FILM - A Search for family and freedom, from 'Drugstore Cowboy' to 'Idaho'
Young Actors Go Wild with Gus Van Sant
by Sean Elder
Keanu Reeves is sitting in a coffee shop in Los Angeles watching the girls go by. It is the kind of place that, though it looks like a roadside diner anywhere, serves piping hot café latte and pasta dishes for breakfast - "a hangover breakfast," he calls it. And though the young actor does not seem hungover, he does seem visibly out of sorts, uncomfortable and inarticulate in answering a reporter's questions. Though Reeves has two big summer movies - Point Break and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey - in the can, his vaunted enthusiasm is well contained. Until we touch on the subject of director Gus Van Sant, and Reeves's next film, My Own Private Idaho.
"It's such an amazing story!" Reeves says of the surrealistic tale of two young street hustlers in the Northwest. "It's so - awww! It's just different, man, it's a different sound, a different way of making a movie. I hope it's engaging; when I read it I just said, 'Yeah!'"
In saying "yeah" to Van Sant and his peculiar, vision, Reeves has joined Matt Dillon and River Phoenix (star of Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy, and Reeves's co-star in Idaho, respectively) as a member of a small club of Hollywood stars working with one of America's more avant-garde filmmakers. Dillon broke the mold (and a few preconceptions) when he appeared as an inveterate, unapologetic junkie in Drugstore, and Reeves and Phoenix follow suit with their performances as homosexual street hustlers in Idaho. Is it youthful rebellion that's compelled these actors to take such seemingly risky roles - or is it just that they're a whole lot hipper than Hollywood?
"Keanu's on a movie star track," says My Own Private Idaho producer Laurie Parker, "and he's certainly part of it. But he has a hell-bent streak; he's up for doing something free."
Freedom is sometimes its own reward, and it's certainly a theme in Van Sant's films. His characters struggle to be free of convention, while pursuing a semblance of family, community - "strange, fractured attempts at some kind of love," is how Parker defines their gropings. Van Sant is, characteristically, more low-key in his appraisal, both of his films' meanings and their star-drawing power.
"I guess it's just because there's not a lot of opportunity for them to vary from their formula films,'" says the director of his charges. "Even the really good films are still formula. My screenplays weren't formula; they were more literary, more experimental, so these guys were really intrigued by it, I was lucky"
As, one could argue, were his actors. Matt Dillon was still trying to make the difficult transition from teen heartthrob to adult actor when he was approached to do Drugstore, and while Reeves' may indeed be on a star track, the choice of films like Point Break may make the going a bit slippery. (Only River Phoenix, brilliant in both Idaho and the current Dogfight has shown consistent care in the roles he's chosen.) The pairing of twenty-something actors with Van Sant may have more to do with an affinity of outlook and age. And an older; more established actor wouldn't need to appear in a low-budget (at a little less than $7 million, Drugstore was his most expensive film to date) Van Sant film.
Or if he did he'd make a federal case out of it, talking to Barbara Walters about a courageous personal decision it was to play a junkie, a homosexual, a child of the streets. For the stars of Idaho it was much more matter-of-fact. "I don't really take roles depending on whether or not I relate to them," says Phoenix. "Anything I could relate to is the universal common denominator, why the character's in the film.
"Keanu and I had both read the script at the same time, when we were doing I Love You to Death," Phoenix recalls. "We had a kind of a pact we wanted to do it together," In the film the actors play two friends, Scott (Reeves) and Mike (Phoenix), with wildly divergent backgrounds. Scott is the prodigal son of Portland's mayor, living a life of prostitution until his father dies and he inherits his money. He's a tourist, Mike, on the other hand, has never known a real home. He does not know his father, and spends half the film searching for his mother (an odyssey that brings him to Italy, and the Idaho of the title). His troubles manifest themselves in his narcolepsy, which overtakes him at the most inappropriate times - while talking, hitchhiking, and, in one scene, while trying to turn a trick with a woman who wants three men. Here, Reeves's Scott plays brother's keeper to Phoenix's Mike, laying him out on a suburban lawn to sleep.
"In the morning," Scott tells his sleeping friend, "Wipe the slugs off your face and you're ready for the new day."
"Gus tackles subjects that are frightening or scary in a commercial context," says Parker, "but he makes them less frightening by rendering them with humor." Van Sant's good humor, or perverse optimism, can be seen in the film's palette like Drugstore, the movie is painted in blues and greens, hardly the colors of depression, and the wide-angle landscapes offer a feeling of possibility rather than claustrophobical and in its scenes of startling, lyrical surrealism. In one scene Scott and Mike speak to each other from the covers of gay men's magazines in a porno shop, while a chorus of other cover-boys chime in when they hear of Scott's impending inheritance ("What are you doing on the cover of that magazine, slumming?")
The other, more sordid aspects of their profession are handled in a straightforward fashion. Mike is seen being fellated by a customer early in the first reel; a group of street kids share horror stories in a coffee shop. Still, Van Sant says he wasn't interested in shocking the audience. "You don't want to get too far into that because it can be hard to watch," says the director. "It would be interesting to make a film like that, but when you're dealing with an audience, you have to balance it the other way, to show the story. The setting doesn't have to be necessarily grotesque."
Before Drugstore Cowboy made Matt Dillon cool again Van Sant was best known for Mala Noche (1985), a low-budget tale of skid-row lust, that premiered at New York's Gay Film Festival. His spiritual forebars were the New York avant-garde of the Cinémathéque school; the studios were not his destination. This partially explains why he has been drawn to characters who seem down-and-out, misbegotten.
"They are not really Hollywood types of characters," the director says of the protagonists. "If I'm going to do something without the muscle and money of Hollywood, I should be able to do something that they wouldn't do."
My Own Private Idaho was inspired, in part, by the story of another iconoclast: Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV plays. It was Orson Welles's impressionistic version, Chimes at Midnight, that allowed Van Sant to see the story in street terms. It was Welles who focused on the triangle between Prince Hal, his father, and Falstaff, a sort of foster father; the prince's dilemma, as Welles saw it, lay in choosing a father much as in choosing the crown. Van Sant has put it in broader terms: Scott has rejected his real family in favor of an adopted street family, but the ties of class (and money) are strong. And in rejecting his new community of friends, he must reject Mike as well, a young man with no families to choose between.
Early versions of the screenplay, entitles Blue Funk and Minions of the Moon, were straight retellings of Henry IV. In the finished version, scenes lifted from the plays but mixed with contemporary jive comprise only a portion of the film – and not the most successful on, at that.
"We don't want it to seem exactly jarring," says Van Sant, of the scenes lifted from the Bard; "we wanted to go smoothly from one style to the other – but we wanted you to feel that it was definitely different." Best intensions aside, it is somewhat disconcerting to hear the heretofore realistic Scott tell a Falstaffian Bob Pigeon (played by director William Richert), "Why, you wouldn't even look at a clock, unless hours were lines of coke, dials looked like the signs of gay bars, or time itself was a fair hustler in black leather." Who says kids today can't talk?
"Keanu has done Shakespeare's plays," notes Van Sant, "so he has a certain orientation that way, and a knowledge of Shakespeare, whereas River never done anything like that." Though Phoenix and Reeves are close friends, he found them very different to direct. "I talk about setting a lot," says the director of his own style, "I talk about characters I knew who are like the characters in the screenplay." Reeves, it seems, looks for details. "Keanu would come up with things on his own, specific things as to why Scott would turn his back to his friend, and the responsibility he has to his father, and what it's like to have that responsibility, to have a parent who gives you a lot – and then takes it away.
"River was totally different," Van Sant continues. "He has this kind of Mozart quality of just burying himself completely in research. He does it through a sort of osmosis; everything you give him feeds into this plant that's growing out of the information he's got. He tape-records things, and talks to people; he has his own sources. It's more tactile: River will create something out of mixed media – film, writing, records, people talking, this whole wild thing. With Keanu, you give him a book, he'll read the book. River might read part of the book, and if he's interested he'll read the whole book. Keanu will read what you give him like you were giving him instructions: he follows them."
Like Phoenix, Van Sant is more of a collagist; as the final screenplay was patched together from three others, so the movie was made up of disparate elements. "On Idaho," says producer Parker, "the operative words were 'found object.'" For Van Sant, a lot of this improvisation was a product of financial necessity and his own experience as an independent filmmaker. "We would often say 'found object' because we didn't want people to build the object," says Van Sant, "we wanted them to find it. You can find the object for twenty-five cents, or have it made especially for you for three hundred dollars." This atmosphere also encouraged the actors to come to their parts gradually.
"I probably could have used a little more rehearsals," says Keanu Reeves, who was just coming off the physically demanding, surf-and-shoot action flick Point Break, "but the (Idaho) experience was probably the most intense filming experience I've ever had."
Some of that intensity has been captured on the screen, as in the campfire scene between Mike and Scott. Here Scott rejects his friend's amorous advances, saying "Two guys can't love each other," only then to comfort Mike by allowing him to sleep in his arms. Though Scott has set out on the road to help Mike find his mother, it's just a field trip for him. Mike truly has nowhere to go.
"Why didn't I have a fucking home like everyone else?" Phoenix's Mike cries. "I mean, I deserve a home, don't I? What did I do that made everything go wrong?"
Rootlessness, the search for a family, these are the themes that recur in the films of Gus Van Sant. "I've traveled around a lot, so maybe I identify with that," he says. "It's probably the main thing my films have in common, the adoptive family; in every case, and in Cowgirls as well." (his next project is a film version of Tom Robbins's book Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.) "I'm working on a script about Andy Warhol, which is the same kind of thing: he created this family, and there's a denial of background."
The need to deny one's past and to create one's family may be as old as Shakespeare, but in his films Van Sant gives these inchoate yearnings a new voice, a new vision. Clouds roll backwards, friendships seem to exist outside of time. He may not speak for a generation, but he speaks for a marginal citizen or two, and he does it with humor and compassion. "When you're around shit like that," Keanu Reeves says, "you gotta be there."