Gus Van Sant
Van Sant at the Berlin Film Festival 2018
Gus Green Van Sant Jr.

(1952-07-24) July 24, 1952 (age 71)[1]
EducationRhode Island School of Design
  • Film director
  • film producer
  • screenwriter
  • film editor
  • photographer
  • painter
  • musician
Years active1982–present

Gus Green Van Sant Jr.[2] (born July 24, 1952) is an American filmmaker, photographer, painter, and musician who has earned acclaim as an independent filmmaker. His films typically deal with themes of marginalized subcultures, in particular homosexuality. Van Sant is considered one of the most prominent auteurs of the New Queer Cinema movement.

His early career was devoted to directing television commercials in the Pacific Northwest. He made his feature-length cinematic directorial debut with Mala Noche (1985). His second feature, Drugstore Cowboy (1989), was highly acclaimed, and earned him screenwriting awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and New York Film Critics Circle and the award for Best Director from the National Society of Film Critics. His next film, My Own Private Idaho (1991), was similarly praised, as were the black comedy To Die For (1995), the drama Good Will Hunting (1997), and the biographical film Milk (2008); for the latter two, Van Sant was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director and both films received Best Picture nominations.

In 2003, Van Sant's film based on the Columbine High School massacre, Elephant, won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.[3] Van Sant also received the festival's Best Director Award that same year, making him one of only two filmmakers—the other being Joel Coen—to win both accolades at the festival in the same year.[4] Though most of Van Sant's other films received favorable reviews, such as Finding Forrester (2000) and Paranoid Park (2007), some of his efforts, such as the art house production Last Days (2005) and the environmental drama Promised Land (2012), have received more mixed reviews from critics, while his adaptation of Tom Robbins's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), his 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and The Sea of Trees (2015), were critical and commercial failures.

Van Sant wrote the screenplays for several of his earlier works, and is the author of a novel, Pink.[5] A book of his photography, 108 Portraits,[6] has been published, and he has released two musical albums.

He is gay and lives in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, California.[7]

Early life

Van Sant was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of Betty (née Seay) and Gus Green Van Sant Sr; Gus's father was a clothing manufacturer and traveling salesman,[2] who rapidly worked his way into middle class prosperity, holding executive marketing positions that included being president of the White Stag Manufacturing Company's Apparel Operation.[8] As a result of his father's job, the family moved continually during Van Sant's childhood.

His paternal family is of partial Dutch origin; the name "Van Sant" is derived from the Dutch name "Van Zandt". The earliest Van Zandt arrived in the New Netherland area in the early 17th century, around what is now New York City.[9]

Van Sant is an alumnus of Darien High School in Darien, Connecticut,[10] and The Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon.[11] One constant in the director's early years was his interest in visual arts (namely, painting and Super-8 filmmaking); while still in school he began making semi-autobiographical shorts costing between 30 and 50 dollars. Van Sant's artistic leanings took him to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970, where his introduction to various avant-garde directors inspired him to change his major from painting to cinema.[12]


1982–1989: Early career

After spending time in Europe, Van Sant went to Los Angeles in 1976.[13] He secured a job as a production assistant to filmmaker Ken Shapiro, with whom he developed a few ideas, none of which came to fruition. In 1981, Van Sant made Alice in Hollywood, a film about a naïve young actress who goes to Hollywood and abandons her ideals. It was never released. During this period, Van Sant began to spend time observing the denizens of the more down-and-out sections of Hollywood Boulevard. He became fascinated by the existence of this marginalized section of L.A.'s population, especially in context with the more ordinary, prosperous world that surrounded them. Van Sant would repeatedly focus his work on those existing on society's fringes, making his feature film directorial debut Mala Noche.

It was made two years after Van Sant went to New York to work in an advertising agency. He saved $20,000 during his tenure there, enabling him to finance the majority of his tale of doomed love between a gay liquor store clerk and a Mexican immigrant. The film, which was taken from Portland street writer Walt Curtis' semi-autobiographical novella, featured some of the director's hallmarks, notably an unfulfilled romanticism, a dry sense of the absurd, and the refusal to treat homosexuality as something deserving of judgment. Unlike many gay filmmakers, Van Sant—who had long been openly gay—declined to use same-sex relationships as fodder for overtly political statements, although such relationships would frequently appear in his films.

Shot in black-and-white, the film earned Van Sant almost overnight acclaim on the festival circuit, with the Los Angeles Times naming it the year's best independent film.[14] The film's success attracted Hollywood interest, and Van Sant was briefly courted by Universal; the courtship ended after Van Sant pitched a series of project ideas (including what would become Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho) that the studio declined to take interest in.

Van Sant returned to Portland, Oregon, where he set up house and began giving life to the ideas rejected by Universal. He directed Drugstore Cowboy about four drug addicts robbing pharmacies to support their habit. The film met with great critical success and revived the career of Matt Dillon.

1990–1995: Indie and arthouse success

Drugstore Cowboy's exploration of the lives of those living on society's outer fringes, as well as its Portland setting, were mirrored in Van Sant's next effort, the similarly acclaimed My Own Private Idaho (1991). Only with the success of Cowboy was Van Sant now given license to make Idaho (a film he had originally pitched that was knocked back several times because the studios deemed the script 'too risky'). New Line Cinema now gave Van Sant the green light, and he went on a mission to get the Idaho script into the hands of River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, his preferred choice for the two young leads. After months of struggle with agents and managers over the content of the script, Van Sant finally secured Phoenix and Reeves, who played the roles of Mike Waters and Scott Favor, respectively.

Centering on the dealings of two male hustlers (played by Phoenix and Reeves), the film was a compelling examination of unrequited love, alienation and the concept of family (a concept Van Sant repeatedly explores in his films). The film won him an Independent Spirit Award for his screenplay (he had won the same award for his Drugstore Cowboy screenplay), as well as greater prestige. The film gained River Phoenix best actor honors at the Venice Film Festival among others. It helped Reeves—previously best known for his work in the Bill and Ted movies—to get the critical respect that had eluded him.

Van Sant's next film, a 1993 adaptation of Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, was an excessive flop, both commercially and critically. Featuring an unusually large budget (for Van Sant, at least) of $8.5 million and a large, eclectic cast including Uma Thurman, John Hurt, Keanu Reeves and a newcomer in the form of River Phoenix's younger sister Rain (at Phoenix's suggestion), the film was worked and then reworked, but the finished product nonetheless resulted in something approaching a significant disaster.

Van Sant's 1995 film To Die For helped to restore his luster. An adaptation of Joyce Maynard's novel, the black comedy starred Nicole Kidman as a murderously ambitious weather girl; it also stars Matt Dillon as her hapless husband and, the third Phoenix sibling in as many projects, Joaquin Phoenix, as her equally hapless lover (River had died of a drug overdose a year and half earlier). It was Van Sant's first effort for a major studio (Columbia), and its success paved the way for further projects of the director's choosing. The same year, he served as executive producer for Larry Clark's Kids; it was a fitting assignment, due to both the film's subject matter and the fact that Clark's photographs of junkies had served as reference points for Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy.

1997–2003: Mainstream breakout

In 1997, Van Sant gained mainstream recognition and critical acclaim thanks to Good Will Hunting, which was written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The film, about a troubled, blue-collar mathematical genius, was a huge critical and commercial success. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Director for Van Sant. It won two, including Best Screenplay for Damon and Affleck, and Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Robin Williams, who, in his acceptance speech, referred to Van Sant as "being so subtle you're almost subliminal."[15] Van Sant, Damon and Affleck parodied themselves and the film's success in Kevin Smith's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.[16]

Van Sant received the opportunity to remake Alfred Hitchcock's classic Psycho. As opposed to reinterpreting the 1960 film, Van Sant opted to recreate the film shot-for-shot, in color, with a cast of young Hollywood A-listers. His decision was met with equal parts curiosity, skepticism, and derision from industry insiders and outsiders alike, and the finished result met with a similar reception. It starred Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn and Julianne Moore, and met with a negative critical reception and did poorly at the box office.

In 2000, Van Sant directed Finding Forrester, about a high-school student (Rob Brown) from the Bronx unlikely becoming a friend of a crusty, reclusive author (Sean Connery). Critical response was generally positive[17] and became a box office success.

In addition to directing, he devoted considerable energy to releasing two albums and publishing a novel, Pink, which was a thinly veiled exploration of his grief over River Phoenix's death.[citation needed]

2003–present: Return to arthouse cinema

Van Sant and Joaquin Phoenix at the press conference of Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot (Berlin Film Festival 2018)

Van Sant traveled to the deserts of Argentina, Utah, and Death Valley for the production of 2002's Gerry, a loosely devised, largely improvised feature in which stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck—both playing characters named Gerry—wander through the desert, discussing Wheel of Fortune, video games, and nothing in particular. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

It took Gerry over a year to make it to theaters, in which time Van Sant began production on his next film, Elephant. Approached by HBO and producer Diane Keaton to craft a fictional film based on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, the director chose to shoot in his hometown of Portland, employing dozens of untrained, teen actors. Melding improvisational long takes like those in Gerry with Harris Savides' fluid camerawork, the film was influenced by Alan Clarke's 1989 film of the same name (see Elephant). The finished film provoked strong reactions from audiences at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. At the Cannes festival, the jury awarded Elephant with their top prize, the Palme d'Or, and Van Sant with his first Best Director statue from the festival.[4]

In 2005, Van Sant released Last Days, the final component of what he refers to as his "Death Trilogy", (the other parts being Gerry and Elephant). It is a fictionalized account of what happened to Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in the days leading up to his death. In 2006, Van Sant began work on Paranoid Park based on the book by Blake Nelson, about a skateboarding teenager who accidentally causes someone's death. The film was released in Europe in February 2008. He also directed the "Le Marais" segment of the omnibus film Paris, je t'aime.

Released in 2008, Van Sant's Milk is a biopic of openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978. The film received eight Oscar nominations at the 81st Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning two for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Sean Penn, who starred as Milk, and Best Original Screenplay for writer Dustin Lance Black. Van Sant was nominated for Best Director.[18][19] Van Sant later stated that his experience with Sean Penn on the film was "amazing".[20]

His 2011 film Restless[21] was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and starred Henry Hopper and Mia Wasikowska.[22][23]

Van Sant's film, Promised Land, was released on December 28, 2012.[24] The film stars Frances McDormand, Matt Damon, and John Krasinski—the latter two co-wrote the screenplay based on a story by Dave Eggers. Filmed in April 2012, the production company, Focus Features, selected the release date so that the film is eligible to qualify for awards consideration.[25][26]

Following Promised Land, Van Sant directed a film titled Sea of Trees, which starred Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe. The film tells the story of a man who travels to the infamous Aokigahara suicide forest in Japan to kill himself, only to encounter another man wishing to kill himself as well, with whom he then embarks on a "spiritual journey".[27] The film was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival but was met with harsh critical reception at the Cannes, being booed and laughed at.[28][29]

In December 2016, it was announced Van Sant would direct Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot, a biopic about cartoonist John Callahan, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Jonah Hill, Jack Black and Mark Webber.[30][31][32][33] Principal photography began in March 2017.[34][35]

Other work

Van Sant released two musical albums: Gus Van Sant and 18 Songs About Golf. Van Sant played himself in episodes of the HBO series Entourage and the IFC series Portlandia.

Van Sant was credited for all photography, paintings and art direction on the Red Hot Chili Peppers' album Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and directed the video for "Under the Bridge".

Van Sant directed the pilot for the Starz television program Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer. Van Sant went onto The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast to discuss filmmaking, writing, film history and their collaborations that never got made (The Golden Suicides) and the one that did (The Canyons).[36]


The moving image collection of Gus Van Sant is held at the Academy Film Archive.[37] The archive has preserved many of Van Sant's short films, including The Happy Organ, Ken Death Gets Out of Jail, Five Ways to Kill Yourself, and others.[38]

Awards and nominations


Feature films

Year Title Director Writer Producer Editor
1985 Mala Noche Yes Yes Yes Uncredited
1989 Drugstore Cowboy Yes Yes No No
1991 My Own Private Idaho Yes Yes No No
1993 Even Cowgirls Get the Blues Yes Yes Yes Yes
1995 To Die For Yes No No No
1997 Good Will Hunting Yes No No No
1998 Psycho Yes No Yes No
2000 Finding Forrester Yes No No No
2002 Gerry Yes Yes No Yes
2003 Elephant Yes Yes No Yes
2005 Last Days Yes Yes Yes Yes
2007 Paranoid Park Yes Yes No Yes
2008 Milk Yes No No No
2011 Restless Yes No Yes No
2012 Promised Land Yes No No No
2015 The Sea of Trees Yes No No No
2018 Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot Yes Yes No Yes

Executive producer only

Short films

Music videos




See also


  1. ^ "Famous birthdays for July 24: Elisabeth Moss, Anna Paquin".
  2. ^ a b film reference (2012). "Gus Van Sant Biography (1952?-)". film reference. Advameg, Inc. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
  3. ^ The Indie Filmmaking Genius of Gus Van Sant | The VICE Guide To Film - VICE on YouTube
  4. ^ a b c d "Festival de Cannes: Elephant". Retrieved November 5, 2009.
  5. ^ Gus Van Sant, Pink, Faber & Faber, 1998, ISBN 0-385-49353-3
  6. ^ Gus Van Sant, 108 Portraits, Twin Palms Pub., 1993, ISBN 0-944092-22-5
  7. ^ Brandao, Rodrigo (November 11, 2015). "Interview with Openly Gay Filmmaker Gus Van Sant". Archived from the original on August 13, 2016.
  8. ^ "Changes in Management Disclosed by White Stag". The Oregonian. Portland, Oregon. December 5, 1969. Section 1, p. 39.
  9. ^ "Gus Green van Sant, Jr".
  10. ^ "Darien High School". Public School Review. 2003–2012. Retrieved September 24, 2012.
  11. ^ "Gus Van Sant- Biography". Yahoo! Movies. Yahoo!, Inc. 2012. Retrieved September 24, 2012.
  12. ^ Marx, Rebecca Flint (2015). "Gus van Sant Biography". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Archived from the original on July 24, 2015.
  13. ^ Rebecca Flint Marx. "Gus van Sant". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Archived from the original on December 1, 2008.
  14. ^ "Gus Van Sant : Biography". Retrieved August 4, 2014.
  15. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Robin Williams Wins Supporting Actor: Oscars 1998". YouTube. January 4, 2010. Retrieved July 1, 2020.
  16. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (9/12) Movie CLIP - Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season (2001) HD". YouTube.
  17. ^ "Finding Forrester". Rotten Tomatoes. December 19, 2000. Retrieved December 6, 2010.
  18. ^ Andy Towle (February 23, 2009). "Milk Picks Up Two Big Oscars as Slumdog Dominates Academy Awards". Towleroad. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
  19. ^ Greg Hernandez (January 22, 2009). ""Milk" gets EIGHT Academy Award nominations..." Out in Hollywood with Greg Hernandez. Los Angeles Newspaper group. Archived from the original on March 5, 2012. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
  20. ^ Gus Van Sant (2010). "MADONNA". Interview, Inc. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
  21. ^ Leffler, Rebecca (April 13, 2011). "Gus Van Sant's 'Restless' to Open Cannes Un Certain Regard". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved April 13, 2011.
  22. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Official Selection". Cannes. Archived from the original on May 15, 2011. Retrieved April 14, 2011.
  23. ^ Fleming, Mike (February 1, 2012). "Focus, Participant Acquire Matt Damon/John Krasinski Film; Gus Van Sant Directing". Deadline Hollywood.
  24. ^ Gerhardt, Tina (December 31, 2012). "Matt Damon Exposes Fracking in Promised Land". The Progressive.
  25. ^ Eric Eisenberg (August 23, 2012). "Gus Van Sant's Promised Land, Starring Matt Damon, Gets A Release Date". Cinema Blend. Cinema Blend LLC. Retrieved December 19, 2012.
  26. ^ Matt Goldberg (August 23, 2012). "Gus Van Sant's PROMISED LAND Gets into Awards Race; Release Dates Announced for DreamWorks Animation Pictures". IndieClick Film Network. Archived from the original on December 5, 2012. Retrieved December 19, 2012.
  27. ^ Kit, Boris. "Matthew McConaughey to Star in Gus Van Sant's 'Sea of Trees'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved March 18, 2014.
  28. ^ "Gus Van Sant's 'Sea of Trees' Booed at Cannes Premiere". Variety. May 15, 2015. Retrieved December 28, 2015.
  29. ^ Reinstein, Mara (May 15, 2015). "Matthew McConaughey's Film The Sea of Trees Booed, Laughed at During Cannes Film Festival". Retrieved May 15, 2015.
  30. ^ Kroll, Justin (November 29, 2016). "Joaquin Phoenix, Gus Van Sant Eye Reunion for Biopic on Famed Cartoonist John Callahan (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved January 4, 2017.
  31. ^ Kroll, Justin (December 16, 2016). "Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara in Talks to Join Joaquin Phoenix in Gus Van Sant Film (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved January 4, 2017.
  32. ^ McNary, Dave (February 15, 2017). "Jack Black in Talks to Join Joaquin Phoenix in Gus Van Sant's John Callahan Biopic". Variety. Retrieved March 6, 2017.
  33. ^ Kroll, Justin (March 2, 2017). "Mark Webber Joins Joaquin Phoenix in Gus Van Sant's John Callahan Biopic". Variety. Retrieved March 6, 2017.
  34. ^ "Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot". My Entertainment World. Retrieved March 6, 2017.
  35. ^ June, Sophia (February 21, 2017). "Cast of Gus Van Sant's John Callahan Movie, Including Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix Came to Portland Last Weekend". Retrieved March 6, 2017.
  36. ^ "Bret Easton Ellis Podcast". Retrieved August 4, 2014.
  37. ^ "Gus Van Sant Collection". Academy Film Archive. August 20, 2015.
  38. ^ "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.
  39. ^ LAFCA (2007). "15TH ANNUAL LOS ANGELES FILM CRITICS ASSOCIATION AWARDS". LAFCA. Archived from the original on October 13, 2015. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  40. ^ "Berlinale: 1998 Prize Winners". Archived from the original on October 12, 2013. Retrieved January 16, 2012.
  41. ^ Good Will Hunting - IMDb, retrieved June 3, 2021
  42. ^ Festival de Cannes (2005). "LAST DAYS". Festival de Cannes. Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  43. ^ Festival de Cannes (2007). "PARANOID PARK". Festival de Cannes. Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  44. ^ "BSFC Winners 2000s". Boston Society of Film Critics. July 27, 2018. Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  45. ^ SPIEGEL, DER (February 10, 2009). "Photo Gallery: Cinema For Peace - DER SPIEGEL - International". Der Spiegel. Retrieved July 24, 2020.
  46. ^ Unknown. "Biography". Gus Van Sant. Geocities. Archived from the original on October 26, 2009. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  47. ^ Alex S. Garcia (1998–2012). "Gus van Sant". Alex S. Garcia. Archived from the original on October 7, 2012. Retrieved August 17, 2012. Note that Chris Isaak's Solitary Man (1993) was not directed by Van Sant but by Larry Clark.
  48. ^ Hyden, Steven. "You're So Big and Free- TGJ". The Golfer’s Journal. Retrieved June 8, 2024.

Further reading