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

The indie heavyweight suggests that he hasn’t stopped drifting himself and that he too continues to look for that elusive “thing.”

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

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.

Well, are you open to the existential and metaphorical readings?

Yeah, because the reason we called it the “thing” was so you could read into it. Tying it down would have eliminated different ways to go.

Béla Tarr. How did you discover his work?

I had never seen [any of] his movies but I read a review of Werckmeister Harmonies in Variety. They really loved it and they called him one of the true visionaries working in cinema. That was all I needed to hear. Scott Macaulay, who works at Forensic Films, was over at my house and told me that Sátántangó was playing at BAM that weekend. It was exactly what I needed to see at that exact moment in my life. It also summed up some things that I’d been thinking about for a long time and been influenced by but never put to use. The film was accomplishing those things, and a lot of that had to do with the timing of the story and how long he would take to describe certain actions that are simple yet the more you watch them the more they grow in their illumination. It was very inspirational.

The hallucination sequence where Casey is talking to Matt reminded me of a scene at the end of Werckmeister Harmonies because of the specific way the camera was crawling.

Yeah, the hospital sequence. [pause] The scene where they are walking up the canyon and tumbleweed is blowing by them is a Sátántangó shot where the bad guys are first walking down the street.

Did you always have in mind the music you were going to use?

Yeah, we always wanted to use Arvo Pärt, but that was because we had it with us when we shot the film.

What’s the name of the piece where Casey and Matt are walking through the desert at the end?

You mean the sound effects?

Yeah.

That was just something we constructed—it wasn’t a musical recording. It was like musique concrète. They were made of different loops that we’d made on the set.

How do you feel about people walking out on the film?

I haven’t really seen them. I’ve seen a few people walk out at the really big screenings. The same thing could happen at a Good Will Hunting screening. Gerry isn’t a film for everyone. At Sundance, people were looking for something to buy. Here was something that made their decision harder. They’re not looking at the film as an audience but as a buyer. I’ve actually been satisfied by the low number of walkouts. If people are looking for a particular thing and they don’t see it, they get angry.

What are your thoughts about the characters in Gerry being the same person?

There are people that have talked about that. That was never an idea that I had, and I don’t know if there is a lot of support for that.

It’s kind of strange how Casey got up on that rock and how he comes across as a weaker version of Matt’s character. But what about the homoerotic nature of their relationship? Do you think these elements are there?

Are they there for you?

Not at first. But then there’s the scene where Matt is strangling Casey at the end. A fellow critic who’s straight-as-an-arrow thought they were making out.

[laughs] A lot of things that happened in the film were constructed by Matt and Casey. I would observe them and think, “No, I don’t think that’s going to work.” But generally I would never say that—only if it was really horrible. And even if I did say something I would ask them if they had any objections. Usually I want the actor to do a scene the way they want it. I go with a lot of first choices, even if it means erasing what I had in my own mind. As long as they don’t bounce out of character. That particular scene always did look like there was something sexual going on. I don’t think it needed to be that way. It was near to the last thing that we shot and everything kind of leads up to that moment. We had gone through the process of how the scene was going to go and by the time we were at the end and they did it that way I thought, “It kind of looks like Matt’s kissing him.” I could see that on the set.

Were you worried at all?

Well, I had to consider it. Is it bad? Is it good? Does he know? Because if you tell actors that it looks like they’re making out, they may freak out or maybe they won’t care depending on who they are. But you usually don’t need to comment about what things look like unless you need results from what your comments are. You don’t need to announce to everyone, “You look very feminine when you put down that pencil.”

I just assumed they were tired and they were just rolling over each other.

Right. Everything was really slow in that particular moment. I’m take what I can get and try to figure out how it fits into the movie—as opposed to changing the moment so it can fit into the movie I think I’m making. The same goes for a lot of other things in my life. I get a lot of better results if I don’t try to manipulate things. Like if someone calls you and says “let’s meet tomorrow at nine” and you then go “okay” and then someone else calls you and says “let’s meet tomorrow at nine” and you go “okay” and then you just wait and then the first person calls you back and goes “I can’t meet at nine, let’s meet at twelve” and you go “okay.” That’s the story of my life. I mean, that’s an extreme example. I probably would have said, “I already have a meeting at nine.”

What if no one calls to cancel?

Well, it’s an extreme example. I would tell them I have a meeting at nine. But it feels like the world is giving you all these things and if you try and jump in and manipulate it, all of a sudden it’s canceled anyway. I have better results not trying to manipulate the real world. An actor acting a scene is not the real world, but an actor’s interpretation of the real world. But, then again, I get better results by not playing with that interpretation right off the bat. When I was younger, I would break out in a cold sweat because it was so different from what I intended. And I would coerce them into going in a certain direction.

How so?

Well, we just made this film recently called Elephant, about high school violence in Portland, Oregon, where I worked with non-professional actors. They were processing film in tanks and one character asks the other students where they took their pictures. And then he’d start talking to this girl, who had also brought her pictures in for developing. They were really flirting with each other so we did another take where I asked them not to talk to each other or be so cheery. In the end, I’d gone in and manipulated the scene and screwed it up. I ended up using the first scene. Usually I have better results with stuff that I’m dealt. It’s like this Japanese principle that proclaims “first thought, best thought.”

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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