Director Gus Van Sant’s films have traversed the cinematic map, from the expressionistic gay-desire drama Mala Noche (out on DVD this week) to Hollywood fare like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester to the Palme d’Or–winning school-massacre drama Elephant. His latest movie, Paranoid Park, which just debuted at the New York Film Festival, tells the story of a young skateboarder who becomes involved in a murder that occurs near the titular Portland skate park. We caught up with Van Sant over an afternoon martini at Harry’s New York Bar during his recent jaunt through the city.
Paranoid Park is based on a young-adult novel. What drew you to the book?
Some years ago, I bought Blake Nelson’s book Rock Star Superstar, and I got intrigued by his other books, which were all young-adult novels. Then I found out that previously he had been a young angry poet in Portland, where there’s a big poetry scene. Walt Curtis, who wrote the book Mala Noche was based on, was the Allen Ginsberg of that scene, and Blake had been the heir to his throne. Anyway, I became intrigued about making a film of Rock Star Superstar but didn’t really do anything about it. Then Blake sent me the galleys of Paranoid Park, which had a very different story but was more cohesive. It took about a day to write the script and a day to edit it.
In the film, the kids kind of laugh at the cop for referring to “the skateboarding community,” but it seems to me this is a key theme in your films — the way people form communities and surrogate families.
I’m just intuitively drawn to those stories. But, yeah, I’ve noticed it. All the films have that. [Thinks.] Like, every single one. I’m trying to think of ones that don’t.
Even Psycho kind of has it.
Yeah. Even Psycho has it. Well, Elephant…
It’s kind of a defining absence in Elephant.
Yeah. Ad hoc families are definitely one of my main themes.
How much do you improvise on set?
It’s sort of a combination, and it often depends on the actors. For example, in My Own Private Idaho, River [Phoenix] improvised a lot. I’ve run into a few actors who either felt uncomfortable improvising or who felt they should honor the writer. Even when the writer is me. I’ll tell them, “You have my permission,” but somehow that still doesn’t matter.
Has your style of working with actors changed over the years?
No. I pretty much treat everybody like a non-actor. At least, I think I do. You’d have to ask them. I want them to be just themselves. You can work with ordinary people that way. With actors, you try and get them to be looser and more natural, to let themselves bleed through. Like, I sometimes think of Brando in Last Tango in Paris. That must have been a very, very difficult process for him, because Brando’s the ultimate actor.
Brando said he felt raped.
He didn’t talk to Bertolucci for a long time after that. But at the same time, he gave one of his most brilliant performances in that film.
I’ve heard your last three films — Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days — referred to as a Trilogy of Death. Was that your idea?
Yes, and I’ve referred to it that way. Death is a plot device in my other films, like Drugstore Cowboy or Idaho or To Die For. Good Will Hunting didn’t have a death, but I tried to put one in. I tried to kill Chuckie [Ben Affleck’s character]. There was actually a wake scene and everything. But I think it was getting to be too much my movie, and they decided to go back to what they had before. But in all these cases, death was just a device — it wasn’t really the specter of death. The later films were conceived of as meditations on death: death by misadventure in Gerry, death by another person in Elephant, and death by your own hand in Last Days.
What prompted all that?
Probably just middle age. [Laughs.] —Bilge Ebiri