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FILTER 45: The Fire of Youth: The Films (And Music!) of Gus Van Sant

By Jessica Jardine on November 15, 2011


FILTER 45: The Fire of Youth: The Films (And Music!) of Gus Van Sant

All photos courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Gus Van Sant is the kind of filmmaker who makes wide-eyed film school kids salivate, given the fact he’s carved out an award-strewn career delivering star-driven features like Milk, Good Will Hunting, To Die For and Finding Forrester, as well as smaller, meditative indie passion projects like Gerry and Palme d’Or-winning Elephant. His newest is Restless, written by newcomer Jason Lew, in which two offbeat teens fall for each other while crashing funerals in their (and Van Sant’s) hometown of Portland as a means of escapism. Dennis Hopper’s doppelganger of a son, Henry, plays the lead, Enoch, while Mia Wasikowska, of Alice in Wonderland and The Kids Are Alright, plays his counterpart, the pixie-haired cutie Annabel. It’s a love story, as Van Sant himself describes it, but, like all of his pictures, it cuts much deeper than it appears, as one of the young lovers faces a life-altering secret, creating a familial bond that extends well beyond anything nuclear.

Van Sant accepted the project hot on the heels of the powerful, massively adored Milk, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and saw his screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, and lead actor, Sean Penn, take home Oscars. While Van Sant remains a critically beloved auteur behind the lens, he’s also expanded his artistic pursuits to include everything from music to painting to writing novels. His fans may remain most thirsty for cinematic gems like the film that made his name in Hollywood, Drugstore Cowboy, or his early masterpiece, My Own Private Idaho, but Van Sant manages to find time for hobbies away from the director’s chair, too. Here, he talks to FILTER about his experience with the inexperienced, recording his own music and the dual importance of sound as well as its absence in the making of his films.

You’ve directed a lot of young and sometimes completely inexperienced actors. Is that something you consciously seek out in your projects?

Yeah, at this point it’s a territory I know. And because I know it, it’s something to return to as a setting. I’m not really sure how I got into that arena but because I have done films with people that age—17 to 25 or so—then I guess one leads to another. It starts to become I guess what John Ford was doing with the Western—why did he keep doing Westerns? [Laughs.] I’m not sure why he did, but probably for a similar reason. It was something that was important to him and that he knew about, but also there were further things that he wanted to explore.

How did you end up working with Henry Hopper on Restless
, his first film?

We used a casting director that I had worked with before, Francine Maisler, and she had a friend who knew Henry. Henry had tried out for a couple of films but had never done one. He was in Berlin living and painting and was going to come back to L.A. to visit his dad, who had just been diagnosed with cancer. Francine really wanted him to come in to read for the part and he did and we really thought he was amazing, sort of like a young Dennis Hopper.

The filming of the movie was not long after the passing of Henry’s dad. Were there difficult moments on set, especially given the fact that the movie deals so much with death?

No, I think Henry felt it was a cathartic experience and it wasn’t too difficult. I think the whole ordeal with his dad was difficult in general but not really on the set so much.

For Restless you used “silent takes” with the actors, where they went through complete scenes without any dialogue. When did you start employing these?

Sean Penn told me that Terrence Malick did silent takes. What I understood Sean to mean was that Malick was doing them to possibly use scenes without the dialogue that was written down; now that I’ve seen [Malick’s] The Tree of Life, it seems like almost every scene was done that way. It’s almost like he had taken a lot of the dialogue out. Maybe he’s used to having the choice of whether he’s going to use voice-over or dialogue. But we didn’t really start doing it because of that; we didn’t really understand his method so much. I started doing it in Milk because I thought it was useful. There was a lot of dialogue in Milk so [we’d use silent takes] if there was something we wanted to lighten up—which I think was quite different from what Malick was actually up to. But in Restless we continued doing that and at the end of the shoot I realized that we had shot pretty much the whole movie in silence, so we made a silent version [of the entire film] that might show up on the DVD.

Your hometown of Portland is a major music destination. Is it a place from where you draw a lot of musical inspiration, not only as a director but also as a musician yourself?

Yeah. There’s way more music now than there was 20 years ago, but it was always a place where there was music. It’s just that there’s more now; maybe because of some of the bigger musicians who moved to town like Stephen Malkmus, The Decemberists, M. Ward, Sleater-Kinney and Elliott Smith. Seattle kind of imploded in a way. The grunge movement was so big and people used to move to Seattle because of music, but I think it was just more expensive. Eventually people were just like, “OK, let’s head to Portland.” It’s a destination for musicians because it’s easy to live for less money and a lot of times those guys are struggling. Somebody said there used to be 25 playing bands in Portland and those were the bands that I used to go see, in the ’80s and ’90s. But now somebody said there’s like 250 working bands in Portland.

You’ve released several recordings as part of a band and as a solo artist. Do you still play and record music in your spare time?

Yeah, I do play and I record sometimes. There’s an artist, Eddie Le Monde, who has been using recordings in his installations and he used my guitar as part of it. That’s the most recent and most public thing. I share credit with Danny Elfman on a couple of the cues in Restless, which was new for him. I sometimes record things but they never really mature into anything more than just simple recordings on a tape. I used to have a band I was part of in the ’80s [Destroy All Blondes]. When I talk about it, in Portland for instance, I say “Oh, it wasn’t a band. We only played like eight different shows,” and the kids in Portland all go, “Oh, that’s a lot of shows!” [Laughs.] You’re short-lived in Portland. I had officially made six different albums that were all just me playing and overdubbing; that started around 1980 when the first affordable four-track was around. It was this great invention—a machine you could afford that could do multiple-track recordings. For filmmakers it was great. I mixed my first film on it and I would also make albums on it. It was a whole undertaking. We had the band and then I kind of got busy making films.

Do you still get invited to join bands?

Sometimes if you’re just hanging around Portland, people will be like, “Let’s start a band!” And I did try to do one about a year ago. We only had one practice. It wasn’t really going anywhere. Maybe someday. It keeps growing, so anything is possible.

As such an avid music fan, are you constantly imagining how the scoring or soundtrack will work into the film as you’re making it?

Sometimes there are certain cases where I think I’d like to use some music. I don’t usually play it on the set. Sometimes if the editors are assembling things, I might give them music. The only time that I really felt strongly about a particular artist was when we did Good Will Hunting and I gave the editor an Elliott Smith record, or maybe more than one. I remember the editor at the time didn’t use any Elliott Smith. Then after I saw the rough cut, I had suggested he go back and use Elliott in the different cues. And eventually that became a really strong sound in the film.

You also made a number of music videos earlier in your career. Is that something you see yourself doing again?

I think I just had been invited to make them. After my second film, Drugstore Cowboy, a number of interesting requests from people came in. David Bowie asked for a video so I couldn’t say no to that one. Once I had done that, I made a number of them; like 10 or so in that same period around 1990—Victoria Williams was one, then Bowie, then Tracy Chapman and then the Chili Peppers. It was this really hot thing—I guess they still are but in 1990 a video was this really important thing for a band to have. A small industry  had grown up during the ’80s and by 1990 there were superstars of videos; Spike Jonze and David Fincher and all these guys who were commercial and music video guys that were like hotshots—and now they’ve become hotshot filmmakers. It was an interesting time, but I was not from that crowd. I was more from the independent film crowd—a Portland, Oregon, filmmaker—but I thought it was inspiring. I wanted to try it but it was never something I mastered. “Under the Bridge” was the most successful one I did, for the Chili Peppers. I always felt like it was better to hire the video guys than me.

Having done a more classic love story with Restless, is that a genre you would want to tackle again?

Probably. I mean, my stories are generally about ad hoc family; people who are grouped together as a family who aren’t necessarily related to each other. That’s sort of the common theme. So, within that you do have relationships where sometimes people are in love. I think this was the first time I did just a standalone film about two people who were in a love story. But I’d like to do another one.


You’ve inspired a lot of people with your work. What do you tell newcomers looking to straddle the line like you, creating both larger and smaller films?

Well, usually the question is: “What do I do to get something done?” It’s usually pretty simple. The fast track, simple answer is to just go do it. And it’s hard to do. I think if you’re a musician and you ask, “How do I write a song?” you go, “Well, just start working on it.” It’s the same with a movie: You start playing around and if you can make something, then there are places you can show it. The harder thing is to actually spend the time making it. It can take years of your life to make something simple and small. But that’s partly because it’s a learning process. You’re learning how to do it. And that’s usually the fastest way.

The slower way might be to play a part in the process, rather than making a film on your own, by wanting to be a writer for film. That might be a different journey and it might not take that long but because you’re dependent on other people, it might also take a bit longer. Because you’re no longer just making a film; you’re now making a script that you want other people to do for you and there’s more salesmanship involved. It’s like being a songwriter: If you write the songs that you want other artists to do for you, it’s different than if you just recorded your own songs. So, I would just tell them to go make their own film and get it into festivals. I mean, that’s kind of what I did so that’s why I give that advice. [Laughs.]  F