Iain Blair
Issue: February 1, 2009


HOLLYWOOD — Director Gus Van Sant is no stranger to Oscar attention. His acclaimed feature Good Will Hunting brought him a Best Director Academy Award nomination, and the film was nominated for eight other Oscars, including Best Picture, winning for Best Supporting Actor (Robin Williams) and Best Original Screenplay (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon).

Now Van Sant’s new film Milk — starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected US official who was later assassinated, along with the mayor of San Francisco — has received an Oscar nomination. Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Van Sant, whose credits include Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and To Die For, talks about making Milk, the Oscars and post production.

POST: Milk has received an Oscar nom. How important are the Oscars to you as a filmmaker?
GUS VAN SANT: “They’re great for getting your film seen and raising its visibility, so I’m a big fan. And I’m very hopeful about my chances, although seeing as how it’s like American Idol, a sort of popularity contest, I don’t really know [laughs].”

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?
VAN SANT: “Just to tell the story of a real man who ran a grass roots campaign representing his community, which was unique in the sense it was a gay community at a time when there hadn’t been many vocal gay communities. I suppose New York was one in the ‘60s, so this was a new one — or at least a newly invigorated one — in San Francisco. So I wanted to tell the story of this guy who had a really interesting trajectory in that community.”

POST: You seem to like doing period pieces?
VAN SANT: “I do, period films that are within the last few decades. But it’s tough to do them really well, and on my own films it’s hard for me to tell if I’ve done it well because I’m so aware of what we went through. I can’t sit back and look at it objectively.”

POST: Milk marks cinematographer Harris Savides’ fifth feature collaboration with you. Talk about the look you both wanted, and how important was it to shoot Milk in San Francisco?

VAN SANT: “It was very important to shoot in the real locations, but we didn’t know if we’d be able to. And it was nice to hear that Sean Penn really didn’t want to go outside San Francisco, where he lives, so it sort of forced us to be in the place we really wanted to be. Finding the look was tricky. At first, we wanted it to look like early cinema verite, like the Maysles brothers’ films, and after trying to get that look for a week, we changed and began doing something quite different, where we’d make more use of the blocking and the set design, and the framing was quite static and more austere.”

POST: What made you change direction?

VAN SANT: “What we were getting wasn’t what we’d thought we’d get. We were going to shoot 16mm, then we changed to 35mm, and that affected the whole ability to get the 16mm look. We realized it was going to look more like any given episode of Entourage or The Office, using the 35mm cameras. And because those shows use big 35mm cameras, they have that certain look, and optically it’s just not the right format for a verite look.
“I think it’s the folly of modern American cinematography that people are shooting verite style but are forced into using these larger cameras. I’m sure that as soon as video comes around, that will change, as it really seems to be the size of the camera that’s crucial. So when HD gets a little smaller, I think there will be more accurate verite styles.”

POST: Is it true that you and your key creatives all shared a loft in San Francisco during the shoot?

VAN SANT: “Yes, we had a house together on a street near Castro, and I was with the production designer Bill Groom, the costumer Danny Glicker and [Dustin Lance Black] the writer. But our offices weren’t in that building, so I don’t know if it really had an effect on making the film. It was just a place that wasn’t a hotel, and it was all for rent, so we just took it over.”

POST: Tell us about working with editor Eliott Graham who cut X2: X-Men United and Superman Returns. [See our interview with Graham in Post’s December issue.]

VAN SANT:  “He began cutting on location and then we continued up in Portland at my offices there. Then we moved to LA where we rented a small office. Overall the edit took about five months. He’d often work, then show me his cut, so I wasn’t sitting there the whole time.”

POST: Do you like the post process?
VAN SANT:  “Love it. It’s great because it’s so much more relaxed than shooting, and it’s also the final stage where you’re making these large decisions very slowly, which I like a lot. We spent about six months on post total.”

POST: Where did you do the post?
VAN SANT:  “At Wildfire in LA, which is this great facility run by my old sound designer, Leslie Shatz.”

POST: At what point did all the archival  footage become a key element of the film?
VAN SANT: “It’s interesting, because at the start we planned to use a certain amount of it, and then in looking at the archives, we found a lot of footage that we really liked that we kept in case we wanted to use it. Then in the edit, we began to use more and more of it to augment moments in the film or to add introductions to scenes. So it gradually became more and more prevalent in the film as we edited, so it grew organically.”

POST: Did that surprise you?
VAN SANT: “No, but there was a question of whether audiences would like it or not, and some key members of the team were afraid of the documentary footage, as they felt it made the film look like a documentary. But in our test screenings, audiences really seemed to like it, and I don’t feel it looks like a documentary.”

POST: How many VFX shots are there and how did you go about dealing with them?
VAN SANT: “We had about 30, all done by Illusion Arts [in Van Nuys] and Bent Image Lab [in Portland]. They were pretty straightforward effects.”

POST: Do you like working with VFX?
VAN SANT:  “I do, and this was pretty easy. The houses go off and do the work, and you’re guiding them and approving or disapproving of their progress, so I found it very simple.”

POST: How important is music and audio for you?

VAN SANT: “It’s so important for me, and on this film, like on the last few, we used a stereo mic for production sound, which has its own set of qualities as far as the location sound. By using a stereo mic, a lot of your audio work can be done for you, because with a mono mic you have to go back in post and totally recreate the environment, as it’s not captured by the mic. So the stereo mic gives you all this extra information, such as background tone, echoes off location walls, even atmospheric sounds. Sometimes we don’t lock down the location because we like the background sound.
“Of course you need all the regular sound mixing, which we did at Wildfire, and Leslie was the sound designer and supervising sound editor, but I think starting with the stereo sound was always a key element to the audio. The music is another key element, although we used it fairly traditionally here. We recorded the score at Air Studios in London.”

POST: How important is the DI for you?
VAN SANT: “This was the first one I’d ever done. We did it at Efilm, with colorist Mike Hatzer, who was great. I liked parts of the DI but there are also things I don’t really like about it. There is a quality that goes along with the whole process that ends up on the output film, a kind of brownishness that starts to highlight different aspects — hair in particular. And that look becomes uniform from film to film, whoever the DP is. You still get this brownish quality and I don’t know if they can really control it or will ever be able to fix it. I guess if you project digitally that quality isn’t there, but there seems to be a lot lost by going into the digital realm.”

POST: It sounds like you’re not a DI fan?
VAN SANT: “I’m on the fence about it. I don’t know if I’ll do a DI on my next film, but the business is becoming more DI-oriented, so there are fewer and fewer places left where you can do a non-DI. There’s still something about the way film stock has been designed over the years in making a release print. There’s a certain preservation by making a film-to-film internegative and release print rather than going through a DI. I still love the film process.”

POST: Did Milk turn out the way you hoped?

VAN SANT: “It did. I’m very happy with the film and the whole reception to it.”

POST: Throughout your career you’ve continued to make short films — you directed Allen Ginsberg reading his own poem Ballad of the Skeletons to the music of Paul McCartney and Philip Glass, and did a segment for the feature Paris, je t’aime. Are you still making them?
VAN SANT: “I haven’t been doing many. I’d like to do more, but I don’t know.”

POST: You’ve also directed music videos for many top recording artists including David Bowie, Elton John, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Hanson. Do you still do videos?
VAN SANT: “The last one I did was for the Chili Peppers, and I like doing them. Again, I’d like to do more, but it depends on the situation.”

POST: You’re based in Portland, Oregon. Do you ever feel outside the Hollywood loop?
VAN SANT: “Not really. I spend a lot of time in LA, but it’s nice being based somewhere like Portland where you’re outside the whole Hollywood scene and daily life. It suits me.”

POST: Are you still painting, doing photography and writing?

VAN SANT: “I try to do my photography and a bit of painting, but this past year I’ve been working full-time on Milk. And I’d like to write another book.”

POST: What’s next?
VAN SANT:  “I’ve got a couple of screenplays I’d like to make. One is an adaptation of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and that’s the main one, although I haven’t seen a script yet. The other project is also an adaptation of a book, How Starbucks Saved My Life, but I haven’t seen that script yet either. So we’ll see.”