Advice from the eclectic auteur behind films such as ‘Good Will Hunting,’ ‘Elephant,’ and ‘Milk.’

Perhaps the most enigmatic member of the wave of American independent filmmakers that broke out onto the scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Gus Van Sant is no easier to pin down today than he was when his debut feature premiered more than 30 years ago. His directorial career since then has covered everything from crowd-pleasing feel-good dramas (Finding Forrester, Good Will Hunting) to biopics (MilkDon’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot)to the rather costly and controversial “experiment” that was his shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Van Sant, born in Louisville, Kentucky, and raised in upper-middle-class suburbia, attended the Rhode Island School of Design with the intention of pursuing painting before switching to the more “moneyed” world of filmmaking as a “safety bailout” (everything is truly relative). After making short films for several years, he premiered his feature debut Mala Noche in 1986, followed by the back-to-back critical successes of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. His path from there has featured some flops (Even Cowgirls Get The Blues) and plenty of award winners (the Palme d’Or winning school shooting drama Elephant and Oscar winners Good Will Hunting and Milk, which each took home two trophies).

All things considered, Van Sant’s career has been full of as many twists and turns as a good thriller, and shows no signs of stopping any time soon. Here are six lessons he’s learned along the way:

You Have To Con People

In a 1993 interview with BOMB magazine, Van Sant responded to the question of what a director does by answering:

“You have to con people. A lot of directing is trying to orchestrate a magic trick, to give the appearance of something happening that isn’t actually happening. That’s the drama.”

He goes on to elaborate: “The responsibility of the director orchestrating this — ultimately it’s like a magic show where you saw the girl in half, it looks like she’s really in half, and she’s not, hopefully. As a director, you’ve gone through experiences where it didn’t work, where the audience didn’t fall for the sawing the girl in half routine, so you watch for the things that are going to show up, where you go: ‘Wait a minute! We can’t do that, because the last time I did that it didn’t work.’ You watch out for these things coming at you that are going to blow the whole effect. Sometimes it’s the screenplay not being ready, that could be a signal for the director to say, the magic trick at the end isn’t going to work. The script isn’t in the right proportions, things aren’t happening at the right pace. The protagonists aren’t being challenged, they aren’t coming to life…

“Orson Welles was an amateur magician. I always found that significant I think as a theater producer/director, he was putting on a magic show that extended into dramatics. In the same way, his films were attended to by a sleight of hand artist. Making things seem a certain way when the things he had weren’t really the things he was showing you. All storytelling is based on that. It’s all related to the guy telling a story around a campfire. Stanley Kubrick says people who make bad movies get bad reviews and get drummed out of the business, but if a caveman told a bad story, he’d probably have been stoned to death. He’s the same guy, an entertainer.”

Gus Van Sant Directing Elephant

Gus Van Sant directing ‘Elephant’ (New Line Cinema)

Keep It Real

“Even if you’re a brilliant writer,” Van Sant says in a 2003 interview with Film Comment:

“Real people talking is always better. And actors can make up the lines as they go along.

“Doing Elephant, it was interesting to see that energy that you get from people who are great actors but have never really done it before, so they really don’t know their limitations. I cast real high school kids, and most of them play themselves. The Italian neorealists cast real people, and they were getting the same stuff back then. So if you go about it this way, you reap the reward of this heightened reality that you don’t ever get in a dramatic piece working with experienced people.”

Gus Van Sant Promised Land

Gus Van Sant directing ‘Promised Land’ (Focus Features)

Make Your Own Decisions

Talking with fellow director Kevin Smith earlier this year at the IMDb Studio at Sundance, Van Sant said that the best advice he could give filmmakers was as follows:

“I think for young filmmakers, it’s like[…] what Robert Towne said, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ It’s sort of like, what you’re thinking yourself — make your own decisions and try not to listen too hard to everyone’s advice, because you’ll go crazy.”

You can watch the full interview clip here:

Be Calm

In a 2011 interview with Interview magazine, Van Sant elaborated on his go-to technique for keeping actors relaxed and his film sets productive:

“I do do the thing where I make [the actors] relaxed on the set so it becomes easy to do; that’s a style that I use. I was describing this to a class the other day: I’m pretending like it’s all relaxed and that we have a lot of time, but we always have a schedule, we’re always on a clock, but I don’t let that show, I pretend that there isn’t a clock.

“And in that way, since they’re not afraid of making a mistake, they usually don’t make a mistake. If there’s this tension and you’ve got to get it done, it makes people make mistakes. The easiest way to work is if things are really calm, so you pretend things are calm, even though they never are.

“As a director, you have all of these pressures that you often see directors dealing with, and it can be annoying that the director is preoccupied. I think that for the actors, the last thing that they want is a director that’s not watching, a director that goes ‘Okay, it sounded good to me,’ and they were doing something else or preoccupied with something else because they were worried about the light changing. That’s one thing that I’m doing, whether it’s professional actors or novice actors, I’m paying attention to them. I really am paying attention to them — and sometimes I’m pretending that I’m paying attention to them. [laughs] But I think in general I’m really interested in what they’re doing.”

Gus Van Sant Restless

Gus Van Sant directing ‘Restless’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

Believe in Your Actors

In a Slant magazine interview published just this week, Van Sant commented once again on his strategy for working with actors, saying:

“I do try to give actors as much freedom as I can. When I started out, there was a moment when I realized that actors need certain things. They need proof that you really mean what you say and that you’re dedicated to the project. The thing is that I’m also genuinely interested in their ideas. A director needs to believe in his or her actors and just allow them to come up with their own original ideas. When you show trust and can accommodate, you’re at home.”

Gus Van Sant And Sean Connery

Gus Van Sant directing ‘Finding Forrester’ (Columbia Pictures)

Don’t Stress Over The Lights (And Don’t Anger Your DP)

Back in 2013, Van Sant contributed to MovieMaker magazine’s “Things I’ve Learned” feature and shared his “Six Golden Rules of Moviemaking.” He had this to say regarding cinematography:

“Don’t get cuckoo with the lights; you don’t really need them anymore. Film stocks today can handle wildly different color temperatures and low light levels. Keep the pace lively. Don’t waste too much time making the shot look perfect, moving objects on surfaces, playing with the blocking — just shoot it. Don’t over-think. Get a really good director of photography, but don’t fight with him. He has the same control over you that you have over the actors, so he can make you cry.”

Head over to the interview to find Van Sant’s five other tips regarding everything from producers (“bean counters”) to scripts (“take liberties with it”) to actors (“make the directions simple”). And watch this nice, brief clip of the filmmaker at work cutting Elephant:

What We Learned

When accepting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams referred to Van Sant as “the mellowest man in Hollywood.” But when hearing Van Sant speak or reading an interview with him, the filmmaker comes across less as someone relaxed to the bone and more reminiscent of Michael Caine’s famous quote about ducks being “calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.”

Van Sant’s career of swerves from subversive independents at the borderline of experimental cinema to crowd-pleasing mainstream dramas and back again is not the haphazard zig-zagging of some niche form of adrenaline junkie, but the calculated and measured risk-taking of a creative mind interested in keeping both himself and his audiences on their toes.