Interview: Gus Van Sant Talks Gerry, Béla Tarr, J.T. Leroy, and More

Interview: Gus Van Sant Talks Gerry, Béla Tarr, J.T. Leroy, and More

 

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Gus Van Sant’s wildly divisive Gerry premiered last year at the Sundance Film Festival but was easily overshadowed by an unusually stalwart lineup which included Memento, Donnie Darko, and In the Bedroom. One year later, Gerry has snagged a distributor (ThinkFilm) and slithers into theaters poised to alienate prepubescent girls eager to see “the new Matt Damon film.” The film casts Damon and Ben Affleck’s younger brother Casey as drifters lost in a nameless desert landscape in search of “the thing.” The film’s arresting visuals, minimal use of dialogue and relentless pacing owe plenty to Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, whose legendary Sátántangó is a major point of reference. Damon and Affleck’s search for enlightenment amid endless wilderness trails brings to mind Van Sant’s own travels through the years, which have taken him from the gritty splendor of works like Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho to the Hollywood success of Good Will Hunting. Van Sant’s laid back approach to the world brings to mind the disembodied poetry of Beat godfathers William S. Burroughs (who appeared in the director’s Drugstore Cowboy) and Jack Kerouac, who equally engaged Buddhist thought throughout his life and career. Gerry is a return-to-form for Van Sant but the indie heavyweight suggests that he hasn’t stopped drifting himself and that he too continues to look for that elusive “thing.”

First off, great film!

Oh, thanks!

I hope you’ve been hearing that a lot.

When did you see it?

About a month ago. I was a little worried because of all the walkouts I’d heard about.

Were there a lot of walkabouts at the screening you were at?

There were around 15 people there and I think there were three walkouts.

That’s not too bad.

But it’s a critic’s screening! You expect more from them, especially if they’re there to review it.

Yeah.

I was there with two other people. We were a little distracted in the beginning because we were trying to figure out where we’d heard the Arvo Pärt piece that opens the film. Halfway through I remembered Tom Tykwer used it in Heaven.

Really? Also Swept Away.

That would explain why my friend knew he’d heard the song too. He hadn’t seen Heaven.

Did you see Swept Away?

Yeah.

Didn’t it play for like two days? [Laughs] Now that I know that the Arvo Pärt piece was in there, I’m happy that Swept Away wasn’t a big hit because we would have ended up looking like “the film that used the song from the Madonna movie.” I didn’t think the movie was that bad.

So where did the idea for Gerry first come about?

The idea was from a news item about two guys who’d been lost and how one had killed the other. That was an inspirational aside. Also from other stories of people who’ve been lost, and my own accounts of being lost.

I think there was a 20/20 exposé on what happened between those guys.

Someone told me they read something about it but I actually never saw anything about it. We purposefully didn’t investigate it because we didn’t want to do their story. I’m not sure that we could have ever gotten their story anyway. Two guys went in and one came out—you really only have one side of the events. It’s like being a golfer and hitting a hole-in-one—you have to have two witnesses. We didn’t want to use that literally as the source of the story but it was definitely an influence. And I understood from being lost myself that this was an intriguing concept.

How did Casey and Matt first come to be involved with the production?

We wanted to do something together. The first time I heard the story was from Matt. I had some money for a project that didn’t have to be anything—it didn’t have to have cast or script approval. So I thought that Gerry could be financed with that money.

How collaborative was the project from the beginning?

We started thinking about it when Casey and I were next-door neighbors and Matt had just moved to New York to redo an apartment. They started joking about how they’d play these characters; we started off with two characters that resembled Beavis and Butthead and ended up with people that resembled Casey and Matt themselves. We constructed an outline and I was really interested in how that outline evolved. Casey and Matt were alone a lot of the time, developing scenes like the rock scene. And then we reunited in Argentina five days before the shoot. It was in those five days we came up with the script.

It was a short shoot, correct?

Twenty-four days.

Was it grueling?

Yeah. In the end it was because we ended up in Death Valley. I’ve never been outside in weather like that. It was very interesting, almost good for you as long as you didn’t get sun-stroked. We had to drink a lot of water. It was kind of like being in a sauna all day.

Did you have to drive in everyday?

We were staying there.

How deliberate a return-to-form was Gerry after Good Will Hunting, Psycho and Finding Forrester?

I don’t know if it was deliberate. Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester were actually deliberate moves away from the way I was making movies. Gerry was the type of movie that I was always making or thinking about making. Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester were jobs I signed onto. Gerry wasn’t a deliberate departure because I was never really there in the first place.

Are you still working on adapting J.T. Leroy’s Sarah?

No, I’m not. I think the guy who did Secretary has optioned it. When I did have the option, I was unable to put together the money that I needed. I was looking for about $6 million, which can be big for some people and small for others. It really never came together.

What is your experience like working on a film?

I think it just depends on the project. Specifically Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, I was doing things that I probably wouldn’t write normally. But I was doing them because I wanted to see what it would be like to do them—just as a curiosity. They read like “feel good” Hollywood movies but they had some hardship within them. There was an honesty, morality and trust within the characters. But I didn’t know if I could pull that off because I had always made films about anti-heroes.

Speaking of anti-heroes, there’s a running theme in all your films: these anti-heroes obsessively in pursuit of objects of affection that are slightly out of reach. In Gerry, they’re looking for something but you don’t know what it is.

I always thought the “thing” was some kind of cave drawing, but some people think of the “thing” as something existential or metaphorical, so the “thing” now stands for lots of different things. But they’re on a wilderness trail, so I just assumed they were going to see rock formations or cave drawings.

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