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Gus Green Van Sant, Jr. (born July 24, 1952) is an Americanmarker film director, screenwriter, photographer, musician, and author. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Achievement in Directing for his 1997 film Good Will Hunting and his 2008 film Milk, and won the Palme d'Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival for his film Elephant. He lives in Portland, Oregonmarker.

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 an adaptation of Tom Robbins' 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 My Own Private Idaho, also starring Reeves as well as River Phoenix (Van Sant also planned to direct a biographical film about Andy Warhol with Phoenix in the lead role, but canceled the project after Phoenix's death).

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

Early life

Van Sant was born in Louisville, Kentuckymarker, the son of Betty (née Seay) and Gus Green Van Sant, Sr, a clothing manufacturer and traveling salesman who rapidly worked his way up the corporate ladder 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 and The Catlin Gabel Schoolmarker in Portland, Oregonmarker. One constant in the director's early years was his interest in 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 Designmarker in 1970, 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. Van Sant, who is openly gay, previously had relationships with Sir Ian Mckellen, and Harvey Milk.

Early career (1978–1989)

After spending time in Europe, Van Sant went to Los Angelesmarker in 1976. 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 Boulevardmarker. 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. 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, Oregonmarker, 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)

Drugstore Cowboy's exploration of the lives of those living on society's outer fringes, as well as its Portlandmarker 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 hitherto 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.

Fortunately for Van Sant, his next project, 1995's 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)

In 1997 came true mainstream acceptance for the director, 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. 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, if not exactly a failure, wasn't much of a triumph, either. However, its mixed reception didn't deter the director, who 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 Bronxmarker (Rob Brown) who becomes unlikely friends with a crusty, reclusive author (Sean Connery). Critical response was mixed but generally positive, singling out Van Sant's skill at melding the performance styles of first-time actor Brown and Hollywood legend Connery. However, those same reviewers were less impressed with the script's schematic Scent of a Woman-meets-Good Will Hunting template.

Return to arthouse cinema (2003–present)

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, Van Sant retreated to the deserts of Argentinamarker, Utahmarker, and Death Valleymarker 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.

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 massacremarker, 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. Melding improvisational long takes like those in Gerry with Savides' fluid camerawork, 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 Cannesmarker 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. 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 Portlandmarker, Oregonmarker.

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.

Van Sant's most recent film is something of a return to the mainstream. Released in 2008, the feature film Milk is a biopic of openly gay San Francisco supervisor 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.

Van Sant has released two musical albums: Gus Van Sant and 18 Songs About Golf.

Van Sant plays himself in one episode of the HBO series Entourage.

Van Sant also participates as a member of the Jury for the NYICFF, a local New York City Film Festival dedicated to screening films for children between the ages of 3 and 18.

Awards and nominations

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

  • Last Days (2005)
    • Cannes Film Festival Official Selection


Feature films

Short films

  • 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")
  • Chacun son cinéma / To Each His Cinema (2007) (segment "First Kiss")

Music videos

Executive producer

See also


  1. Pink, Gus Van Sant. Faber & Faber, 1998, ISBN 0-385-49353-3
  2. 108 Portraits, Gus Van Sant. Twin Palms Pub., 1993, ISBN 0-944092-22-5
  3. Gus Van Sant Biography (1952?-)
  4. NYICFF Jury
  5. Gus van Sant: biography
  6. Note that Chris Isaak's Solitary Man (1993) was not directed by Van Sant but by Larry Clark.

External links

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