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Gus Van Sant

Interview with an Openly Gay Filmmaker

By Rodrigo Brandao

Gerry Poster

Promotional poster from the movie Gerry.

Some say Gus Van Sant’s work is impossible to label; he has been glibly called a conformist and an enfant terrible. Contradictions apart, the director of films like Good Will Hunting, Psycho and My Own Private Idaho has left artistic taxonomy for his fans and has dedicated his energy to creating a prolific body of work. Gus Van Sant has written a novel (Pink), published a photo book (One Hundred-Eight Portraits) and crafted some of the most daring films produced by an American director in the last 15 years.

Like any filmmaker engaged with the film industry and with cinema as an discursive medium, Gus Van Sant works within the frail and tight intersection between commerce and artistic value, common sense and sophistication, and ultimately, Hollywood and cinema. Van Sant also happens to be one of the few openly gay filmmakers working in Hollywood. For this matter, his story is a valuable model for LGBT filmmakers in search of sustainability and artistic relevance.

His new film Gerry, wrapped around the story of two dudes who get lost in a desert, is astonishingly gorgeous. Casey Affleck and Matt Damon star, but top billing goes to the burning sun and mainly to Van Sant’s ability to scramble many of the cinematic references that have influenced his work into a cohesive and daring piece of art.

RB: Tell me about the decision to shoot Gerry after Finding Forrest? Would you say that Gerry is a more personal film?

GVS: I think it is more personal because I didn't write Finding Forrest, so [Gerry] was something that was a lot closer to what we (Casey Affleck, Matt Damon and Van Sant) were collectively thinking.

RB: Tell me about the process of creating the script while shooting the film? Did you come to the set with a main idea?

GVS: We would create dialogue ahead of time. In many cases, Casey and Matt improved [the dialogue] and wrote it down; I didn't have a lot to do with dialogue writing. My main contribution to the writing was the story; making the film into a cohesive piece and writing out the elements of the story.

RB: Did you have the film completely structured before you headed into post-production?

GVS: Yeah, it was pretty complete, mostly because they were big, long shots and we only spent about two weeks putting it together.

RB: Gerry brings a lot of tension in its moments of silence. For instance, the two main characters sexuality are barely mentioned, and I would say that these character's sexual orientation does not play a major role in the film. But absence leaves space for questions, and that allowed me to wonder about the nature of their friendship; about whether there was something sexual happening between these two guys. Was this intentional?

GVS: I think this originates with the silence of their hike and the silence of their predicament. The silence originates in the events, and their friendship is not based on a lot of talk, which I think is common. But this is really just emanating from the original idea. It is not like we had the idea to have silence first; the silence came from the script.

RB: Has coming out as a gay filmmaker created problems for you in Hollywood?

GVS: Not so far. There are probably things that I don't see, but I think if you are a heterosexual filmmaker you'll have problems as well. It depends on your work and how you get identified… If you are Oliver Stone, you might not be chosen by Miramax to direct The English Patient. It is more about that.

RB: A lot about Gerry is not in the narrative. Gerry is mostly about time and space. Why did you choose to make this film with a star like Matt Damon?

GVS: They were just around. Casey was next door and Matt was coming over a lot, so these guys were around. It wasn't so much about casting, we really made [Gerry] together as friends. It just happened that they were stars.

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