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ON FILM

Many personae of Gus Van Sant

By Philip Martin

This article was published January 11, 2013 at 2:03 a.m.

— It is tempting to divide the filmography of Gus Van Sant into two categories.

You have his intensely personal art films like Paranoid Park (2007), Last Days (2005), Elephant (2003), Gerry (2002), My Own Private Idaho (1991), Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and his remarkable feature debut, Mala Noche (1986). Then there are his more commercial movies, like To Die For (1995), Good Will Hunting (1997), and Finding Forrester (2000).

But then you have Milk (2008), which is sort of a model of an award-seeking “prestige” film, and Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Psycho from 1998. And where do you put the much maligned Even Cowgirls Get the Blues from 1993? And how does any of this reconcile with Van Sant’s role as creator and executive producer of the (lamentably canceled) Showtime series Boss, which gave Kelsey Grammer his meatiest and most ferocious role ever (as the Machiavellian mayor of Chicago)?

Van Sant is a difficult filmmaker to categorize. I used to think I knew what to expect from a Van Sant film. But he has proved himself a more versatile - and maybe bankable - director than I ever imagined he’d become back in the 1990s. He places a high value on allowing his actors freedom and he’s interested in experimenting with visual techniques, even in his “Hollywood films.” He prefers to work with older technologies rather than with (faster, cheaper) digital cinematography, and he tends to give trusted members of his crew latitude to do their jobs as they see fit.

“I’ve recently not tried to control things,” Van Sant says, when asked about how he achieved the look of his current film, the environmental drama Promised Land, which reunites him with Good Will Hunting collaborator Matt Damon, who co-wrote the script with John Krasinski. “In the past the most success I’ve had is when you don’t control it, when you find it already made. If you want a Four Seasons hotel room, well, it’s already done but the art director will come in and completely change everything around. So maybe it still looks like a Four Seasons, but every surface has been completely redone. Everything is different.”

“I always feel when you do that it becomes too fake ... the original is kind of the most beautiful,” he says. “My most favorite things in the past have been ... like in Elephant or Last Days ... those were just found places.”

Van Sant says he’d also gotten away from using a color palette in his films because “when you’re not conforming to a palette, things become more realistic.”

But “literally behind my back,” Van Sant says, production designer Dan Clancy and cinematographer Linus Sandgren established a color palette for Promised Land based on the earth tones of Andrew Wyeth.

“I said, ‘If you choose a palette, I don’t want to hear about it,’” Van Sant says, and the result was a visual triumph that recalls midcentury Kodachrome prints, and elevates what might have been a formulaic anti-fracking film. While Promised Land is probably not, as some of its television ads claim, “one of the best films of the year,” it does have some sublime moments and a beautiful verdancy that honors its rural American setting.

Damon, who called on Van Sant after it became clear that he couldn’t devote the time to directing the film (it was to be his directorial debut), says he has no doubt bringing Van Sant aboard improved his film.

“I saw all the things that he did that I was going to do, and then there were things that he did that I wasn’t going to do, that I hadn’t thought of,” Damon says. “That first scene, where I go to pitch the farmer played by Tim Guinee, it’s so wonderful.He’s got that beautiful little daughter, with the golden, curly hair ... we go into the house and Gus framed the shot with the girl in the foreground, and he gave her a coloring book. And a little 6- or 7-year-old kid gets a task like that, well, they forget about the camera. So she’s just diligently coloring her coloring book in the foreground, and then in the background you see Tim on the couch, and then you just see the hands of the land man, with the clipboard. And the camera is slowly pushing, with this girl in the foreground, innocently coloring ... as the men in the other room are making a deal that’s going to have a huge impact on her life ... John and I looked at the framing of that shot, and we were like, ‘We wrote this thing, we didn’t see that.’”

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 01/11/2013

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