Filmmaker Gus Van Sant talks Milk, subversive Psycho remake and gay-rights history miniseries

As exhibition of American director’s artwork and photography opens in Paris alongside a retrospective of his films, he admits political gay films were ‘not normally something I would have gone to’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 April, 2016, 1:15am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 April, 2016, 1:15am

American filmmaker Gus Van Sant says he is “very excited” about what he hopes will be a landmark history of the gay rights movement he has just finished shooting for US television giant ABC.

The director of 2008 double Oscar-winner Milk – about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California – says he is all the happier about When We Rise because it was made for “a very conservative platform”.

The eight-hour mini-series written by Dustin Lance Black – who also scripted Milk – will follow the lives of three activists including Cleve Jones, the man behind the Aids Memorial Quilt that commemorates the lives of people lost to the epidemic.

The two other principal characters are African-American activist Ken Jones and social justice advocate Roma Guy from Maine, both of whom end up with Cleve Jones in San Francisco.

Van Sant says making the first two hours of “this amazing story”, which he describes as an “elongated Milk that begins in 1972 ... was very enthralling and exciting”.

Speaking before the first major exhibition dedicated to his work opened in Paris, the director who made his name with Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho about gay street hustlers, said political gay films were “not normally something I would have gone to”.

“I must admit I distrust politics, so it is not wholehearted from my point of view,” Van Sant said.

He said Lance Black, who is engaged to British Olympic diving star Tom Daley, was the driving force behind the series, which some have compared a LGBT Roots, a reference to the groundbreaking 1970s TV series about slavery.

“I am in the service of an ideology of the screenwriters, and I am learning about it myself rather than dictating,” he added.

Van Sant said it took him 14 years to make the story of Harvey Milk, which he inherited from Oliver Stone, who did not want to “make another assassination film after JFK”. Milk was shot dead by a fellow San Francisco politician in 1978. Robin Williams, who later teamed up the director in the Good Will Hunting, had been original down to play Milk.

Van Sant also revealed that one of his biggest box office flops, Psycho, was made out of the “frustration of watching the movie companies remake films just by stealing the screenplay and changing the ending ... Their favourite film to make was a sequel.”

So he persuaded them to let him remake Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic frame by frame, as a subversive “experiment to see whether or not remaking a film like that could make money and in doing so create a whole cycle where Hollywood would eat itself alive and regurgitate itself”.

A complete retrospective of Van Sant’s films at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris opens this week alongside an exhibition of his watercolour paintings and Polaroid portraits of his actors and friends, who range from the writer William Burroughs to David Bowie and actor Matt Dillon.

Van Sant, 63, said that even he had never seen some of the documentaries and photos uncovered by the curators.

“It is sort of sad, because there are so many moments that you have lost touch with over the years, and all of a sudden you see them again,” he said.