Gus Green Van Sant, Jr. (born July 24, 1952) is an American film director, screenwriter, painter, photographer, musician and author who has earned acclaim as both an independent and more mainstream filmmaker. His films typically deal with themes of marginalized subcultures, in particular homosexuality; as such, Van Sant is considered one of the most prominent auteurs of the New Queer Cinema movement.
Van Sant's early career was devoted to directing television commercials in the Pacific Northwest. He made his feature-length cinematic directorial debut with Mala Noche (1985). His second feature Drugstore Cowboy (1989) was highly acclaimed, and earned Van Sant screenwriting awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and New York Film Critics Circle and Best Director from the National Society of Film Critics. His following film My Own Private Idaho (1991) was similarly praised, as was the black comedy To Die For (1995), the drama Good Will Hunting (1997) and the biopic Milk (2008); for the latter two, Van Sant was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director and both films received Best Picture nominations. In 2003, Elephant – Van Sant's roman à clef of the Columbine High School massacre – won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and Van Sant also received the festival's Best Director Award, making him one of only two filmmakers – the other being Joel Coen – to win both accolades in the same year. Though most of Van Sant's other films received favourable reviews, such as Finding Forrester (2000) and Paranoid Park (2007), some of his efforts such as the art house production Last Days (2005) and the environmental drama Promised Land have received more mixed reviews from critics, while his adaptation of Tom Robbins's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994), his 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and his most recent film to date, The Sea of Trees (2015), were critical and commercial failures.
In addition to directing, Van Sant wrote the screenplays for several of his earlier works, and is the author of a novel entitled Pink. A book of his photography, called 108 Portraits, has also been published, and he has released two musical albums. He is openly gay and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.
Van Sant was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of Betty (née Seay) and Gus Green Van Sant, Sr; Gus's father was a clothing manufacturer and traveling salesman who rapidly worked his way into middle class prosperity, holding executive marketing positions that included being president of the White Stag Manufacturing Company's Apparel Operation. As a result of his father's job, the family moved continually during Van Sant's childhood.
His paternal family is of partial Dutch origin; the name "Van Sant" is derived from the Dutch name "Van Zandt". The earliest Van Zandt arrived in the New Netherland area in the early 17th century, around what is now New York City.
Van Sant is an alumnus of Darien High School in Darien, Connecticut, and The Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon. One constant in the director's early years was his interest in visual arts (namely, 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 Design in 1970, where his introduction to various avant-garde directors inspired him to change his major from painting to cinema.
After spending time in Europe, Van Sant went to Los Angeles 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 Boulevard. 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, making his feature film directorial debut Mala Noche.
It 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, the film earned Van Sant 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, Oregon, where he set up house and began giving life to the ideas rejected by Universal. He directed Drugstore Cowboy about four drug addicts robbing pharmacies to support their habit. The film met with great critical success and revived the career of Matt Dillon.
Drugstore Cowboy's exploration of the lives of those living on society's outer fringes, as well as its Portland 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 film 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 previously eluded him.
Van Sant's next film, 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.
Van Sant's 1995 film 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 stars 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.
In 1997, Van Sant gained mainstream acceptance 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. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Director for Van Sant. It also won two, including Best Screenplay for Damon and Affleck, and Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Robin Williams, who, in his acceptance speech, referred to Van Sant as "the mellowest man in Hollywood." 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. It starred Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn and Julianne Moore, and met with a negative critical reception and did poorly at the box office.
In 2000, Van Sant directed Finding Forrester, about a high-school student (Rob Brown) from the Bronx unlikely becoming a friend of a crusty, reclusive author (Sean Connery). Critical response was generally positive.
In addition to directing, he 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 death.
Van Sant traveled to the deserts of Argentina, Utah, and Death Valley 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. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
It took Gerry over a year to make it to theaters, in which time Van Sant began production on his next film, Elephant. Approached by HBO and producer Diane Keaton to craft a fictional film based on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, the director chose to shoot in his hometown of Portland, employing dozens of untrained, teen actors. As well as melding improvisational long takes like those in Gerry with Harris Savides' fluid camerawork, the film was also influenced by Alan Clarke's 1989 film of the same name (see Elephant). The finished film provoked strong reactions from audiences at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. At the Cannes festival, the jury 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 Portland, Oregon.
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.
Released in 2008, Van Sant's Milk is a biopic of openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978 and is played by Sean Penn in the movie. The film 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 later stated that his experience with Sean Penn on the film was "amazing".
Van Sant's film, Promised Land, was released on December 28, 2012. The film stars Frances McDormand, Matt Damon, and John Krasinski—the latter two co-wrote the screenplay based on a story by Dave Eggers. Filmed in April 2012, the production company, Focus Features, selected the release date so that the film is eligible to qualify for awards consideration.
Following Promised Land, Van Sant directed a film titled Sea of Trees, which starred Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe. The film tells the story of a man who travels to the infamous suicide forest in Japan to kill himself, only to encounter another man wishing to kill himself as well, with whom he then embarks on a "spiritual journey."  The film was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival but was met with harsh critical reception at the Cannes, being booed and laughed at.
In December 2016, it was announced Van Sant would direct Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, a biopic about cartoonist John Callahan, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Jonah Hill, Jack Black and Mark Webber. Principal photography began in March 2017.
Van Sant released two musical albums: Gus Van Sant and 18 Songs About Golf. The Broken Social Scene song, "Art House Director", is supposedly about himself, a connection discussed by a Singaporean fan on the internet. Van Sant played himself in episodes of the HBO series Entourage and the IFC series Portlandia.
Van Sant directed the pilot for the Starz television program Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer. Van Sant went onto The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast to discuss filmmaking, writing, film history and their collaborations that never got made (The Golden Suicides) and the one that did (The Canyons).
The moving image collection of Gus Van Sant is held at the Academy Film Archive.
|Year||Film||Credited Director||Credited Producer||Credited Writer||Grossed||Rotten Tomatoes|
|1991||My Own Private Idaho||Yes||Yes||$6,401,336||86%|
|1993||Even Cowgirls Get the Blues||Yes||Yes||Yes||$1,708,873||22%|
|1995||To Die For||Yes||$21,284,514||87%|
|1997||Good Will Hunting||Yes||$225,933,435||97%|
|2015||The Sea of Trees||Yes||$825,577||11%|
|2018||Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot||Yes||Yes||73%|
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