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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Gus Van Sant

Tonight's Austin Film Society/University of Texas class speaker was Gus Van Sant.

Gus. Van . Sant.

Van Sant is the director behind Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, To Die For, Good Will Hunting, Elephant, and a bunch of other great stuff.

Tonight wasn't so much of a historical walk through of the guest speaker's filmography (though there was some of that), which was a nice change of pace.

We watched some of his early stuff, including Junior, a short of his cat chasing light reflected off his guitar as he played a song, which was part of his experiment in creating $50 films.

Van Sant did marketing in New York for a couple of years, then moved to Portland, OR -- he said he felt it was better to live and make films there, and not be aware of Hollywood -- at least at the time.

When asked how he got Drugstore Cowboy, he pointed to the festival success of Mala Noche, and said he thought people (producers) are honestly looking for films that work.

"They can see the script for what it is," he said. He said they're looking for the unseen, where everything else (story, cinematography, casting, acting, and editing) come together, and he feels Mala Noche demonstrated that.

He further noted that when you watch a film, "Most of the time, you see the holes, because you're forced to -- they're too big."

We watched a couple of clips from Drugstore Cowboy (the opening voice over montage and the "dog hex" scene). Turns out the opening intro 16mm flashback/forward montage was filmed by all of the actors, and they at first didn't know what they were going to do with it, but used the footage and the last-minute voice over to help set up all characters to appease the studio execs -- "The voice over is about 'Executive Notes'."

"I believe in a lot of what executives like. I don't dig my heels in and fight, which I see a lot of filmmakers do. You might as well try it. I can always take it out later."

We watched the campfire scene from My Own Private Idaho, which it turns out River Phoenix re-wrote and set the shots up for, and Van Sant supported.

We then transitioned to Gerry, the 6-minute, single shot, no dialog Salt Flats scene. Long, and not real accessible, but a fascinating clip. He said they also shot the film in sequence, with him editing at night, so after the first week, they had a rough cut of the first 30 minutes of the film.

Gerry and Elephant are "different" films, which Van Sant said were liberating him from "the list" way of making a movie, where working through a film in a deterministic way isn't "fun" -- it's a akin to working through an errand list, where "if you can get milk and batteries at the same place -- bonus!"

He spoke about his more commercially accessible films (To Die For, Good Will Hunting, and Finding Forrestor), and said Good Will Hunting was actually a film he did "for the people". He considers it a Marxist film, though "it ended up being somewhat Capitalistic."

He also said the Weinsteins tried to pay off Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, so they could put Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in the roles. Thankfully, they declined the offer.

We also got to see a clip from Paris, je t'aime (2006) (segment "4th arrondissement"), which was fun and quirky short with heart.

During the Q&A session, some interesting stuff came out.

Like on directing Nicole Kidman (To Die For) -- "Directing Nicole ... there was no directing going on. She already had it." She evidently showed up with 6 months of rehearsing/coaching, and 12-15 exercises per scene.

"She was an anchor, which I've never really had with other actors."

He did say he had his best collaborative relationship was with Phoenix, and mentioned one professional Swedish actor (whose name I'm embarrassed I didn't catch), who would do anything requested, without fear of appearing silly -- which led to this generalization about actors:
"If you ask them to do something that makes them feel silly, only the bravest
will do it."
He compared that to "less professional" (fresh) actors, who don't know it's hard to take themselves someplace, so they just do it.

I really enjoy hearing directors talk about actors, and I took away stuff to watch for, and to have fun with.

Overall, Gus Van Sant was a joy. He was comfortable in his own skin, fun, and very sharing of his experience and philosophies.

Good way to spend an evening.

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