maker of "Good Will Hunting": Gus Van Sant – between Oscar stage and indie

He shoots with stars like Nicole Kidman, Sean Connery or River and Joaquin Phoenix, but his stories often take place on the fringes of society. Despite glorious films such as “Good Will Hunting” and “Milk”, he has so far been denied an Oscar. Now the director is 70 years old.

Gus Van Sant, director of films like ‘Good Will Hunting’ and ‘Milk,’ has many fans, including songwriter Finneas O’Connell. The musician – who won the Oscar for the Bond song “No Time To Die” with his younger sister Billie Eilish in March – recently thanked the “incredible” Van Sant for an artwork gift from the filmmaker, who is also an avid painter and photographer is.

“So cool and such an honor to have this artwork on the cover of my song,” Finneas wrote on Instagram in early July after posting an abstract version of the iconic Mona Lisa. Van Sant gave it to him before the director even knew about the new song “Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa”. Finneas released the song with the special album cover on July 15, just over a week before the director’s 70th birthday. This Sunday, July 24th, Van Sant celebrates its milestone anniversary.

The art scene has long since discovered the publicity-shy all-rounder. The US art dealer Vito Schnabel presented the exhibition “Gus Van Sant: Mona Lisa” in early 2022 in his gallery in the posh Swiss town of St. Moritz. On large canvases, Van Sant works abstractly on the world-famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci with chalk, oil paints and gold leaf.

The focus is on the human

In “My Private Idaho,” Van Sant tells the story of a homosexual friendship.

(Photo: imago images/Ronald Grant)

He was already painting a lot at the age of 12, but then started making 8mm films at the age of 16, Van Sant told the culture magazine “Document Journal” in January. Provocative stories, like his feature debut Mala Noche (1985) about a salesman’s unrequited love for a Mexican immigrant, are Van Sant’s forte. His follow-up film, Drugstore Cowboy, starring Matt Dillon as a young drug addict, earned him first prizes in 1989.

The sensitive and at the same time outspoken road movie “My Private Idaho” starring River Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix’s older brother who has since died, and Keanu Reeves, made the director a star of the independent scene in 1991. In it, the openly gay filmmaker tells the story of a homosexual friendship alongside the fates of rent-boys and the homeless.


Gus Van Sant – some art house, often with a dose of Hollywood.

(Photo: imago images/VISTAPRESS)

Van Sant has a penchant for outsiders, but in doing so he puts the human at the center. “I think what all my films have in common is a group of people coming together and forming a family,” the director said in an interview with Document Journal. With his feature films, Van Sant moves between the Oscar stage, festivals in Cannes and Venice and the independent scene. Some art house, often with a dose of Hollywood. He shot with stars like Uma Thurman, Nicole Kidman, Matt Damon, Sean Connery, Sean Penn and Joaquin Phoenix.

First Oscar glory with “Good Will Hunting”

Phoenix was most recently the main actor in the artist portrait “Don’t worry, you can’t run away”, which they presented together at the Berlinale in 2018. He plays the paraplegic US cartoonist John Callahan, with an amazing talent for macabre caricatures, who is battling his alcohol addiction. “We were interested in the portrait of a strong personality, a man who surpasses himself,” said Van Sant at the Berlinale.


For “Don’t worry, you can’t run away” Van Sant brought Joaquin Phoenix (left) and Udo Kier (right) in front of the camera.

(Photo: imago images/VISTAPRESS)

The director also brought Cologne-born Udo Kier back in front of the camera. In “Don’t Worry, You Can’t Run Away,” he plays the humorless ex-drinker Hans, who takes part in Alcoholics Anonymous group classes. Also in their first feature film “My Private Idaho” in 1991 he mimed a man named Hans in the role of a gay suitor. It was Kier’s first appearance in Hollywood. Their next collaboration followed in 1993’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.

Van Sant’s first Oscar glory, with nine nominations, came in 1998 with Good Will Hunting. The screenplay for the moving psychodrama of a young mathematical genius was provided by then newcomers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who won an Oscar straight away. Robin Williams won the Oscar for a supporting role as an empathetic psychiatrist. Van Sant was in the running for the director’s award, but lost to James Cameron and his “Titanic” sweeper.

The King of India

His acclaimed drama Milk, about the first openly gay US politician Harvey Milk in 1970s San Francisco, received eight Oscar nominations in 2009. Leading actor Sean Penn and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black won gold, but not Van Sant, but Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) became best director.

However, the director won numerous independent awards and festival trophies. In Cannes, his violent study “Elephant” was celebrated twice with the Golden Palm in 2003, as best film and for best director. Filmed with young amateur actors, “Elephant” is about students who commit a massacre at their high school.

Van Sant also wins unusual performances from big stars. He cast Nicole Kidman as a hard-nosed, small-town blonde who will stop at nothing in the wicked media comedy To Die For. James Bond star Sean Connery transformed into ‘Forrester – Found!’ into a lonely writer hiding from the public eye.

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