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Film > Reckless Eyeballing

Renaissance director

Gus Van Sant’s private thoughts on a public medium.

Van Sant (r) with Sean Connery.
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Published 12/27/2000

At first glance, the central character of director Gus Van Sant’s latest film, Finding Forrester, has little in common with the outcasts — junkies (Drugstore Cowboy), hustlers (Mala Noche), hippies (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) and strivers (To Die For) — who routinely populate his films. But Van Sant, a true independent, has found a way to bring his outsider’s perspective with him into the mainstream.

In the formulaic Good Will Hunting, Van Sant emphasized the prodigy’s feeling of seeing life with his nose pressed to glass, which made the character’s eventual breakthrough more meaningful. The director’s remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was a lesson in the art of appropriation, shifting the emphasis from shock to empathy with that quintessential loner, Norman Bates.

Now Van Sant focuses on William Forrester (played by Sean Connery), a literary one-hit wonder of the J.D. Salinger school. His sole novel wins the Pulitzer Prize and makes him a celebrity. He responds by retreating from the public eye. But unlike Salinger, who lives in well-documented isolation, Forrester actually shuts himself away in his Bronx apartment, becoming the ultimate literary recluse.

“(William Forrester) was made up in my head of a number of people,” explains Van Sant. “I knew four different writers — Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Ken Kesey and Tom Robbins — that were references for myself: how this guy thought, how his life was, what his stature was as a writer, what his book was like, a Catcher in the Rye crossed with Sometimes a Great Notion.”

The author of the book Pink, a satire on the movie business with “obvious” autobiographical references, Van Sant is familiar with the desire to know the story behind the story.

“I think it’s something that is always intriguing to anyone who is learning about a work,” he says. “Where it comes from is the first thing that we think about. It probably wrecks it if you learn too much about where a particular work comes from. You can find out certain things that make it more ordinary than maybe what you think it is when you’re looking at it and it’s alone. But it is something that you naturally want.”

When it came to a pivotal moment for Forrester — who makes his first public appearance in decades to defend the burgeoning literary reputation of his young protégé — the idiosyncratic Van Sant made an unusual decision: He filmed Forrester reading a letter before a rapt audience along with the expressions of those listening, but instead of hearing those words, all moviegoers hear is music.

“There were words,” he reasons, “but I never felt like we got the words that were really going to blow you away. That’s sort of what was necessary for that scene. For whatever reason, the words that we were always trying to find always seemed so specific, that there was nothing that ever captured your imagination as much as what you thought he was saying. And that’s what the music was there for, for you to put in your own words, and in that way, satisfy everybody as opposed to something that might be seen as for part of the audience and not for another part. It was so subjective that it was a way to use the subjectivity itself by letting people imagine it.”

For Van Sant, a director, writer, painter, photographer and musician whose experimental nature is married to a rigorous discipline acquired making commercials on Madison Avenue, the spark for a film comes in different forms. Generally, he explains, there’s a specific idea he wants to explore, and “sometimes I’ve found literally an image or a drawing that’s first, and you say, ‘I want to make a film about that.’ It’s limited enough information — it’s like a sentence — and it goes hand in hand with something else that’s like a story.”

An example is the repeated motif of a falling house that runs through My Own Private Idaho, which functions almost subliminally to represent the fears of River Phoenix’s homeless narcoleptic hustler.

“That particular image was something that I pulled out of my visual history,” Van Sant says. “I had been painting barns and houses crashing into roads. One of the reasons I think that that’s striking is that there’s a lot of psychic weight placed on that image by me for a long time, so that by the time I made it a three-dimensional image — and since I also wrote the script — it all kind of fused together, and that’s something that you couldn’t really put your finger on (why it worked).”

For someone so familiar with all the elements that go into a film (the medium which absorbs all media), Van Sant loves the time before collaboration, when a film is solely his. Even though his last few films were written by someone else, he has several screenplays completed (originals and adaptations) which await funding.

“My favorite aspect is the writing of the story,” he says, “and everything else is an extension of that. It’s always a give and take and a big negotiation to get the thing done. You’re kind of bargaining with each action. But the writing is always the most interesting because it’s in its purest form. It’s removed from the influence of what’s to come.”

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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