by Emmanuel Olunkwa

Gus Van Sant is a director, painter, and photographer. His films include Mala Noche (1985), My Own Private Idaho (1991), To Die For (1995), and Good Will Hunting (1997). In recent years, he has revisited the form of painting as a narrative medium. In this conversation, we talked about art, fame, and the importance of knowing how to choose the right medium for storytelling.

Emmanuel Olunkwa: What is your relationship to art?

Gus Van Sant: [Laughs.] Geez, I don’t know. Honestly, I think it’s something that we all do when we’re in grade school; there’s art period, everyone’s drawing and on the same page. Everyone is a genius but is also starting out. The artist Cy Twombly emulated a child's naivete, but the thing that children are doing is very hard to reproduce [gestures drawing at the screen with hand]. It’s very hard to do that with a crayon, that’s very abstract, without imposing a style that somehow overcomes you. We learn Math, English and study other subjects in school, but at some point, I must’ve realized that the art part was important. I remember in my early teens I started to make cartoons, like panel cartoons, which is like the most recent NFT I’ve been making, which resembles the language and architecture of a cartoon, which you’ve seen. It resembles the hoity-toity community where I grew up in Connecticut, where we would read The New Yorker Magazine’s cartoons. They didn’t necessarily have paneled cartoons, so I guess Charles Shulz’s Peanuts were also an influence at the time. I was heavily influenced by the mediums my art teacher, who painted with acrylics, knew. We were emulating him, and then I won a prize at a local art show when I was fourteen years old which encouraged me to keep making different kinds of work. Otherwise, I don’t know what shape things would have taken.

EO: How did you go from winning the contest at age fourteen, then going to Rhode Island School of Design for college?

GVS: [Laughs.] Well, I made more paintings and started to get familiar with filmmaking. At the time, in the New York area, painters like Stan Brakhage or [Andy] Warhol, made films as well. Most of the experimental filmmakers at the time originated in other disciplines but used the space of film to explore. I wasn’t ready to commit to any singular medium when I was sixteen, so I played with it all.

EO: You encountered film, experimental film, by way of artists?

GVS: Yes, I was being shown their work in high school. We had this great art teacher Robert Levine, who was very influential on many of us who he taught. There was also an English teacher who showed us movies during class. We watched Citizen Kane, and other experimental works where people would be block printing on film and the images would be more graphic or use different tools and techniques. Through that experience, coupled with a few books I found when working in New York City at sixteen, I was able to map out a vague plan for myself.

EO: Where were you working?

GVS: I was working in the mailroom of a men’s clothing company that my father was a part of at the time. It was the Tishman building at 660 Fifth Avenue, across from the Museum of Modern Art, where you could see some of the works by filmmakers—the painters who were using film as their medium. I started to play with film by scratching into the surface, painting, documenting my friends and just making stuff. By the time it came to apply to school, I just applied to RISD.

EO: Is that the only place you applied to?

GVS: No, and CalArts.

EO: Oh, so you were set on going to an art school.

GVS: I probably would have applied to Pratt and other places, but I got into RISD early decision, and was strongly encouraged to attend.

EO: How did your interests develop while you were there?

GVS: I decided to go for film because when I was touring the school, I ran into one of the assistant teachers, [to whom] I mentioned that I was planning on focusing on painting and film. He was like, “No, you can’t do that.” And I was like, “Why?” Then he said, “Here in the film department, we eat, sleep, and dream film only. All the time.” And I asked, “Why do you do that?” And he said, “because, that’s what it takes.” [Laughs.] The culture at RISD was students mainly doing their thing, and I learned the most from my classmates.

Self-portrait. Gus Van Sant. 1980s. ⓒ Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Gallery.

EO: So, you were at RISD in the 1970s?

GVS: Yes, I just realized that Andre Leon Talley had written an article in our newspaper called RISD After Dark, so we were totally there at the same time. I wasn’t going out to parties and stuff at night, which was the focus for a lot of students.

EO: [Laughs.] What were you doing?

GVS: [Laughs.] I was sleeping because I was making work most of the day. I wasn’t hanging around the RISD bar drinking—some of the kids were hanging downtown at the gay bars. A lot of the fashion kids were wearing their own designs out at night, or watching the deck shows on Saturday afternoons. I was friends with a lot of these people but would just catch up with them and hear about everything so that I didn’t have to go.

EO: When you decided to study film, did you feel like you were making some sort of sacrifice by not honing in on painting too?

GVS: People change their minds a lot in college, so some would start off in architecture but then end up in printmaking, or in graphics; but then you’d end up in fashion, or you'd start in fashion and end up in architecture. There was a lot of movement going on at the school. I had been friends with some of the best painters in the program at the time, and one semester some of them took a trip to New York with their portfolios and slides of their work to show to galleries and had said that it was hopeless getting shows.

EO: Did you graduate in 1970 or start then?

GVS: I started in 1971 and graduated in ’75. These people, who were the best painters at our school, were going into the city in ’73 and ’74 and were coming back saying that, "there wasn’t space for us," in their experience. It wasn’t a good time to be a painter though, and no one knew that the ’80s were about to come around. Painting was a dire thing at the time. You know, I’ve heard Mike Kelley talk about this, and how being a painter (at the time) is like being a janitor—it’s something you can do well, but you don’t get good compensation because of it. That was the atmosphere of that moment in 1974, with him as well, but a lot of students didn’t realize that it didn’t matter what your degree was in but was more about what you wanted to do.

EO: In terms of your practice, it seems like you have a deep emphatic relationship to storytelling.

GVS: Yes, I think storytelling is like art. It’s something that you do as a kid. You grow up learning everything as a story—whether it’s a book, someone telling you stories, or gossip. It’s our main medium as humans. It was hard to get involved in storytelling in film because the visual graphic nature of experimental filmmaking was much more intuitive for me. Writing was hard in the beginning for me in terms of telling my story, which is why I think my first film was a failure. [Laughs.]

EO: I noticed that most of the films that you have made have been adaptations of books. What’s that about?

GVS: Yes, a lot of them are. The first film I made, Alice in Hollywood, was my own creation and story that I wrote. In the end, I felt like maybe I shouldn’t be writing the story.

EO: Why did you feel that way?

GVS: Because the film was so ill received and because nobody–myself included–enjoyed the result. As a story, it was an unsuccessful venture. For the next project, I started by adapting a friend’s novel that he wrote.

EO: So, you knew him personally?

GVS: Yeah, it was a very small production run of a local Oregon publisher. I had worked as a sound man in 1977 on a film called, Property, which was a cool film. Walt [Curtis] was one of the actors in it and he had this book Mala Noche: And Other “Illegal” Advertures, (1997) come out a little earlier, and he was like the Allen Ginsburg of Portland. He was like a Greek philosopher of the streets: the guy pacing the streets and talking to people. He was writing poetry and holding poetry night at the punk bar that later became Satyricon. I asked him if I could adapt it into a film, and he was very suspicious of me but said, “okay.” [Laughs.]

EO: How did you use this film to position yourself?

GVS: The thing that was wrong with the first film, Alice in Hollywood, was that it was a perfectly cool story, but its humor was ham-fisted and dark. With any film that you make, you want to get it showing around at festivals. Usually you’re submitting it to festivals for it to be shown and it didn’t get in anywhere. Mala Noche got into the Berlin Film Festival, and then suddenly it felt like the film was going to be successful in some way. I sent them a VHS tape for submission. There was a new thing cropping up at the time which was Queer Cinema, so Lesbian and Gay film festivals became a thing at that time too. The Los Angeles Lesbian and Gay Film Festival opened with showing Mala Noche, which is what gave me my start in Hollywood.

EO: How old were you?

GVS: Thirty-two or thirty-three, which is pretty old. [Laughs.]

EO: It’s not. [Laughs.]

GVS: Well, I’m seventy now. [Laughs.]

EO: Certain people never die.

GVS: Right, there’s really no such thing as age. 

EO: What did it take to get the film made in terms of financing and planning?

GVS: It took a long time. I had gone back to New York to work with my father for a company that he had after having bombed in Hollywood, so I started working as a temporary secretary and things like that. I ended up getting a job in advertising and then ended up saving money for the next film.

EO: Right, you saved $25,000 for the production.

Charlie Rose. "Gus van Sant"

GVS: Yeah, and the plan was for me to make the film on the Bowery [in New York] of that period, which was the 1980s. I decided to preserve the location and moved it back to Oregon and made it locally. The whole production took a long time. Casting the project was very hard because no one wanted to be in it, so it was difficult finding the characters. Though the project took more than a year to come together, a lot of cool stuff happened to me, like we were able to shoot on the street where he wrote the book, at a local storefront, and in Walt’s apartment which was fantastically strange. The lead up to that though was saving enough money to make the film which took a couple of years.

EO: How do you feel about filmmaking now? In terms when you were first exposed to it, what it took, and how people can make it now.

GVS: It’s crazy now because you can make it on your phone, edit on your computer, and do everything almost for free. Back then, you could use your video tape recorder but there was almost no one to do it except for using film which was expensive and more cumbersome. Editing was also very physical, which is nice, and now you have a studio in your camera on your phone, which is very odd.

EO: I agree. I always joke that I grew up with the internet because as it’s developed over the last few decades I was coming into consciousness. It’s quite simple in terms of how these innovations have change the quality of our life. I’ve been thinking about this explicitly in terms of my use of the dictionary and thesaurus. It’s wild how we can Google definitions for words in seconds, when growing up I would have to page through and spend time with the book to expand my understanding of language.

GVS: It’s crazy.

Amet Parturient Mattis

Gus Van Sant, Untitled (Hollywood 7), 2019, watercolor on linen. 84 x 66 inches (213.4 x 167.6 cm). ⓒ Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Gallery.

Gus Van Sant. Untitled (Hollywood 17), 2018 - 2019, watercolor on linen. 84 x 66 inches (213.4 x 167.6 cm). ⓒ Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Gallery.

Gus Van Sant. Untitled (Hollywood 12), 2019, watercolor on linen. 84 x 66 inches (213.4 x 167.6 cm). ⓒ Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Gallery.

EO: It changes how you move through information if you know how to ask good questions, and the answers that you’re met with know no bounds. I want to talk about you coming up with this LBGT film canon. Do you feel like you made films tethered to that genre because that’s how you were identified?

GVS: Though I submitted the film for the queer division of the Berlin Film Festival, it wasn’t on my mind when I was making the film. I was part of the gay community in New York before I left to go to Oregon with other gay filmmakers and activists from RISD, who were apart of the environment that I was coming from. I did notice that there were some gay festivals in the early ’80s filled with Tennessee Williams adaptations made in the ’50s, or Dutch, Swedish, Danish, or Spanish films, but there were hardly any U.S. films. I did notice that, but I don’t think I was working in that direction. I was focused on trying to make something that was true to myself.

EO: What do you think that was?

GVS: I thought of myself as a gay bohemian and that’s what Walt was.

EO: [Laughs.] How would you describe a bohemian? Someone recently told me I was bohemian.

GVS: [Laughs.] It means you’re an avant-garde host and live on the left bank, in French terms. I think the people that I was interested in like William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac; they could be called Bohemian.

EO: Why were you so drawn to adapting novels and stories?

GVS: Right. Good Will Hunting, (1997) was a screenplay, but a lot of these stories found me. With Mala Noche, (1985) I was given the book on set by the director. He handed it to me and then said, “This is the book that Walt wrote, and that’s who he is over there!” I still have the book. With Drugstore Cowboy,(1989) a friend had the unpublished novel; he had been introduced to inmates in Oregon who had been writing. His instructor, who was the author of Birdman of Alcatraz, was working with a lot of inmates to help them get their manuscripts to publishers. He had this manuscript about his life as a career criminal and thief that had become involved in drugs because that’s what he had been stealing and dealing, and it was a manuscript that I adopted. The original one is My Own Private Idaho, (1991) which had come out of a lot of things that I had written at the time from other source material.

EO: I read that there was a bit that you wrote referencing Shakespeare.

Gus Van Sant. Mona Lisa #4, 2021, oil on canvas. 73 x 59 inches (185.4 x 149.9 cm) ⓒ Gus Van Sant; Photo by Flying Studio; Courtesy the artist and Vito Schnabel Gallery.

GVS: Yes, there’s a section in it that’s adapted from Shakespeare. The middle part is, but the concept of the film is half Shakespeare, and [half] real stories and experiences in Oregon. To Die For, (1995) is a book, which was adapted by Buck Henry, and Even Cowboys Get the Blues, (1993) is a bestseller that was one of my favorite books that I adapted. Then came Good Will Hunting, (1997) right after To Die For, and that was a script that Miramax had bought while I was New York, and I knew the guy whose job it was to buy films that existed, and he told me about the script. I knew Matt Damon because he came in to audition for the character Jimmy in To Die For, but was a little too old, and he really tried hard. He lost a lot of weight to portray a high school kid. He was a great actor and my producer thought he was a star when he wasn’t a star. When I was really drawn to the script, I immediately liked the concept. I like stories about people who are secretly intelligent. A story about someone who worked as a janitor but also possessed this secret or personal truth was enchanting. I like that this guy still had very intense problems that he couldn’t deal with, even though he was smart. The way that they wrote it was amazing; their inspirations were things like Rocky, (1976) and First Blood, (1982) and they were into very commercial films, but they put a lot of their lives into the script. For instance, Ben Affleck’s dad was a janitor and did have problems he couldn’t overcome, and that fed the real story of them growing up as poor kids in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

EO: How did storytelling become your doctoring mandate in terms of how you approach film?

GVS: I was inspired by people like William S. Burroughs. He didn’t write Naked Lunch, (1959) with the intention that he was going to write a book. The story is that [Allen] Ginsburg and [Jack] Kerouac gathered all of the papers that were around [Burroughs'] apartment that they thought were fantastic that [he] was just writing on his own. They weren’t meant to be anything. They were notes to himself, some writings, and letters to other people. He was very experimental in his form of writing. With thinkers like Marshall McLuhan, and the period of the 60s, it’s really coming from that period why these guys were reading the world in a fantastical yet science-fiction way.

EO: Why McLuhan?

GVS: Because his interpretation of media itself was so intense. He was right on that it was a description of modern communication. To me, it related in a weird way to what Burroughs was doing.

EO: What was the media at the time?

GVS: The medium was the message—it could be a book, movie, or record. When you’re looking at Last Days, (2005) the medium is the message.

EO: If the message was the medium; what did you think the message of movies was at that moment?

GVS: McLuhan can be interpreted in so many ways. He’s saying that the medium can be used to present the message—that’s the story. It’s simple. The structure of the medium itself is the message. The flashy image on the screen and the technology is the message. It’s not about the actual story, the story is what the technology is using as a vehicle.