The Director's Chair Interviews
Gus Van Sant
by Jason Silverman
Reverb, April 1996
Gus Van Sant's first four films were set against what he called "rarified backdrops, tracing the bleakly amusing stories of those living on the fringes of American society. His low-budget debut, Mala Noche (1985), followed the love affair between a convenience-store clerk and a Mexican migrant worker. The award-winning Drugstore Cowboy (1989) raced around with a group of drug-using, pharmacy-raiding dropouts. In My Own Private Idaho (1991), Van Sant explored the lives of male prostitutes against the backdrop of a Shakespearean Portland. And the critically bashed Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) told the story of a woman who can't stop hitchhiking.
Van Sant called his fifth and latest film, the recent-to-video To Die For, a departure. The film traces the lives and deaths of the fictional Larry and Suzanne Stone, a couple which Van Sant describes as, outwardly at least, relatively grounded. Speaking from his home in Portland, Ore., Van Sant describes the Stones as "a middle-class marriage in a middle-class neighborhood in a middle-class town."
Van Sant, also known as a photographer and painter, says the initial concept for each of his films often starts with what he calls "an image that I think represents the whole." Drugstore Cowboy's embryonic image was inspired by Larry Clark's photos. (Van Sant recently returned the favor by executive-producing Clark's 1995 film Kids.) My Own Private Idaho evolved from a book cover. With To Die For, the initial image was one of warped, almost plastic perfection.
"This film's image was something you might see in Gourmet magazine," he says, "a perfectly color-coordinated table and meal. Suzanne was a housewife, maybe more interested in presentation and image than in the food."
That image evolved as the film progressed, but found its way, in altered form, into the final project. That is unusual for Van Sant, who says he usually doesn't get the particular image he is thinking of in a given film.
"It's elusive," he says. "It's usually in your mind's eye, and you can't quite get there. One of the big pitfalls in filmmaking is to chase that illusion. You can really screw everything up in chasing it."
Written by Buck Henry, To Die For is loosely based on the real-life story of Pamela Smart, the New Hampshire teacher convicted of hiring three students to kill her husband. Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) is a woman driven to succeed in the world of broadcasting. Unsatisfied with her marriage to Larry (Matt Dillon), she pours her energy into a documentary about kids, enlisting the help of three teens. The four form a murderous bond.
In addition to strong performances by Kidman and Dillon, the film features the star-making work of Joaquin Phoenix, younger brother of the late River (star of My Own Private Idaho).
To Die For was shot last spring in a Toronto neighborhood that reads middle-class America--a setting ripe with satirical possibility. All of Van Sant's works weave in elements of tragedy, comedy, and satire, but with To Die For, the humor, he says, is a bit more explicit.
"All of my films are black comedy," he says, "but this one is more outwardly funny. There are a lot of jokes and funny situations that make it light. While there are both satirical moments and funny moments, I've never consciously tried for either, or tried to keep it any one way."
To Die For may mark a return to favor for Van Sant, whose first three films placed him in the upper echelon of American independent filmmakers. Mala Noche won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for best independent film, and both Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho were on many "best of the year" lists. To Die For also scored with critics, partly because its stylized, Hard Copy-like sheen gave it a timely, TV-bashing appeal. "You aren't really anybody in America if you're not on TV," says Suzanne partner Lydia at one point in the film, "'cause what's the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody's watching?"
Van Sant, however, claims he didn't go out of his way to create a film about a relevant, contemporary subject. "I don't try to suppose what is relevant to the public or even to me," he says. "I guess, to me, everything is relevant."
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