Gus Green Van Sant, Jr. (born July 24, 1952) is an American film director, screenwriter, painter, photographer, musician, and author. He is a two time nominee of the Academy Award for Best Director — for Good Will Hunting (1997) and Milk (2008), both of which were also nominated for Best Picture — and won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his film Elephant (2003). He lives in Portland, Oregon.
His early career was devoted to directing television commercials in the Pacific Northwest. In his films, he has dealt with themes concerning homosexuality and other marginalized subcultures. His filmography as writer and director includes a 1994 adaptation of Tom Robbins' 1976 novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which features a diverse cast (Keanu Reeves, Roseanne Barr, Uma Thurman, and k.d. lang, with cameos by William S. Burroughs and Heather Graham, among others); and My Own Private Idaho (1991), also starring Reeves as well as River Phoenix.
He wrote the screenplays for most of his early movies, and wrote one novel, Pink. A book of his photography has also been published, called 108 Portraits.
Mainstream breakout (1997–2003)
In 1997, the director gained mainstream acceptance thanks to Good Will Hunting, starring and written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The film—about a troubled, blue-collar mathematical genius—was a huge critical and commercial success. In addition to taking in more than $220 million worldwide, it received a number of Academy Award nominations, including a Best Director nomination for Van Sant. It won a Best Screenplay Oscar for Damon and Affleck, and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Robin Williams, who, in his acceptance speech, referred to Van Sant as "the mellowest man in Hollywood." Van Sant, Damon and Affleck parodied themselves and the film's success in Kevin Smith's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.
The success of Good Will Hunting afforded Van Sant the opportunity to remake the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho. As opposed to reinterpreting the 1960 film, Van Sant opted to recreate the film shot-for-shot, in color, with a cast of young Hollywood A-listers. His decision was met with equal parts curiosity, skepticism, and derision from industry insiders and outsiders alike, and the finished result met with a similar reception. Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, and Julianne Moore, Psycho, if not exactly a failure, wasn't much of a triumph, either. However, its mixed reception didn't deter the director, who was soon busy again with a number of projects. In addition to directing, he also devoted considerable energy to releasing two albums and publishing a novel, Pink, which was a thinly veiled exploration of his grief over River Phoenix's 1993 death.
Van Sant fared somewhat better with 2000's Finding Forrester, a drama about a high-school student from the Bronx (Rob Brown) who becomes unlikely friends with a crusty, reclusive author (Sean Connery). Critical response was mixed but generally positive, singling out Van Sant's skill at melding the performance styles of first-time actor Brown and Hollywood legend Connery. However, those same reviewers were less impressed with the script's schematic Scent of a Woman-meets-Good Will Hunting template.
Return to arthouse cinema (2003–present)
Van Sant, longing to return to more intimate production methods, decided to leave behind big-budget studio filmmaking for his next two features. Inspired by the works of Hungarian director Bela Tarr and American maverick John Cassavetes, Van Sant retreated to the deserts of Argentina, Utah, and Death Valley for 2002's Gerry, a loosely devised, largely improvised feature in which stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck—both playing characters named Gerry—wander through the desert, discussing Wheel of Fortune, video games, and nothing in particular. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the film earned as much derision as it did praise, polarizing audiences with its elliptical, purposefully uneventful storyline, punctuated by cinematographer Harris Savides' stunning landscape photography.
It took Gerry over a year to make it to theaters, in which time Van Sant began production on his next film, the controversial Elephant. Approached by HBO and producer Diane Keaton to craft a fictional film based on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, the director chose to shoot in his hometown of Portland, employing dozens of untrained teen actors to chronicle an "ordinary" high-school day—albeit one underlined by an unexpected tragedy. As well as melding improvisational long takes like those in Gerry with Savides' fluid camerawork, the film was also influenced by Alan Clarke's 1989 film of the same name (see Elephant). The finished film provoked strong reactions from audiences at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, who either embraced or rejected Van Sant's aesthetic decision not to offer a definitive rationale for his characters' homicidal tendencies. The consensus from the Cannes jury was unanimous, however: in a surprise decision, they awarded Elephant with their top prize, the Palme d'Or, and Van Sant with his first Best Director statue from the festival. The success of Elephant led Van Sant to show the U.S. premiere of Elephant as a fundraiser for Outside In, an organization working to help youth living on the streets of Portland, Oregon.
In 2005 Van Sant released Last Days, the final component of what he refers to as his "Death Trilogy," (the other parts being Gerry and Elephant). It is a fictionalized account of what happened to Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in the days leading up to his death.
In 2006 Van Sant began work on Paranoid Park based on the book by Blake Nelson, about a skateboarding teenager who accidentally causes someone's death. The film was released in Europe in February 2008. He also directed the "Le Marais" segment of the omnibus film Paris, je t'aime.
Released in 2008, his feature film Milk is a biopic of openly gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978, played by Sean Penn. The film was released to much acclaim and earned numerous accolades from film critics and guilds. Ultimately, it received eight Oscar nominations at the 81st Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning two for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Penn and Best Original Screenplay for writer Dustin Lance Black. Van Sant was nominated for Best Director. Van Sant later stated that his experience with Sean Penn on the film was "amazing".
Van Sant's 2011 project Restless was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. .