In Features, Issues

SANDS OF TIME
In Gerry, director Gus Van Sant journeys with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck into uncharted worlds of independent cinema. Scott Macaulay talks with Van Sant about time, art films and the desert.

Matt Damon and Casey Affleck in Gus Van Sant's Gerry. Photo: Savides/Van Sant

As Gus van Sant recounts below, he was having dinner with author and screenwriter Barry Gifford, trying to tell Gifford about his new film, Gerry, when Gifford cut to the chase: “So, is it a Gus Van Sant movie?”

For independent directors who work in Hollywood, such questions of auteurship are vexing ones. While the Andrew Sarris school of thought, in which a director’s interests and style consistently show through his or her filmmaking choices, has held sway for years, the intermingling of indie directors and studio money begs for a re-examination of the issue. Look at this holiday season: Is James Mangold’s Kate & Leopold a James Mangold Film? What about Steven Soderbergh and Oceans 11? Will The Bourne Identity turn out to be a Doug Liman Film?

Fans of Van Sant’s earlier movies — Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho — have pondered these sorts of questions throughout the late ’90s as Van Sant seemingly turned away from edgy youth dramas to direct two mainstream films (Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester) that both dealt with mentor-student relationships. In both cases, working from material developed by others, Van Sant crafted elegant productions that harkened back to the genuine “human dramas” of the ’70s he watched while growing up. (To complicate matters further, in between Van Sant made a film, Psycho, which in its shot-for-shot evocation of Hitchcock’s original, was a virtual conceptual artpiece on authorial identity.)

Now, though, Van Sant has returned with an unabashedly independent production, Gerry, that challenges any preconceptions his supporters, whether they be in Hollywood or in the independent community, may have of him. Collaborating with actors Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, Van Sant has improvised a film that is both a hypnotic visual experience as well as a compelling return to stories of male bonding and friendship. However, as Van Sant readily admits, the film is also a bit of an homage to two directors, Béla Tarr and Chantal Akerman, whose deliberately paced films are very different in style and subject matter from Van Sant’s earlier work. Indeed, comprised of long, intricately choreographed shots, relatively little cutting and conventional coverage, and eschewing Hollywood formulations of character motivation and psychology, Gerry finds Van Sant in the company of not just Tarr and Akerman but also of Hou Hsiao-hsien, Alexandr Sokurov, Abbas Kiorastami, Tsai Ming-liang, Fred Kelleman and other modern masters of a slower cinema. And, as the films by each of the directors in the preceding list have their own individual identities, so too does Van Sant’s Gerry. Building its own brand of absurd American realism, Gerry shares with Van Sant’s other films a restless creativity that constantly expresses itself in new and surprising ways.

 

FILMMAKER: This is based on a true story, right?

GUS VAN SANT: Yeah, the genesis is from a story that I was told by Matt Damon about two guys who were lost in the desert, and it ended tragically. But we pretty much tried to ignore the real case because we didn’t want to get too close to it. Casey, Matt and I brought our own experiences of getting lost in wilderness areas into the mix.

FILMMAKER: What about your choice to approach this material in the “long-take” style.

VAN SANT: Seeing Béla Tarr’s films, Werckmeister Harmonies and Sátántangó, which I saw a year and a half ago, were very inspiring.

FILMMAKER: You have a couple of Béla shots in the movie that sort of “tip the hat” to the influence he’s had on the film.

VAN SANT: There are three, actually. Béla’s work was sort of the instigator [for Gerry], and his films brought to mind other influences like Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, which I saw in 1975. Jeanne Dielman shows [the story] in a very detached way, which I think also relates to the existential playwrights. In some ways I was more connected with Jeanne Dielman when I made Gerry, although the initial inspiration was Béla. There are a lot of influences on this movie that I’m only now realizing. Jacques Tati, for example. But upon seeing Werckmeister Harmonies, I said, “Okay, this is the last straw! That’s the last movie I’m going to watch before trying to do something like this.” There are things in Bela’s movies that aren’t in Gerry, but that are also very much up my alley. Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, the costume designer for most of my movies, is Hungarian, and she always dresses the characters up like the characters dress in Béla’s movies. So there’s something coming from Hungary itself that makes the characters [in my films] end up seemingly like they’re in a production of Waiting for Godot!

FILMMAKER: You mean in all of your movies?

VAN SANT: Yeah, from Drugstore Cowboy on.

FILMMAKER: What specific quality is it in her work?

VAN SANT: She’ll put a shiny, fake, too-small leather jacket on a character that makes him look like he’s an industrial worker in Budapest. Or she’ll [make him wear] a funny hat. I mean, to me it’ll be funny. To her, I don’t know. It’s hard sometimes to communicate because she’s doing things in a very artistic way, so you can’t say specifically, “This hat, what is it?” She has her own inner reasons why she’s putting that hat on a character, which sometimes works against the interest of, say, the person portraying that character or even the producer producing the movie. [An actor] will say, “Why am I wearing these checked pants?” And she just wants him to wear the checked pants and shut up, because she’s designing the movie! Usually, I go along with it to the point where the characters are ripping their clothes off and saying, “I’m not wearing this under any circumstances!” If it comes to that point, then I’ll side with the actor, but usually I’ll try and make up some funny reason why he should be wearing whatever it is he’s wearing, even though I can’t figure out why either. But a year later, when the movie comes out, time has passed, and it all kind of comes together and makes sense.

Matt Damon and Casey Affleck in Gus Van Sant's Gerry. Photo: Savides/Van Sant

Many of the looks, at least costume-wise, in Drugstore Cowboy, [My Own Private] Idaho, [Even] Cowgirls [Get the Blues], To Die For and Good Will Hunting remind me of the stuff I see in Béla’s films. I wonder if it’s partly a Hungarian aesthetic, or a Samuel Beckett aesthetic — an “existential outfitting of movie characters.”

FILMMAKER: But obviously it goes beyond questions of “style,” because the experience of watching Gerry is very different from your other films. This is the first of your movies to really play with these notions of time and duration.

VAN SANT: There’s a lot of “doing stuff” in Jeanne Dielman — doing things like you would normally do them, not how you would do them in a film. It’s like an anti-jump cut — instead of jump cutting, you show the entire action. If it takes a minute and a half to ride down an elevator, you show that ride. You don’t cut to the door opening, but you show the minute-and-a-half ride, and your audience watches and exists with the actors during that minute and a half when maybe nothing’s happening. But [the sequence] adds contrast to the parts of the story where something is happening; it resonates, and those lulls add a reality.

FILMMAKER: These days, we’re encouraged to think in terms of “beats,” and film editing is about getting from one “beat” to another as economically as possible. Gerry has a more environmental feel; it’s like you’re living in the desert with these characters.

VAN SANT: [This style], this “anti-jump cut,” is an extreme thing, like the jump cut apparently was when Godard used it in Breathless. But [filmmakers] don’t do the anti-jump cut; it’s like, “Why?” And there are all these great reasons why, but we choose to ignore them because they’re apparently time-wasters, as if storytelling time should be rationed. I don’t know if you read that thing I wrote in Béla Tarr’s MoMA catalog, but for me the [film narrative] process is based on industry. It’s based on the watch. It’s like, “Well, I haven’t got time for that, so let’s just move onto the next issue.” It’s about cutting to the chase, telling the story within a set amount of time. It’s the difference between a novel and a movie. You do have time to read certain things in a novel that you don’t have time to watch in a movie. Movie storytelling has changed from the beginning of cinema, when you actually did “watch” things.

FILMMAKER: Like the Lumière Brothers.

VAN SANT: Right. And then there was the invention of “cutting.” One of the things that was attributed to Griffith, which I think was done by a group of people, was a sort of industrialization of cinema — allowing cinema to fit into the industrial model. Scriptwriting used to be notes jotted down by the director, and then all of a sudden it became a classification. People became scriptwriters when in fact, maybe before that, there wasn’t a scriptwriter. Then there might have been a playwright, and [filmmaking] sort of followed the stage model. But after reaching its pinnacle, with maybe Citizen Kane as the ultimate, it has worked its way down the slope to today, where people are questioning that model.

FILMMAKER: What kind of filmmakers are you referring to, the ones who are “questioning that model?”

VAN SANT: Well, it’s not happening on a very widespread scale, but it’s happening! There’s nowhere else to go. Either you perfect the model, or you just try and figure out ways to work outside the model, to subvert it or change it or deconstruct it, maybe in the same way that James Joyce was trying to in his novels. It seems like filmmakers, or at least the ones I like, are doing that more and more. Béla Tarr is one of those, and Chantal Akerman. And Kiarostami’s movies — I don’t know if he’s doing it for the same reasons, but he’s working outside of that model.

FILMMAKER: You’re talking about the “anti-jump cut,” but there are also people today working on the opposite idea. At the beginning of this century, people say that, with the Internet and mass media, our sense of time is accelerated. Things are faster. You’ve referenced this idea before. To Die For, for example, deals with television and employs a kind of channel-switching, multiple-character point of view.

VAN SANT: Sound bites — that’s sort of where we’re at now. But where do you go from there? Do you go faster, or do you get slow, because things have become so fast that they finally flip? Since slow is similar to fast, I think fast can read as slow. Slow and fast have more in common than just ordinary pacing to me.

FILMMAKER: Does this idea relate to the psychology of perception? You never perceive things as “normal” — your life is either moving slow or fast.

VAN SANT: Things have been fast for a long time. The industrial revolution seemed to speed things up. Preston Sturges, nobody today is as fast [as he was]. You can cut faster, but you can’t really [tell a story] faster than Preston Sturges. Citizen Kane is really fast, and also really succinct and focused. There’s a reason why it’s the greatest film. Because it’s the greatest film of that “industrial genre.” Much of the time today you get “fast” without the focus. It’s just fast, and that’s kind of it. What you want to be is fast and the Coliseum, and we’re renting it for $100,000,” you can’t say the day before, “You know what? We don’t need the Coliseum.” You tend to work according to your schedule because this huge machine — all the different departments — is planning based on a script. We didn’t really have that planning, and we also didn’t have those departments. We didn’t have production designers or a lighting department — we were shooting in the desert! Since we didn’t have to plan on those things, we didn’t get locked in. We just had a selection of locations, and we chose at that moment, or maybe the day before, where to shoot.

Matt Damon and Casey Affleck in Gus Van Sant's Gerry. Photo: Savides/Van Sant

FILMMAKER: In so many American movies that use improvisation, there’s this idea that the actors have to talk and talk and finally reach some kind of cathartic revelation or baring of the soul. You can see it in films like The Anniversary Party, where it’s about the actor going deeper and deeper.

VAN SANT: Like the Actors Studio.

FILMMAKER: Yeah. One thing I loved about this movie is that you don’t have those moments.

VAN SANT: Before we made the movie, I thought we were definitely going to have a lot of long bits of soul-searching dialogue. But it wasn’t Casey’s reaction to the direction we were going. And I think it was maybe a big fear on our part to have a bad version of that [soul-searching dialogue]. We wanted to have a good version of that [kind of interaction]. So maybe we just wound up with our version — because we have something.

FILMMAKER: It’s weird because that sparseness, that lack of dialogue, is somewhat stylized, but it’s also realistic. If you’re stuck in the desert, I’m not really sure you would flash back to something that happened to you when you were 10 years old and tell the person you’re with. It’d be more like, “How do we get out of here, and where’s water?”

VAN SANT: There was a sort of rule that I had, which was, when [Matt and Casey] are talking, they’re just talking and not pointing out stuff that we’re supposed to know. If they’re talking about something, and we don’t know what they’re talking about, then that’s okay. So long as they know what they’re talking about, I personally don’t have to know what they’re talking about, and the audience doesn’t have to know. We’re along with them, but we’re not being instructed by them.

FILMMAKER: Was it always the intention to shoot the film in so few shots? The movie is basically comprised of long-take masters.

VAN SANT: We didn’t want to cut around and show action from multiple angles; we just wanted to show an angle and have the camera roam around, if it was supposed to roam around. This is something I’d watched in Béla’s movies and got really interested in. People have been doing single-take stuff, but whenever I see people do long, single takes, they seem to be just long, single takes. When I watch one of Béla’s films, it’s as if the shot, and the action and the story, are fused together. It’s not like the camera is aware of itself.

FILMMAKER: There’s that Hollywood use of single takes, like the beginning of Boogie Nights or the nightclub scene in GoodFellas.

VAN SANT: But then the shots break and the films continue on their ways. Hitchcock made Rope with long takes, but for some reason it didn’t seem to break any convention because everything else was so traditional. It strikes me that, in Béla’s work, there’s something new going on.

FILMMAKER: Where did you shoot the movie, and what went into your decision to layer different locations into one “desert?”

VAN SANT: We were in Argentina in our first direct, and I can’t think of something as fast and as direct as those ’30s movies. Yes, a lot of things are happening today. The Internet can do things fast, but then there’s also an element of leisure that’s involved with modern society, where you do spend hours meditating, and things do happen in a different way than they may have in the ’30s and ’40s. There’s also a direction that film seems to have been going, which is “the more real, the better.” No makeup is better than makeup. No light is better than light. No cutting is better than cutting. A fabricated story isn’t as good as something that’s more organic.

FILMMAKER: Before, you mentioned the role of the screenwriter. In terms of this particular film, which contains a large amount of improvisation, what plan did you have going in? How much did you make up on the spot?

VAN SANT: The original idea was something that I wanted to do with [J.T. Leroy’s novel] Sarah — to just go and start shooting the novel. You have a guide that you’re working from, but you’re not writing it down. So when we made Gerry first, I was still interested in not going through that screenplay stage. [Casey, Matt and I] had meetings — “scriptwriting” sessions — for a number of months using outlines. Those were pretty undisciplined. We were just writing ideas down. Then out of those ideas, we made an outline. A week before we shot, Casey and Matt did more traditional dialogue writing. [When we started shooting, we] knew the progression to the end, but it changed as we reacted to things as we went. We threw away ideas, which you wouldn’t ordinarily do if you were shooting a script. If you’re working with assistant directors and production crews who say, “On the 16th we’re going to shootweek, and it was really too cold to be shooting there. We planned on it being mild, but we were up high enough in the mountains that it was pretty cold. So we left and went up to Death Valley, and it was very, very, very hot — 120 degrees. It’s the sort of place where you don’t see your sweat because it dries immediately.

FILMMAKER: How much of the movie was filmed in Argentina?

VAN SANT: I think about a quarter.

FILMMAKER: The desert is like a desert with a capital “D” — it’s a primordial, mythic desert.

VAN SANT: It’s another character. We experienced some of the things that the characters would themselves experience just because we were in the desert. When you have two characters and the desert, it’s like there are three characters. The desert becomes something you start reacting to, and [the process] becomes very simple.

FILMMAKER: But the movie’s simplicity is, at least from a production point of view, I think, deceptive. There’s stuff in the movie that must have been very difficult to pull off. For example, just to keep the horizon-line rock solid during all the Steadicam work is kind of incredible. Also, there are simple shots that I think people won’t realize would be difficult, like when you pan 360 degrees, and you see the horizon miles away in every direction. In those shots, where are the trucks? Where’s the crew?

VAN SANT: Yeah, that can be difficult to do, stuff like that. Technically, I think those were the most difficult shots — getting equipment into the desert when we were a mile or two from the road. It’s foolishly hard to get two miles into the desert while carrying equipment.

FILMMAKER: Were you ever worried that the whole thing just wouldn’t work?

VAN SANT: While we were shooting, I was editing on a little computer, on iMovie, putting footage together from the video tap with sound. After the first week, I showed it to Harris [Savides, the d.p.], and to Matt and Casey, and I said, “This is what the idea is.” I didn’t know whether or not it was going to come together or not, whether it was actually going to fit. There was a very good chance that these long, contemplative shots were going to be overly contemplative and just fall apart after the first 30 seconds. I was just going on my own instincts and having developed my own set of rules about what was good or bad [about this way of shooting] based on watching Chantal’s and Béla’s films. But it wasn’t until we actually put it together, after the first week, that I knew we weren’t wasting our money. One of the things that really glued everything together was Casey and Matt themselves. Even as people on screen doing nothing, for some reason they have this chemistry together. They’re really good friends, but I’m sure [their on-screen chemistry] isn’t based on their friendship. I don’t think a real friendship necessarily can be filmed. Most of the time, the two people on screen are enemies who never talk to each other between takes, and somehow there’s still a chemistry between them. The chemistry [between Matt and Casey] was another thing I think I saw after the first week of shooting. I was really fortunate we got that, because it would have been difficult to transcend some of those long passages without it. But that also happens with Béla’s stuff — the characters really hold down the shot. I think one of the things he works on quite a bit, and is focused on, is the character. Once he has that, the film is sort of an extension [of that].

FILMMAKER: What role do you think Matt Damon’s status as this young American movie star played within the film? Could you have made it with two unknown guys, and would it have worked?

VAN SANT: I don’t know. What do you think?

FILMMAKER: You’re definitely playing with the audience’s expectations about how Matt Damon will act on screen, even if it’s just the simple fact that it’s kind of a non-heroic role. But I also think there’s something more dramatic about Matt and Casey being subsumed by this big desert than if it was just two guys you found in Argentina.

VAN SANT: If it were just two guys, it would be totally different. As I originally thought of it, they were going to be funny characters lost in the desert. [The roles] were elevated by Matt and Casey to be less caricatures and more regular guys — maybe partly themselves. I think the initial idea was that it was two guys who were completely unprepared to spend more than even 10 minutes in the desert because of where they were from. They were supposed to be suburban kids who, once they got out of the car, were doomed. It worked its way from that to being something really different, because we realized after talking about it that it wasn’t really about the naïvete of the kids. Any human who gets out of the car is doomed if they don’t have a way to get back. Matt’s standing as an international-superstar actor was something that was never really part of the equation. But there was this whole question of, since there are two guys, which one is going to be the “alpha male?” We just arrived at that realistically, as opposed to through the way we constructed the characters. That was kind of an interesting thing to watch.

FILMMAKER: Did you know who would be the active one during the film’s climactic scene?

VAN SANT: It was a big question. We didn’t know when we started out. When we were shooting we didn’t know. I assumed, and I think Matt assumed too, but Casey didn’t assume. I think Casey assumed that we were all assuming one thing, and I think Casey thought, “Well, why are we assuming that?”

FILMMAKER: Talk a little bit about the editing.

VAN SANT: The editing was pretty fast, because there were, I think, only about 90 shots.

FILMMAKER: You didn’t shoot tons and tons of stock?

VAN SANT: We shot, like, 125,000 feet.

FILMMAKER: That’s small.

VAN SANT: It’s small, but on my other films I’ve also shot like that. Some films may have gone up to 200,000.

FILMMAKER: You haven’t shot three- or four-hundred-thousand feet?

VAN SANT: No. I remember Idaho seemed like we shot a lot, but it was only like 110,000. This film cut together pretty easily, because [the shots] were all similar pieces. And we didn’t have a traditional editor. Paul Zucker was our associate editor, and he ran the machines. We edited on Final Cut Pro; we were one of the first 35mm films to do that. We put it together, and I showed it to a small group of friends who are in the business, but who are close enough to me that I’d be able to believe them. They’re opinionated people, and [the film] seemed to pass that test. We had a few more screenings, but I stopped listening or being too hyper about what the reaction would be after the very first one. I didn’t want to start listening to bad reactions because it would either depress me or guide me in a wrong direction. I think the strength of this particular film is the audience’s ability to get into it. Whatever you bring to the movie is somehow part of it. There’s time in the film for you to reflect on this mishap [the characters fall into]. I think it keeps you reflecting, as opposed to making a list of the things you have to do tomorrow! There’s a weird state you get into where your own imagination works alongside the characters; it’s almost interactive in a way.

FILMMAKER: What about the sound design? You told me that it was inspired by Tomb Raider — the minimalism of the design and all the crunching sounds when the characters are walking. In a weird way, the Tomb Raider movie should have been like your movie. If you’ve ever played Tomb Raider, there is a lot of walking and not much action.

VAN SANT: Actually, when I heard they were doing Tomb Raider, I was kind of interested in it, but I also knew that they were thinking in terms of an action movie, and the game’s not like that. I mean, there are action moments, but there’s lots of other stuff going on — swimming, walking, climbing through great expanses. One of the cool things about it is the sound, but also the camera. I showed the game to Harris before we shot. The way the camera works in Tomb Raider, if you want to call it a camera, is that it sort of swings and swims around, always keeping the central figure somewhere in the middle of the frame. I showed it to Harris, thinking it would be really great if our camera could do exactly what this camera does. He thought we could do it, but only at a very great expense. You’d need some kind of bizarre Hovercraft to make the camera behave like that! So we tossed that “Tomb Raider-camera” point of view out the window, but we kept the silence of the soundtrack. In some ways, Gerry is Béla Tarr fused with Tomb Raider!

FILMMAKER: On Forrester, you said in interviews that you didn’t like the idea that you always had to make a Gus Van Sant movie. Is this a Gus Van Sant movie?

VAN SANT: Barry Gifford came to a screening in San Francisco two weeks ago. I was trying to explain to him what the movie was, and he asked the same question: “Is it a Gus Van Sant movie?” And I said, “Yeah.” A Gus Van Sant movie is Drugstore Cowboy and Idaho, I don’t know if any of the other movies qualify, maybe Cowgirls. Barry said, “So you’ve made a Gus Van Sant movie?” and I said something like, “You know, they don’t really want Gus Van Sant movies in Hollywood — they want their movies.” And he said, “Yeah! Fuck Gus Van Sant movies!” I think that’s the way Hollywood executives think. It might be great [for them] to have a Steven Spielberg movie, but not many directors are an emblem of making films that are known for being money-making experiences. My emblem is like a low-budget emblem, so if I’m making Good Will Hunting or Finding Forrester, it’s not marketed as a Gus Van Sant movie, because [that term] has all these other connotations. With those movies, Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, I wanted to bleed off all those earmarks. Psycho was its own sort of experiment, standing alone, which had its own existence apart from pretty much everything. But Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester were ways for me to see what it would be like to do stories and a style that was perhaps more popular in the ’70s. They’re kind of like “human dramas,” like Julia and Ordinary People. I wanted to see what it would be like to try and make [those kinds of movies]. I think I was just trying to find out whether I could actually do it, or whether I needed to rely on things that came to me more naturally.

FILMMAKER: On this film you’re also more involved in the business end of making a movie, in terms of the financing, the deal- making and in dealing with foreign distributors. It’s an added level of responsibility. Has that been something satisfying, or something you never want to do again?

VAN SANT: In the case of this particular movie, it’s very risky, and I think that adds an exciting element. It’s more like gambling at the track than it is “going to work.” There’s artistic risk and maybe profile risk by working for Sony on a [studio movie], but there’s much more risk for me gambling money on this one — the exhilaration and adrenaline of facing the consequences if it fails.

FILMMAKER: It certainly doesn’t seem like the movie is informed by that pressure.

VAN SANT: No, because the film’s not trying to make money out of the money [I spent on it]. It’s just trying to be free. The reason I risked the money was not to impose [restrictions] on myself. It’s sort of a self-designed cage built around freedom. There are certain things we couldn’t have done on this movie if there were executives around. They’d talk you out of doing them. Since we didn’t have them, I only had myself as the stand-in.

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