Gus Van Sant’s films have long featured dusty Western highways; lonely blacktop receding into the scrubby horizon is one of his long-standing visual signatures. An infatuated gringo joyrides through Portland’s outskirts with his Mexican crush in Van Sant’s first feature, Mala Noche (1985). In My Own Private Idaho (1991), a symbolic shot of a house crashing onto a highway stands in for River Phoenix’s crushing despair, and the director revisited Norman Bates’s off-route motel for Psycho (1998). Recently part of MOMA’s Van Sant series, the seldom-seen short Four Boys in a Volvo (1996) basks in road-trip iconography. Originally shot as an advertisement for Lev’s, it features a collection of shirtless lads meandering through golden landscapes, stopping their car at dusk to watch the sun set.
Gerry, Van Sant’s newest feature, similarly opens with two boys in a Mercedes. A soothingly hypnotic introductory sequence shows Casey Affleck and Matt Damon driving down yet another stretch of highway, set to a gentle piano composition by Arvo Pärt. After stopping, they hike down a wilderness trail, but soon lose their way. The bulk of the movie concerns their near biblical wanderings in the desert, told in long, unbroken, often wordless takes. Not only an elaborate distension of one of Van Sant’s personal motifs, it’s also an experimental twist on a deeply American form. Gerry is a road movie that has wandered off the road.
“I always wanted to do a story in the desert,” Van Sant explains. On the phone from his home in Portland, his voice is mellow and unhurried, punctuated by brief pauses. “Here in Oregon, if you go east, you just hit a huge desert. It’s the same one that’s connected to Texas, this big desert region. In the West, as soon as you get out of town, depending on which direction you go, you can hit desert, especially in L.A. I mean, L.A. is really a desert anyway.”
Van Sant himself has recently sojourned in the deserts of L.A. Since To Die For (1995), he’s directed a series of Hollywood features, including the Oscar-friendly Good Will Hunting (1997), his Psycho remake, and the critically lambasted Finding Forrester (2000). It was during the production of this last feature that Van Sant and friend Casey Affleck, who began working with him as an actor in To Die For, began to think about working on a project that would take them far off Hollywood’s beaten path.
“When Gus was getting ready to do Finding Forrester,” says Affleck, “part of the research was to watch loads of movies from the ’70s, you know, to get a look. Being a friend of Gus’s and not doing much at the time, I watched them with him.” Van Sant eventually brought Affleck to the production to do some on-set editing as they shot. In preparation, Affleck read editor Walter Murch’s book In the Blink of an Eye, recommended to him by Matt Damon. Murch had been the editor on The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), which Damon starred in. “It was about why movies have so many cuts, and what editing does to movies and to the audience,” Affleck recalls. “How people become accustomed to connecting the dots between images.” During this time, Van Sant gave Affleck and Damon an eye-opening crash course in modern European art cinema. Together, they studied the works of Andrei Tarkovsky, Béla Tarr, and, eventually, Chantal Akerman.
Studying this alternate world was not merely an exercise in stylistics for Van Sant. “There are a lot of examples of movies that come from a different mind-set from what we are used to dealing with,” he says “There’s a way that the industry pushed away the things that were originally illuminating discoveries, sometime in the mid teens.” Innovations by D.W. Griffith and others meant that “the filmmaker could all of a sudden describe his story by a certain use of a film grammar being developed at the time—medium-shot, close-up, over-the-shoulder, cutaway shots—that would describe things that the characters were thinking or feeling. Which also enabled the industry itself, the guys in the front office, to market a product in the same way that Henry Ford was building and marketing his automobiles. And that product itself was a regurgitation of previous storytelling from the 1800s that was not necessarily film itself. It was more like rehashing a different medium, like literature and theater. But then some of these other filmmakers, I feel, have gotten outside of that.”
Affleck too began to take in new ideas about film form. “Murch wrote that people in the future will probably look at movies today like we look at Egyptian art. In a lot of those Egyptian drawings, each of their limbs is shown from the best angle, even though it’s not naturally the way a body could ever be. That’s the way that movies are cut now—showing you what to look at and from which angle. It just seems natural to us.”
Damon and Affleck in Gerry
Months later, these mental peregrinations through Hollywood’s antipodes developed into plans for Van Sant, Affleck, and Damon to collaborate on an independent project. “We were all sitting around talking about how we wanted to just run off and make a movie ourselves with no interference,” says Damon. Gus and I had been having this kind of ongoing conversation about certain shots in movies, like Béla Tarr movies, that can take a really long time. So we were having this whole conversation about how you can’t make a movie like that if it’s expensive, and Gus was saying, ‘Well, I made Mala Noche with three people.’ ”
Inspired by a recent news item Affleck and Damon heard second-hand about two young men who became lost in an American wilderness, the two started working on a new screenplay that would become Gerry. “We thought it just seemed both kind of mysterious and ludicrous all at the same time,” says Affleck. “And also the idea that you can get lost in America anywhere these days. It seems sort of unbelievable to us that there are still places that you could be lost for four days.”
In the summer of 2001, the group began shooting in the deserts of Argentina. They later switched to Death Valley and, finally, the bone-white salt flats of Utah. The characters’ dialogue, which sounds like the semi-absurd secret-slang patter of two longtime friends, was sometimes improvised. Many takes were shot first with dialogue, then again without. Some of the wordless takes became the most expressive moments in the film, like a single seven-minute shot of the two, worn from a day of relentless misery, trudging silently nowhere.
Though not to the extent of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie or Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, Gerry too became an exercise in grueling, self-reflexive filmmaking, beneath a blistering 120-degree sun. “We were shooting a story,” says Van Sant, “but we’re actually going through the same process, because we’ve actually thrown ourselves into the desert, and it’s really hot, and we also haven’t really given ourselves a specific shot list, or a specific script. So, thematically, while we’re in the desert, making a film about these characters who are in the desert, we’re also sort of thrown into a certain type of artistic desert.”
J. Hoberman’s review of Gerry
“From Rent Boys to Weathergirls: Gus Van Sant, the Early Films” by Ed Halter