Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Gus Van Sant

'Gerry' Tales

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Gus Van Sant (right) directs Sean Connery
on the set of Finding Forrester (2000).
Rumors have it that film festival audiences walked out of Gus Van Sant's new masterpiece Gerry in droves. The film's extremely slow pace and extraordinarily long takes -- some of which last up to seven minutes -- apparently displeased discerning crowds at Toronto and Sundance.

But Van Sant, who was present at both festivals, said that the walkouts were minimal to non-existent. "Some of them even came back in with popcorn," he said during a recent conversation over lunch at Berkeley's Downtown restaurant.

Gerry follows the misadventures of two young men (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who head out for a nature walk and get lost. They spend the rest of the movie wandering around in the American desert, looking for water and a way out.

Van Sant devotes great chunks of the film to simply showing the two friends -- who call each other "Gerry" -- trudging through the sand, enduring the heat, not saying a word. Ironically, the characters also use the word "Gerry" to describe a screw-up or a wrong turn.

Normally filmmakers design their films to manipulate the audience's emotional responses, but with Gerry, audiences must think for themselves.

Van Sant conceived the film with Affleck, who lives in New York City near the director, and Damon, who appeared in Van Sant's 1997 hit Good Will Hunting. The three met several times and brainstormed ideas. They eventually turned in an official "script" to the studio, but then went out on location and improvised.

Following two disappointing Hollywood studio films, the director longed to get back to basics, working with a scaled down crew similar to the one he used on his 1986 debut film Mala Noche.

"Mala Noche had three people," Van Sant says, "and my second film, Drugstore Cowboy, had 80 people. We couldn't do anything very fast. I always thought I missed stuff."

Since the filmmakers shot in the desert -- three deserts, to be exact, in Argentina, Death Valley and the Utah salt flats -- Van Sant did away with lights, make-up and costume departments. (The actors wore their own clothes.)

"The lighting department is one of those things that can take up time," Van Sant says. "I'm not particularly against lights, but there's no way you're going to get lights up in the desert, especially for long takes."

It's the long takes that make Gerry such a fascinating and innovative film. In one shot, Damon and Affleck trudge across the salt flats for seven minutes. Damon appears as a small speck in the upper right corner of the frame, while Affleck struggles to catch up, much larger and in the lower left corner of the frame. They do not talk at all. During the shot, the sun rises and turns the scene from near dark to brightly lit.

"It used to be eight minutes," Van Sant deadpans. "But I thought maybe it was going on too long. When you're talking these lengths, there is a rhythm, but it's not like other rhythms. Other types of rhythm, under 20 seconds, it's literally musical. But longer than a minute, it becomes a subliminal, impressionistic rhythm."

Van Sant also cheated the shot to get the sunrise effect. In reality, he says, the sun would have taken some 30 or 35 minutes to travel the same distance.

Another stunning shot shows an extreme close-up of Affleck and Damon walking side-by-side, with the camera directly to their left, tracking next to them for several minutes. Van Sant tried the scene with dialogue and without, and ended up using the silent take. Listening to nothing but their footsteps and their breathing can be mesmerizing.

An additional, more humorous scene shows Affleck stuck on top of a rock, having climbed up to get a better view of their surroundings. Damon attempts to build a "dirt mattress" for Affleck to jump down and land on. Again the scene takes place in a single shot with only one cut -- to a close-up of Affleck -- and only then because the camera ran low on film. (A reel of unexposed film only lasts ten minutes.)

The rock scene marks Affleck's big moment, and so the actor got very involved. "Casey was the one who got on the rock, so he was somehow the authority on what the rock was supposed to look like. I would show Casey rocks and he always rejected them," Van Sant laughs.

In making Gerry, Van Sant was inspired by the Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr (Satantango, Werckmeister Harmonies) for his use of long, unbroken takes and his wariness toward plot-driven imagery. But the famous Danish Dogme '95 manifesto helped as well. According to the manifesto, Dogme films must use natural light and sound and must not use props or costumes that are not already found on the set. Special effects are strictly forbidden.

Though Gerry is not an official Dogme film, it keeps with the intended spirit, and it allowed Van Sant to start fresh.

Van Sant has experienced his share of misery in Hollywood, from his 1994 flop Even Cowgirls Get the Blues to his ill-fated 1998 Psycho remake and Finding Forrester (2000), which critics trashed as a Good Will Hunting re-hash.

One of Van Sant's strangest Hollywood experiences concerns the origin of Psycho. Van Sant pitched the Universal executives, using the angle that most remakes come from old, obscure films, and then the filmmakers change everything anyway. What if he did a remake of a well-known film and didn't change anything?

Universal Studios green-lighted Psycho during the few weeks that the director was nominated for an Oscar for Good Will Hunting.

"It's really easy to make those kinds of deals just before the Academy Awards," Van Sant says. "That way, when I'm making my Oscar speech, Sherry Lansing can lean over to Barry Diller and say, 'we've got them on our next picture' while everyone is still applauding."

The business gets even stranger. "Sometimes people make movies just so they can cast them," Van Sant admits. "Just so they can go out and have dinners with people. Sometimes the money people are having dinner with the filmmakers just to hear about it and to hang out. And in the end, their advisors say, 'no way.'"

But Van Sant says that things are getting easier. "You don't need any of that stuff. Just go get your digital camera and do it."

February 23, 2003

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