Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant

Born Gus Green Van Sant, Jr.
(1952-07-24) July 24, 1952
Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.
Residence Portland, Oregon, U.S.
Occupation Film director
Years active 1982–present
Notable work Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting, My Own Private Idaho, Milk, Elephant, Psycho, Finding Forrester

Gus Green Van Sant, Jr.[1] (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 - earning a perfect 100% rating approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes - 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,[2] 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, whilst his adaptation of Tom Robbins's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994) and his 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho 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.[3] A book of his photography, called 108 Portraits,[4] has also been published, and he has released two musical albums. He is openly gay and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.[5]

Early life

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[1] 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.[6] 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.[7]

Van Sant is an alumnus of Darien High School in Darien, Connecticut,[8] and The Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon.[9] 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.[10]

Early career (1978–1989)

After spending time in Europe, Van Sant went to Los Angeles in 1976.[11] 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.[12] 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. 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 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 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 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 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, 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 the crusty, reclusive author (Sean Connery). Critical response was generally positive.[13]

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.

Return to arthouse cinema (2003–present)

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.[2] 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.[14][15] Van Sant later stated that his experience with Sean Penn on the film was "amazing".[16]

His 2011 project Restless[17] was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.[18][19]

Van Sant's film, Promised Land, was released on December 28, 2012.[20] 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.[21][22]

Following Promised Land, Van Sant directed a film entitled 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." [23] 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.[24][25]

In media

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.[26] 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).[27]


The moving image collection of Gus Van Sant is held at the Academy Film Archive.[28]

Awards and nominations


Feature films

Year Film Credited Director Credited Producer Credited Writer Grossed Rotten Tomatoes
1985 Mala Noche Yes Yes Yes 95%
1989 Drugstore Cowboy Yes Yes $4,729,352 100%
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%
1998 Psycho Yes Yes $37,141,130 37%
2000 Finding Forrester Yes $80,701,064 73%
2002 Gerry Yes Yes $236,266 61%
2003 Elephant Yes Yes $10,020,543 71%
2005 Last Days Yes Yes Yes $2,456,454 57%
2007 Paranoid Park Yes Yes $4,545,747 77%
2008 Milk Yes $54,586,584 94%
2011 Restless Yes Yes $163,265 37%
2012 Promised Land Yes $8,138,788 51%
2015 I Am Michael Yes 73%
The Sea of Trees Yes 9%

Short films

Music videos


Executive producer



See also


  1. 1 2 film reference (2012). "Gus Van Sant Biography (1952?-)". film reference. Advameg, Inc. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
  2. 1 2 3 4 "Festival de Cannes: Elephant". Retrieved 2009-11-05.
  3. Gus Van Sant, Pink, Faber & Faber, 1998, ISBN 0-385-49353-3
  4. Gus Van Sant, 108 Portraits, Twin Palms Pub., 1993, ISBN 0-944092-22-5
  5. Brandao, Rodrigo (November 11, 2015). "Interview with Openly Gay Filmmaker Gus Van Sant".
  6. "Changes in Management Disclosed by White Stag". The Oregonian. Portland, Oregon. December 5, 1969. Section 1, p. 39.
  7. "Darien High School". Public School Review. Public School Review. 2003–2012. Retrieved September 24, 2012.
  8. "Gus Van Sant- Biography". Yahoo! Movies. Yahoo!, Inc. 2012. Retrieved September 24, 2012.
  9. Marx, Rebecca Flint. "Gus van Sant Biography". The New York Times.
  10. "Gus van Sant". The New York Times.
  11. "Gus Van Sant : Biography". Retrieved 2014-08-04.
  12. "Finding Forrester". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2010-12-06.
  13. Andy Towle (23 February 2009). "Milk Picks Up Two Big Oscars as Slumdog Dominates Academy Awards". Towleroad. Towleroad. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
  14. Greg Hernandez (January 22, 2009). ""Milk" gets EIGHT Academy Award nominations....". Out in Hollywood with Greg Hernandez. Los Angeles Newspaper group. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
  15. Gus Van Sant (2010). "MADONNA". Interview, Inc. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
  16. Leffler, Rebecca (April 13, 2011). "Gus Van Sant's 'Restless' to Open Cannes Un Certain Regard". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved April 13, 2011.
  17. "Festival de Cannes: Official Selection". Cannes. Retrieved 2011-04-14.
  18. Fleming, Mike (February 1, 2012). "Focus, Participant Acquire Matt Damon/John Krasinski Film; Gus Van Sant Directing".
  19. Gerhardt, Tina (December 31, 2012). "Matt Damon Exposes Fracking in Promised Land". The Progressive.
  20. Eric Eisenberg (23 August 2012). "Gus Van Sant's Promised Land, Starring Matt Damon, Gets A Release Date". Cinema Blend. Cinema Blend LLC. Retrieved December 19, 2012.
  21. Matt Goldberg (23 August 2012). "Gus Van Sant's PROMISED LAND Gets into Awards Race; Release Dates Announced for DreamWorks Animation Pictures". IndieClick Film Network. Retrieved December 19, 2012.
  22. Kit, Boris. "Matthew McConaughey to Star in Gus Van Sant's 'Sea of Trees'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved March 18, 2014.
  23. "Gus Van Sant's 'Sea of Trees' Booed at Cannes Premiere". May 15, 2015. Retrieved December 28, 2015.
  24. Reinstein, Mara (May 15, 2015). "Matthew McConaughey's Film The Sea of Trees Booed, Laughed at During Cannes Film Festival". Retrieved May 15, 2015.
  25. Mayo Martin (29 July 2010). "Broken Social Scene hangs out with local bands! The latter left speechless!". Poparazzi. Poparazzi. Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  26. "Bret Easton Ellis Podcast". Retrieved 2014-08-04.
  27. "Gus Van Sant Collection". Academy Film Archive.
  29. "Berlinale: 1998 Prize Winners". Retrieved 2012-01-16.
  30. Festival de Cannes (2005). "LAST DAYS". Festival de Cannes. Festival de Cannes. Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  31. Festival de Cannes (2007). "PARANOID PARK". Festival de Cannes. Festival de Cannes. Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  32. Unknown. "Biography". Gus Van Sant. Geocities. Archived from the original on October 26, 2009. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  33. Alex S. Garcia (1998–2012). "Gus van Sant". Alex S. Garcia. Retrieved August 17, 2012. Note that Chris Isaak's Solitary Man (1993) was not directed by Van Sant but by Larry Clark.

Further reading

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