Experiment in the desert

For most directors, making movies with progressively bigger budgets, bigger stars, and more Academy Award consideration is a source of fulfillment and pride. But for Gus Van Sant, who has now directed a string of critically acclaimed studio films including the Oscar-winning "Good Will Hunting," it's almost something to apologize for.

After bursting on the scene with the independent hits "Drugstore Cowboy" in 1989 and "My Own Private Idaho" in 1991, both of which possessed a knowing quirkiness that found favor with critics, Van Sant slowly began working his way up the Hollywood ladder.

"To Die For," about a fanatically ambitious TV reporter, helped launch Nicole Kidman's career. Next came "Good Will Hunting," which won a screenwriting Oscar for the then-virtually unknown actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. It also brought Robin Williams his first Academy Award. After the shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Psycho" in 2001, Van Sant's "Finding Forrester" brought Sean Connery his best reviews in over a decade.

But now with "Gerry," the director from Portland, Ore., has made a film that, while it features actors Damon and Casey Affleck, is of a decidedly more experimental style. Van Sant says it represents a change of course in his career.

"I had this idea, which I no longer think is true, that if you were going to change cinema, you had to be able to do it from the inside," Van San explains from a diner in Portland's fashionable Pearl District. "The challenge of making traditional dramatic films was intriguing. But then it got to a point where I was trying to get my outside projects going, and agents were really good at talking me into bigger projects."

Before "Finding Forrester," for example, Van Sant was attached to a number of smaller, unconventional projects - including an adaptation of J.T. Leroy's cult novel "Sarah" and a biography of controversial cartoonist John Callahan, which never found proper financing. "Gerry" is more of the latter sort, only this time it got off the ground.

Viewers used to seeing Damon in big-budget pictures like "The Bourne Identity" and "Ocean's 11" could be in for a shock with "Gerry." Shot in the deserts of Argentina and California's Death Valley, the film chronicles two hikers who become lost for several days after venturing off a secluded nature trail.

"Gerry" often goes several minutes without any dialogue, including virtually the entire second half of the picture. And when the characters do speak, it's often a series of non sequiturs. Much of the story and dialogue, for which Damon and Affleck are credited along with Van Sant, was completely improvised.

"We really didn't know until the first day of filming what actually was going to happen," the director recalls. "But they got really into it. They'd write a scene that I thought was brilliant, and they'd say 'No, it's way off. It's no good. We have to work way more on that.' " Ultimately, though, the actors essentially had to unlearn their traditional acting skills.

In one of the director's favorite scenes, for example, Damon's character describes a "Wheel of Fortune" episode from the previous night.

"The sun was going down and we were rushing to get the shot," Van Sant explains. "Matt claimed that he didn't think it would ever be used, so he wasn't worrying about acting. At the end of the take, I said, 'That's it. That's what I want.' And he said, 'Wow, I wasn't even trying.' "

Initially, "Gerry" was to be shot with a mere $1 million budget funded by a German television network, with the director himself planning to film the action using a small digital video camera. But before shooting began, additional money was raised so that Van Sant could have the crew to create a more serene visual style for the film.

Van Sant drew on the influence of experimental filmmakers from his younger days, like Stan Brakhage and Chantal Akerman, as well as contemporary Hungarian director Béla Tarr.

Breaking from the comparatively quick-cutting of traditional Hollywood films, "Gerry" often goes several minutes without a single edit.

"Most American filmmakers construct films out of shots and cutting, like Hitchcock teaches, and that's something I took for granted for a long time," he explains. "But I remembered back in art school my teacher, who was from Poland, used to say that cutting is a violence. Even though I was aware of that idea, it never really struck me until watching Bela's movies and making 'Gerry.' "

Completed in late 2001 and held for release until now, Van Sant's unconventional film elicited divided feelings at last year's Sundance Film Festival.

Some offered standing ovations, others walked out in the middle. But regardless of how the movie is received, Van Sant believes he has found his truest voice.

"After 'Gerry' was done, it became hard to watch a regular movie at all," says the director, who already has a similarly made film called 'Elephant.' "I'm somebody who can change my mind really quickly, so probably whatever label I have isn't very important. But I feel like I've altered myself to the point where I can't go back."

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