Indie Icons: Gus Van Sant
Gus Van Sant is an American film director, screenwriter, musician, and author. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky July 24th 1952. Through his childhood he was moved around a lot by his fathers job so nothing maintained constant or stable except for his passions in painting and film making. Starting at a young age, Van Sant created many extremely low budget short films. In 1970, he went to the Rhode Island School of Design as an art major but soon changed his major to cinema.
In 1976 he moved to Los Angeles and became a production assistant to Ken Shapiro. Through his time in California he became enamored by Hollywood Boulevard and the exclusiveness of the people who inhabited it. His first budget film, costing approximately $20,000, called Mala Noche that focused on a homosexual love story was named by the Los Angeles Times Best Independent Film of the year. With this movies success, Van Sant he was hired by Universal briefly but left them to move to Portland, Oregon and there created Drugstore Cowboy in 1989.
In 1991 Van Sant proposed his idea for My Own Private Idaho that New Line Cinema agreed to fund. With River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves playing two hustlers in a story about love and isolation, this movie won the independent Spirit Award and more prestige in the filmmakers community. His next film Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was produced in 1993 with an $8.5 million budget, which was considerably large for Van Sant but unfortunately, was a huge flop in most eyes. However in 1995 his film To Die For brought him back from disaster and helped move him forward.
In 1997 Gus Van Sant produced Good Will Hunting, which was written and starred by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Hunting was awarded with a Best Screenplay Oscar for Damon and Affleck as well as a Best Director Academy Award nomination for Van Sant. Over all grossing more than $220 million worldwide it was a huge success for him.
- Good Will Hunting
Good Will Hunting is the story of 20-year-old Will Hunting who is a self-taught genius with a terrible past of foster families and beatings. The movie is about his struggle to trust people and let anyone into his life because of serious trust issues. When he gets into some trouble with the law he is bailed out by a highly renowned math professor at MIT who believes in his ability but sends Will to therapy due to his issues. Will goes through five therapists with little interest but then ends up in Sean’s office. Sean, being an unconventional psychology professor at a local community college, grows an interest in helping Will come out of his defensive shell. Through the movie Will slowly grows to respect Sean and understand his own issues with society. I thought this movie was amazing and interesting because of the parry set up between Will and the other characters he interacts with.
With music by Danny Elfman, one of my favorite composers, setting the tone, Gus Van Sant creates intricate and interesting scenarios these characters exist within. Van Sant uses both close ups and over the shoulder shots with both handheld and stationary camera use to make an array of visually stimulating scenes. The one thing that irritated me was the “Hollywood ending” where the guy gets in the car and rides off to find the girl of his dreams. Although this is a feel good ending and a heartwarming concept its very typical and somewhat cliché. Overall I think that Good Will Hunting is a movie well worth seeing as it is relatable and deep while also being very enjoyable.
Gus Van Sant went on to direct many more “mainstream” movies till around 2003 when he decided to go back to more an independent film style. Gerry was premiered at Sundance Film Festival and got a lot of praise and interest but made it to theaters more than a year later. At that point Van Sant was already working on an HBO special portraying a fictional version of the Columbine massacre called Elephant, which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and awarded the Palme d’Or as well as the Best Director award.
In 2006 he began working on the film Paranoid Park based on the book by Blake Nelson. This pictures a skateboarding teen named Alex who accidentally kills a man. He is a depressed kid as his parents are going through a divorce and he and his friend find a skate park called Paranoid Park where older kids go and skate. One night Alex goes alone to the park meeting some people there and one offers to take him on a freight train ride. When there a security guard finds them and Alex, in self-defense, hits the man with his skateboard knocking him onto another set of train tracks where he gets sliced in half by an oncoming train. Alex then fighting his morals and conscience to hide the accidental murder when a detective starts questioning the skater kids at his school. Alex becomes numb to his parents, girlfriend, and best friends and the film follows him through his struggle.
The film used a lot of handheld camera use as though shot by friends in a somewhat personal style. These shots had somewhat washed out colors and seemed distant to me. The music went from melodic sounds to someone babbling in French to the sounds of glass breaking and plastic bags crumpling. There were also many lengthy shots that make me believe the movie could have been cut from an 85-minute movie down to a 60-minute movie. Overall my reaction to this movie was somewhat bored and dull. The concept was good and the style interesting but the pace was quite slow and I found myself loosing focus and getting antsy towards the end of the film.
Gus Van Sant via imdb.com
Gus Van Sant: An Unauthorized Biography by James Robert Parish
The Rough Guide to American Independent Film by Jessica Winter