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“I’m a connoisseur of roads. I’ve been tasting roads my whole life.”
So goes the closing lines of one of cinema’s definitive road movies — the heartbreaking, fascinating, utterly strange My Own Private Idaho. Authored by cinematic wunderkind Gus Van Sant at the dawn of the ’90s, the film is a baffling conceptual amalgam: a love story among gay hustlers that reimagines Shakespeare’s Henry IV via Orson Welles’ gonzo adaptation Chimes at Midnight; an acid Western that depicts the subculture of ’90s Portland in the vein of the French New Wave. It is a film that, truly, contains multitudes.
As it pertains to men’s fashion, Idaho is one of the most stylish films ever committed to celluloid. In the wardrobes of its two stars, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, the movie codifies the beginnings of the second workwear revolution about to sweep through culture at large. The cowboy boots and ratty orange jacket sported by Phoenix as Mike recasts the image of a James Dean-like rebel into a romantic bastion of the Old West, while Reeves’ Scott imbues the medieval inspiration of the character into a celebration of leather-bound fetish wear. But above all else, it’s an ode to garments that wear the weight and romance of the road.
Almost exactly 30 years after its release, we spoke to Van Sant about bringing the aesthetic universe of My Own Private Idaho to life.
Jake Indiana: At the time you made this film, there wouldn’t have been many other mainstream references for hustling culture, aside from something like Midnight Cowboy (1969). What was it like shopping this script around?
Gus Van Sant: It’s kind of a joke but it’s also true: People in LA don’t really read the screenplays. They look at them and they’re like, “Okay,” and then they give them to their assistant. I wrote the script when Macintosh first came out, and I bought one. You could write in different typefaces, so I was writing in lots of them, which wasn’t — and still isn’t — kosher in the movie business. It was only 70 pages long, and it had all these crazy fonts and stuff, and a column was also written down the center. It was not ordinary spacing. So whoever I gave it to was not impressed. And beyond that, the first paragraph in the script was Mike giving a blow job. The movie starts a different way, but the script describes this guy getting a blow job. So it was just odd all around.
Indiana: From what I understand, you were working in the subcultures of Portland with these real hustlers and sex workers, and both Keanu and River worked with them in preparation for their roles. Tell me a bit about how you all entered these spaces and what that experience was like.
Van Sant: At that time, I had met a number of people in Portland. There was quite a pervasive scene on 3rd Avenue, which is the street where all the protests are now. Around the Justice Center was the location of the actual young male sex workers in Portland in the ’80s, which was kind of a holdover from the Depression. It was about two blocks from the main Greyhound bus terminal, and it was a place that people ended up at on a particular block that was vacant. They set up a camp with tents and so forth, and they called it Camp. An older lawyer, who had been around in the Depression, explained to me later that it was called that because it was a literal camp. When I was there, it was still called Camp, but nobody really knew why.
Now there are buildings there, but it was a camp where the wealthier clients would come down in their cars and cruise along the street, and the boys would get in the cars and go away with them. It still totally existed. Even though there were occasional journalist reports from that area, it was very overlooked by the police. It was just ignored, but it was quite visible if you walked down the street. You would see these kids hanging around and getting into cars.
There was also a disco, kind of like the young people’s version of Studio 54, if you can imagine it. It was an all-ages disco where even people like Courtney Love were disc jockeys. When I was there later in the ’80s, it had become the City Club. A lot of different kids went, just all types of gay kids, but there was also a contingent of street kids who were kind of gay and kind of not gay. That’s where I met a lot of these characters. Mike, Scott, and Gary became characters in the script, but they were real people. I intended to have them actually play the roles, until Keanu and River said they would do the film. Still, the real Mike and the real Scott are in the film. They were acting with River and Keanu, but they encouraged them to ask whatever questions they may have had.
Indiana: The scene where everyone’s in the diner, and you cut to all these conversations where they’re talking about really heartbreaking, traumatic experiences, those are all non-actors, right?
Van Sant: Yes. There was a lively café in Portland at that time, it was called the Broadway, and if you went into it, it was filled with all sorts of street criminality, including street hustlers. I wanted the scene to have that feeling, and so I left it to a couple of people who assured me that they knew those characters and they could get them in the background. It’s easy to say that, but it’s hard to get that type of real crowd to sit around for hours in the background.
Indiana: You worked with Beatrix Aruna Pasztor as your costume designer, whom you had just worked with on your previous feature Drugstore Cowboy (1989). How did the costumes come together? And to what extent did you have a vision for the style of the film, and how much of it was based on reality?
Van Sant: My style is to let the people dress however they really dress, you know? It worked quite well in Elephant (2003) and Mala Noche (1986), but since I had Beatrix, it was up to her. She had done a film with Howard Brookner that Madonna was in, which was how we met her. She was from Hungary and quite Eastern European in her viewpoint. She knew how to do things like build clothes.
She is the one who invented, as far as I can tell, this thing which was already being used in Drugstore Cowboy — like in the case of Matt Dillon, he’s wearing checkered dress pants. He looks kind of weird, but at the same time, almost passable. What she did in that film was amazing. I was a little bit alarmed because it was so extreme, but the actors seemed to like it. So I thought, “Okay, it’s great.” When it came to Idaho, she wasn’t doing the same thing, but she was doing something that had already entered into the culture, which was incorporating bus driver pants and work jackets, gas station jackets with patches on them, Carhartt pants, and Ben Davis shirts. She would find all these different things at Goodwill. She would just go in the bins and find all this stuff.
Keanu really wasn’t digging what she was doing, and so he’s wearing his own clothes. When you first see him, he’s wearing his own clothes, the stuff that he wore in Hollywood day-to-day, and then occasionally he’s trying other things. He did it himself, whereas River was very happy with all of Beatrix’s stuff, and all the stuff he’s wearing is hers. The rest of the cast are all wearing her stuff.
Indiana: It’s amazing how worn the clothing seems. It really looks like River had been wearing that jacket for weeks.
Van Sant: He did actually wear his costume. He wore it as he was rehearsing. But they were also from the bins, so they weren’t even sectioned out into the Goodwill yet. They were just a giant block of clothes that you could unpack from who knows where.
Indiana: One of the clothing moments that caught my eye when revisiting the film were the scenes where Keanu is wearing these very medieval leather bracelets and a leather choker. Was that his own, or was that styled for him?
Van Sant: I never asked. The costumer was there. I think he just showed up in that and I thought, “Great! Go.” I wasn’t talking to him about costumes any longer because he wasn’t listening to me. He was having problems with his character and its origin. His character was Shakespearean, and then for River, the real guy [he’s playing is] actually on set. So [Keanu’s] relationship to who he was playing was difficult for him, even though he had done Shakespeare. It was kind of a fantastic character that never would have existed. And so for him to actually do it, there were problems.
Indiana: You made a cameo as a bellhop in one of the hotel scenes. What spurred that decision?
Van Sant: I can’t remember why we did that. I had never actually been in one of my films, and by then, the size of the film was really quite big. That meant I had to get in costume. I had to leave the set, basically. It was weird, because I was stuck in a hotel room, and Beatrix took a while because she couldn’t find the shirt of the costume, so I sat in there without my clothes for a while, like 20 minutes.
Finally, they got the costume. I needed to get back on set. I should have just changed on set, but I got back to the set and started rehearsing a little bit. I told Keanu, I was like, “Oh, I see what you mean about the way that the costume department’s been running.” He was like, “Right? I know. Now you know.” Because they’d complained all the time, but I didn’t know exactly what they were talking about, and I didn’t have time to investigate. But then I experienced it myself and I was like, “Oh, these poor guys,” because it really does mess with your preparation. You’re all prepared to do the scene and you have to sit without your shirt in a hotel room alone. Even though you could practice your lines or something like that, it messes with everything you’re trying to do. So I kind of realized, “Oh, shit. These guys are being tortured.”
Indiana: Clearly, you’ve seen Chimes at Midnight (1965). The “robbery” scene where everyone is robed in these pink cassocks is such a brilliantly camped version of what they’re wearing in the Welles film. What was it about that narrative and the storyline of Henry IV that attracted you? It’s not typically one people even know, let alone one that people would think to recontextualize.
Van Sant: I had seen it because of Chimes at Midnight. I had seen all of Welles’ films. It’s really a story that could happen at any time. The Prince Hal character is sort of sowing his wild oats, being a bad boy. He’s hanging around with thieves and wenches and people in ne’er-do-well locations. It just reminded me of Portland.
In Portland, there was a certain group of young people that were in the film Streetwise (1984). The same street kids that were in Seattle were also in Portland. They would go back and forth between the cities. Because they had no home and no money, there was a law in Portland that allowed them to be on the street, which I think is still in effect. Because they have so little, they tend to look somewhat medieval in their clothing. We even saw a kid riding a bike, wearing Carhartt pants and a jester hat. You’d see odd things like that.
Indiana: Do you recall there being a negative reaction once the film was out, or people who couldn’t respond to some of the subjects it addresses?
Van Sant: There was a news camera down where it was shown in Portland for the first time, and somebody asked this woman what she thought of the film, and she just didn’t know what to say. She was like, “I don’t know.” They asked, “If you had to say, 1 to 10,” and she said “three.”
But in the larger community, it did quite well. At the box office, they used it as an example of how independent financing can actually work in the film business. And critically it seemed to do quite well. However, GLAAD existed at the time as a newer organization. Their job was to point out things that were not progressive images for the gay community, and this was not. This was a regressive image.
Indiana: Really? It breaks my heart to hear that! The campfire scene alone... if that isn’t an emotionally honest depiction of being queer, I don’t know what is.
Van Sant: Well, because it was underground. GLAAD thought they wanted images that made gay people look normal, as opposed to not normal. And this was not making them look normal, as far as it relates to straight society. They said something against it. Eventually, within a year or two, they kind of recanted their position, but politically it was not hailed as a great queer film or anything. There was quite an active gay filmmaking scene, but hustlers are outside of that scene. They’re marginal, so I wasn’t expecting it to be applauded by the more politically conscious gay audience. If there is one type of film that you would think the gay community would acclaim, it wasn’t going to be Idaho.
Indiana: Looking back at it now, how do you evaluate it? Are you surprised we’re still talking about it?
Van Sant: Very surprised. What I’m feeling now is that maybe the film is speaking a little more to a new generation, a few new generations. It’s wonderful to hear.
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