Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant Biography

Director (1952–)
Gus Van Sant, the American director known best known for the blockbuster hit Good Will Hunting, starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.


Gus Van Sant, the American director known best known for the blockbuster hit Good Will Hunting, starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Van Sant's first critical acclaim came with the film Mala Noche and continued with Drugstore Cowboy, starring Matt Dillon. His work on the biopic Milk won considerable praise for portrayal of openly gay supervisor Harvey Milk.

Early Career

Director, screenwriter. Born Gus Green Van Sant on July 24, 1952, in Louisville, Kentucky. The son of an executive, Van Sant moved around a lot during his early years. His family eventually settled down in Darien, Connecticut, when he was 10 years old. As a child, he was interested in art and made films using a home movie camera. He spent his senior year of high school in Portland, Oregon, after his father started a new job in the city. With friend Eric Edwards, Van Sant made his first serious film effort there—a 20-minute black-and-white family drama entitled The Happy Organ.

Van Sant studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design after high school, but he soon switched to filmmaking. He graduated from college in 1975 and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as an assistant to director Ken Shapiro. Van Sant also found time to make his own films, including one based on a story by William S. Burroughs.

Indie Films

After several years in California, Van Sant took a job in New York City directing commercials for an advertising agency. He continued to explore his interest in film on the side by writing screenplays in his spare time. Using the money he saved from his advertising job, Van Sant funded his first feature film, Mala Noche (1985). The movie, adapted from a novel by Walt Curtis, tells the story of a gay convenience store clerk’s infatuation with a Mexican immigrant. In 1987, Mala Noche won the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Award for best independent film.

For his next effort, Van Sant delved into the gritty reality of drug addiction. Drugstore Cowboy (1989) starred Matt Dillon as the leader of a group of junkies who steal to support their habit. Set in Oregon during the 1970s, the film received praise for its honest portrayal of drug use and addiction. Dillon, a former teen idol, and Kelly Lynch, who played his girlfriend, also earned accolades for their compelling performances.

Continuing to explore the seamier side of life, Van Sant directed My Own Private Idaho (1991) starring Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix. The film was Van Sant’s own take on William Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays. In the movie Phoenix plays Mike Waters, a narcoleptic gay street hustler who befriends and falls for Reeves’s character, Scott Favor, another hustler from an affluent background. Together they search for Mike’s mother. To tell the story Van Sant incorporated many Shakespearean references and elements of magical realism.

For his next film, Van Sant decided to adapt Tom Robbins’s novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994) for the big screen. The film, starring Uma Thurman, proved to be a critical and commercial disappointment. A critic at The New York Times wrote that the film was "one of the more intriguing failures of its day” and critic Roger Ebert described it as "one of the more empty, pointless, baffling films I can remember." But Van Sant made a critical comeback with his first major studio film, To Die For (1995). Nicole Kidman starred as an ambitious woman who aspires to be a television personality. Trapped in a dead-end marriage with a bartender (Matt Dillon), she enlists the subjects of her documentary—three teenagers, including one played by Joaquin Phoenix—to help her improve her personal life and career through murderous means. The dark comedy was widely praised.

Mainstream Success

Making his most mainstream film to date, Van Sant directed Good Will Hunting (1997). The film starred Matt Damon as a young, tough university janitor with a hidden talent for mathematics. The popular actor was thrilled to work with Van Sant, telling The Advocate in 1998 that "I was beside myself ... I was excited about his helping me bring an edge to the character." After anonymously solving a challenging puzzle left on a classroom chalkboard, Damon’s character is eventually tutored by a professor. He also receives counseling from a therapist played by Robin Williams. Rounding out the cast was Ben Affleck, who played one of Damon’s local buddies, and Minnie Driver, who co-starred as his girlfriend. The film was a commercial and critical success, earning more than $138 million at the box office and taking home numerous awards. In total, Good Will Hunting received nine Academy Award nominations, including one for best director for Van Sant.

Van Sant's next move puzzled many in the film industry. He decided to do a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's classic Psycho (1960)—not a modern retelling, but literally a shot-by-shot retelling of the original, only this time filming it in color. This time around, Vincent Vaughn played the creepy proprietor of the Bates Motel—a role made famous by Anthony Perkins—and Anne Heche relived the horrific shower scene that originally featured Janet Leigh. Van Sant told Newsweek that his biggest reason for doing the remake was "that nobody's ever done it. If you put things together that have never been put together nobody knows what will happen—to me that's a great reason to try it. You might discover something."

Return to Independent Films

Again exploring the role of the outsider, Van Sant directed Finding Forrester (2000), which told the story of a young black student at a predominantly white private school. The student finds support from a reclusive writer played by Sean Connery. After this major studio release, Van Sant returned to his independent film roots, making a much smaller, more focused film, Gerry (2003). The film featured two characters, played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, hiking together in the desert.

That same year, Van Sant explored the deadly high school shootings that took place at Columbine High School in 1999 with Elephant. A thought-provoking re-imagining of the tragedy, the film follows a group of teenagers through a seemingly ordinary day until that normalcy is shattered by violence. Van Sant "has created a haunting elegy on the unpredictability of life," wrote Ruthe Stein for the San Francisco Chronicle.

In Last Days (2005), Van Sant uses the days before the suicide of alternative rocker Kurt Cobain as the film’s inspiration. As little is known about Cobain’s last days, the movie offers a fictional look at a famous rocker who is overwhelmed and isolated by his success.

More recently, Van Sant directed a segment for the film Paris Je T'aime (2007), which also featured the work of such directors as Alexander Payne, Wes Craven, and the Coen brothers. Returning to his hometown of Portland, Oregon, Van Sant directed the small independent film Paranoid Park (2008) about a teenager boy whose actions lead to an accidental death. This larger drama is set against the character's personal struggles at school and at home.


Openly gay, Van Sant found Milk (2008) to be a special challenge for him. "I think the responsibility of making this movie—of representing an entire generation, an entire new class of gay men that existed in the '70s—was scary," he told Interview magazine. The story of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay people to be elected to public office, languished for years in Hollywood before Van Sant made his film. Committed to accurately telling the story, he sought to follow a more realistic style than some of his previous works.

Released in November 2008, Milk opened to rave reviews. Sean Penn gave a compelling performance as the title character, and Josh Brolin also received a warm reception for his depiction of Milk's assassin, Dan White. The film could not have been more timely; it hit theaters just weeks after Californian voters passed Proposition 8, which, in effect, put an end to legalized gay marriage.

In January 2009, Milk received eight Academy Award nominations, including Van Sant's second nomination for best director, and won two: For best original screenplay and best actor (Sean Penn). With Milk serving as yet another testmament to his talent, Van Sant has proved time and time again that he is one of the top directors working today.

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