Nationality: American. Born: Louisville, Kentucky, 24 July 1952. Education: Studied painting, then switched emphasis to film, and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. Career: Began making films using a Super-8 camera, 1964; worked as an assistant to Roger Corman, and made commercials for a New York advertising agency, 1970s-80s; made numerous short films and his first independent feature, Mala Noche , mid-late 1980s; earned acclaim with the independent feature Drugstore Cowboy , 1989; worked on the preproduction of The Mayor of Castro Street , based on Randy Shilts's book about the murdered gay rights activist/politician Harvey Milk, but left the project; directed video for the rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers. Awards: Berlin Film Festival Teddy-Best Short Film, for My New Friend , 1984; Los Angeles Film Critics Association Independent/Experimental Film or Video Award, for Mala Noche , 1985; Berlin Film Festival Teddy-Best Short Film, for Five Ways to Kill Yourself , 1987; Best Screenplay Independent Spirit Award, National
My New Friend (short)
Mala Noche (+ pr, sc, ed)
Five Ways to Kill Yourself (short); Ken Gets out of Jail (short)
Drugstore Cowboy (+ co-sc)
My Own Private Idaho (+ sc)
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (+ sc, exec pr, ed)
To Die For
Ballad of the Skeletons (short)
Good Will Hunting (+ sound re-recording mixer)
Psycho (+ co-pr, ro)
Finding Forrester ; Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot ; Brokeback Mountain (+ pr)
Kids (Clark) (co-exec-pr)
Speedway Junkie (Perry) (exec pr)
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues/My Own Private Idaho/2 Screenplays in 1 Volume , New York, 1994.
Pink: A Novel , New York, 1997.
Interview with River Phoenix in Interview (New York), March 1991.
"Inside Outsider Gus Van Sant," an interview with Adam Block and David Ehrenstein, in Advocate (Los Angeles), 24 September 1991.
Interview in Film Threat (Beverly Hills), November 1991.
"Gay Film Vagen," an interview with P. Loewe, in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 33, no. 6, 1991/92.
"My Director and I," interview with R. Phoenix and G. Fuller, in Projections (London), no. 1, 1992.
"Falstaff a Portland," an interview with J. Aghed, in Positif (Paris), February 1992.
"My Own Private Cinema," an interview with C. Nevers and T. Jousse, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1992.
"Fornedrelsens estetikk," interview with F. Johnsen, in Film & Kino (Oslo), no. 2, 1993.
"Gus Van Sant," an interview with Gary Indiana, in Bomb (New York), Fall 1993.
"Mobile Home," an interview with M. Dargis, in Artforum (New York), November 1993.
"Larry Clark, Shockmaker," in Interview (New York), July 1995.
"How Gus Van Sant Cooked up the Dark Comedy To Die For ," an interview with Desmond Ryan, in Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service , 5 October 1995.
"Van Sant does 'Hunting ," interview with D. Noh, in Film Journal (New York), December 1997.
"Uncle Gus," interview with P. Powell, in Interview (New York), January 1998.
"Lights, Camera, Oscars!," interview with D. Ansen and C. Brown, in Newsweek (New York), 26 January 1998.
"Hitch Up," interview with P. Powell, in Interview (New York), December 1998.
"Return to Bates Motel," interview with Stephen Rebello, in Movieline (Los Angeles), December 1998.
Meyer, Thomas J., "Dropping in on the down and Out," in New York Times Magazine , 15 September 1991.
Loud, Lance, "Shakespeare in Black Leather," in American Film (Hollywood), September/October 1991.
Lyons, Donald, "Gus Van Sant: Lawless as a Snowflake, Simple as Grass," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1991.
Gallagher, Lawrence J., "Life after Drugstore ," in Esquire (New York), October 1991.
Handelman, David, "Gus Van Sant's Northwest Passage," in Rolling Stone (New York), 31 October 1991.
Signorile, Michelangelo, "Absolutely Queer," in Advocate (Los Angeles), 19 November 1991.
Ostria, V., "Gus Van Sant, un cineaste de Portland," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1992.
Roth-Bettoni, D., " My Own Private Idaho ," in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), January 1992.
Reynaud, B., "Gus Van Sant," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1992.
Block, A., "Perchance to Dream," in Filmmaker (Los Angeles), vol. 2, no. 1, 1993.
Golebiewska, M., "Van Santa," in Kino (Warsaw), February/March 1993.
Campbell, V., "The Times of Gus Van Sant," in Movieline (Los Angeles), October 1993.
Schwager, J., "Back in the Saddle," in Boxoffice (Chicago), February 1994.
Taubin, Amy, "Trials and Tribulations," in Village Voice (New York), 24 May 1994.
Caruso, G., "Il rapsodo di Portland," in Cineforum (Bergamo, Italy), May 1997.
Smith, R.J., "Has Gus Van Sant Gone Psycho?," in New York Times , 29 November 1998.
Svetkey, Benjamin, "Shower Power," in Entertainment Weekly (New York), 4 December 1998.
* * *
In the late 1980s, Gus Van Sant commenced establishing himself as one of America's leading and most influential independent filmmakers. His films, often peopled with characters scuffling along on the fringes of American society, explore human feelings and frailties in often-understated fashion, and for the most part, Van Sant has proven himself a filmmaker with a deft touch. However, after the success of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho , some observers were concerned that Van Sant's apparent predilection for examining the lives of society's outcasts might blunt and ultimately limit his vision. The release of To Die For in 1995, however, did much to silence such voices. The wicked black comedy—a skillfully rendered and executed study of a woman obsessed with stardom—indicated that Van Sant's body of work is in no danger of degenerating into formula.
Van Sant's first works, created in the mid-1980s, were a series of short and experimental films. His initial feature, shot on a shoestring, was Mala Noche , the story of a gay man's infatuation with an illegal immigrant. While these early films brought him a degree of critical attention, it was Drugstore Cowboy that established him as one of independent filmmaking's most authoritative new voices. The film's low-key tale of a pack of 1970s-era junkies in perpetual pursuit of drugs won near-unanimous accolades.
Two years later Van Sant released My Own Private Idaho , another story of American misfits on the margins of society. The quirky film concerns two male street hustlers, Mike and Scott (played by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves), who embark on a journey to find Mike's long-lost mother. Together, Van Sant and Phoenix create a memorable portrait of Mike, a narcoleptic who longs for love. My Own Private Idaho , a bold, sometimes dreamlike tale, further cemented Van Sant's reputation.
In 1994, Van Sant released Even Cowgirls Get the Blues , a film based on Tom Robbins's cult-classic book. Cowgirls was a mess in nearly every respect. A poorly executed and disappointing endeavor, it quickly disappeared from the nation's cinema houses. Van Sant recovered nicely, though, with To Die For , an adaptation of a novel by Joyce Maynard. Blessed with an inspired performance by Nicole Kidman in the lead role, the film is a withering black comedy that aims venomous barbs at America's television media and star-obsessed culture with deadly accuracy.
Van Sant then scored big with Good Will Hunting , one of the smash hits of 1997. This wildly popular story of a bunch of working-class Boston buddies, one of whom is a certifiable genius, earned accolades for the filmmaker, an overdue Oscar for Robin Williams (playing a psychologist), and fire-hot Hollywood commodity status for co-stars/co-scripters Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Even though the film's title character, in his alienation and outsider status, is a typical Van Sant hero, the conventional tone of Good Will Hunting made it the director's most mainstream film to date. Unfortunately, his follow-up was a film that rivaled Even Cowgirls Get the Blues for its mediocrity: a needless and ill-advised scene-by-scene remake of Hitchcock's Psycho.
—Kevin Hillstrom, updated by Rob Edelman