Gus Green Van Sant, Jr. (Born July 24, 1952) is an American film director, screenwriter, painter, photographer, musician, and author. He is a two time nominee of the academy award for Best Director — for Good Will Hunting (1997) and MILK (2008), both of which were also nominated for best picture — and won the Palme D’or at the Cannes film festival for his film Elephant (2003). He lives in Portland, Oregon.
His early career was devoted to directing television commercials in the Pacific Northwest. In his films, he has dealt with themes concerning homosexuality and other marginalized subcultures. His filmography as writer and director includes a 1994 adaptation of Tom Robbins’ 1976 novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which features a diverse cast (Keanu Reeves, Roseanne Barr, Uma Thurman, and k.d. lang, with cameos by William S. Burroughs and Heather Graham, among others); and My Own Private Idaho (1991), also starring Reeves as well as River Phoenix.
He wrote the screenplays for most of his early movies, and wrote one novel, Pink. A book of his photography has also been published, called 108 Portraits. Van Sant was born in Louisville, Kentucky, United States (US), the son of Betty (née Seay) and Gus Green Van Sant, Sr; Gus Van Sant’s father was a clothing manufacturer and traveling salesman who rapidly worked his way into middle class prosperity. As a result of his father’s job, the family moved continually during Van Sant’s childhood.
Van Sant is an alumnus of Darien High School in Connecticut, US, and The Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon, US. One constant in the director’s early years was his interest in visual arts (namely, painting and Super-8 film making); while still in school he began making semi-autobiographical shorts costing between 30 and 50 dollars. Van Sant’s artistic leanings took him to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970, where his classmates included David Byrne and other members of Talking Heads. It was also at RISD that Van Sant received an introduction to avant-garde directors like Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and Andy Warhol; this introduction quickly inspired him to change his major from painting to cinema.
After spending time in Europe, Van Sant went to Los Angeles in 1976. He secured a job as a production assistant to writer/director Ken Shapiro, with whom he developed a few ideas, none of which came to fruition. In 1981, Van Sant made Alice in Hollywood, a film about a naïve young actress who goes to Hollywood and abandons her ideals. It was never released. During this period, Van Sant began to spend time observing the denizens of the more down-and-out sections of Hollywood Boulevard. He became fascinated by the existence of this marginalized section of L.A.’s population, especially in context with the more ordinary, prosperous world that surrounded them. Van Sant would repeatedly focus his work on those existing on society’s fringes, beginning with his 1985 film Mala Noche.