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By the time Gus Van Sant's "Drugstore Cowboy" was honored with the 1989 National Society of Film Critics Awards for Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay, it was clear that Van Sant's highly original work had at last broken through. But what many people did not know was this "unknown" new filmmaker had been making short films for nearly two decades, carefully developing a cinematic language all of his own.
His short film, "The Discipline of D.E.," had been a highlight of the New York Film Festival over a decade earlier. For "Mala Noche," his first widely seen feature, Van Sant received the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Independent Film of 1987.
Van Sant's latest feature, "My Own Private Idaho," is a lyrical and darkly comic story about the search for home and family. River Phoenix stars as Mike Waters, a soulful, troubled street hustler searching for his lost mother; Keanu Reeves co-stars as Scott Favor, whose street life is an act of rebellion against his father -- the mayor of Portland, Oregon. As the two friends travel from Portland and Seattle to Idaho to Italy, their lives are confounded and enriched by a colorful band of companions, "customers" and lost relatives -- until their individual destinies threaten to separate them.
Fine Line Features presents "My Own Private Idaho," produced by Laurie Parker, written and directed by Gus Van Sant and starring River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, James Russo, William Richert, Rodney Harvey, Flea, Chiara Caselli and Udo Kier.
"People think of a movie about street hustlers as decadent and criminal," notes producer Laurie Parker. "It's more Dickensian. It's unsentimental on the surface, but I think people will be surprised to see how sweet and tender the movie is."
The origins of "My Own Private Idaho" can be found in William Shakespeare's historical plays "Henry IV, Part One" and "Henry IV, Part Two" as well as on the streets of Portland. About ten years ago, Van Sant was working on two separate stories -- one about a modern day Prince Hal (the character in the "Henry IV" plays who transforms from hooligan to responsible heir-apparent), and one about a narcoleptic street hustler.
"One night I was watching Orson Welles's 'Chimes At Midnight,' and thought that the 'Henry IV' plays were really a street story," Van Sant recalls. "I also knew this fat guy, named Bob, who had always reminded me of Falstaff and who was crazy about hustler boys. It was then that I decided to combine the two stories.
"I'm not really searching for projects about the seamier side of life," remarks Van Sant, "even if it does look that way." But it is by focusing on characters whose existence would appear to consist of despair and degradation that Van Sant shows his unique vision. The liquor store clerk from "Mala Noche," the drug addicts from "Drugstore Cowboy" and the throwaway street kids from "My Own Private Idaho" are all imbued with humor and humanity. Although an audience may assume they know how addicts and hustlers will be portrayed, Van Sant allows his characters to show their human face.
Though he had originally planned to cast unknown actors in the leads, after the sudden flood of critical acclaim for "Drugstore Cowboy," Van Sant decided to go after his "dream cast," Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix. "I just assumed their agents would say, 'no,' he recalls. "But as we began to talk to River and Keanu, it was clear that they were up for the challenge."
"Keanu is the Shakespearean character," offers River Phoenix, "and I'm kind of the reality check of the film. Mike, the character I play, reminds me a lot of Werner Herzog's 'Stroszek,' but Stroszek drinks. Mike sleeps."
When asked about their experiences working with Van Sant, the cast and crew invariably describe him with the same word -- "open." Keanu Reeves praises the director for being "totally non-judgemental." River Phoenix calls him "very collaborative."
Reeves and Phoenix had worked together and become good friends on Lawrence Kasdan's "I Love You To Death." When they committed to "My Own Private Idaho" and to what are arguably the most controversial roles of their careers, the fact that they were doing it together made things a lot easier. "Keanu and I made a kind of blood brother pact," recalls Phoenix. "I can't imaging who else I would have done it with."
"Gus speaks in an actor's language, an emotional language," observes co-director of photography, John Campbell. "He's careful not to over-direct."
"I work with him the same today as we did on our first film, twenty years ago: free, loose, spontaneous," adds the other director of photography, Eric Edwards. "Improvisation can be as important in camera work as it is in acting."
Careful attention was also paid to the overall look of the film -- it incorporates an interesting mix of contemporary and timeless elements. "The painters studied for the look are important, and we turned to van Gogh and Vermeer," explains production designer David Brisbin, who worked closely with director Van Sant (a painter as well as a filmmaker). "A palette emerged that was primarily reds and yellows. Contemporary remnants of the Shakespearean era appear in the design, costumers and of course the Falstaff beer that everyone drinks."
A central theme of Van Sant's work has been the search for "home." He portrays makeshift families coming together in a desire to belong. As River Phoenix's character lapses into his narcoleptic sleep-state he sees his own lost childhood replayed. "My Own Private Idaho" is another deeply felt movements in Van Sant's refrain -- the need to find one's place in the world.