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Gus Van Sant on "Good Will Hunting"

by Henri Béhar

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NEW YORK, late November -- Two or three things you might know about Gus Van Sant going in. He doesn't live in Los Angeles, but in Portland, Oregon, apparently, one is told, in the sprawling, slightly derelict (at the time) house where he shot part of My Own Private Idaho . He got out of writer William Burroughs a savagely funny performance in Drugstore Cowboy, (quite a sweet one out of Matt Dillon, too, and a daring one out of James LeGros). He's worked with three members of the Phoenix family : River was ... Idaho's narcoleptic hustler, Rain a resident in the feminist-collective ranch of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and in To Die For, Joaquim's wild affair with media-driven Nicole Kidman led him to kill her husband (Dillon again). Before he undertook his first feature - Mala Noche is now a cult movie, buy it, rent it, steal it, just get it ! - Van Sant cut a couple of albums (including one of songs about golf !), directed music videos, was a noted painter (still is) and a remarkable photographer. He's just published his first novel, Pink. All of the above would tend to make him an odd choice for helming Good Will Hunting. As it turned out, it was a wise one : the man is a darn good director.

He doesn't seem to be a day person. Indeed, his 5-o'clock shadow screams 5 A.M. In person, (good heavens, he shaved !), he is affable, soft-spoken, mischievous, fiercely intelligent and hilarious in a kind of stone-faced way. Lethally polite, he'll never tell you your question is the dumbest he's ever heard ; more likely, he'll say, "I'm not sure there's 'acting' involved in 'cinema-verite', or is there?" Excerpts from our interview.

On getting his hands on the Good Will Hunting script. I was having lunch with a friend, Mark Tusk, who worked at Miramax at the time, two years ago. He mentioned a script that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon had written. I knew both guys from auditions, I had worked with Ben's younger brother, Casey ; Mark knew that I knew them. "Yeah, they wrote a script, it's actually really good ; we just acquired it." "Really?"

I vaguely remembered something I'd read when we were casting To Die For, a blurb in Variety with a picture of Ben and Matt standing there - this is probably a fabricated memory, but they were holding a check for $300,000 they had gotten for writing the screenplay. As actors. Which was huge news in Hollywood because everyone has a screenplay, everyone's trying to sell their screenplay and these guys actually sold it. In spite of which, I had never gone and tried to read it until Mark two years later said, "We have the screenplay now."

As, for some reason, Mark and I were talking about busing and Boston in the 1970's, I asked him whether it was about the busing issue. "No, but it's about Boston kids." I said I'd like to read it, he sent it to the hotel that day.

Halfway through, I was so positive about it I called Joaquim Phoenix, who had Casey's telephone number -- Joaquim and Casey had remained friends after To Die For . Casey had Ben's mom's number, Ben's mom had Ben's number. So I eventually got to Ben, told him that I really loved the screenplay, and that I would do it. And I would do it right away, too, which made them really excited.

Eventually, Miramax got interested, not particularly because of me but because Matt was cast in Francis Coppola's The Rainmaker. I guess they felt there was something there and the timing was right.

"It's the story, stupid." What attracted me was the balance of the story. The thing that I'm usually skeptical about in a screenplay is the sense of story. Drugstore Cowboy was similar in that it was extremely funny, it had a very strange setting (a drug den in the '70's), it had unique characters, amazing dialogue, intriguing ramps that the lead character, Bob, would go on. But I knew that could only last so far before the audience - me as an audience -- would say, "Okay, so where are we going?"

If you don't have the story and the unfolding of the trajectory of the saga, it's like getting in a car and not having any gas. In this case, as in Drugstore Cowboy, it had that arc, which is to me the most important thing. Because all the other stuff - the dialogue, the photography, the light, the set decoration - all the fun stuff is... just fun. The hard thing is just that core journey that the story is traveling on.

On working with actors who double up as screenwriters. Matt and Ben completely entertained me whatever I was up to. There was never any territorial kind of "Watch him !". They were very open, and as spontaneous as actors on the set as they had been working on the screenplay. And it wasn't just coming from me, it came from whoever had an idea.

I remember one specific instance, when I interjected... It's the moment, I think, when Will (Matt Damon) lights the paper on fire in (Lambeau's (Stellan Skansgaard) office. Originally, he tossed it across the room. In one rehearsal, he wadded it off into a ball and tossed it. For some reason, probably because Matt was always smoking, I said, "Why don't you light it on fire?" And then Stellan had to deal with that as an actor. But Stellan is fantastic, he'll jump right in and attack that as opposed to resisting it.

There's one feeling I always try to instill on the set, which is, "Don't worry about the words too much." Because you can get really tripped up with whether you said this line right, or which line comes after it, if you missed your cue, or what have you. To me, once you're on the set and once you're going, you could almost make it up. If you go by the script, that's okay. If you stray a bit, that's okay. If you forget something, the other actor will pick up from you or maybe something new will develop. I really welcome that.

On Robin "the Human Dynamo" Williams. Oh, he was a dynamo, all right, in the way the ideas came sort of fast and furious. But at the same time, he was really subdued and on his own when he showed up. He was a certain way with the script and what he thought he wanted to do with the character of Sean Maguire, which was unlike anything he might be doing in films like Flubber. Although he's a professor in Flubber, too, isn't he? Well, one is completely like a certain kind of Robin Williams, and Sean Maguire is another type of professor in Robin's imagination, which had really little to do with his stand-up comedy life. But it came from him. At times, during production, Robin would say, "Let me do a few more takes like this and then I'll do a really wacky one." And I'd go, "Great." So I'd get ready for this huge thing to happen, and it would be like a little ad lib. And I'd go, "So that was the really wild one, huh?" And he'd go, "Yeah !". He was totally contained with the Sean character - except between takes, of course : he would liven up the set, to put it mildly

On NOT using a video monitor on the set. I was really fighting against it on this film. Our Director of Photography wanted to have a tiny one on the dolly so that the crew members could actually see what the camera was doing. The boom guy may need it to figure out where his cut-off line is : if there's a monitor, he can find it ; if not, the cameraman would have to say, "In, in, in, out" as he's riding the whole shot. Similarly, a dolly grip can see what the camera is doing so that when he moves the dolly one way, he understands what the shot is trying to accomplish, he can see it unfolding. So there are time-savers involved with a monitor within the crew.

As a director, unfortunately, I was drawn to that. I caught myself many a time staring right at the monitor. I'm not supposed to look, but whenever it's around - even a small little one - I tend to get sidetracked. In other words, it was a good thing for the crew, a bad thing for me.

Generally, I find monitors slow things down. It's yet another thing to have to set up. Besides, you tend to start playing stuff back a lot. Which we wouldn't do on Good Will Hunting. Unless something went really wrong. But we wouldn't play back for, say, performance. People can get really swept up in that...

On changing one's style and "going mainstream." I've actually heard some interesting comments. Some people who'd seen the film said, "It's really good. I'm surprised Gus made this." Did I change my style consciously, if at all? I don't think so. It was the screenplay, really, as was the case with my other films. They were screenplays that I really liked, they were stories that I liked ; I went in and made them without regard to anything other than my own reaction to it.

True, ... Will... was a less confrontational setting, perhaps, and the characters were less off-the-beaten-track, though they still are a bit. Perhaps, overall, it's a more mainstream type of a story, an emotional human drama with a heartwarming kind of development and ending. I've never been adverse to that. I've also tried to instill that in my other movies. Not particularly in To Die For, but definitely in Drugstore Cowboy and in My Own Private Idaho. Drugstore... turned out to be a moving story &endash; "heartwarming" wasn't really the point. Same as ... Idaho. It wasn't particularly heartwarming but I was always trying for a very moving story. In Good Will Hunting, there are sentimental touches that Ben and Matt constructed that have to do with friendship and honor and direction in these characters. I'm really happy that they were in the screenplay, and I executed them with vigor.

On the impact of MTV on both filmgoers and filmmakers. The way I see it - but I'm not sure this is true &endash; originally, MTV was a marketing ploy by a major record producer to try and sell more records. It was a way to get video clips on the air, thereby getting kids to buy more records. Which worked.

But in the years that MTV has existed, which is now about, what, 17 years?, an entire generation has grown up accepting the film styles of the people hired to make the videos, very often people that were influenced by the experimental cinema of the '60's or 8 mm. work or low-budget work. Therefore a 15-year-old, say, today finds no difficulty in a degraded video image that could be projected on a 35 mm screen and accepts it as a valid piece of dramatic work. So what you have now is a whole generation of viewers that will accept any format as valid. And that, to a very large extent, promoted independent cinema, which is still growing. In the Midwest, you can play a film shot on 8 mm. I mean, you could. Ideally. It hasn't happened yet. There hasn't been that breakthrough Hi-8 film that's playing in malls across America, but I'm sure it'll play within a few years, largely to due with the audience acceptance of this sort of format.

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