Gus Van Sant

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Gus Van Sant
Van Sant at a screening of Paranoid Park, December 2007
Born Gus Green Van Sant, Jr.
(1952-07-24) July 24, 1952 (age 62)
Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.
Residence Portland, Oregon, U.S.
Occupation Film director
Years active 1982–present
Notable work Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting, My Own Private Idaho, Milk, Elephant, Psycho, Finding Forrester

Gus Green Van Sant, Jr.[1] (born July 24, 1952) is an American film director, screenwriter, painter, photographer, musician and author. He is a two-time nominee of the Academy Award for Best Director—for the drama Good Will Hunting (1997) and the biopic Milk (2008), both of which were also nominated for Best Picture. He won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his drama Elephant (2003), which was inspired by the Columbine High School massacre.[2] He lives in Portland, Oregon.

His early career was devoted to directing television commercials in the Pacific Northwest. In his films, he has dealt with themes concerning homosexuality and other marginalized subcultures. His filmography as writer and director includes the 1993 comedy-drama-romance film adaptation of Tom Robbins' 1976 novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which features a diverse cast (Keanu Reeves, Roseanne Barr, Uma Thurman and k.d. lang, with cameos by William S. Burroughs and Heather Graham, among others); and the indie drama My Own Private Idaho (1991), also starring Reeves as well as River Phoenix.

He wrote the screenplays for most of his early movies, and wrote one novel, Pink.[3] A book of his photography has also been published, called 108 Portraits.[4]

Early life[edit]

Van Sant was born in Louisville, Kentucky, United States (US), the son of Betty (née Seay) and Gus Green Van Sant, Sr; Gus Van Sant's father was a clothing manufacturer[1] and traveling salesman who rapidly worked his way into middle class prosperity. As a result of his father's job, the family moved continually during Van Sant's childhood.

Van Sant is an alumnus of Darien High School in Connecticut, US,[5] and The Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon, US.[6] One constant in the director's early years was his interest in visual arts (namely, painting and Super-8 filmmaking); while still in school he began making semi-autobiographical shorts costing between 30 and 50 dollars. Van Sant's artistic leanings took him to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970,[7] where his classmates included David Byrne and other members of Talking Heads. It was also at RISD that Van Sant received an introduction to avant-garde directors like Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol; this introduction quickly inspired him to change his major from painting to cinema.

Early career (1978–1989)[edit]

After spending time in Europe, Van Sant went to Los Angeles in 1976.[8] He secured a job as a production assistant to writer/director Ken Shapiro, with whom he developed a few ideas, none of which came to fruition. In 1981, Van Sant made Alice in Hollywood, a film about a naïve young actress who goes to Hollywood and abandons her ideals. It was never released. During this period, Van Sant began to spend time observing the denizens of the more down-and-out sections of Hollywood Boulevard. He became fascinated by the existence of this marginalized section of L.A.'s population, especially in context with the more ordinary, prosperous world that surrounded them. Van Sant would repeatedly focus his work on those existing on society's fringes, beginning with his 1985 film Mala Noche.

Mala Noche was made two years after Van Sant went to New York to work in an advertising agency. He saved $20,000 during his tenure there, enabling him to finance the majority of his tale of doomed love between a gay liquor store clerk and a Mexican immigrant. The film, which was taken from Portland street writer Walt Curtis' semi-autobiographical novella, featured some of the director's hallmarks, notably an unfulfilled romanticism, a dry sense of the absurd, and the refusal to treat homosexuality as something deserving of judgment. Unlike many gay filmmakers, Van Sant—who had long been openly gay—declined to use same-sex relationships as fodder for overtly political statements, although such relationships would frequently appear in his films.

Shot in black-and-white, Mala Noche earned its director almost overnight acclaim on the festival circuit, with the Los Angeles Times naming it the year's Best Independent Film.[9] The film's success attracted Hollywood interest, and Van Sant was briefly courted by Universal; the courtship ended after Van Sant pitched a series of project ideas (including what would later become Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho) that the studio declined to take interest in.

Van Sant moved back to Portland, Oregon, where he set up house and began giving life to the ideas rejected by Universal. With the assistance of independent production company Avenue, the director made Drugstore Cowboy, his 1989 film about four drug addicts who rob pharmacies to support their habit. Cowboy met with great critical success; in addition to furthering Van Sant's reputation as a gifted director, it helped to revive the career of Matt Dillon, who played the junkie leader of the gang.

Indie and arthouse success (1990–1995)[edit]

Drugstore Cowboy's exploration of the lives of those living on society's outer fringes, as well as its Portland setting, were mirrored in Van Sant's next effort, the similarly acclaimed My Own Private Idaho (1991). Only with the success of Cowboy was Van Sant now given license to make Idaho (a project he had originally pitched but was knocked back several times as the script was deemed 'too risky' by studios). Now New Line Cinema had given Van Sant the green light, he was on a mission to get the Idaho script to his first choices for his two young leads. After months of struggle with agents and managers over the content of the script, Van Sant finally secured River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in the roles of Mike Waters and Scott Favor. Centering around the dealings of two male hustlers (played by Phoenix and Reeves), the film was a compelling examination of unrequited love, alienation, and the concept of family (a concept Van Sant repeatedly explores in his films). The film won him an Independent Spirit Award for his screenplay (he had won the same award for his Drugstore Cowboy screenplay), as well as greater prestige. The film also gained River Phoenix best actor honors at the Venice Film Festival among others. In addition, it helped Reeves—previously best known for his work in the Bill and Ted movies—to get the critical respect that had previously eluded him.

Van Sant's next project, a 1993 adaptation of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, was an excessive flop, both commercially and critically. Featuring an unusually large budget (for Van Sant, at least) of $8.5 million and a large, eclectic cast including Uma Thurman, John Hurt, Keanu Reeves and a newcomer in the form of River Phoenix's younger sister Rain (at Phoenix's suggestion), the film was worked and then reworked, but the finished product nonetheless resulted in something approaching a significant disaster.

Van Sant's 1995 film To Die For helped to restore his luster. An adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel, the black comedy starred Nicole Kidman as a murderously ambitious weather girl; it also featured Van Sant favorite Matt Dillon as her hapless husband and, the third Phoenix sibling in as many projects, Joaquin Phoenix, as her equally hapless lover (River had died from a drug overdose a year and half earlier). It was Van Sant's first effort for a major studio (Columbia), and its success paved the way for further projects of the director's choosing. The same year, he served as executive producer for Larry Clark's Kids; it was a fitting assignment, due to both the film's subject matter and the fact that Clark's photographs of junkies had served as reference points for Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy.

Mainstream breakout (1997–2003)[edit]

In 1997, Van Sant gained mainstream acceptance thanks to Good Will Hunting, starring and written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The film—about a troubled, blue-collar mathematical genius—was a huge critical and commercial success. In addition to taking in more than $220 million worldwide, it received a number of Academy Award nominations, including a Best Director nomination for Van Sant. It won a Best Screenplay Oscar for Damon and Affleck, and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Robin Williams, who, in his acceptance speech, referred to Van Sant as "the mellowest man in Hollywood." Van Sant, Damon and Affleck parodied themselves and the film's success in Kevin Smith's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

The success of Good Will Hunting afforded Van Sant the opportunity to remake the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho. As opposed to reinterpreting the 1960 film, Van Sant opted to recreate the film shot-for-shot, in color, with a cast of young Hollywood A-listers. His decision was met with equal parts curiosity, skepticism, and derision from industry insiders and outsiders alike, and the finished result met with a similar reception. Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, and Julianne Moore, Psycho was ultimately met with a negative critical reception and did poorly at the box office. However, Van Sant was not deterred by this, and was soon busy again with a number of projects. In addition to directing, he also devoted considerable energy to releasing two albums and publishing a novel, Pink, which was a thinly veiled exploration of his grief over River Phoenix's 1993 death.

Van Sant fared somewhat better with 2000's Finding Forrester, a drama about a high-school student from the Bronx (Rob Brown) who becomes unlikely friends with a crusty, reclusive author (Sean Connery). Critical response was mixed but generally positive.[10]

Return to arthouse cinema (2003–present) [edit]

Van Sant, longing to return to more intimate production methods, decided to leave behind big-budget studio filmmaking for his next two features. Inspired by the works of Hungarian director Bela Tarr and American maverick John Cassavetes,[citation needed] Van Sant retreated to the deserts of Argentina, Utah, and Death Valley for 2002's Gerry, a loosely devised, largely improvised feature in which stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck—both playing characters named Gerry—wander through the desert, discussing Wheel of Fortune, video games, and nothing in particular. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the film earned as much derision as it did praise, polarizing audiences with its elliptical, purposefully uneventful storyline, punctuated by cinematographer Harris Savides' stunning landscape photography.[citation needed]

It took Gerry over a year to make it to theaters, in which time Van Sant began production on his next film, the controversial Elephant. Approached by HBO and producer Diane Keaton to craft a fictional film based on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, the director chose to shoot in his hometown of Portland, employing dozens of untrained teen actors to chronicle an "ordinary" high-school day—albeit one underlined by an unexpected tragedy. As well as melding improvisational long takes like those in Gerry with Savides' fluid camerawork, the film was also influenced by Alan Clarke's 1989 film of the same name (see Elephant). The finished film provoked strong reactions from audiences at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, who either embraced or rejected Van Sant's aesthetic decision not to offer a definitive rationale for his characters' homicidal tendencies. The consensus from the Cannes jury was unanimous, however: in a surprise decision, they awarded Elephant with their top prize, the Palme d'Or, and Van Sant with his first Best Director statue from the festival.[2] The success of Elephant led Van Sant to show the U.S. premiere of Elephant as a fundraiser for Outside In, an organization working to help youth living on the streets of Portland, Oregon.

In 2005, Van Sant released Last Days, the final component of what he refers to as his "Death Trilogy," (the other parts being Gerry and Elephant). It is a fictionalized account of what happened to Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in the days leading up to his death. In 2006, Van Sant began work on Paranoid Park based on the book by Blake Nelson, about a skateboarding teenager who accidentally causes someone's death. The film was released in Europe in February 2008. He also directed the "Le Marais" segment of the omnibus film Paris, je t'aime. Released in 2008, his feature film Milk is a biopic of openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978, played by Sean Penn. The film was released to much acclaim and earned numerous accolades from film critics and guilds. Ultimately, it received eight Oscar nominations at the 81st Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning two for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Penn and Best Original Screenplay for writer Dustin Lance Black. Van Sant was nominated for Best Director.[11][12] Van Sant later stated that his experience with Sean Penn on the film was "amazing".[13]

Van Sant's 2011 project Restless[14] was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.[15][16]

Van Sant's film, Promised Land, the director's latest work as of December 2012, was released on December 28, 2012.[17] The film stars Frances McDormand, Matt Damon, and John Krasinski—the latter two co-wrote the screenplay based on a story by Dave Eggers. Filmed in April 2012, the production company, Focus Features, selected the release date so that the film is eligible to qualify for awards consideration.[18][19]

Van Sant's next film, entitled Sea of Trees, will star Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe. The film tells the story of a man who travels to the infamous suicide forest in Japan to kill himself, only to encounter another man wishing to kill himself as well with whom embarks on a spiritual journey. His next project will be the American live action version of Death Note.[20]

In media[edit]

Van Sant has released two musical albums: Gus Van Sant and 18 Songs About Golf. The Broken Social Scene song, "Art House Director", is supposedly about Van Sant, a connection discussed by a Singaporean fan on the internet.[21] Van Sant plays himself in episodes of the HBO series Entourage and the IFC series Portlandia.

Van Sant directed the pilot for the Starz television program Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer. Van Sant went onto The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast to discuss filmmaking, writing, film history and their collaborations that never got made (The Golden Suicides) and the one that did (The Canyons).[22]

Awards and nominations[edit]

  • Finding Forrester (2000)
    • Berlin Film Festival Prize of the Guild of German Art House Cinemas


Feature films[edit]

Year Film Credited Director Credited Producer Credited Writer Grossed Rotten Tomatoes
1985 Mala Noche Yes Yes Yes 95%
1989 Drugstore Cowboy Yes Yes $4,729,352 100%
1991 My Own Private Idaho Yes Yes $6,401,336 86%
1993 Even Cowgirls Get the Blues Yes Yes Yes $1,708,873 22%
1995 To Die For Yes $21,284,514 87%
1997 Good Will Hunting Yes $225,933,435 97%
1998 Psycho Yes Yes $37,141,130 37%
2000 Finding Forrester Yes $80,701,064 73%
2002 Gerry Yes Yes $236,266 61%
2003 Elephant Yes Yes $10,020,543 71%
2005 Last Days Yes Yes Yes $2,456,454 57%
2007 Paranoid Park Yes Yes $4,545,747 77%
2008 Milk Yes $54,586,584 94%
2011 Restless Yes Yes $163,265 37%
2012 Promised Land Yes $8,138,788 51%
2015 Sea of Trees Yes
TBA Death Note Yes

Short films[edit]

  • Fun with a Bloodroot (1967) 2 min 20 sec, 8 mm color
  • The Happy Organ (1971) 20 min, 16 mm black and white
  • Little Johnny (1972) 40 sec, 16 mm black and white
  • 1/2 of a Telephone Conversation (1973) 2 min, 16 mm black and white
  • Late Morning Start (1975) 28 min, 16 mm color
  • The Discipline of DE (1978) 9 min, 16 mm black and white, adaptation of William S. Burroughs' short story, narrated by Ken Shapiro
  • Alice in Hollywood (1981) 45 min, 16 mm color
  • My Friend (1982) 3 min, 16 mm black and white
  • Where'd She Go? (1983) 3 min, 16 mm color
  • Nightmare Typhoon (1984) 9 min, 16 mm black and white
  • My New Friend (1984) 3 min, 16 mm color
  • Ken Death Gets Out of Jail (1985) 3 min, 16 mm black and white
  • Five Ways to Kill Yourself (1986) 3 min, 16 mm black and white
  • Thanksgiving Prayer (1991) 2 min, 35 mm color, written by and starring William S. Burroughs
  • Four Boys in a Volvo (1996) 4min, color
  • Paris, je t'aime (2006) segment "Le Marais"
  • To Each His Own Cinema (2007) segment "First Kiss" (3 min)
  • 8 (2008) segment "Mansion on the Hill"[27]
  • Nicaverna (2014) 9 min, 16 mm black and white

Music videos[edit]

Executive producer[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b film reference (2012). "Gus Van Sant Biography (1952?-)". film reference. Advameg, Inc. Retrieved August 15, 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Festival de Cannes: Elephant". Retrieved 2009-11-05. 
  3. ^ Gus Van Sant, Pink, Faber & Faber, 1998, ISBN 0-385-49353-3
  4. ^ Gus Van Sant, 108 Portraits, Twin Palms Pub., 1993, ISBN 0-944092-22-5
  5. ^ "Darien High School". Public School Review. Public School Review. 2003–2012. Retrieved September 24, 2012. 
  6. ^ "Gus Van Sant- Biography". Yahoo! Movies. Yahoo!, Inc. 2012. Retrieved September 24, 2012. 
  7. ^ "Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)". Campus Explorer. Campus Explorer, Inc. 2012. Retrieved September 24, 2012. 
  8. ^ "Gus van Sant". The New York Times. 
  9. ^ "Gus Van Sant : Biography". Retrieved 2014-08-04. 
  10. ^ "Finding Forrester". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2010-12-06. 
  11. ^ Andy Towle (23 February 2009). "Milk Picks Up Two Big Oscars as Slumdog Dominates Academy Awards". Towleroad. Towleroad. Retrieved August 15, 2012. 
  12. ^ Greg Hernandez (January 22, 2009). ""Milk" gets EIGHT Academy Award nominations....". Out in Hollywood with Greg Hernandez. Los Angeles Newspaper group. Retrieved August 15, 2012. 
  13. ^ Gus Van Sant (2010). "MADONNA". Interview, Inc. Retrieved August 15, 2012. 
  14. ^ Leffler, Rebecca (April 13, 2011). "Gus Van Sant's 'Restless' to Open Cannes Un Certain Regard". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved April 13, 2011. 
  15. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Official Selection". Cannes. Retrieved 2011-04-14. 
  16. ^ Fleming, Mike (February 1, 2012). "Focus, Participant Acquire Matt Damon/John Krasinski Film; Gus Van Sant Directing". 
  17. ^ Gerhardt, Tina (December 31, 2012). "Matt Damon Exposes Fracking in Promised Land". The Progressive. 
  18. ^ Eric Eisenberg (23 August 2012). "Gus Van Sant's Promised Land, Starring Matt Damon, Gets A Release Date". Cinema Blend. Cinema Blend LLC. Retrieved December 19, 2012. 
  19. ^ Matt Goldberg (23 August 2012). "Gus Van Sant's PROMISED LAND Gets into Awards Race; Release Dates Announced for DreamWorks Animation Pictures". IndieClick Film Network. Retrieved December 19, 2012. 
  20. ^ Kit, Boris. "Matthew McConaughey to Star in Gus Van Sant's 'Sea of Trees'". The Hollywood Reporter ( Retrieved March 18, 2014. 
  21. ^ Mayo Martin (29 July 2010). "Broken Social Scene hangs out with local bands! The latter left speechless!". Poparazzi. Poparazzi. Retrieved August 22, 2012. 
  22. ^ "Bret Easton Ellis Podcast". Retrieved 2014-08-04. 
  24. ^ "Berlinale: 1998 Prize Winners". Retrieved 2012-01-16. 
  25. ^ Festival de Cannes (2005). "LAST DAYS". Festival de Cannes. Festival de Cannes. Retrieved August 22, 2012. 
  26. ^ Festival de Cannes (2007). "PARANOID PARK". Festival de Cannes. Festival de Cannes. Retrieved August 22, 2012. 
  27. ^ Unknown. "Biography". Gus Van Sant. Geocities. Archived from the original on October 26, 2009. Retrieved August 17, 2012. 
  28. ^ Alex S. Garcia (1998–2012). "Gus van Sant". Alex S. Garcia. Retrieved August 17, 2012.  Note that Chris Isaak's Solitary Man (1993) was not directed by Van Sant but by Larry Clark.

External links[edit]