Gus Van Sant: The Psycho Analyst

We'd stand outside a theatre in the Castro waiting for My Own Private Idaho to let out. Guys came streaming out of the movie hungry for meat like a pack of lions smelling their first deer in a month. My boyfriend and I were hustling at the time. Those nights we could charge four times what we normally got. And I wouldn't just wait around getting high while the film showed, like my boyfriend would. I'd go inside to sit in the back and watch it. Again and again. I think it was the first time I ever noticed there was such a thing as a director. I mean, I knew films had directors, but they were like car commercials -- I never paid attention. But watching this film by Gus Van Sant, I felt myself absorbing it all -- the devastatingly beautiful language and images of loss and longing.

I was good at finding tricks who would let me crash at their houses. I made use of their VCRs to inhale every Van Sant film I could get my hands on: Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, To Die For and, more recently, Good Will Hunting (for which Van Sant received an Academy Award nomination for best director) and Psycho.

As I began to write, I vaguely dreamed that my work would one day be brought to visual reality by Van Sant. Friends of his passed my book Sarah (Bloomsbury) on to him. When I got a message telling me to contact Gus Van Sant, I was so scared all I could do was play back the phone message again and again, for at least a week. We've since become good friends and are working on several projects together, including making Sarah, a story about magical transvestites, mother love and prostitution, into a movie. It often feels like some elaborate hallucination, surreal in the extreme. I got to see Van Sant's new film, Finding Forrester, about a reclusive writer (Sean Connery) and his mentoring of a scholar-athlete (Rob Brown, in an excellent debut). I'm not a film critic, but I can unreservedly say the film is majorly kick-ass fantastic. Plus it's a subject I can more than relate to. I recently sat down and interviewed Gus at the Leanie Hotel in San Francisco to discuss Forrester, his oeuvre and much more.

JT Leroy: I don't think there's been any filmmaker that I can say has meant as much to me as you have. My Own Private Idaho was like -- I couldn't believe it. I've never seen anything that was just so beautiful. It just spoke to me and my experiences.
Gus Van Sant: Thanks. [Laughs] When the film came out in 1991, they got these kids in San Francisco who were street kids -- they weren't necessarily hustlers, but I think some of them were -- they really trashed it. They felt it was a typical point of view of an upper-middle-class thirtysomething guy. Well, I didn't take it to be a realistic portrayal of street life, you know?

JTL: There were no drugs in it. Is that something you chose to leave out?

GVS: Yeah, because I had done Drugstore Cowboy, so I figured to get back into drugs would be just going back, you know? I didn't want to just be the drug filmmaker. I like not having it in there, because you can focus on the other stuff.

JTL: I went to a screening of Finding Forrester, and people were really enjoying the movie. How did you find Rob Brown?

GVS: He came in to an audition after he had gotten a flyer in the mail, 'cause he was part of a program called Prep for Prep, which places kids who are doing really well in public schools and gives them a chance to go to a prep school. We were looking for a 16-year-old African-American kid who was supposed to be from the Bronx, and we didn't really know if the person we'd find would necessarily be from the Bronx, but Rob actually was.

JTL: That worked out pretty well.

GVS: He was a kid very much like the character. People would say, "So what do you think your character would wear?" And he would respond, "Well, I think I basically am the character already." So there was a lot of discussion about that. [laughs] I think eventually he had to play a character even though he was very much like the character as written by Mike Rich.

JTL: How did you get involved in the project?

GVS: Sony Pictures and Sean Connery had a screenplay. I was in India, at the Calcutta Film Festival, and my agent called. So I said, "O.K., fax it to me," thinking that today's modern communications weren't modern enough to get through to Calcutta. I got it, like, within an hour. [laughs] It was actually really, really good, and then I got interested in it. I wanted to know who had written it, and it was a guy from Portland, Oregon, where I am from.

JTL: So did Good Will Hunting really change Hollywood's perception of you?

GVS: Yeah. Good Will Hunting changed everything for me. And for Ben [Affleck] and Matt [Damon]. For all three of us, I think. It changed our lives, you know.

JTL: Tell that story that you told me about being with Matt.

GVS: [Laughs] Yeah, well, when we were making Good Will Hunting there was a period of time when we shot the film and were editing it, and we really thought it was coming out well. I was pretty positive that it was gonna make the two leads, Ben and Matt, into some kind of standout actors. There was one moment when I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard with Matt at night, and I probably was playing with him a little bit. I knew that as an actor he was wondering whether he would ever get to the point where people actually would recognize him; it's something that happens if you're an actor, or something that occurs to you. I said, "You know, probably after two months you won't be able to walk down the street like this. People will gather around, and they'll point at you."

JTL: How did he react?

GVS: He didn't know whether I was kidding or not. And I was kind of kidding, but was serious at the same time. And it actually came about that way. So that he was stalked in airports and stuff. Which is probably not that fun anyway after it starts to happen.

JTL: Do you prefer the perception of you now? The respect now?

GVS: When I first read Good Will Hunting, I just thought, this is perfect. You know, everything is perfectly in place. Even when films are made to be like Good Will Hunting -- you know they're supposed to be mainstream feel-good movies -- they aren't written perfectly. They're written kind of halfway. You could just film the script that I was reading, and it would be fine. And one of the things that was attractive was that it wasn't anything I'd done before. I had this profile of being a renegade weirdo. Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and To Die For were my three films -- oh, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Cowgirls was more like the box office disappointment, so I had a sort of bad-boy profile.

Subscribe to Get More