Notable Oregonians: Gus Van Sant - Filmmaker, Director
Gus Van Sant was born in Louisville, Kentucky on July 24, 1952. His father was a traveling salesman who worked his way into the middle class. Because of his father's job, Van Sant moved frequently during his youth (including a time in Portland). He developed an interest in painting and filming while still in school and began making his own semi-autobiographical short films.
Van Sant's interest in art led him to enroll in the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970 where his classmates included David Byrne and other members of the rock music band Talking Heads. He also received an introduction to avant-garde directors such as Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol. This experience quickly inspired him to change his major from painting to cinema.
After spending time in Europe, Van Sant went to Los Angeles in 1976, where he became fascinated by the existence of the marginalized people, especially in context with the more ordinary, prosperous world that surrounded them. Van Sant would repeatedly focus his work on those existing on society's fringes, beginning with his 1985 Mala Noche. Shot in black-and-white, Mala Noche earned its director almost overnight acclaim on the festival circuit, with the Los Angeles Times naming it the year's "Best Independent Film."
Van Sant moved back to Portland, Oregon in the late-1980s and worked with an independent production company in 1989 to make his next film, Drugstore Cowboy, about four drug addicts who rob pharmacies to support their habit. The film met with great critical success and added to his reputation as a rising talent. He directed the critically acclaimed film My Own Private Idaho in 1991 and later directed the film To Die For in 1995.
Van Sant's first major box office success came with the making of the film Good Will Hunting in 1997 about a troubled, blue-collar genius. It was a 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. He directed Finding Forrester, another well reviewed film, in 2000 and Gerry in 2002. In 2003 Van Sant won the prestigious Palme d' Or prize as well as the Best Director nod at the Cannes Film Festival for his work on the film Elephant. Governor Ted Kulongoski appointed Van Sant to the board of the Oregon Film & Video Office in 2004 to help promote Oregon as a venue for film production.
He released Last Days in 2005 as the final piece of what he referred to as his "Death Trilogy," (along with Gerry and Elephant). Last Days is a fictionalized account of what happened to Kurt Cobain, the leader of the rock band Nirvana, in the days leading up to his death. Van Sant's film Paranoid Park, released in 2007 was honored at the Cannes Film Festival, which also recognized his body of work. Van Sant's Oscar-nominated 2008 film, Milk, explores the 1978 assassinations of San Francisco politicians Harvey Milk and George Moscone.
Van Sant's film, Promised Land, starring Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, and John Krasinski, was released in 2012. His mystery film, Sea of Trees, starring Matthew McConaughey and set in Japan, was released in 2015.