Todd Haynes, the Portland-based Academy Award-nominated director of Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven and the Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There agreed to interview fellow Academy Award-nominated director Gus Van Sant in Van Sant's Pearl District condo in mid-December. WW offered a few suggested topics but let the two directors talk between themselves. This is an abridged version of their 80-minute conversation.
Todd Haynes: Thanks for having me over. So, seriously, congratulations on the movie. It would be interesting to hear how you came to it, because it was a pre-existing script before you came on board. Is that true?
Gus Van Sant: Yeah, it was a story that started out as a project with John Krasinski. He was shooting in Alaska [Big Miracle], and he was in a small town that had been completely taken over by a kind of mining operation, where I think they used hydraulics. And because of the interface that he had during the making of this movie, he wanted to write a story that had an environmental situation as a backdrop. And then he made a movie called Away We Go that Dave Eggers had written and somehow he hired or he talked Dave Eggers into writing on this project. From whatever the original idea was with Dave Eggers, it morphed into wind power. And it had certain characters, I guess, who were similar. I never read it. Eggers had to go write a novel, so he couldn't write further on it, and then Krasinski ran into Matt, and I think they hit it off.
TH: Were they in something together?
GVS: No, but Emily [Emily Blunt, Krasinski's wife] was in The Adjustment Bureau. That's how they met. [Matt has] been busy being an actor for the last—17 years or something, since Good Will Hunting. But I think he has had a desire to write, so when he ran into Krasinski, who hadn't written anything, they started writing together in the same way that I think Ben Affleck and Matt had written. Which is like two actors and they're acting out the parts and they write it down, which is an interesting way to do it.
TH: Did they already know that they would play the roles that they ended up playing?
GVS: Yeah, I think they had the idea that Krasinski would play the environmentalist and Matt would play the lead, the salesman. And also Matt was going to direct it. I think he had some commitments and he realized that he didn't have the time to commit to a movie as a director. He texted me saying, "I have this project, would you be interested in reading it?" And I, on my own, had followed what little press announcements there were about this project, and I had sort of imagined, maybe they'll run into trouble. You know, you kind of always want to be involved. And so I thought, oh my God, this little thought that I had is actually coming true. Like Matt is actually calling and looking for a director. So I read it really fast. I almost said yes without reading it because he told me the story. And I didn't know about hydraulic fracturing a year ago. But I really liked the story, and it resembled Good Will Hunting on the page. There was a lot of funny dialogue, a lot of jokes and things, and then a serious subject on top of it.
TH: And then this whole interesting birth, coming from two actors who are, as you said, improvising. The story follows the Matt Damon character, who's working to pass these fracking contracts in this Pennsylvania farm community. I was so interested watching…the way that you're asked to sympathize with the Matt Damon and Frances McDormand characters, especially in contrast to John Krasinski's character, who's the environmentalist and who basically comes off as this obnoxious, almost frat boy manipulator of town sentiments. So as a liberal viewer of this movie, you're being asked to align yourself exactly against the grain of your own kind of presumptions about what fracking is and who these people are.
GVS: I've never really had a chance to make a film about a businessman, but I grew up the son of a businessman in a community of businessmen in Darien, Connecticut. It's like a bedroom community of New York City—all the dads take the train in. I'm completely fascinated with that world, and I had written about it when I was first starting to write stuff, but I never really got a chance to do The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit or some story like that. But I am attached to it, so here was this opportunity. [Matt Damon's character] is like a corporate salesman, like my father was a salesman, so you're aligned with him because he's your lead character. Plus, it's Matt Damon, so he's…easy to follow as your good lead character. What I noticed about the script was, you're really rooting for him and things kind of get tougher and tougher…and then this other adversarial character shows up, Krasinski's environmentalist, and it starts to become a really interesting conflict for the script. The type of character that would probably be the adversarial character is your hero, which I'm actually used to doing. The characters that I've made a lot of films about are the antiheroes, but this is an odd version of it.
TH: It has a more upfront moral question throughout. [Damon] says it several times: "I'm a good man." Who is good and who is trustworthy in this dynamic is the thing that's shaking out as you watch it. That did certainly make me think of Capra…and it sounds like Capra also came up in your guys' discussion, but not necessarily from the start.
GVS: I think I was probably the guy who mentioned Frank Capra, because I'm not even sure they were paying attention to that type of film. I think they were just naturally doing that on their own, like they're kind of their own Frank Capras in their own real lives. So I don't think they had Capra in mind, but when I showed up, that's what I was sort of thinking of.
TH: One assumes the left-leaning viewer of this movie doesn't need to be convinced that there's a problem with this industry. Maybe this is something that comes up differently from film to film and project to project, but how much do you think about your audience and who you're speaking to?
GVS: That's a good question. I usually am trying to just speak to myself, and then through that, the audience is just like myself.
TH: It's only a question because—
GVS: Because of the politics of it?
TH: Yeah, in a way you learn stuff about fracking by watching this film.
GVS: Yeah, I learned everything I know about fracking from this film. The thing about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is that there hasn't been a lot of it. I think Louisiana has had the most history, and one of our actors was from Louisiana and he had seen lots of stuff that was bad for his community, like he'd seen…[it] breaking up families, pretty much just over the money. People were actually taking up arms against each other, literally guns, in fighting over the money.
TH: From the little I know, because it's so unregulated and there aren't federal laws that unify the practice, it's state by state, and so industry has a great advantage of going in there, and it's created this huge boom where natural gas is being produced and apparently the prices of natural gas have gone down as a result.
GVS: There are actually some clean-air regulations and laws that for a while they were subverting. I think that changed, at least in New York state. Pennsylvania is different. It's a business boom. When we were shooting last February, we started our production up in Pittsburgh.
TH: So you really shot in Pennsylvania for Pennsylvania?
GVS: [Fracking industry types] were having conventions in the same hotels that we were staying in.
TH: Oh my God, that's trippy.
GVS: All the people there were learning about how their businesses could help the process. If they were in the shipping business or the steel business or the pipe-making business, all these businesses were learning about the ways in. We were learning alongside those guys. We were shooting something, and they were having township meetings in the places we were shooting.
TH: This sounds like blowing smoke, but it's just such a pleasure to watch this film, because it's assured, considered filmmaking in this era of increasingly obligatory handheld narrative film. I felt like this movie is an example. You want to teach students how to tell a story by watching this film.
GVS: That's my favorite thing about film, is technique. The stories are the stories, and they're kind of the ultimate problem in a movie, but all the rest is the illustrative part. As filmmakers, we're kind of illustrators. The history of film is so short that you can look at a silent movie from the '20s and see that they're so much more elegant in a lot of ways. But film grammar, when I was learning and writing Mala Noche, adapting Walt Curtis' book—there's a certain point in your self-schooling when you're only in your 20s and you're really absorbing everything possible. I was in my 20s when VHS started to come out, so you could actually watch stuff, play it back, all of a sudden, whereas in the '60s you couldn't. And at the same time as VHS was coming out, there was MTV. When MTV was first on the air, people were trying to, like, illustrate music, so they were stealing from all these different places, like from history. They were actually just taking historic Salvador Dali or Buñuel scenes and sticking them in their videos, and handheld started to be used. So MTV kind of created this monster. For some reason the in-studio camera was handheld, and there was this weird stuff happening, right in 1980, in advertising and MTV. The guy was holding the camera on his shoulder but moving back and forth intentionally, just to jazz up what would normally be a static Dick Clark kind of a camera. That was the most offensive, like a faux handheld.
TH: How's Portland been treating you? This paper suggests that many Portlanders feel you are a product of this city and wonder if you agree with that. I'd argue that maybe a certain Portland is the product of you. Do you think that Portland still exists?
GVS: I came to Portland in high school, and I went to Catlin Gabel for a year and a half, and then I went to Rhode Island for school, but I would come back in the summertimes…and I eventually moved back here to do Mala Noche in '83. That's when I really started living here again.
TH: Yeah, getting to know this place as a young adult.
GVS: Yeah, and I was working. I met the sort of artists that were here: Walt Curtis, who's a poet. Penny Allen was a filmmaker, and I worked as a soundman on her film in 1977…called Property. It was about the Corbett area of town and the land development that was happening at the time, because it was a very cheap place to live. It was like hippies in the '60s, and by the '70s people were renting their houses but could never afford to buy them because they were living so hand to mouth.
TH: Where's the Corbett area?
GVS: Just south of Portland State. It's still a nice little neighborhood. At the time, though, it was a very inexpensive neighborhood. Penny herself lived there and she was making a film about how her neighbors were unable to withstand evictions from their houses by developers who were basically going to fix up the houses and sell them to a new type of person who was a young professional. They couldn't figure out a way to do it without compromising themselves. It's kind of a great movie. An early docudrama. I had read Walt's book, Mala Noche, while I was doing the sound on Property. And it was the type of story that…for me, was a gay story, but it was something that seemed to be interesting as a book, but as a film it was something that I just had never seen before, so it seemed like a logical thing to try as an experiment.
TH: And that's a very different Portland.
GVS: Yeah, that's a very different Portland. Like you can see it in Property, you can see Portland in Mala Noche. It just wasn't quite—I mean, Portland, I think, is the same today, for me. There is a whole bunch of new people that have arrived, and then we have a TV show about it—
TH: I was gonna say!
GVS: Portlandia, which is really funny.
TH: Do you watch it?
GVS: I've watched the first two seasons. I don't think the third season has started yet. Have you appeared in it?
TH: I have not.
GVS: Uh oh, they're gonna come after you.