Into the Pink
Interview With Filmmaker and Novelist Gus Van Sant
Gus Van Sant is full of surprises. Who could have imagined that the director of such outre films as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho would ever venture to make a feel-good movie like Good Will Hunting? And turn it into a hit movie to boot? The gargantuan wave of publicity generated by Good Will Hunting has yet to peak. Van Sant has been nominated for an Oscar and also for a best director award by the Director's Guild of America. Yet film viewers may not know that Van Sant is also the author of a recent work of experimental fiction, a novel called Pink. In telling the story of infomercial director Spunky Davis, Pink issues a whole arsenal of literary challenges to the standards of literary conventions. The novel is chock-full of visual and textual stimuli - including the author's own drawings, a flip-book, descriptive footnotes, and various typefaces meant to indicate different voices - as well as a cast of characters with thinly veiled real-life counterparts.
The Chronicle recently interviewed Van Sant about the book via telephone from Van Sant's home in Portland, Oregon.
Austin Chronicle: How would you describe the Pink dimension?
Gus Van Sant: It's supposed to be beyond description.
AC: Would you say that the Pink dimension is a metaphor for the imagination?
GVS: I guess, or the unconscious.
AC: You cite the three Bs: Burroughs, Beckett, and the Beatles as major influences. Do you agree with William S. Burroughs that language is a virus from outer space?
GVS: I don't really believe in the concept of outer space. I think we're in outer space right now. The idea that it's over there - not here, is absurd. So if it's a virus from outer space, I don't know which outer space he's talking about. Like I suppose he means aliens are cruising around. I think the aliens are just right here. How many billions of creatures can the earth think up? Every single species of creature is an alien - a perfectly formed alien. So I don't think it's a virus from outer space. I think language is a logical extension of the survival mechanism in the brain.
AC: Have you ever considered adapting any of William Burroughs' novels into film?
GVS: My first film was an adaptation of a story of his called "The Discipline of DE." It's a discipline that is invented in the context of the story. It stands for Do Easy - a method of doing things in the easiest way you can manage. It was published in Exterminator. It's about trying to move about your own apartment with the ease of a Zen archer and doing things without making mistakes, keeping things in order. It's his own imaginary way of describing an invented way of meditation based on objects and movements. I showed it at film festivals. It was 1977 when I made it.
AC: Do you have anything else to say about William Burroughs?
GVS: He was a great inspiration for a lot of the things I did. Mostly, my writing when I first started writing in the Seventies. My writing wasn't very active. I did little things - little pieces. It took a long time for me to write anything because I was doing other things, mostly painting - and then filmmaking. And eventually, the little things that I was writing would get a little bit bigger. With Pink I was able to complete a pretty long story. Burroughs was an instrumental teacher in my early years and still is. His passing was always expected because of his past. Everyone always assumed that Burroughs was doing really well at 80. And they were thinking, geez, it's amazing. So at 83...
AC: He said that he was going to hit 90.
GVS: I think he might have made it if Ginsberg hadn't died. I really think that Ginsberg had a lot to do with William leaving. It was sort of like he was alone without Allen. And he and Allen would visit about once a year for 10 days. They shared a lot and communicated a lot and saw a lot of each other. They were sort of an odd couple. The last time I saw William and Allen together it was at the L.A. County Museum presentation of William's work. They were arguing about salt because William was putting salt on his food and Ginsberg was saying he shouldn't do that - that it was bad for his health. So they were bickering over salt. When Allen left it was okay for a while but then something dawned on William - this realization that there's an end crept up on him.
AC: Do you think that William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg have made it to the Pink dimension?
GVS: Yeah, I think that's what happened.
AC: In Pink you make explicit references to the legends of Kurt Cobain [a fellow artist who was also based in the Northwest] and River Phoenix [co-star of Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy].
GVS: There are a lot of things in Pink about Blake and Blackie that are easily paralleled with Kurt and Courtney... things that come from magazines and general information. On the other hand, the stuff that's about Felix Arroyo is less general information. Those two characters, Kurt and River, died within 5 or 6 months of each other. They were sort of opposite sides of the youth-movement coin. One guy being an actor and one guy being a rock star. Pink uses some of these stories that come from their legends. In Felix's case it's a personal legend and in Kurt's case it's more like a popular-culture legend. It's a pretty interesting saga, which is why I have it in my book. It's kind of an all-pervasive modern rock & roll saga that's also a Northwest story, and my book's set up here, so it's pulling these elements together.
AC: Are you aware of the connection between William Burroughs' collaborator Brion Gysin's Dreamachine and Kurt Cobain's alleged suicide?
GVS: I've heard of it. Kurt was really, really into Burroughs - he was a huge inspiration for Kurt. I know that Kurt went to visit Burroughs once. And I'm sure he did all kinds of things that were Burroughs-type things, like cut-up techniques or Dreamachines or Orgone Accumulators. Maybe he had an Orgone Accumulator as far as I know. But it's the same story isn't it? `Oh, Courtney did it' or `Oh, the Dreamachine did it.' Everything pointing away from Kurt doing it. River's death is open for some speculation. But everyone wants to go after River for his death, while on the other hand, everyone wants to alleviate Kurt for his death. River was Mr. Virtue and Kurt was very indulgent, and he was publicly indulgent, and River was trying to promote peace and love and animal rights, save the forest, etc. Kurt went along with those same viewpoints, but Kurt's press was more about his own predicament. They were different test cases in public relations. And because River was a vegetarian he wasn't allowed to die the way he died - by the press. They associated vegetarianism with an I-am-holier-than-thou attitude. And they went after him when it turned out that he wasn't as pure as they thought.
AC: In Pink you write: "He [Felix Arroyo/River Phoenix] was my ombudsman." What do you mean by that?
GVS: When things flared up on Spunky's infomercials, Felix would play the role of the mediator. And in real life, whenever there was trouble on the set of My Own Private Idaho, River would get into the middle of it. If he saw people arguing in the corner he would go over and get involved. I remember one of the extra kids in the movie was having an argument with somebody in my neighborhood. He was catching a cab from my house where everybody was staying. I was living in an upper-class neighborhood at the time. The guy that was catching a cab was wearing street clothes, freaky clothes, which were probably from the movie. And these frat-guy teenagers who lived across the street were trying to chase him out of the neighborhood. They thought this extra was trying to break into someone's house or whatever. And River arrived and broke up the argument. He got them to calm down; they were screaming at each other from across the street. He did this a number of times. If there was any disagreement or hardship he would be the negotiator.
AC: You stated in a New York Times interview that one of the reasons you made the decision to direct a mainstream motion picture like Good Will Hunting was that "the fractured, experimental techniques of my others films are old hat." And now you've written a book with a "fractured, experimental" narrative. Would you care to comment on that?
GVS: I remember reading that quote and thinking it sounds so bogus. I was thinking specifically of something that I'd heard Oliver Stone say about U-Turn. He was saying the opposite - that traditional, linear storytelling was for the birds. I think that the story for U-Turn actually was linear, but visually it wasn't linear. And for him that was really exciting. I think it is exciting to experiment in that way - still. One of the most exciting aspects of film is to be able to play around with time and points of view. In a way it's a misquote because it's not encased by the other thoughts around it. I was using the term old hat - but I don't think it's old hat - I think that maybe I was using the wrong figure of speech. But something I hadn't actually tried was not doing anything experimental. For Good Will Hunting I wanted to preserve what the actual screenplay was doing rather than imposing some sort of stylistic manipulation on top of it - or somehow change the spirit of the screenplay that Ben and Matt had written - and let it tell the tale it wanted to tell. It was a way to do something new - it's a pretty straightforward way of telling a story. On the other hand, Pink is made up of these different fractals and you can add them up in different ways.
AC: You have included excerpts from Great Skull Zero by Lanny Quarles. What is the story behind that?
GVS: He's a character that you might be familiar with in Texas. Incidentally, the Jack and Matt characters in Pink are real kids who've lived - or are still living - in Portland, but they're originally from Austin or Georgetown. The book is written about them. Everything's coming out of these two guys - one of whom looks just like River Phoenix - or who I call Felix Arroyo. They're Austin counterculture hippie types. In fact, all those kids in Richard Linklater's early film Slacker - and Linklater himself - remind me of Jack and Matt. And Lanny Quarles is also a guy who's sort of a slacker - they're all slackers: Jack and Lanny and Matt. Lanny is a computer artist and he makes books that he sells in art shops. Really extensive 500-page books that are visual collages and computer printouts and some of them have stories. He's also from Texas, but he lives in Portland now. Lanny's writing was so amazing. He gave me one of his books that had no numbers on the pages and he said don't worry that the pages are out of order because he shuffles them around all the time. This book was like the ultimate cut-up book. And the stuff that's printed as Great Skull Zero - which is his code writing name, actually - are excerpts from that book.
AC: In Pink there are numerous references to Austin. Are you trying to suggest that Austin has some sort of direct line to the dimension of Pink?
GVS: "No [laughs]. Not really."
AC: Are Jack and Matt still in Portland?
GVS: Jack's in L.A. and Matt's in Portland.
AC: The character of Buzz Post seems like an aspect of your own public persona.
GVS: I imagine that Buzz Post is the way that Oregonians look at me. I'm a filmmaker who lives in a small town - there are a lot of filmmakers here in Portland. They look at me the way I looked at filmmakers when I was a young filmmaker. It's almost a parody of someone like Spunky Davis - the infomercial director in Pink - trying to break into the business, having drinks with some of his filmmaker friends, but then Buzz Post shows up. Buzz is kind of like Quentin Tarantino too, don't you think? Buzz is wearing this retro suit and his films are about retro con men. It's also maybe my point of view of Quentin.
AC: Have you ever made an infomercial? [Pink's lead character is an infomercial director.]
GVS: I have actually made a small one - a six-minute one - for a sheet garter that kept the sheets on the bed.
AC: Have you thought about making an infomercial for Pink?
Sid Moody is a recipient of a 1997-98 grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts.