CCA Rolls Out the Red Carpet: Director Gus Van Sant and Film Chair Rob Epstein in Conversation

(l to r) Film chair Rob Epstein and Gus Van Sant [photo: Nikki Ritcher]

On Tuesday, January 25, California College of the Art welcomed celebrated filmmaker Gus Van Sant to the San Francisco campus, where Film chair Rob Epstein engaged him in conversation before a maximum-capacity audience gathered inside Timken Lecture Hall. As part of his visit to the college, Van Sant also guest lectured a master class with Epstein the following day.

Van Sant, twice-nominated for an Academy Award for best director (Good Will Hunting in 1997 and Milk in 2008), has directed five actors who went on to win Oscars, two of whom starred in films he directed: best-supporting actor for Robin Williams in "Good Will Hunting" (1998); and best actor for Sean Penn in Milk (2009).

Epstein, too, is no stranger to the coveted golden statue, having been awarded two Academy Awards for best director in the documentary category (1985, 1990): The Times of Harvey Milk; and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, respectively.

Best Hollywood Line

While CCA Film students had reserved seating at the event, others began lining up outside the 130-seat lecture hall more than two hours before the scheduled event. At one point the line reached almost the full length of the main building. Once the lecture hall was filled, spillovers occupied to capacity the lounge area, where they could watch the interview via a video monitor.

The highly anticipated interview between Epstein and Van Sant was interspersed with film clips from some of Van Sant's most critically acclaimed films: Mala Noche (1986); Drugstore Cowboy (1989), starring Matt Dillon; My Own Private Idaho (1991), starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves; To Die For (1995), featuring Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon, and Joaquin Phoenix; Good Will Hunting (1997) starring Robin Williams, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck; Elephant (2003); and Milk (2008), starring Sean Penn and James Franco.

Van Sant's Vision: Technique & Intuition

Van Sant, a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), originally studied painting. He took advantage of RISD's new film department, following in the footsteps of Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol, both of whom were painters who worked in the medium of film. While a student, he met such colleagues as John Sayles, whose Return to Seacaucus 7 is believed to be the inspiration for The Big Chill. Van Sant went on to New York, where he worked in advertising and saved enough money to return to Los Angeles, where he was able to produce Mala Noche.

In introducing the maverick filmmaker, President Steve Beal, a painter himself, called Van Sant "the perfect filmmaker" for the presentation, noting Van Sant's trajectory as a well-rounded artist: painter, writer, director, etc. "[Van Sant's] art-school background and sustained commitment to an interdisciplinary approach to learning about art is what we impress upon students here at CCA."

When asked to discuss his filmmaking techniques, Van Sant referenced his intuition to know when to allow actors to "go off the page," citing River Phoenix's penchant, which he admitted was often successful. He advised aspiring filmmakers in the audience to recognize when an actor is able to bring a unique perspective to a scene and to trust one's intuition that it's often the best direction to take. He also cautioned that not all actors prefer to take such risks, and that it's incumbent upon a director to recognize what an actor can offer.

Another especially effective mechanism through which the veteran director derives a desired meaning from a scene is to create a visual metaphor, as exhibited in the opening scenes of *My Own Private Idaho," which was awarded an Independent Spirit Award for best screenplay. Images of saturated clouds drifting overhead a barren landscape via a time-elapsed sequence follow a depiction of determined salmon to bypass a river's cascade by jumping directly into its path in order to spawn upstream.

The purpose of said technique, revealed Van Sant, is to capture a feeling—an emotion—that represents a character's challenge, or journey. (In the aforementioned example, Phoenix's character, a gay, narcoleptic street hustler, is seeking to locate his mother.) He attributes his technique and others to the works of Hungarian director Bela Tarr, American maverick John Cassavetes, and even Derek Jarman, all of whom are strong influences of his.

Visual metaphor is just one of many filmmaking techniques the artist has mastered, and for which earned him the Outfest Achievement Award in 1999, Los Angeles's LGBT international film festival; the National Society of Film Critics Award best director and screenplay for Drugstore Cowboy in 1990 (which also won the New York Film Critics Award for best screenplay in 1989); Los Angeles Film Critics Association's Independent/Experimental Film and Video Award for Mala Nocha in 1987, and best screenplay for Drugstore Cowboy in 1989; and more recently the San Francisco Film Critics Circle award for best director for Milk in 2008. See the complete list of Van Sant's filmmaking awards and accolades.

Said assistant Film chair Brook Hinton: "It's so crucial for students to learn from established artists like Gus Van Sant, someone who has been wildly successful, while producing serious, meaningful, uncompromising work that continues to challenge audiences all over the world. In both his lecture and the master class for Film Program students, Gus's generosity and experience provided the kind of inspiration that stays with a developing filmmaker for years to come."

Trust the Technique

One of the surprise revelations of the evening, resulting from Epstein's easy-going and confident array of questions, was that this amazing film director often casts aside the traditional use of storyboarding (identifying a scene-by-scene road-map of the film's scenes). This stark departure from customary filmmaking, be it writing the screenplay or developing the film's scene sequence, once again emphasizes Van Sant's inherent ability to trust his instincts.

Van Sant told the audience he sometimes approaches a scene by carefully observing how the scene must be shot—from which character's perspective—that will ultimately adhere to the story line. He admitted the use of storyboarding, while certainly effective, isn't always his preferred mechanism to get from a scene what he intuitively knows at the time of filming what will be most effective.

Lecture Reflects CCA's Diversity Mission

Collectively, the accomplishments, awards, and accolades of these two eminent filmmakers amounts to nothing short of a triumph within the industry. And because a noteworthy amount of their works documents experiences within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community—fictionalized as well as historical accounts—each of the openly gay mavericks of film directing have become icons within and outside the LGBT community, further promoting the integration of dynamically diverse communities.

According to CCA's mission statement on diversity: "As an educational and cultural institution, California College of the Arts has a responsibility to provide access and opportunities for all people, with special attention to supporting groups historically underrepresented in higher education." College lectures and classes that feature renowned artists who represent the varying aspects of multiculturalism inherent in our society bring a wealth of opportunity for students at the college to further appreciate the myriad contributions of the collective artist community.

"Gus Van Sant is not only a remarkable filmmaker but also a generous one," praised Epstein. "As an artist, Gus Van Sant's films run the gamut from experimental to mainstream hits so, with that, he brought a very special wealth of experience and knowledge to our campus. Film students had the opportunity to interact with this important figure in world cinema in both a lecture context and in a more informal master class."

Epstein added, "It was a wonderful opportunity for CCA, and I know Gus enjoyed it as well."

Gus Van Sant's Multifaceted Career

Van Sant's career, which spans more than 30 years and shows no sign of slowing down (as evidenced by the filmmaker's just-completed feature film Restless, starring Mia Wasilkowska and Henry Hopper, as well as Boss, an upcoming political drama on Starz for which he's directing five-time Emmy award winner Kelsey Grammer) can be described as nothing short of kaleidoscopic. His professional credits include directing (30 titles); producing (14 titles); writing (12 titles); and editing (8 titles). His music-based credits include video documentaries for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and David Bowie as well as the music videos for such artists as Chris Isaak ("San Francisco Days"); Tracy Chapman ("Bang, Bang, Bang"); k.d. Lang ("Just Keep Me Moving"); Stone Temple Pilots("Creep"); Elton John ("The Last Song'); and others.

And if that weren't enough, Van Sant is an author (Pink was published in 1997); a musician (two eponymous solo albums and 18 Song About Golf, all on the PopTones label in 1997); a musical / spoken-word collaboration with William S. Burroughs, The Elvis of Letters, released in 1985 on the Tim Kerr record label); and a photographer (108 Portraits was published in 1992), now considered a collector's item.

Rob Epstein's Award Collection

In addition to Epstein's two Academy Awards for best direction, he and his Telling Pictures partner, visiting faculty member Jeffrey Friedman, received the FIPRESCI Award at the Berlinale Film Festival as well as the Grand Jury Prize for directing at the Sundance Film Festival for Paragraph 175, a documentary that highlights the persecution of gays and lesbians during the Holocaust. Epstein also has four national Emmy Awards, three Peabody Awards, multiple GLAAD Media Awards, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Read more about Epstein's career accomplishments.

Telling Picture's most recent film, Howl, starring Hollywood heavyweight James Franco (who's been nominated for a best actor Oscar in this year's Academy Awards for 127 Hours, is an exploration of Allen Ginsberg’s famous 20th century poem of the same title. The film was lined up for the 2010 Berlinale Film Festival and was competing for the Golden Bear as well as being selected as the opening-night film in competition for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Epstein's other film credits and accolades include The Celluloid Closet, winner of the Sundance Jury Prize as well as an Emmy for best directing; Where Are We? Our Trip Across America, selected for the Sundance Film Festival documentary competition; and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Paragraph 175 for best nonfiction feature. Learn more about Epstein and Friedman at the Telling Pictures website.

About CCA's Film Program

California College of the Arts has long been in the vanguard of the media arts, providing students with a chance to explore dynamic and exciting approaches to work in the moving image and sound arts. Learn more about the college's Film Program including how to apply.

Special support for this event provided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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