James R. Parish’s Gus Van Sant

Written by J.T. Leroy on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

stand outside a theater in the Castro waiting for My Own Private Idaho to
let out. Guys came streaming out of the movie hungry for meat like a pack of
lions smelling their first zebra in a month. My boyfriend and I were hustling
at the time. Those nights we could charge four times what we normally got. I
wouldn’t just wait around getting high while the film showed, like my boyfriend
would. I’d go inside to sit in the back and watch it. Again and again.
I think it was the first time I ever noticed there was such a thing as a director.
I mean, I knew films had directors, but they were like car commercials, I never
paid attention. But watching this film by Gus Van Sant, I felt myself absorbing
it all–the devastatingly beautiful language and images of loss and longing.

I was good
at finding tricks who would let me crash at their houses. I made use of their
VCRs to inhale every Van Sant film I could get my hands on: Mala Noche,
Drugstore Cowboy, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, To Die For
and, more recently, Good Will Hunting and Psycho. As I began to
write, I vaguely dreamed that my work would one day be brought to the screen
by Van Sant. Friends of his passed my book Sarah on to him. When I got
a message telling me to contact Van Sant, I was so scared all I could do was
play back the phone message again and again for at least a week.

since become good friends, and have worked on several projects together. I know
Gus is very private about his past, so I was intrigued by James Robert Parish’s
Gus Van Sant: An Unauthorized Biography (Thunder’s Mouth, 333 pages,
$24.95), in which I am mentioned. I interviewed Parish recently about it.

you get into Gus Van Sant? And what made you want to write a book about him?

Over the
years I had seen several of Gus Van Sant’s films, with My Own Private
and To Die For sticking in my brain as very intriguing, offbeat
pictures. In picking a new project to write about, I suggested Van Sant as a
biography project. I was attracted by the man’s strong reputation as an
independent filmmaker who had done the "mainstream thing" with Good
Will Hunting
and had been daring enough to remake Psycho. I also
thought that his alternative lifestyle gave him an interesting edge as a moviemaker
and as an individual.

My biggest
surprise in researching the Gus Van Sant story was to discover his interest
and participation in the fields of music, novel writing and the photo essay/journalism
mediums. The more I studied his life story and accomplishments the more impressed
I was of his far-ranging interests in different art forms. To use a cliche,
he is a modern Renaissance man.

Gus is a
very private person. What has the response been from him and his family?

It is typical
when a biography book project does not originate with the subject that the individual
to be profiled for many reasons does not cooperate with the author. In the past,
I have had instances where the celebrity subject sought to stop my writing the
book, including telling everyone she knew not to speak with me. In the case
of the Gus Van Sant biography, my communications to Gus went unanswered, but
to my knowledge in every case that I contacted a person from his life story–and
they in turn contacted Gus to see if it would be okay to talk with me–Van
Sant, as I was told, said it was up to them if they wished to be interviewed
by me. Next to talking with the subject directly, this is the best situation
a writer can hope for in such a situation.

My networking
with people who had worked with and/or knew Gus socially led me to Van Sant’s
father in Ohio, who proved to be extremely cooperative in providing family history.
Mr. Van Sant Sr. has such a meticulous memory that he was able to verify even
small facts about Gus Jr.’s childhood and young adult years, and to point
me to classmates/childhood chums who could provide additional recollections
and anecdotes.

It has always
been my policy in writing biographies not to have a preconceived agenda about
the subject. With the Gus Van Sant book, I took the summation of my research,
interviews and constant re-watching/-reading/-listening of his films, record
albums, books, etc. to paint the word picture of the man from as objective a
standpoint as I could. Because Gus is involved in so many aspects of the arts,
there were many "voices" of the subject to listen to in forming my
written portrait. This provided a texture to my research, which I hope carried
across into the final manuscript.

Then, too,
thanks to the cooperation of Mr. Van Sant Sr. I had access to many family photos,
especially of Gus Jr. as a youngster. These shots, several of which made it
into the final book layout, gave me further insight into the filmmaker to be.

Did folks
talk to you about him, or were they guarded?

If there
was any area where people were a bit guarded and/or overly politically correct,
it was regarding Van Sant’s lifestyle in his pre-Mala Noche years.
However, given the fact that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in Hollywood
and elsewhere, homosexuals were very much more closeted than today, I was not
surprised that this aspect of Gus’ life remained off the radar of many
of his work associates or friends at the time.

Gus was
really wrongly vilified around the drug use of River Phoenix. What do you make
of that whole situation?

At the time
of River Phoenix’s death in 1993, it came as a great shock–played
up by the media–that the young star who was supposedly such a clean, pure
soul had died of a drug overdose. As the years went by, more and more people
revealed publicly their encounters with River during his periods of substance
abuse. However, what is more important than what people have claimed–i.e.,
that River’s life spun out of control after he went too deeply into his
role in My Own Private Idaho–is the strong effect that Phoenix–alive
and then dead–had on Gus Van Sant the filmmaker and man. That is what I
sought to bring forth in the biography.

Do you think
it was just easier for the media to disparage Gus because of his open sexuality?

hard to say what puts the media or any portion of it on the scent of a story,
real or imagined. It certainly created a new dimension for the media in reporting
on the alleged drug scene going on during the making of My Own Private Idaho
to point out that Gus had a great friendship with River Phoenix and that Van
Sant had an alternative lifestyle. It created layers of meaning for readers
to interpret as they were inclined to by the backstory.

The thing
that is wonderful about Gus is his willingness to take younger folks seriously.
He doesn’t ever patronize, he really takes younger folks’ opinion
to heart.

I think
it is very important for a creative artist to keep in touch with the new generations
and have a bead on their points of views and manners of creative expression.
It reignites the artist’s imagination and allows him to interpret his art
in terms that are meaningful for younger people as well as the more mature audience.

Yeah, like
he’s really into music. I dig burning stuff for him and then months later
he would have it playing in his hotel room. He didn’t just chuck it and
be like, yeah, right, whatever.

How much
of Gus’ fame do you think is because of his name? I always joke with Gus
that his name made him who he is.

I think
Gus was destined for his creative output to be shared with the public–even
if his name had been John Smith.