On a wet night in Oregon, Gus Van Sant, Portland's greatest film-maker, is shooting a scene for his new movie, "My Own Private Idaho." In a Biblical loincloth, River Phoenix is about to assume a provocative, not-so-Biblical pose upon a crucifix for the cover of a skin magazine featuring a "G-String Jesus."
Success, it seems, has not tamed Van Sant's singular vision. After making the low-budget "Drugstore Cowboy," an unexpectedly original look at the junkie culture of the early '70s - named the Best Picture of 1989 by the National Society of Film Critics - Van Sant's next career move became an object of intense curiosity in Hollywood. The big studios, recognizing a striking new talent, came courting with lucrative offers. Van Sant has two deals lined up-- filming Tom Robbins's novel "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" for Tri-Star and a movie about Andy Warhol for Universal. The film he really wanted to do - this movie - the big boys wouldn't touch.
Two aspects of "Private Idaho" must have made the studios especially nervous. The first is the film's unabashed homoeroticism. The two young heroes, played by Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, are Portland street prostitutes turning tricks to survive. This won't surprise anyone who saw Van Sant's award-winning $20,000 first feature film, "Mala Noche," which depicted the spurned passion of a gay convenience-store clerk for a Mexican migrant worker. What must have really made Hollywood scratch its head is the source and style of Van Sant's new film: it's a retelling of Shakespeare's "Henry IV" plays. In Shakespeare's histories, Prince Hal confounds his royal father by cavorting with the dissolute Falstaff and his rowdy crew before ascending the throne. In "My Own Private Idaho," Hal is reborn as Scott (Reeves), the "straight" son of a fictional Portland mayor, and Falstaff has become a braggartly coke-dealing chicken hawk named Bob Pigeon. He's played by the raspy-voiced film director William ("Winter Kills") Richert. Phoenix plays Mike, a homeless, narcoleptic hustler searching for his lost mother.
Van Sant's screenplay veers outrageously from realism to fantasy: in the comically surreal scene he's filming this night, the inanimate models on the covers of gay porno magazines come to life and banter with each other from cover to cover. Riskier yet are the sequences written entirely in paraphrased Shakespearean dialogue. A sample of Van Santized Shakespeare. Scott is chiding Bob: "Why, you wouldn't even look at a clock, unless hours were lines of coke, dials looked like the signs of gay bars, or time itself was a fair hustler in black leather." The Bard put it this way: "Unless hours were cups of sack. and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping-houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta, I see no reason why thou should be so superfluous to demand the time of the day."
Van Sant was inspired by Orson Welles's 1966 Falstaff film, "Chimes at Midnight." "It seemed a natural street story," he says. His first inclination was to cast actual street kids in the roles and shoot the film on a rock-bottom budget. But when independent New Line Cinema came through with $2.5 million, he figured he'd take a shot at landing Phoenix and Reeves, his first choices for the leads, even though he assumed their agents would say no.
Hollywood actors are notoriously paranoid about playing gay roles. Reeves ("River's Edge," "Dangerous Liaisons") and Phoenix ("Stand By Me," "Running on Empty") are fast-rising stars with blue-chip acting credentials. Reeves's agent was amenable to the project, but Phoenix's flatly refused even to show him the script, which Van Sant had to sneak to the actor by subterfuge. The young star took a month to mull over his decision, then committed. Both stars took less than their usual salaries on the film. "Keanu and I made a blood brother pact," the intense Phoenix recalls. He contemptuously dismisses any speculation that his fans might object to seeing him in a gay role: "Anyone who has a problem, f--- 'em."
Van Sant isn't interested in the shock value of male prostitution but in its humanity. There's sly humor in the film's hustling scenes - for one older client, a cleanliness freak Phoenix has to dress as the little Dutch Boy and scrub the sink as well as the man - but no sense of exploitation. "What's going to surprise people in this movie is how sweet and tender it is. It's more Dickensian than hard-edged and decadent," explains "Idaho's" producer Laurie Parker.
"Private Idaho" - scheduled to be released this fall by Fine Line Features, a division of New Line - explores a theme that runs through all Van Sant's work: it's about the search for "home." Like the comically pathetic junkie "family" in "Drugstore Cowboy," "Idaho" features yet another makeshift community that must be improvised in the void created by the dissolution of the traditional family.
The oddball family feeling spills over into the production itself. Van Sant's new home, a rambling three-level 1906 Victorian house in the West Hills area, the wealthy residential section that offers a splendid view of Portland, serves as a combination commune, editing room and production office for the "Idaho" team. Barely furnished yet, it became a crash pad for a couple of the street kids working on the film. Then the actors wanted in; Phoenix and Reeves and Rodney Harvey (of TV's "The Outsiders" series) decided to check out of their hotels and join the communal fun. Trouble was, no one got much sleep in the frat-house atmosphere, with rock sessions that lasted half the night featuring cast member Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Van Sant himself, needing some peace, retreated to his old apartment. The local boys, many of them hoping that show-biz will offer a way off the streets, have been taking the actors down to "Old Town" to teach them the ropes of hustling. No one, it seems, has recognized the stars.
One suspects that the 38-year-old Van Sant, who comes from a wealthy family and is openly gay, has a more than casual identification with the Prince Hal character, who rejects his noble background for the vitality of the streets. Raised in Darien, Conn., Van Sant moved to Portland as a teenager, then returned east to attend the Rhode Island School of Design. He kicked around on the margins of filmmaking for years, seven of them in Los Angeles where he worked as an assistant to Ken ("The Groove Tube") Shapiro. Then came two years working in advertising in New York, saving his earnings to make his own (rarely seen) short 16-mm "diary" films - droll, fictionalized self-portraits suffused with a mordant sense of irony.
Thin and soft-spoken, Van Sant seems to float easily between the worlds of society and the street, without pretending to be anyone but who he is. In Portland he's embraced as a local hero; in L.A. or New York he would be confined to the fringe. With its population of 437,000, Portland has the virtues but not the provincialism of a small city where everybody knows everybody and the hierarchical edges are blurred. "Portland is how the movie is," Van Sant acknowledges. "Everything's tame and sort of friendly."
How Van Sant will handle the higher pressure of working for the big Hollywood studios will be revealed in the next few years. L.A. tends to make him nervous. But having found his home, and his own lyrical, darkly comic voice in Portland, he's not likely to abandon it to turn out homogenized Hollywood products. As the young hero of his new movie vows, paraphrasing Prince Hal: "I shall from now on be more myself." Like all the best artists, Van Sant may not have a choice in the matter.