"A director who is capable of crafting both deeply unconventional independent films and mainstream crowd-pleasers, Gus Van Sant has managed to carve an enviable niche for himself in Hollywood. Since debuting in 1985 with Mala Noche, Van Sant has become one of the premiere bards of dysfunction, populating his films with a parade of hustlers, junkies, psychopathic weather girls, and troubled geniuses. Following his first major success, Good Will Hunting, Van Sant directed a re-make of one of the classic paeans to dysfunction, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.
The son of a travelling salesman who rapidly worked his way up the corporate ladder into middle-class prosperity, Van Sant was born in Louisville, Kentucky on July 24, 1952. Due to his father's job, the family moved continuously during Van Sant's childhood. One constant in the director's early years was his interest in painting and Super-8 filmmaking; while still in school he began making semi-autobiographical shorts costing between $30 and $50. Van Sant's artistic leanings took him to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970, where his classmates included David Byrne and other members of the Talking Heads. It was also at RISD that Van Sant received an introduction to avant-garde directors like Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol; this introduction quickly inspired him to change his major from painting to cinema.
After spending time in Europe, Van Sant went to Los Angeles in 1976. He secured a job as a production assistant to writer-director Ken Shapiro, with whom he developed a few ideas, none of which came to fruition. Van Sant channeled his frustrations into the 1981 Alice in Hollywood, a film about a naive young actress who goes to Hollywood and abandons her ideals. It was never released. During this period, Van Sant began to spend time observing the denizens of the more down-and-out sections of Hollywood Boulevard. He became fascinated by the existence of this marginalized section of L.A.'s population, especially in context with the more ordinary, prosperous world that surrounded them. Van Sant would repeatedly focus his work on those existing on society's fringes, beginning with his 1985 Mala Noche.
Mala Noche was made two years after Van Sant went to New York to work in an advertising agency; saving $25,000 during his tenure there, he was able to finance his tale of doomed love between a gay liquor store clerk and a Mexican immigrant. The film--which was taken from Portland street writer Walt Curtis' semi-autobiographical novella--featured some of the director's hallmarks, notably an unfulfilled romanticism, a dry sense of the absurd, and the refusal to treat homosexuality as something deserving of judgement. Unlike many gay filmmakers, Van Sant--who had long been openly gay--declined to use same-sex relationships as fodder for overtly political statements, although such relationships would frequently appear in his films.
Shot in black-and-white, Mala Noche earned its director almost overnight acclaim on the festival circuit, with the Los Angeles Times naming it the year's "Best Independent Film." The film's success attracted Hollywood interest, and Van Sant was briefly courted by Universal; the courtship ended after Van Sant pitched a series of project ideas (including what would later become Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho) that the studio declined to take interest in.
Van Sant reacted by moving to Portland, Oregon, where he set up home and began giving life to the ideas rejected by Universal. With the assistance of independent production company Avenue, the director made Drugstore Cowboy, his 1989 film about four drug addicts who rob pharmacies to support their habit. Cowboy met with great critical success; in addition to furthering Van Sant's reputation as a gifted director, it helped to revive the career of Matt Dillon, who was remarkable as the junkie leader who decides to come clean.
The film's exploration of the lives of those living on society's outer fringes, as well as its Portland setting, were mirrored in Van Sant's next effort, the similarly acclaimed My Own Private Idaho (1991). Centering around the dealings of two male hustlers (played by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves), the film was a compelling examination of unrequited love, alienation, and the concept of family (a concept Van Sant repeatedly explores in his films). The film won Van Sant an Independent Spirit Awards for his screenplay (he had won the same award for his Drugstore Cowboy screenplay), as well as greater prestige. In addition, it helped Reeves--previously best-known for his work in the Bill and Ted movies--to get the critical respect that had hitherto eluded him.
Van Sant's next project, a 1994 adaptation of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, was an excessive flop, both commercially and critically. Featuring an unusually large budget (for Van Sant, at least) of $8.5 million and a large, eclectic cast including Uma Thurman, John Hurt and Keanu Reeves, the film was worked and then re-worked, but the finished product nonetheless resulted in something approaching a significant disaster.
Fortunately for Van Sant, his next project, the 1995 To Die For, helped to restore his luster. An adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel, the black comedy starred Nicole Kidman as a murderously ambitious weathergirl; it also featured Van Sant favorite Matt Dillon as her hapless husband and Joaquin Phoenix, brother of the late River (who had died of an overdose two years earlier), as her equally hapless lover. It was Van Sant's first effort for a major studio (Columbia), and its success paved the way for further projects of the director's choosing. The same year, he served as executive producer for Larry Clark's Kids; it was a fitting assignment, due to both the film's subject matter and the fact that Clark's photographs of junkies had served as reference points for Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy.
1997 brought with it true mainstream acceptance for the director, thanks to Good Will Hunting. Starring and written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the film--about a troubled, blue-collar genius--was a huge critical and commercial success. In addition to taking in more than $220 million world-wide, it received a number of Academy Award nominations, including a Best Director nomination for Van Sant. It eventually won a Best Screenplay Oscar for Damon and Affleck, and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Robin Williams. Now having his choice of projects, Van Sant opted for a remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Psycho. His decision was met with equal parts curiosity, skepticism, and derision from industry insiders and outsiders alike, and the finished result met with a similar reception. Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn and Julianne Moore, Psycho, if not exactly a failure, wasn't much of a triumph, either. However, its mixed reception didn't deter the director, who was soon busy again with a number of projects. In addition to directing, he also devoted considerable energy to releasing two albums, and published a novel, Pink, which was a thinly veiled exploration of his grief over River Phoenix's 1993 death."
1971, The Happy Organ -- 20 min,16 mm black and white
1972, Little Johnny -- 40 sec, 16 mm black and white
1973, 1/2 of a Telephone Conversation -- 2 min, 16 mm black and white
1975, Late Morning Start -- 28 min, 16 mm color
1978, The Discipline of DE -- adaption of Burroughs' short story, 9 min, 16 mm black and white (available on Before Stonewall compliation, out of print, but should be able to rent it at places like this)
1981, Alice in Hollywood -- 45 min, 16 mm color
1982, My Friend -- 3 min, 16 mm black and white
1983, Where'd She Go? -- 3 min, 16 mm color
1984, Nightmare Typhoon -- 9 min, 16 mm black and white
My New Friend -- 3 min, 16 mm color
1985, Ken Death Gets Out of Jail -- 3 min, 16 mm black and white
Mala Noche, 78 min -- 16 mm black and white, available for rental at Scarecrow Video
1986, Five Ways to Kill Yourself -- 3 min, 16 mm black and white
1991, Thanksgiving Prayer -- 2 min, 30 sec, 35 mm color
...And in the rather useless information category, Gus also directed the music video for "Under the Bridge" (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and "Weird" (Hanson)...
Then, there are the feature films. Mala Noche not withstanding (though it is definitely worth checking out!)Gus has made 6 feature films, each different, each cool in its own unique way. i've devoted a section of this page entirely to his feature films that you can get to by clicking here
Back to the Gus van Sant home page