As an aspiring teenage artist, Gus Van Sant had his head turned by the writing of Jack Kerouac and fellow Beats William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Then, as an aspiring filmmaker at RISD—where classmates included future Talking Heads—he was influenced by a visit to Italy, where he watched the Fellini film Casanova and met Pier Paolo Pasolini. The Beat influence can be seen in his first film, Mala Noche (1986), and even more so in Drugstore Cowboy (1989), in which Burroughs portrays ‘Tom the Priest’. Gus Van Sant talks with PKM’s David Stewart about the lingering influence of Jack Kerouac, on the eve of the centennial of the writer’s birth (March 12).
On October 21, 1969, Jack Kerouac died in St. Petersburg, Florida of an abdominal hemorrhage caused by his excessive taste for alcohol and speed. Only a year earlier, Neal Cassady, who was immortalized as Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s landmark 1959 novel, On the Road, died along the railroad tracks of Mexico. As this year marks what would have been his 100th birthday, Jack Kerouac’s legacy remains as timely and expansive as the two-lane blacktops and boxcars he used for travelling across America.
Gus Van Sant is one of the countless artists inspired by Kerouac and the other Beats to capture those who were, in Kerouac’s words, ‘mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.’ For Van Sant, his camera was his pen, and film would be his equivalent to Kerouac’s teletype scrolls.
At the time of Kerouac’s death, Van Sant was a 17-year-old, aspiring artist living in Connecticut, painting and making experimental films.
“I really started reading Kerouac at 18 through some friends of mine, who were attending Drew University,” Van Sant recalls from his home in Los Angeles. “They were all reading Naked Lunch [by William S. Burroughs], and I started reading it. At the time, I only knew of Ginsberg because he was such a presence in the New York scene. I knew Burroughs was ‘Old Bull Lee’ in Kerouac’s books. Reading those books from the perspective that these were based on real characters, so I kind of knew of Burroughs from that way. Also, I was somewhat of a student of Marshall McLuhan, so Bill fit into this Marshall McLuhan world. Samuel Beckett was another writer I dove into.”
At Rhode Island School of Design, Van Sant majored in film studies during the same time fellow art students David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth would form The Talking Heads. “Chris and Tina were taking painting classes at RISD with Richard Merkin,” he recalls. “I’m not sure if I was in the same class as them, but I was painting in Merkin’s class once a week. David and Chris had made a videotape of them lip-synching to ‘Mustang Sally.’ The video department was next to the film department and a lot of things happened in their studio because their equipment was so heavy; the colorizing equipment, among other things. I think that was the earliest formation of the band.”
It was a postgraduate study abroad program in Italy that played a significant role in Gus’s life when he visited the set of Fellini’s Casanova, watching the legendary director talk over scenes with Donald Sutherland. However, it was Gus’s meeting with Pier Paolo Pasolini two months before the controversial director’s murder that left a substantial impact on his future as a filmmaker.
“There was sort of a loss in translation, but also, I’m sure my words were poorly chosen,” Gus remembers. “I was trying to say that in cinema at that time, it seemed like it was trying to catch up to literature. That’s kind of what I was trying to say, that I was interested in pursuing that; bringing literature to the cinematic form. It sounded like I was trying to transpose literature into cinema. Pasolini didn’t get it; he didn’t see the point.”
In December of 1975, Gus made his way back to America living in Los Angeles on Franklin and Argyle with two bouncers who worked at the Roxy four miles away. When he wasn’t watching Patti Smith’s legendary set at the Roxy, Gus walked the Sunset Strip taking note of the kids living on the streets, sleeping over the stars the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“Noticing the surroundings reminded me of Times Square in New York City,” he said. “The ones that I noticed were the homeless kids playing video games. Even though I was right in the area where there was heavy prostitution, I never realized that across from the Gold Cup and across the street was this hustler bar. Then, I did start writing something that did resemble My Own Private Idaho. I also read City of Night by John Rechy thinking that he had drawn a perfect portrait of Hollywood Boulevard. I put my project down for a while because his was so successful.”
Gus managed to get his earliest experience working on a feature film and meeting Portland-based poet and novelist Walt Curtis on the 1979 film, Property, directed by Penny Allen. Although he was working on the West Coast, Beat literature drew Van Sant to New York City where he visited William S. Burroughs’ apartment on Franklin Street to get permission to film an adaptation of his short story, ‘The Discipline of D.E.’
“I looked in the phone book and found his phone number listed,” Van Sant said. “I realized that this is my desire; to ask William Burroughs permission to make this short film. I don’t know why I really wanted permission, but I guess I felt like it could go somewhere. Also, I wanted to visit him because of his connection to Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Cassady. He was living on Franklin Street and I called and was invited over to his place a week later. I went over and told him I was moving to Hollywood. He had some stories about Hollywood; he had only been there one time to sell Naked Lunch with Terry Southern. He gave me numbers of people to look up when I got there.”
Gus’s debut feature, Mala Noche, an adaptation of Walt Curtis’ novel of a gay liquor store clerk and his dysfunctional relationship with a Mexican immigrant living in the Old Town section of Portland, is a poetic meditation on Kerouac’s On the Road with its visual influence stemming from Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy, which was written and narrated by Kerouac.
“I had seen Daisy in college, and it was inspiring because it was homemade, very rudimentary. A black-and-white film shot on either a Bolex or Bell + Howell camera, which I had done something like that in high school. So, Mala Noche was going into this world of stripped-down filmmaking in that same way.”
Released in 1986, Mala Noche signaled Van Sant’s emergence on the thriving independent film scene at the same time Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, and Allison Anders would tell their stories of America, racism, homosexuality, and relationships with the Beatific sensibilities of Bob Kaufman, Diane di Prima, and Jack Kerouac.
“While they were also working in black and white, they were my kinship filmmakers,” Gus said. “Whether they know it or not, they were setting an example of how to make a feature film and how to sell it at film festivals.”
In 1989, thirty-two years after On the Road was published, Drugstore Cowboy was released to critical and commercial acclaim. Based on James Fogle’s novel, the film follows a group of drug addicts, led by Matt Dillon, living in early Seventies Portland. “There were a lot of friends that Fogle based his characters on. Like Fogle, most of them were in prison,” said Van Sant. “The cast would write letters to these different characters. One was named Brian, who was the lead character in the story of James’ book. James was more like the Rick (James Le Gros).”
Almost like a scene from Kerouac’s book, Matt Dillon’s drug-addicted protagonist encounters William Burroughs, yet not as ‘Old Bull Lee’, but Tom the Priest, resulting in Burroughs scene-stealing performance.
“Matt had already known Burroughs,” said Van Sant. “When Drugstore Cowboy came up, I offered William the role as Tom the Priest. We got to know each other a little better. Whenever I had trips across the country, I would always stop by and visit him for the day in Lawrence, Kansas.”
Kerouac’s fascination with the ‘Roman candles’ that illuminated his teletype would not stray from Gus Van Sant as his career exploded in the Nineties with films like My Own Private Idaho, To Die For, and Good Will Hunting. Beyond his career in film, music, painting, and photography, Van Sant’s latest project ‘Andy’, a musical based on Andy Warhol’s early life, has been playing to rave reviews at La Comédie de Reims in France. The musical will continue its run in Germany over the summer, but it has yet to find a place on Broadway.
“We haven’t really talked about yet bringing it to the States,” Van Sant said. “But I’m sure there’s a desire.”
The term ‘Beat culture’ has had different interpretations. Beyond the berets, stale smoke, and coffee, it was an artistic response to the emotional and cultural strain from World War II and the rise of the Military Industrial Complex. A century after Kerouac’s birth, a certain revival of his work and Beat culture is still on the horizon.
As Gus explained, “Amongst my peers, we’ve never left the Beat influence. I can’t follow the younger generation, but there is definitely a strong following of Beat culture in Portland. There was a lot of things at Reed College that were there in the past as well from Phillip Whalen to Gary Snyder. It remains an eclectic and experimental place.”