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Gus Van Sant Talks on the Eve of the 25th Anniversary of Drugstore Cowboy

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant. Photo by Byron Beck

The year 1989 was a good for Hollywood films. It was the year that Tim Burton’s original Batman flew across the screen. It was also the year that gave us big blockbusters like The Little Mermaid and Field of Dreams. 1989 was also the year that gave us a Portland-based film made by a fairly unknown Portland-based filmmaker that followed the highs and lows of a group of junkies who robbed drugstores to feed their drug cravings.

This fall marks the 25th anniversary of Gus Van Sant’s "Drugstore Cowboy". At the time, Portland-based Van Sant was not well known outside of film festival circles where he had gained praise for a critically acclaimed, if little-watched, low-budget indie called "Mala Noche," made for around $25,000.  Besides films, Van Sant was a painter at the time and it was not unusual for him to get paid in burritos for the murals he did for a local restaurant chain. 

Drugstore Cowboy, based on a book by James Fogle, would change all that. His first “big-budget” film (it cost somewhere between $6 million and $7 million to make), it put Van Sant on the cinematic map and on the fast track of the very-hot-at-the-time independent filmmaker scene. It would not only allow him to make the kind of films he wanted to make featuring outsiders and offbeat film techniques, it would also make him an international celebrity—although fame suits Van Sant like an itchy sweater.

"Drugstore Cowboy" was an unusual film for its time. Told from the perspective of its lead character, a superstitious junkie played by Matt Dillon named “Bob," it  followed him and his buddies as they robbed local drugstores and hospital pharmacies. It neither praises or condemns these addicts, just letting them tell their often hilarious, sometimes off-putting stories. It was lauded by critics on its release.

GoLocalPDX: How did you find out about 'Drugstore Cowboy' and what made you want to make it into a film?

GVS: I was shown the book in a manuscript form by Dan Yost. It was written by James Fogle, who had spent most of his life in prison, and "Drugstore" was about a period of time when he was out of prison. He was originally from Tacoma, and had a very insider look into hard-boiled drug addiction and grifter life. It was also very funny, another thing that was attractive about it. 

Can you tell me a little bit about your process of translating a book into a film?

It was mostly cutting stuff out and changing the margins…I tried to keep Fogle's story intact. If there is some of me in the script, it would be the story editing. 

Due to the subject matter and that the story was being told from the perspective of a drug addict, was it hard to find backing for the film? 

It was pretty hard, a few years of showing stuff around. I was pretty new to Hollywood, so once I had a script of "Drugstore," my agents locked in on it. I was also showing "My Own Private Idaho" around at the same time. 

How important were Avenue Pictures and Laurie Parker in getting the film made?

Laurie was a huge fan of the project, and Avenue decided to include it in the first six films that they planned to make in 1988. So they were pretty indispensable.  

Was it important to you to have it filmed in Portland? Was there ever any possibility that it could have been filmed elsewhere? What was the deciding factor? 

There was the idea to film somewhere else. Part of the story I learned (took place) in Hollywood, but wasn't mentioned in the book. The book is a fictional account (names changed etc.,) but Fogle later told me that their first drugstore robbery was in Van Nuys at the Owl drugstore on Van Nuys Boulevard. I had lived nearby during a time. Fogel and his friends had been selling drugs to musicians on Sunset Boulevard, and ended up doing the drugs themselves. 

You gathered together an amazing group of actors, Matt Dillon, James Le Gros, Heather Graham, William Burroughs. How did you decide on casting them?

Sharon Biale was the casting agent, and I think that it was a popular screenplay when it got sent around to talent, so we were lucky enough to get a nice cast. The decisions were many… many people were considered, and I'm not sure how we decided…I used to put together different cast members with pictures to see who looked good together. [Those Polaroids ended up in a the highly coveted and hard to find photobook 108 Portraits.]

Tell me about the process of getting William Burroughs to appear in the film. 

I had made a short film from one of his stories and thought he would be great in the film and there was a perfect part for him. We sent him the script, and the script is also kind of perfect for him…I think the idea of acting across from Matt Dillon sounded good to him too. 

Was there any hesitation on anyone's part, either in front or behind the camera, due to the subject matter?

Not generally. There were a few Hollywood artists who thought the film shouldn't be made, but I only heard second hand. I think the seriousness of the situation and the characters in it made them nervous, but it was also the reason to be making it. 

Film critics Roger Ebert's review at the time called it one of the best movies of 1989 and compared it to Bonnie & Clyde, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy and Badlands. How did mainstream validation of your work affect your career? How did it impact you in general? 

The validation helped get other films made so I went into "My Own Private Idaho" [starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves] pretty soon after we finished. 

After the movie came out you were placed at the front of the class of "the new independent filmmakers." Tell me about that experience. 

I don't think that I was aware of that. I realized that it became easier to get people interested in new projects, but I didn't live in a place where that kind of recognition had any relevance. I lived in Portland. 

And speaking of being out, you were never one to hide your sexuality. Did being openly gay in an industry where most stayed in the closet ever affect your ability to get work?

Drugstore Cowboy

Drugstore Cowboy

Not really. Hollywood was pretty gay.

The movie is a family film in so many ways. I was wondering if you still stay in touch with the "family" of actors and crew you gathered together to make the film?

I live near Kelly Lynch and run into her a lot. I see Matt [Dillon] in New York now and then. We haven't had any reunions in a while. 

How have you changed as a filmmaker since your D'rugstore' days? Do you still see include influences from this early work in your work today?

I'm usually trying to get back to some of the things that I was doing earlier.  Actually Mala Noche is the one that I try to get back to.  Drugstore was made with a very big crew, and was a little daunting, but Mala Noche we had three people in the crew. 

Portland was a very different city when you made the film. What part of the "old" Portland that you see in 'Drugstore Cowboy' do you miss the most?

I feel Portland is sometimes different, the way the world is different, but also has remained similar to the old Portland that I knew. I'm not sure that I miss anything, Old Town was only a little different, it's still a special place. 

Do you think you could make Drugstore Cowboy today the way you made it  25 years ago?

Sure, I think you could make a film like it… 

If you could distill the experience of making 'Drugstore Cowboy' into one word or sentence what would it be?

I think the idea is that people of all walks of life are very much like each other. 


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