Premiere - Film Cuts
First published in 1994
ISBN 0-8478-2398-9 (Paperback, 112 Pages)
Although stretching to over one hundred pages in length this is, in anybody's estimation, more of a small booklet rather than a full book. Never officially published, it was included as a free gift on the cover of the November 1994 issue of movie magazine Premiere.
The bloody cover has little in common with the text within it where film-makers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese describe the film-making process in general and, more specifically, how they themselves approach their own work.
Accomplishing its self-imposed goal of providing the reader with a unique insight into the art of movie production it would, for us, be chapter four that would prove to be far and away the most interesting. This particular chapter takes the form of a twelve-page transcript of three conversations that took place, all in the course of a single day, just before the cast and crew of My Own Private Idaho travelled from Seattle to Rome for the final few days of shooting. During this period, director Gus Van Sant was being interviewed, first in a Seattle sushi bar, then again while travelling in a van, before the third and final discussion which took place in the airport just before they flew out. That final conversation ends with the interviewer saying, "Who's your favourite interviewer?" to which Van Sant replies, "River Phoenix." "Oh, that's a good answer," says River.
RP: I see you smirking very often.
RP: You get a sort of perpetual-bliss glaze to your eyes.
GVS: During the work?
RP: Yeah. But it's also like a creative spark at the end of takes, say. If you're getting new ideas, your eyes kind of vibrate.
GVS: Well, part of it's like I'm the audience sitting in a theatre. I'm not really pretending I'm in a theatre, but I'm looking at the scene as I think it's being shot, because I'm not looking through the camera.
RP: As far as sitting down and applying motivation and drive to your ever-changing creative world, how do you discipline yourself? Is there any sort of philosophy that keeps you in line with that discipline?
GVS: When I see something - a film, say - that I think is a good idea, something that I might want to do, I don't really see it as a whole. I see an image that I think represents the whole film. And so then I start to work towards that image, and then I fill it all out, and it becomes very complicated, because you have to have a lot of elements to make the image come to life. And on the way, you usually lose that one image. It becomes a new thing, a thing unto itself. You keep it going along the lines that it's got a mind of its own, and then by the end you say, 'Oh yeah, I remember the first image of this particular idea. I thought it was going to be like this black-and-white, dark thing that was set in the 1950s.' And you actually end up with a very colourful, bright story set in the 1990s.
RP: Referring to My Own Private Idaho?
GVS: Yeah, Idaho is a very good example, because it is very bright and colourful, and it is set in the 1990s. And I think the original ideas were dark and shadowy, but there's not a lot of shadow in it. I know that you persuaded me against using black and white. You said, 'No, no, no. It has to be colour.' I don't know why you said that.
RP: I wanted black and white, and, for me, colour was wrong, and that's why I thought we should try for it because otherwise we might have ended up with something that really couldn't be redone. But black and white is dated in a sense, and this is a timeless picture. One of the things that I really appreciate in working with you is that in that collaborative stage you have no fear of your ego being stripped or anything. You're not possessive, like some can be, but you let all these other ideas filter through without stopping them for fear of losing control, which would be a rightful fear for someone who wants it to stay as pure as possible.
Reading the text, one might very well wish to be the proverbial fly-on-the-wall. Pouring over the text itself is all very well, but how much more fascinating it would have been to see and hear the tonal inflections, the facial expressions, the smiles, the nods and the empathy and understanding as two friends discuss subjects that both care so passionately about.
RP: You yourself said, 'What is Gus doing this for?' Does it bother you when people try to figure you out?
GVS: No, not at all, because I'd like to figure myself out actually.
RP: Yeah, so would I like to figure myself out. So if they can give me a clue, I'm always interested to hear.
GVS: Right. Yeah, I'm pretty much in the dark about myself - I haven't done any psychotherapy. I don't know if that would help. I don't think there's much to be figured out.
RP: I'm surprised by the arrogance displayed by people who try to figure you out just by looking at a piece of your work.
GVS: Well, maybe there's people in the business who have never written or directed before, so maybe it's easier to interpret their work. There's this thing where somebody was talking about this one director they had worked for - it's gossip, really - and they were saying, 'He became obsessed with this one actress.' He would work for ten hours just lighting this shot where she walked through the door. It was like this sort of cuckoo obsession.
RP: That was true. I heard about that too.
GVS: I think it's really cool. I mean, I can become obsessed with something, you know? So far that hasn't happened in my work, but I guess it could happen.
RP: How do you feel about the way women are portrayed in modern-day cinema?
GVS: It's hard for them to find themselves, really. They're not really portrayed at all, except in a man's world.
RP: How do you feel about that? Because in this film you have this character, Carmella, who's kind of a female cliché.
GVS: Yeah, she's one of those.
RP: But then you want to do Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which has to be one of the first books-
GVS: Tracing the notion of a female hero.
RP: Right, so you're doing that, so that balances this. Some people won't know that you're doing that when they see this film and I guess it's no big deal, except I've been kind of curious about that myself. I can't imagine being an actress today. If I was a woman, I wouldn't be who I am now. I wouldn't have had the chance to grow to this point. It's like a real hard road for someone to get to be like Sissy Spacek or Meryl Streep.
The unbearable shortness of River's brief life makes every year he was alive both special and significant. If the reader comes away from reading these discussions with any disappointments it might only be the small regret that the roles were not subsequently reversed during this journey to Rome, and Gus Van Sant did not get the opportunity to interview River.