream porn movie, because at that time he was still planning on making it with name stars, and I was saying it’s still impossible to do it with name stars.
Yeah. But the reason it’s successful is that I think all of us thought the same thing — not even because of the name stars — that somehow it wouldn’t work dramatically, because the energy is interrupted. That’s what he pulled off…
But it’s also gynecological, the sex. Or, not gynecological, but somehow invasive and clinical looking when you shoot sex. Even in literature it’s hard to describe it…
I always thought you could do it. The thing that John succeeded at was that when you walked out of the movie you felt good.
Or a little bit worn out. (laughs) Porno does this thing to you; it gives you this specific feeling. So he made you be part of this whole thing and by the end you feel as happy as if you’d seen Hedwig or something like that. It’s like an up. It’s an up thing.
Up with pornography.
I think now that he’s done that he could go on, and I think he could get a name star to do it if he chooses to go in that direction.
I don’t know. I’m still skeptical because I don’t think porno should be mainstreamed. I think it should remain a dirty little secret. Or a dirty big secret.
It’s its own thing. John completely succeeded in all the ways I went in thinking he couldn’t, and I was transformed.
Because after a while it’s just part of the story. It’s not anything that you shouldn’t really be watching.
But then doesn’t it demystify sex and take all the fun out of it?
Yeah, I guess. None of the people in the film were people I particularly wanted to see having sex.
Well there. Now I think we’re getting somewhere. Because maybe that’s what you have to do to mainstream it.
Yeah. Usually you’re watching because you’re interested in the people having sex.
Anyway, I’m the same way, I don’t buy porn and I don’t have tapes or DVDs lying around, but I like to watch amateur stuff on the Internet. But in that context, is there anything specifically that you look for or that turns you on.
Not to get you into any legal trouble…
(laughs) It seems to me that it’s all kind of uniform.
But I mean the homemade aesthetic of it, of seeing people documenting themselves sexually. Seeing what’s behind them in the room.
Yeah, I always try to guess what country they’re in because of things that are in the room. A lot of time it’s Russia, though. You can tell by a wall hanging or something.
Speaking of porn — because there is some porn in it — your movie Easter never got released, huh?

Yeah, I’ve only showed that in film festivals once or twice.
Will it ever be released?
Well, it was supposed to be an omnibus movie, and the other sections were never made. But also Independent Films, the guys who were making it, went out of business. But the combination of Harmony (Korine, who wrote it) and I — we don’t really jibe as collaborators, even though you’d think we might. Somehow his aesthetic — it might have gotten away from me. It may have had to do with the casting. It’s an odd mix, Harmony and I.
I know what you mean.
You’ve seen it?
I was there in Louisville, Kentucky, when it was shot, but I didn’t see the finished film, no. Remember, that was when Harmony and I were smoking crack in his hotel room.
Oh yeah.
And you came to the door…
And I walked in and you guys were pretending like you were…
We were waving the air to get the smoke out of the room. “Hide the pipe! Hide the pipe!”
Which is kind of sad, then, because Harmony went on a big drug binge after that.
He was already on one, I think.
Have you seen Harmony lately?
I have. Well, he was in Last Days, so I saw him two years ago. I talk to him on the phone a lot, so I talked to him a couple of weeks ago. He’s in Scotland.
So is he making his new movie?
Yeah, he’s already shot half of it in Panama, and now he’s in Scotland.
Mr. Wonderful.
Mr. Lonely.
But I have no idea what it’s about. Most of the time he tells you what it’s about, but it’s not even really the film.
It’s about celebrity impersonators. He was here in Toronto a year ago and I interviewed him as part of a lecture series and it was a mob scene. There were like 500 people trying to get into a theatre that held 200, so they put the people who were left out in an overflow room so they could watch it projected on video. Like Diana’s funeral.
Wow. He has a lot of fans in Toronto.
Yeah, he does. So I interviewed him live and it was streamed on the Internet. He was in peak form. He was with his cute 18-year-old girlfriend from Nashville, who’s really nice. I like her. Anyway, let’s talk a bit about your work. Do you consider your last three films (Jerry, Elephant, and Last Days) a trilogy?
Yeah. It wasn’t conceived as one, like a Lars von Trier type of trilogy, but after the last one was made it was clear that they were each different versions of death by younger people. One being death by a friend’s hand, one death by an unknown hand, and one death by your own hand. And also the films are concerned with life and death. From the very beginning of each film, that theme is always in operation. That’s why I lump them together. Plus the way they’re shot.
So what’s up with the death fixation?
I dunno, it’s like a subject that I’d really not approached too seriously before. Maybe now that I’m getting old enough I feel Death knocking at my door…
Right. It has definable features.
(laughs) It’s my menopausal period.
Ah ha. I read a quote from you recently, I think it was in Black Book, where they asked you something about the future, like what do you see happening in ten years, and your answer was shockingly, um, sort of, um…
Dark? Negative?
Dark, yeah. Like, I hope I won’t be here in ten years, or something like that.
I hope I won’t be? I would be 63. I’m 53 now.
I think you said you didn’t want to see what the world would be like then.
I think it must have been more like fifty years, or thirty years.
I don’t know. Maybe I was being flippant or something. Which is pretty easy sometimes when you’re being interviewed. Sometimes shockingly so — you’re not prepared for it. You go into the interview expecting one thing, and very quickly, within a split second, just by the tone of voice of the interviewer, you really get turned off. You become suddenly aware by the style of the interviewer that they have an agenda that they need you to go on.
Which is ninety percent of the time, really.
Which is so bad because no matter what answer you give them, it’s not going to be acceptable. And they kind of make that known by saying, “Yes, but wouldn’t you say that…,” and they started feeding the answers. And you’re like, “Oh crap.”
You’re toast at that point. But again about your last three films. You were making more commercial films, but you would have to call your last three films experimental…
Yeah, I do.
What made you go in that direction? Were you consciously disillusioned with mainstream narrative form?
I started out as an experimental filmmaker, only because I wasn’t aware that I could even function in a dramatic sense, because I was a painter. I thought that a director had to be loud and brash, like Orson Welles, in order to direct people. I was really intrigued working within that traditional dramatic style because it was something I wasn’t aware I could ever do. And then after about ten years or so of working like that I think I got to the point where doing it was just like a job or something. It wasn’t interesting because once you learn certain dramatic tricks, you need to start working against them because that’s the only way the medium can advance itself. And it’s so difficult to change it. Also I’ve been very lucky so I’m in a privileged position, and if I don’t do that, who’s going to do it? Otherwise I might as well be directing Superman or X-Men. Either go for the money or actually try to question the medium.

BUTT - 2-c
Gus sucking nitrous oxide from a tit-shaped balloon

Haven’t you alienated all your editor friends? I noticed you edited Last Days.
I started editing because it was easier, because we were only going to have thirty or forty edits. The way you normally shoot something is so weird because you choose three or four angles to ‘cover’ the scene, and from each angle you’re usually doing maybe five or six takes, which means you wind up with as many as 24 expressions of that one scene. And you’re intending to cut those shots together, so the permutations of how many versions you can accomplish is probably a million or more. And that’s why you need an editor, because there are so many decisions to be made that you might as well have somebody else do it. But if you’re retaining it in one shot, once you choose one take, your job’s done.
Right. Well you’re almost editing in camera.
You might go back and choose a separate take, but that’s the only decision you have to make. So you don’t really need the guy in the trenches editing the scenes.
How do you decide when to end a long take?
You have to decide that. You just try it out.
In Last Days, the scene that lingers on the Boys-2-Men video, it goes on for what seems like forever.
It’s sort of through his eyes, even though he’s looking at the floor. It takes him a long time to crawl across the floor, so it draws you in, almost as if you’re actually there. The reason for the long takes is that they make you feel like you’re actually in that space. Usually we’re given a lot of images to process, but it’s also telling us which way to think and what the character’s thinking. There’s a lot of information going on as a way to keep you occupied, to make you stay in your seat and not get up and wander around, or change the channel or walk out of the theatre. Keeping the masses in their seats, which is a very Shakespearean model, and how sit-coms work…
Are you trying to alienate your audience?
No, I’m getting into an area where there’s other ways to be entertained, not just by bombarding people with imagery and information to the point where they actually have no choice but to just sit there and take it all. Long takes allow the audience to actually ruminate and have their own thoughts.
They have to do more work. Anyway, I think we’re getting a little too film-geeky, because this is BUTT magazine, not Film Geek Magazine. But one thing I wanted to ask you, did you see Bareback Mountain?
What did you think?
I liked it.
Because you were attached…
I was originally going to do it in 1998.
Did you have stars attached?
I never had any stars attached. One of the reasons I never did it was because I couldn’t get the type of people that I wanted. I wanted really big stars. Either that or real cowboys.
Whom did you want at that time?
I went to the five or six biggest actors.
What was it then? Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise…
I went to Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ryan Phillipe. Although Ryan Phillipe wasn’t in their league. And they all said no.
Ha. I bet they’re kicking themselves now.
Maybe they are now, but I think it’s quite a different time, even though it’s only been eight years.
People say that, but, you know, Kevin Aviance just got gay-bashed in the East Village…
Not that there’s not that in the world, but as far as actors playing gay roles…
I don’t think the climate’s changed that much, really. You still have gay actors in the closet who don’t want to come out because it will hurt their career…
But every director is always going to the same actors with all their scripts, so they have a hard time figuring out what to do. The whole world wants them to be in their movie. What I wanted to do after everyone turned it down was to go for real cowboys, sort of like in Elephant where I used real high-school kids.
Almost a documentary feel.
Yeah. I sort of dropped the ball and lost focus. Scott Rudin was involved, and he said, “Let’s start casting,” but I should have started going to gay rodeos or something. And I would have found somebody who was really good. Because usually I’m cueing off my lead actors, that’s usually what’s driving me. So without the leads, it was like a ship without a sail.
You liked the movie?
I did like it, and I liked the short story as well. The story of Brokeback Mountain is very simple.
Yeah, it’s very spare.
Anyway, I was really happy that the response was so good. I think it surprised everyone, including the filmmakers.
Yeah, it became a phenomenon. You optioned Sarah, the JT Leroy book, too. I haven’t talked to you since the whole JT Leroy scandal.
Oh yeah. That was a good one.
Have you been asked about it a lot?
Um, not too much. I spoke to Vanity Fair…
What did you tell them.
I was one of the last people to really know. Like the New York Times was calling me in September and asking me what I thought of JT Leroy not being a real person, and I said, “No, I just talked to him!” I thought they were just wrong. It wasn’t until January 9th that the writer who adapted Sarah for me, Patty Sullivan, who knew JT very well, finally told me. She had actually been sent to locations in West Virginia by JT over the phone, truck stops and whatnot, which is really incredible because she’s actually going to a place that’s been made up, and JT’s on the phone telling her to go to places he knows about. Apparently.
So were those places that Laura Albert (the woman who created JT Leroy and wrote his books) had actually been to?
Either she’d been there or she was Googling all these different towns.
Google maps!
I started to think later — JT was a computer maniac, I knew that, and he might have had a silent keyboard or something like that, because sometimes he’d say, when I was talking to him on the phone, “Oh I know Portland really well,” and he would talk about the exact locations of streets, and later it occurred to me that he might have been looking them up on the Internet while he was talking to me.
Which is very postmodern.
But I was emailing back and forth with Patty, and she realized then that I still thought JT was real. So she called me and said, “Uh Uh.” And I said, “How do you know?” And she said, “Because Astor called and told me,” and Astor was one of the three. Astor was Laura’s husband.
He’s now writing a tell-all.
It was Laura and Astor and Astor’s sister.
Savannah Knoop…
Right, who was the one who was publicly impersonating JT.
Yeah, she’s the one I met in Toronto. But you seemed to take it in stride. Some people were really bent out of shape about it, like Dennis Cooper…
Was he?
Yeah, he really went on about it on his blog.
There were people who were really pissed, and JT had different relationships with different people. He told us that he had AIDS and that he was on AIDS medication, but it’s possible that people sent him thousands of dollars because of that, or just the sentiment, that people felt sorry for him and when you find out it’s all made up it makes you mad. I guess I wasn’t sentimental enough to say, “How Dare You!” I talked to another person who knew JT really well, and he pointed out that we really did fall for it, and one of the reasons was because he was so dispossessed, that he was raised on the street, which I totally believed, and having that not be true is a con job.

BUTT - 3-b
Gus and Harmony Korine on the set of Easter, the movie that never got released

You felt sort of betrayed.
Although, I dunno. I know enough about the real people behind it that… Something about it doesn’t get me really angry. I’m not particularly as close to Laura as I was to JT…
But when you talked to JT, whom were you talking to?
I was talking to her. Laura.
But you haven’t talked to her since the whole thing was exposed?
No, I have. I mean, JT was a super close friend. I mean, I would talk to him for hours and hours and hours. There was one year where I would talk to him three hours a day. And that was thousands of hours of speaking time, a real phone friend, and then our relationship eventually became lighter, but he gave really good advice, so I would always call him for that. He became one of my anchors, and then all of a sudden the anchor wasn’t there.
But when you talked to Laura after you found out JT was made up, what was it like?
It was like talking to JT without the West Virginia accent.
Was it the same spirit?
Well, yeah.
And I think I could still talk to JT, because I think he still exists.
As a character. And I think she was keeping me on the phone for hours because it was something she was compelled to do. I don’t think it was a direct con. It was a combination, but if she really wanted to con me, I don’t think she would have spent so much time. It was something she needed to perfect, I don’t know why. Maybe for her writing or something, but she needed to talk. It was hard for her to hang up.
There was definitely a neurotic aspect to it.
Did you talk to JT?
No. Well, yes, I mean he interviewed me for Filmmaker Magazine over the phone for a couple of hours, and then I met him at a party in Toronto. But just from what I’ve gathered, there was a psychological aspect to it that was beyond her conscious control.
It was like art.
It was like art, or it might even be classified as a neurotic illness, which can be the same thing.
Obsessional. Yeah, that’s what I assume it is.
But you wouldn’t call him/her for advice now, for example.
I probably would.
You would. Interesting.
If it was a really difficult thing. If something really difficult happened.
That’s cool. I like the idea of keeping him alive. Did you have the feeling that some people had, that it was like losing a friend, like a friend dying?
No, I thought it was sort of enchanting. I thought, wow, because there’d never been anything like that in my life. Something that was so profoundly different than what you observed. I’m still kind of amazed. The character was so solid. We had arguments sometimes, we had fights — but there was never a moment where she was faltering.
Although sometimes she had to hang up the phone. Maybe somebody was walking into the room, or she was afraid I’d discover something. Even her husband said that he really liked JT and he was wondering why Laura couldn’t be more like JT. (laughs)
Ha. Well they split up, too, right? Laura and Astor, her husband?
Yeah, they’d split up when he said that.
Whom would you have had play JT in the movie.
Angelina Jolie, I think.
Because Laura looks a little bit like that. Because…did you read Sarah?
(lying) Yeah.
That whole book, JT was talking about how he wasn’t really a real person, that he was just a satellite of Sarah, his mother. And then when I ended up meeting Laura, she was what I imagined Sarah to be like, kind of demonic and odd.
We’re almost out of time. Tell us a River Phoenix story that would be good for BUTT. I was thinking of the campfire scene in My Own Private Idaho, and how you didn’t really need to make Brokeback Mountain because you already did it.
Should I talk about how that scene was done?
Um, I’d seen River in Stand By Me, and you know he had that great moment where he was talking about the teacher and he was crying about something unjust that had happened at school. And it kind of put him on the map. So when it came time to shoot the campfire scene in the desert, which was kind of a sex scene, or at least leading up to the possibility of sex, he wanted to put it off, because he hadn’t got to that point yet emotionally with the character. He wanted to wait. So I said okay, even though it was sort of an unusual request. But sometimes I would baby the actors, rather than say, “No, you’ve got to buck up and do the scene.” But when he finally did it, even the crewmembers said, “That was a great scene.” And when the crewmembers say that, you know the actor got it right. The day before we shot that scene he came up to me and he had these napkins that were kind of pasted together with writing on them, and it was a complete mess, I couldn’t read it. And he said they were ideas he had for the campfire scene, and he was showing them to me, and I was horrified, because he couldn’t be rewriting Keanu Reeves’ lines. But he said Keanu was totally into it. So I said he didn’t have to show me, we’d just shoot it and if it wasn’t working we’d go back to the original scene, which was half as long. So the scene ended up slightly different. In the original script he doesn’t tell Scott that he loves him, but he does ask him if he fools around with guys, and Scott says, “Well I only sleep with guys for money.” And River says, “Yeah but we’re out in the desert and it’s boring.” When I wrote the script he wasn’t a gay character. He was a hustler character, but it wasn’t really about love. But River decided to make the character gay and proclaim his love for Scott.
Do you think River ever had a gay experience?
Yeah, he had. Bobby Bukowski, the director of photography, said that he had sex with him before and after My Own Private Idaho. I think it said that in Rolling Stone.
And Bobby is completely gay, right. Wow, that’s hot. Because Bobby’s really cute too. I think River — and also someone like Kurt Cobain — they both had this longing to be gay because they both identified with, I don’t know, the outsiderness of it.
Definitely. Well certainly Kurt. More so. Because River was coming into it really as a character, but he didn’t have strong or even politically correct opinions about gay life.
Oh really? So what’s going on in Portland? What are you working on?
A couple of things. There’s this book I like a lot called Paranoid Park by Blake Nelson about skateboarders that I might do.
Are you writing it?
How did your screening of Mala Noche go at Cannes?
Really good. Just for me… I mean, I got a standing ovation just by walking out on stage before the movie started. And they liked the movie too.
Cool. And my last question is, how’s your love life?
Pretty good.
Are you getting your freak on? Are you seeing someone? Are you in a relationship?
(laughing) There’s a couple of relationships I’m in, but they’re not official couple relationships, really, where we’re saying we’re a couple. And sometimes they’re in flux, you know, where we’re up and down.
And there’s more than one?
What do you call those relationships?
Um. Fuck buddies.
Oh, okay, yeah, so I have a couple of fuck buddies.
(laughs) Okay.

Originally published in BUTT 17