Oscar-nominated writer and director Gus Van Sant was a key figure on the American independent film scene of the 1980s and 1990s, offering p tic yet clear-eyed excursions through America's seamy underbelly in films like "Drugstore Cowboy" (1989) and "My Own Private Idaho" (1991). Openly gay, Van Sant dealt unflinchingly with marginalized subcultures. Even as he segued into the mainstream with "Good Will Hunting" (1997) and "Milk" (2008), he stayed true to his artful, gritty vision. Van Sant was the rare filmmaker who dipped in and out of the studio system with ease, and while his more experimental, limited release works were some of his strongest, he had a remarkable ability to stay true to his striking visual style and penchant for societal outcasts, while at the same time, crafting widely appealing films.
Van Sant was born in Louisville, KY on July 24, 1952 and was raised all over the United States as the child of a salesman. He was interested in filmmaking from an early age, and put together his own Super-8 home movies in addition to experimenting with photography and painting. After graduating from the progressive Catlin Gabel School in Portland, OR, Van Sant studied painting and film at the Rhode Island School of Design where his exposure to the films of Andy Warhol inspired him to follow in the silver-haired one's experimental footsteps. During several years in Hollywood, Van Sant gained production experience and became fascinated by the fringe-dwelling street characters of rundown Hollywood. "I guess I'm interested in sociopathic people," he stated, "in life and in my movies." Their stories remained fixed in his mind while he spent two years producing commercials at an advertising agency in New York. With money he saved in the lucrative position, Van Sant retreated to Portland, where he directed music videos, commercials and began work on his first feature. "Mala Noche" (1986), a dreamy black-and-white rumination on the doomed relationship between a teen Mexican migrant worker and a liquor-store clerk, was a hit on the festival circuit. Made for $25,000, the film won a Los Angeles Film Critics Award as the best independent/experimental film.
The buzz over Van Sant's debut achievement led to meetings with Hollywood studios, though the courtship came to an end when Van Sant revealed the seedy, decidedly un-Hollywood stories he had in mind for his next features. One of those ideas eventually became "Drugstore Cowboy" (1989), which chronicled the exploits of a rootless druggie (Matt Dillon) and his "crew" who survive by robbing West Coast pharmacies. Lyrically shot around Portland, and boasting superb performances from Dillon and co-star Kelly Lynch, the film earned heaps of critical praise, including the Best Film and Best Director titles from the National Society of Film Critics. Van Sant further explored the themes of alienation and non-traditional "family" within marginalized societal groups in his 1991 feature, "My Own Private Idaho." Van Sant won an Independent Spirit Award for his first original screenplay, about a narcoleptic male prostitute (River Ph nix) and his well-heeled companion (Keanu Reeves) - son of the local mayor who, like Shakespeare's Prince Hal, slums amongst the low-lifes before reclaiming his place in society. Unified by p tic visual imagery, the film combined a less than successful retelling of the Bard's "Henry IV" with a harsh, unsentimental and nonjudgmental look at the lives of hustlers.
Van Sant hovered in familiar territory with another indie road picture centering on an outsider, "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" (1994). Adapted from Tom Robbins' 1976 cult novel about a young woman whose outsized thumbs make her a formidable hitchhiker, "Cowgirls" was highly anticipated after the attention-getting success of Van Sant's preceding features. The film's editing was reportedly rushed to be ready for the international film festivals, and after underwhelming audience response at the 1994 Toronto Film Festival, "Cowgirls" returned to the editing room for extensive recutting. Nonetheless, the final product was deemed a tedious bore, top heavy with would-be quirky characters, and it fizzled with both critics and audiences. The flop could have derailed Van Sant's career had he not already committed to helming "To Die For" (1995), his first project for a major studio. Scripted by Hollywood veteran Buck Henry, "To Die For" was inspired by the true story of a high-school teacher who seduced her teenage lover into murdering her husband. The film was a modest commercial success and critical hit for everyone involved, particularly Nicole Kidman who portrayed the tirelessly ambitious local weathercaster who romances Joaquin Ph nix into murdering Matt Dillon.
The same year, Van Sant served as executive producer on Larry Clark's "Kids," a 'verite'-styled drama about the sex and drug habits of a group of middle-class Manhattan teens as well as one of the more controversial films of 1995. Some found the work profound, while others found it troubling for its "exploitive" use of young actors. Van Sant returned to the director's chair and helmed his first major box office success "Good Will Hunting" (1997), about a working class underachiever and undiagnosed genius (Matt Damon) championed by a state-mandated therapist (Robin Williams) and a charismatic best friend (Ben Affleck). Written by Damon and Affleck, the well-crafted film was somewhat predictable but Van Sant's sure-handed direction and authentic sense of place (set in blue-collar South Boston) overcame any deficiencies. And while "Good Will Hunting" might have seemed an unlikely (and overtly commercial) choice for the director, its themes of outsiders struggling to connect to the mainstream place it squarely in his uvre. The film's $200 million box office success and Van Sant's Oscar nomination moved him closer to mainstream Hollywood, but he nearly derailed his prospects out of the gate when he opted to direct a shot-by-shot 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic "Psycho," a bizarre career move which left film purists fuming and audiences unmoved.
Van Sant's misstep was fairly redeemed with "Finding Forrester" (2000), a conventional but mostly effective tale in which a reclusive, J.D. Salinger-like author (Sean Connery) mentors an inner city p try prodigy (Rob Brown). After this commercial and critical success, Van Sant returned left of center with a pair of non-studio productions directing "Gerry" (2002), co-written by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck who also starred in the unusual film in which two men named Gerry are hopelessly lost during a hiking expedition. Hypnotic and unorthodox, to say the least, the film was received as a definite "love-it-or-hate-it" prospect, but Van Sant seemed squarely back on the road to more personalized and experimental filmmaking. He remained independent with the arresting and remarkable "Elephant" (2003), an abstract exploration of the contrast between banality and violence in American life which stubbornly refused to embrace any sort of conventional narrative. Named for the aphorism about the problematic pachyderm in the living room that is so big that it g s ignored, the star-less film followed students at a Portland high school where violence erupts, delivering Van Sant's take on the murders at Columbine High School. The crisp, spare film, which offered no easy answers, earned the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
With "Last Days" (2005), a fictional rendition of the last days before tortured rocker Kurt Cobain's self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head, Van Sant again crafted an innovative and hypnotic film. Starring Michael Pitt as Blake, an introspective artist buckling under the weight of fame, stardom and mounting isolation, "Last Days" borrowed liberally from Cobain's own story while maintaining its independence and claim of being a work of fiction. Reviews were mainly positive but "Last Days" received only limited release in a mere 12 theaters. The following year, Van Sant contributed to the Paris-set short film collection "Paris Je T'Aime" (2006), writing and directing a humorous vignette about a crossed-signals attempt at a pickup. Van Sant's 2008 film adaptation of the novel "Paranoid Park" was not released in U.S. theaters despite positive reviews, but later that same year, he scored with "Milk" (2008), a biopic drama about assassinated San Francisco politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). A fascinating hybrid of cultural history and character study, the film which Van Sant had been trying to bring to the screen since 1992 made an even stronger mark than it might have earlier when its fall 2008 release coincided with the defeat of a proposition legalizing marriage between same sex couples in California. The docudrama earned nearly unanimous praise - while Van Sant received a nomination for Best Director at the Academy Awards - even though its culturally significant and timely subject matter received limited release.
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Landed a summer advertising job on NYC's Madison Ave. at age 16
As an art student, discovered the work of Andy Warhol; inspired to start making films
Worked as an assistant to Ken Shapiro ("Groove Tube"), working on comedy scripts
Received credit for the sound on the comedy film "Property"
Moved to New York; created commercials for a Madison Ave. advertising firm
Short film "The Discipline of D.E." debuted at New York Film Festival
Returned to Portland, OR to write and direct films, commercials and music videos; also briefly taught film production at the Oregon Art Institute
Wrote, edited, and produced first widely acclaimed feature "Mala Noche"
Directed first film with a sizable budget "Drugstore Cowboy," made between $4 and $7 million; also first feature in color
Wrote first original feature film screenplay "My Own Private Idaho"; also directed
Directed TV short "Thanksgiving Prayer," a segment of PBS compilation special "American Flash Cards"
Signed a contract with The Gap to film commercials
Helmed an adaptation of Tom Robbins' novel "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues"
Executive produced first film, Larry Clark's "Kids"
Directed first film he did not write,"To Die For" starring Nicole Kidman
Helmed mainstream drama "Good Will Hunting," co-written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck; received first Best Director Academy Award nomination
Signed to make a color version of "Psycho" using Joseph Stefano's original script
Directed Sean Connery in "Finding Forrester," about an African-American teen writing prodigy who finds a mentor in a reclusive author
Directed "Gerry," which starred and was written by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck; nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Director
Wrote and directed "Elephant," which was inspired by the mass shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999; nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Director
Helmed "Last Days," loosely based on the final hours of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain
Wrote and directed "Le Marais" segment of film anthology "Paris, je t'aime"
Helmed "Paranoid Park," a film about a teenage skateboarder who accidentally kills a security guard; earned an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for Best Director
Directed "Milk," a biography of openly gay San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk (Sean Penn)
Nominated for the 2008 Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film ("Milk")
Nominated for the 2008 Academy Award for Best Achievement in Directing ("Milk")
Directed Mia Wasikowska, playing a terminally ill teenage girl in "Restless"
Executive produced Starz crime drama series "Boss," starring Kelsey Grammer
Directed "Promised Land"; film co-written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski based on a story by Dave Eggers