Gus Van Sant is the rare director who has found success both at the art house and at the multiplex. His works have screened at nearly every major film festival and taken top honors at Cannes, but he is also responsible for mainstream hits such as Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester and Milk, his biopic about gay trailblazer Harvey Milk, which earned Van Sant an Academy Award nomination for best director. One of the stars of Milk, Playboy Contributing Editor James Franco, won an Independent Spirit Award for best supporting male actor in the film. The two friends sat down to discuss how Van Sant navigates the fuzzy line between independent and commercial filmmaking, his latest work and where his career is headed next.
FRANCO: It seems your career has phases of commercial, studio-based films, and then you’ll take a huge swing in the other direction, with smaller, independent films. Do you ever have a sense of what will be commercially successful and what won’t?
VAN SANT: Well, you just don’t know. You have ideas about it. You always figure it can break out, and sometimes it does. But how can you tell? I’m never able to think commercially. When I’m interested in a project, I always figure other people will be interested too; I just don’t know how many. The budget for Finding Forrester was the biggest I’ve ever worked with, but it was still a human story between a couple of characters. It wasn’t much different from, say, Good Will Hunting, and that was a smaller film that broke out and made a lot of money. I didn’t know whether that would happen or not; I just liked the story. I can never guess.
FRANCO: Tell me about Promised Land, your new film. It’s about fracking, right?
VAN SANT: That’s right. Matt Damon co-wrote it with John Krasinski, based on a story by Dave Eggers about fracking in Alaska. It then became a story set in the Northeast, about a natural gas salesman who leases land from farmers. He’s from Iowa, working in New York City, and it’s about him embracing his own business practices and his New York business sensibility in the face of adverse conditions.
FRANCO: Can you break down fracking for me? Why is it so bad?
VAN SANT: It’s a way to get natural gas from shale below the earth’s surface, sometimes very far below. It’s not necessarily bad as a practice. What’s bad is the way the U.S. can make plans and rush in without adhering to clean-air codes. But our film isn’t really about that. It’s more about general business practices and the underhanded nature of these things than specifically about oil and gas companies.
FRANCO: When we were working on Milk, we were shooting in San Francisco, in the actual locations and storefronts where Harvey Milk ran his campaign. Harvey was a hero in San Francisco, and I felt that city had a vested interest in what we were doing. Did you?
VAN SANT: I guess there was a lot of pressure, but I was surprised the city was so open and happy to have us. They were proud of their history, they were proud of Harvey and they were proud of their politics. Even though it’s a political story, anyone who may have opposed Harvey seemed to uniformly support what we were doing. From the extras to City Hall, everybody was really happy to be part of it. I think it was because we were making a story about their city, above all. Another thing about that particular story is that Harvey flies under the biographical radar; it’s not a story about JFK or Lincoln. When people have a wide knowledge of the visuals and of the story, it makes doing a biography daunting, but Harvey’s story was less known, so it was going to be new.
FRANCO: Besides directing, you also paint, you’re a photographer and you’ve written a book. You even have an album called 18 Songs About Golf, right?
VAN SANT: Yeah. I was actually playing golf at the time. I was 29, working in New York, and my father would have me play on Saturday mornings in his foursome. It was three guys and myself, and we would go to the Darien, Connecticut country club and play 18 holes of golf. Each Saturday afternoon I would write a song. And since I was playing golf, the song was about golf. I was just learning how to make a song, and after a couple of golf songs, I realized, Oh, there should be 18, because there are 18 holes. So I wrote 18 songs and made a little album that I gave to my friends.
FRANCO: But now people can buy it. Do you think it’s weird? Directing is your livelihood, but now this humorous album you made is out there.
VAN SANT: I don’t know if there’s a difference. It doesn’t seem as though there would be. You’re making a piece of work, of art or whatever it is, and then you’re evaluating it. Maybe you’re not marketing it, but you are playing it for people.
FRANCO: Where do you think you’ll go next? Is it harder now to make small independent films?
VAN SANT: It’s harder because the marketplace is getting cheaper and cheaper. With financing you can get only half the amount for a film now that you could get before. Ten years ago it was easier. But I’ve always made them for so little that I have a long way to go before I start hurting.
FRANCO: So you’re returning to your indie roots?
VAN SANT: Not necessarily. I’ve been trying to write an action film, one of those tent-pole movies. Why not? I’ve never done it before.