July 24, 1952– Gus Van Sant‘s own words, spoken by Matt Dillon as Bob in the film Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
Fate sucks. I swear.
In early spring 1989, if I had been somewhat clairvoyant while on the set of the film Drugstore Cowboy, I would have realized that in the 21st century I would be living in Portland, Oregon, in fact, residing in a house just a mile from where we were filming. I most likely would have dismissed the entire notion as being the result of too much caffeine and candy from crafts services. I loved living in Seattle; I had the best agent in town and would never have dreamed of leaving that great city. Yet, here I am, living in the same city as Van Sant.
I had been fortunate enough to have acting work in films , on several television series, and a whole lot of commercials and voice-overs, but the Gus Van Sant project was very exciting for me. I was thrilled to be working with the talented director of Mala Noche, a film I really admired that had received an enthusiastic reception at The Seattle Film Festival in 1985. I just thought it was so cool to have booked this film. Plus, my scenes were with dreamy Matt Dillon.
The very soft spoken Van Sant creates an extremely creative atmosphere for working. Many of the actors that have done films with Van Sant have remarked on how great he is to work with and how conducive to creativity the conditions are on the set of his films. He is not big on rehearsing, but with me he would ask for something completely different out of each take. Dillon (who I have worked with twice) was such a nice gentleman. He would stay and read his lines back to me for our reverse shots. Dillon was a real “regular” guy. He would eat lunch, sitting at a long table, with the rest of the cast, crew and grips, and he spent very little time in his trailer. The rest of the cast were fun and friendly: Kelly Lynch, Heather Graham, James LeGros, and Anthony George Catalano. I did not get to meet fellow cast-member William S. Burroughs, my only regret from this extraordinary experience.
I was invited to the premiere of Drugstore Cowboy, but I did not attend because I was performing in a play at the time and the event was in Berlin. It went on to receive rave reviews.
It won the 1990 Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay for Van Sant and Daniel Yost, plus Best Cinematography, Best Actor for Dillon, and Best Supporting Actor for Max Perlich. It won Best Screenplay awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Society Of Film Critics and the NY Film Critics Circle, along with Best Film at the Berlin International Film Festival. At the film’s Seattle premiere, The Husband turned to me half-way through the viewing and whispered:
Oh. My. God. Stephen, you are finally in a really GOOD movie!
Van Sant’s other films have ranged from Academy Award winning studio fare: Good Will Hunting (1997) and Finding Forrester (2000) to very experimental: Gerry (2002) and Last Days (2005); Indies: Elephant (2003) and Paranoid Park (2007); noble, brave, baffling experiments like the shot by shot re-make of Psycho (1998) and Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (1993). He has directed four films that I love a whole bunch: of course, Drugstore Cowboy , My Own Private Idaho (1991) To Die For (1995), and Milk (2008).
His latest is Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot (2018) based upon the memoir of the same name by John Callahan, a brilliant, but hard-drinking artist and musician who became a provocative, deeply funny cartoonist after a car crash left him bound to a wheelchair. He is a true Portland icon. The extraordinary cast features Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan, plus Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Carrie Brownstein, my neighbor Beth Ditto, and Kim Gordon of the iconic band Sonic Youth.
In 2002, shortly after relocating to Portland after 20 years in Seattle, I was standing with friends on a street in Portland’s Peal District. One pal uttered: “Oh my God, look! That is Gus Van Sant!: The Husband replied: “Yeah, he lives in this neighborhood. Stephen knows him”. Our little group mumbled some: “yeah, sure, uh-huhs” As Van Sant walked past us, he looked up, and said in his singular soft manner:
Hello… there… Stephen. I haven’t seen you in a while… strange… your head looks bigger…
And then he went on his way. My friends looked baffled and everyone wanted to know what he meant. I had no idea. What could he have meant? I told them that it was an industry term: good screen actors have heads that were proportionately too large for their bodies. It was my Gus Van Sant moment.
Van Sant executive produced and directed the first two episodes of ABC’s docudrama When We Rise which aired in February 2017. The eight-part miniseries was written by Dustin Lance Black, who did the screenplay for Milk. It chronicles the personal and political struggles, set-backs, and triumphs of a diverse group of LGBTQ folks who helped bring about the Gay Rights Movement from the Stonewall Riots to today. He claims that he has always been openly gay.
Van Sant makes for a perfect Portland resident. Besides directing and writing films of all kinds, he is an author, musician, occasional actor, photographer and painter of considerable skill. . You know, Portland is quite the town. Other queer artists who live here include: filmmaker Todd Haynes, k.d.lang, writer Chuck Palahniuk, musicians Courtney Love and Beth Ditto, painters Stephen O’Donnell, David Lynch and Scott Ringsage, photographer Grace Weston, author Tom Spanbauer. But, Van Sant is Portland’s Andy Warhol.
In the mid-aughts, I again met with Van Sant on a Portland sidewalk. I was surprised that he would remember me by name, but he called out to me. He is not much for idle chatter, but trying to act nonchalant, I did ask what project he was working on. When he discovered that I resided in Portland, he emphatically stated that he wished that I had read for his film Elephant, that there had been a role that I would have been particularly well-suited. I shrugged and said that my new Portland agent had neglected to send me out for the audition. Van Sant:
That makes me sad, Stephen. I thought of you as I was writing that role. You would have brought a lot to the part. I wish we had known you were in town. Darn.
I left the twice Oscar nominated director on the sidewalk, walked straight to the agent’s office, yelled at her while I was in tears, quit the agency and walked away from showbiz.