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NEWS ARTICLE

Gus Van Sant: Restless

From big budget to arthouse and back again: the half-Hollywood, half-experimental auteur discusses his process.


Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper / Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

 

Two sub-genres of relationship films – the doomed romance (Love Story) and the hipster romantic comedy (500 Days Of Summer) – are satisfyingly blended together in Restless, the latest film by Gus Van Sant. And truly, is there any director more suited to doing this sort of genre mutation than Van Sant? He’s been fascinated by young people and death throughout his career, from the uncertain youths of My Own Private Idaho to the tragic deaths of teens in Elephant to the young musician’s suicide in Last Days. Of course, one also can’t neglect to mention 2007’s Paranoid Park, which saw Van Sant telling the story not of a teen who suffers an untimely death, but rather, a teen who inflicts one.

 

What’s interesting is that, morbid subject matter aside, Restless is actually a fairly light film by Van Sant standards; the film’s romance between a young funeral crasher (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) and a cancer-stricken young woman (Mia Wasikowska) could easily have been treated with somber heaviness, but instead the film’s script, written by newcomer Jason Lew, treats the young lovers’ relationship with a kind of lightness that might be found in a quirky indie romantic comedy. Of course, the spectre of death hangs over the proceedings. So, too, in the film’s most inspired quirk, does the ghost of a WWII Japanese kamikaze pilot, an ghost visible only to Hopper. Shot in the Pacific Northwest with the cool grey/white light that Van Sant has made his aesthetic signature since 2000’s Gerry, the film, lensed by perhaps the world’s most talented cinematographer, Harris Savides, is as visually beautiful as anything filmgoers are likely to see this year.

 

I recently had the chance to sit down with Van Sant at the Regency Hotel.

 


Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper with Gus Van Sant / Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

 

Tribeca: Two films ago you did Paranoid Park, another film about teenagers and death, and now you’re revisiting the theme with Restless. What do you think it is about the idea of morbid topics being dealt with at a young age that piques your interest?

Gus Van Sant:
In the case of My Own Private Idaho, I saw these kids on the street in Hollywood who didn’t have a home, who were hanging out around arcades. Hollywood Boulevard in the 70s was quite a scene. I would go there to eat, to see movies there, and so on. It was another world, outside of my world, and it was a more severe world. It became a wild west sort of thing. It was kids dealing with way harsher things than what I was dealing with, and it became fascinating. I started writing about it in the 70s, and didn’t film anything until 1990. Last DaysKurt Cobain’s story – a young person who ends up killing himself, is another one. A different situation, I think it was almost like something that the character couldn’t face. Gerry, I guess, is more like an accident. Elephant is alienation leading to an attack. They’re all sort of different permutations, but I guess I’m not sure why. I guess the juxtaposition of youth and death is a strong one.

 

Restless: Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper & Gus Van Sant
Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper / Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

 

Tribeca: There’s a strong romanticizing of what you do when you’re a teenager – the music you listen to, the adventures you have. Do you think perhaps part of it is that when you’re a teenager you’re able to confront big ideas like death and morbid thoughts in a more honest way than what’s possible when you get older?

 

Gus Van Sant: Yeah. I think that’s true. Or at least a more direct way. It sounds funny to older people, the way that somebody that’s like, nineteen, will refer to someone who’s dead. They’ll say, yeah, he was on the ground, he was dead. It’s so immediate. I think that it’s less sentimental, in some ways - death, to younger people. I’m not sure if it’s because of not having formed a sentimental side, or not having kids yet. When people have kids, they value life so much. Also, it’s when kids do really dumb stuff, like when they’re fourteen, they’ll do things that are really, really dangerous, because either they’re not afraid or they’re naïve.

 

Restless: Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper & Gus Van Sant
Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper / Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

 

Tribeca: They’re almost more accepting of danger, too.

 

Gus Van Sant: Yeah. How old are you?

 

Tribeca: I’m 24.

Gus Van Sant:
Have you noticed a change?

 

Tribeca: In terms of my attitude about death?

Gus Van Sant:
Like in the last four years?

 

Restless: Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper & Gus Van Sant
Henry Hopper & Mia Wasikowska / Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

 

Tribeca: Hmm. No. But I’m going to be 25 in a month, and the music thing is palpable – I listen to a song that I loved when I was a teenager and it brings back a very strong kind of emotion, and a nostalgia, and the feeling isn’t the same if I listen to music I’ve gotten into more recently.

 

Gus Van Sant: Right. Something else when you’re young, I noticed – there’s a huge amount of nostalgia for all ages. You can be nostalgic when you’re fifteen. And then somewhere around 30 you lose – you can be nostalgic, but it’s not as important. I think the importance of the nostalgia is really important when you’re 20. But when you’re 40 and you remember when you were ten, it’s not as big a deal. It’s not as magical. But when you’re young – like, I remember when I was 20, remembering when I was twelve, being overcome with this intense feeling about being twelve. Now, I remember being twelve, but I can’t access the feelings or something.

 

Restless: Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper & Gus Van Sant
Henry Hopper & Gus Van Sant / Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

 

Tribeca: You’ve worked with a wide variety of actors – so many amateurs in Paranoid Park and Elephant, one of the best actors in the world in Milk, now with Henry Hopper as one of the leads in Restless, who’s not an amateur, but this is his first real role. Do you change how you work with actors depending on the situation?

Gus Van Sant:
I mix non-actors and actors together. There were some people we auditioned for this who were just regular high school students. I think I do work within the same – I’m always trying to get who the actor is, trying to make them confident in what they’re doing. Different results, different strengths that each person has. The non-actors tend to have no fear, because they have no experience. They’re not aware that if they have to cry in a scene, crying is hard, so they might just do it, and you go oh, that’s great. A professional might know how hard it is, and might be hesitant or hold back or be concerned. I think I treat them in the same way. Sometimes we’re auditioning people with no script, for things like Elephant, so we have them make stuff up, which some of the actors don’t know how to do. Any given actor is not necessarily adept at ad-libbing. Sometimes the non-professional kids can just go off and improvise more than say, an established actor.

 

Restless: Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper & Gus Van Sant
Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper / Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

 

Tribeca: You’ve worked with Harris Savides on a number of films, including Restless. What is your working relationship with him like? How do you come to settle on your films’ aesthetics?

 

Gus Van Sant: Each time, I think we start out with the idea that we can do anything we want. He often wants to shoot in 16mm, because he wants to see grain, and 35mm's grain structure is so good now that you don't see any grain in it. So he thinks if we shot 16mm, the grain would look good. We haven’t done that.

 

The other idea is to shoot digitally. We tested digital cameras, but we haven’t shot on digital either yet. I think we will, eventually, because digital cameras have now surpassed film in the sense that the latitude is actually greater and the speed is faster and it's detailed enough. You can actually manipulate the grain in digital. There’s a lot of things you can do in that area. So I think digital is more malleable, and I think Harris is looking into it.

 

Restless: Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper & Gus Van Sant
Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper / Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

 

Tribeca: I saw Paranoid Park for the first time at the New York Film Festival, and after the screening Richard Pena asked you, mistakenly, when you were going to go back to celluloid – because the looks of the films are so similar to the digital aesthetic, the cool tones, the creaminess of the images. So you do see yourself going there?

Gus Van Sant:
I just shot this TV show Boss on the Alexa. That’s the camera that I think is the newest one – it surpassed what I’ve seen the RED do. The newer REDs are up to it though. Those are the easiest cameras. And you’re doing it on the set so you’re pretty much seeing what you’re getting right there, you don’t have to watch dailies.

 

Restless: Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper & Gus Van Sant
Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper / Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

 

Tribeca: There’s a sort of Gus Van Sant signature look at this point – the white light, the creaminess, as I mentioned. Can you tell me a bit about how you arrived at this aesthetic? It seems like it started around the time of Gerry.

 

Gus Van Sant: Yeah, it started with Harris. I think Chris Doyle, who shot Paranoid Park, and Harris have been operating with similar ideas. When you see Wong Kar-Wai movies, they do have a kind of creaminess. Harris often uses that word – creaminess. They tend to kind of look sometimes alike. But Harris has his own thing, which you can see in all the films that we’ve done together. Chris has his own thing too. Jean-Yves Escoffier, who shot Good Will Hunting, kind of had that look too, but it wasn’t as apparent on Good Will Hunting because we had to move fast, so he accommodated that request.

 

Restless: Mia Wasikowska & Henry Hopper & Gus Van Sant
Henry Hopper / Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

 

Tribeca: It’s really interesting how you started off with independent films, rose through the ranks of Hollywood, then went to the most experimental phase of your career, and now are back in Hollywood. Are there different things you like about working in the different realms, in terms of appeasing your artistry?

Gus Van Sant:
I think when we made Gerry, I was just trying to not get stuck making one kind of film. A number of years had gone by – I mean, Psycho was an experiment, but after Finding Forrester I was feeling like I should do something, because I had never really done anything that experimental. Idaho was somewhat experimental, but I hadn’t really done it. Here was a way I knew I could do it. I think Soderbergh at the time either had done it, or – some people had just gone into places and starting shooting, it was something that happened, with good results, people built the film as they did it. That’s what Gerry was, we were just going to go into the desert and do it. We had the story, a pretty strong story, but we were going to build the details of the story. I wanted to continue with Elephant and Last Days, because I was happy with the results.

 



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