ON THE SET
Hollywood's powerbrokers may not approve and they certainly don't 'get it,' but Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix play a couple of midnight cowboys in 'My Own Private Idaho.'
by Dario Scardapane
It's a seedy and especially surly looking group of young men who board the ferry on that typically rainy Seattle winter's afternoon. As the beat-up leather jackets, the frayed jeans with knees popping through and downcast, heavily ringed eyes file past the harried young woman looking dispensing red tickets, it's a procession that could easily be mistaken for a detail of youth offenders on a field trip. That is, until you notice the movie camera being carted onto the big boat. Then there's also the sign, hanging from a microphone boom, informing the curious locals who can't stop staring as to just what the hell is going on here: "We are filming My Own Private Idaho, a Gus Van Sant movie starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, and you can't be in it. Thank you."
Twenty-seven-year-old Keanu Reeves grabs his ticket and bounds on to the boat with his usual display of loony energy, pulling his motorcycle jacket tight around him to ward off the chill, his wool watch cap worn low over his forehead. Both handsome and unkempt, he looks every inch the pretty and predatory male prostitute he is supposed to be in the film. Trading punches with Rodney Harvey, who was Sodapop in TV's short-lived The Outsiders, Keanu throws out a few good-natured insults, all the while ignoring the production assistant whose job it is to haul aboard all that heavy equipment. Slowly, with a shambling gait, 21-year-old River Phoenix makes his appearance, finally, bringing up the rear. Quite honestly, he looks like crap: His hair's a mess, stubble flecks his face, his grungy red pants don't fit, and more than anything else, he appears in dire need of a good night's rest, which the actor seems intent on getting, promptly collapsing on a bench in the ferry's cabin. River has the unusual task of playing a street hustler named Mike, who is afflicted with narcolepsy, a condition that causes him to pass out cold at in opportune moments of uncommon hilarity.
Today's shoot, which takes place on the ferry's foredeck, showcases one of River's ill-timed naps, and the actor is definitely getting in the mood for slipping into another coma. As the cameras roll, Keanu and Rodney are seen taking a break from the harsh rigors of cruising for cash on the street. Getting a little R&R, they proceed to pass a pot pipe back and forth and simply admire the view spread out before them. Almost unnoticed, River lies immobile in a puddle near his costars' feet, a position he'll keep for most of the day. Frankly, there's not much difference in his performance when the camera is rolling and when it is not. The scene doesn't look like much - in fact, it is eventually cut from the film's final print - and when someone finally yells, "Cut!", all eyes shoot to Gus Van Sant. Slight, bearded and wrapped in a toasty looking parka, the director waits a moment before giving one of his patented imperceptible nods. In a pack, the actors move toward the warmth inside - Keanu and Rodney in quick strides, River at a somnambulist's pace - as Van Sant and his skeleton crew remain outside in the rain to set up the next shot.
Van Sant, whose Drugstore Cowboy garnered much critical praise in 1989 and helped resuscitate Matt Dillon's faltering career, is perfectly at home in the unforgiving elements. An adopted son of the Northwest, he has just over seven weeks and the mere peanut shells of a $2.6 million budget to spend on a far-from-mainstream story that wanders through Idaho, Portland, Seattle and Rome in its chronicle of the nocturnal prowlings and yearnings of two young hustlers. Having written the script, full of Shakespearean references and homoerotic tension, Van Sant now directs My Own Private Idaho in an almost Zenlike manner. Silent and brooding, his presence on the film set is felt but almost never heard except in the most hushed tones.
"Gus is extremely reticent sometimes to articulate fully what he wants," says his producer, Laurie Parker, the ticket-dispensing overseer of the film. "He's much more than words. He can show you with art or music." An accomplished painter, Van Sant is known to do just that, and stories about his aversion to words abound on the set. According to one assistant director, Van Sant will, at critical moments, present his actors with a sketch that depicts farm houses failing on an open road and then say, "Do this."
It's an approach that might send many actors back to their analysts, but it suits Keanu's talents just fine. "He's an amazing, interesting man. He's very cool," Keanu says of the director. One suspects that only someone very cool would be able to convince a Hollywood dude like Keanu to play the part of a rebel who becomes a male prostitute in order to disgrace his well-to-do, politically connected family. "I don't know, man, Gus Van Sant gave me a call," Keanu continues, thinking back. "He gave me a call. We went out a couple of times. He's a solid dude, you know. I expressed my interest. I read the script. I thought it was an amazing script. Just in terms of narrative, man, there's cows, bang! bang! bang!, porno shops, salmon swimming, blow jobs, money-exchanging and then I bust out in Idaho, smash! And then Shakespeare. It's Henry IV and I'm, like, doin' voiceovers on camera. Like soliloquies. I have all these soliloquies. I just walk in to the camera. All sorts of things were revealed in that shoot."
For his part, Keanu provides a boisterous counterpoint to Van Sant's quiet nondirection and River's comatose nonaction. On speedy overdrive, Keanu's whirlwind of action comes to an abrupt halt, however, when a teenager, sporting an asymmetrical haircut and a rock & roll T-shirt, invades the movie-set territory.
"Hey, man, aren't you Ted?" the kid yells, in reference to the actor's role in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.
"Yeah," Keanu mumbles, hair in face, eyes down sheepishly, the energy just running out of him. "I'm Ted."
"What are you doing in Seattle?" the kid pushes.
Keanu shrugs. "Making a movie."
"Cool," he deadpans. "You going to the Jane's Addiction show tonight?"
Keanu, heretofore sullen, suddenly brightens to the teenager, who must have done his homework: The art/punk L.A. band is the actor's favorite.
And so, while Keanu talks rock and Van Sant frets about in the drizzling rain, River remains sprawled out on a row of seats, oblivious, napping contentedly. The intense young actor, who snagged an Oscar nomination for his role in Running on Empty, has given himself over completely to his narcoleptic alter ego. Visitors to the set are told not to approach him, in observance of his Method concentration. Sounds like a good idea. Besides, who would want to wake him?
"River's a heavy actor. Man, he's the best," Keanu says of his catatonic costar. "Yeah, he helps me. He was very inspiring. He's intelligent and he had a lot of insight and I kind of like rode his wave sometimes. I don't know how much I gave him. His character, Mike, is, like, totally estranged from everything. He's overwhelmed. He knows how to hustle, though. Mike is a strong hustler."
A few hours later, the crew has reassembled in record time on a busy Seattle street to film a scene in which River gets picked up by a wealthy "client" played by Grace Zabriskie. River, on his feet at last, slouches seductively against a storefront as Zabriskie pulls her Mercedes up to the curb. Looks are exchanged and, before sauntering to the car, River mutters his line, "This chick's living in a new car ad." It's a strange scene, the only heterosexual transaction in the film's numerous hustles. As in the real world, Idaho's male prostitutes cater mostly to other men - a subject Hollywood has approached, if at all, with extreme trepidation.
Van Sant, who is openly gay, had many inspirations for the story line of Idaho, a primary one being the hustling scene on L.A.'s Santa Monica Boulevard. He met just as many roadblocks as one would expect when it came to shopping his script to industry dealmakers. "Some people had trouble with it," says the 39-year-old director, who is prone to understatement. "Some of the older people, like agents, well... they just didn't get it, They couldn't get past the first scene [a rather graphic portrayal of River turning a trick with an obese john]. As soon as they read that, they're thinking of their client, picturing him getting head, and that prompted them not to get it." Van Sant laughs. "But that doesn't really matter. River and Keanu read the script and said, 'Yeah, we get it.' They were incredible. I think because of their age they're a lot less conventional. As long as the actors understand, nobody else had to get it."
Playing a straight youth who sleeps with men for money as an act of rebellion might strike some young actors as a hazardous stretch. Keanu, though, takes it all in stride. "I don't think the part is risky," he says. "There's not a lot in the film about sucking d--- and getting f --- ed. I think it's more about family and the lives out there. I mean, it's more."
The shared understanding of Idaho's "something more" and the actors' willingness to embrace the film's controversial subject matter has forged a strong bond between Van Sant and his two stars - kind of like some thespian Lost Boys under the tutelage of a Peter Pan mentor.
The next day, the last of the Seattle shoot, everyone's drinking cappuccino at the Virginia Inn, a hip downtown watering hole that has become the unofficial headquarters for Idaho's inner sanctum of three. River enters, eyes half open, looking as if he has slept in his red, high-water pants. Slowly, he makes his way to Van Sant's booth and immediately gets horizontal. While River dozes off, Keanu is outside just burning with energy, prepping for his hustler mode. He preens at his reflection in the bar's window, then checks out the well-tailored, black suit coat that wardrobe has given him to wear that day. Opening it, he reveals a muscular torso scarred from a motorcycle accident of about four years ago, "What's this supposed to mean?" he asks, nodding at the black linen vest underneath the coat. "That I'm a class act? An expensive hustle?"
Shifting gears, the hyper actor gets into character, resuming his hustler prowl as he comes on to no one in particular. "Hey!" he shouts. "I know you want me. I know you want to do me. C'mon, suck my d--- for money!" This is not in the script, and so a few of the crew members get red-faced and giggle. Van Sant merely smiles paternally before taking a huddle with his two stars. Keanu's goofball persona evaporates and River gets comatose on the street. For the scene, Keanu has to hustle a German client, acted with creepy pathos by Udo Kier, who once starred as the head of a vampire clan in Andy Warhol's Dracula. The scene plays perfectly, Keanu moving with a streetwise grace that seems to follow the beat of the Jane's Addiction tune he can't get out of his head, "Been Caught Stealing."
After one more interior shot, Van Sant and his inner sanctum are scheduled to head off to Italy for the last few days of filming. It's been fast and it's been furious, and for a director like Van Sant, work on the set has been a bit of a chore. And yet, he admits, there are moments. "It's fun at times on the set because people really get what you're doing," he says. "The writing and the showing of it are fun. The filming and the editing are work. Filming is not fun. You make it fun. The hours are so long, and everything is set up in a certain way. Maybe someday we can get around that."
The day's filming done, the director and his two actors hunker down on a wooden bench as the sound men recoil the wires crisscrossing the Virginia Inn's floor. Keanu is having trouble sitting still and River is having trouble staying awake. Between them, Van Sant sits calmly, when someone produces a camera. A "family portrait" is suggested, and so the directorial father props up his drowsy cinematic son while the other offers the support of his shoulder. In the camera's flash, they smile. The moment is frozen, and the hard work of filming fades away.