James R. Parish's Gus Van Sant


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We'd 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.


We've 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.


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How'd 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 Idaho 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?


It's 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.


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