Before Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester; before the ill-advised Psycho remake and the experimental Gerry; before the movies about Harvey Milk and Kurt Cobain, Portland-based indie auteur Gus Van Sant made My Own Private Idaho, an avant-garde drama starring River Phoenix as a narcoleptic gay hustler and Keanu Reeves as his friend and co-worker.
The film was part of a new wave of gay cinema, and it added to Phoenix's burgeoning reputation as a sensitive, brooding actor, made all the more tragic by his sudden death two years later. It changed Van Sant's life, too, putting him on the path that would lead to high-profile hits like Good Will Hunting. A quarter-century later, let's look back at the making of My Own Private Idaho and see what dreamy treasures await us.
1. IT'S A COMBINATION OF THREE STORIES, INCLUDING ONE BASED ON SHAKESPEARE.
Van Sant had three ideas rolling around his head that he smushed into one movie. One was a screenplay about street kids in Portland and was based on William Shakespeare's Henry IV. Much of the Keanu Reeves character's story comes from this part, complete with occasional Bard-like dialogue and the Falstaff-like character of Bob Pigeon. Another source (to which Van Sant had already given the title "My Own Private Idaho") was another screenplay about street hustlers, one older and one younger, who travel to Spain looking for one's mother. The third element was a short story Van Sant wrote called "In a Blue Funk," about the River Phoenix character being picked up by a German man and kept in a house.
2. GUS VAN SANT'S SCREENPLAY WAS ... PROBLEMATIC.
For one thing, it was only 70 pages long, which would translate to about a 70-minute movie. (He intended the actors to flesh it out with improvisation, which they did.) For another thing, he wrote it in a poetic, non-standard typographical format—words down the middle of the page, random capitalization, etc. That's those independent film guys for you. Always gotta be different.
3. VAN SANT LEARNED SECONDHAND THAT THE FILM WAS BEING MADE.
Any would-be filmmaker can tell you how nerve-racking it is to meet with potential producers and then wait to hear back about whether they're going to make your movie. Van Sant said he found out his producers had committed to making My Own Private Idaho when other filmmakers told him, "Congratulations, they're skipping our film to make yours.”
4. IT FEATURES A PERSON PRETENDING TO BE A STATUE.
Mike's vision of Scott cradling him at the foot of a monument called “The Coming of the White Man” takes some creative liberties. First of all, while Portland does have a monument by that name, the real one doesn't look like that. (It looks like this.)
The stag statue is somewhere else in Portland, and it's only the stag—the rider we see in the movie is not a statue, but a crew member in makeup!
5. ONE KEY SCENE WAS WRITTEN ALMOST ENTIRELY BY RIVER PHOENIX.
The way Van Sant wrote it, the scene where Mike and Scott sit around a campfire in the desert, where Mike confesses his love for Scott, was a three-page scene with no such declaration. Van Sant was leaving it ambiguous whether either of the hustlers was actually gay. But according to Van Sant, Phoenix really wanted to beef up the impact of the scene. "He had decided that that scene was his character's main scene and, with Keanu's permission, he wrote it out to say something that it wasn't already saying … It was his explanation of his character.” Now the film became, at least in part, about unrequited love, adding another tragic element to it.
6. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN VAN SANT'S SECOND MOVIE INSTEAD OF HIS THIRD, BUT IT WASN'T COMMERCIAL ENOUGH.
After getting some attention with his micro-budget debut, Mala Noche, Van Sant wanted to make My Own Private Idaho next. But everyone in Hollywood told him a story of gay hustlers was too "niche" to get any traction. So instead he made Drugstore Cowboy, about a roving band of junkies who rob pharmacies—a premise with more mainstream appeal, apparently.
7. MUCH OF THE CAST LIVED AT VAN SANT'S HOUSE DURING THE SHOOT.
Van Sant had just bought a house in Portland's west hills, and he invited Phoenix to stay there instead of a hotel. Reeves and others soon joined, and the place became an almost nonstop house party with jam sessions every night. (Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea was a cast member, after all; he and Reeves played bass while Phoenix played a guitar he picked up at a Portland music shop.) It got to be such a party, in fact, that Van Sant moved out of his own house and stayed in an apartment downtown.
8. UDO KIER'S CABARET ACT WAS INCORPORATED INTO THE FILM.
Hans, the odd German man with the intense blue eyes who cavorts with Mike and Scott, was played by Udo Kier, a veteran actor who had about 60 movie credits under his belt then and has added another 60 since. Early in his career, Kier had a cabaret act—an amusing contradiction to his filmography, which has consisted mostly of serious, sinister types. Fascinated by this side of Kier, Van Sant had him work part of his act into My Own Private Idaho, resulting in the odd moment with a lamp seen in the video above. (Van Sant said Kier originally used a blue flashlight; they changed it to a lamp to avoid comparison to Blue Velvet.) As a bonus, here’s Kier performing the same song on television in 1985.
9. THE FILM HAS SOME DOCUMENTARY ELEMENTS.
Those brief snippets where anonymous Portland street kids talk about their experiences aren't just meant to look like a documentary—they are a documentary. Van Sant knew some of the local street kids and had them on set as advisers and extras. During a lunch break one day, Van Sant turned the camera on these guys and interviewed them, hoping to inspire the cast with some authenticity. The result was so intriguing that he put some of that footage into the film.
10. THE REAL STREET HUSTLER MIKE IS BASED ON ALMOST PLAYED MIKE.
In the early stages of development, when Van Sant was still thinking as inexpensively as possible, he envisioned using non-actors to play the lead roles. That included Mike Parker, the real Portland street kid on whom Van Sant had based the Mike character. (Parker wasn't narcoleptic, though another friend of Van Sant's was.) When professional actors got involved, Parker was relegated to the ensemble (he plays a hustler named Digger), but he continued to help Phoenix research the role and understand the character.
11. PHOENIX THREW HIMSELF DANGEROUSLY INTO THE CHARACTER.
Not only did Phoenix interview real hustlers (videos are online), but according to friends, he experimented with hard drugs and even dabbled in same-sex shenanigans. He hung out with hustlers on the streets of Portland, learning the, uh, tricks of the trade. (Reeves also did similar research, though not as extensively.) He began to dress and groom himself like a grungy street kid, to the point where he was turned away from a nightclub because the bouncer thought he was a bum.
12. THE ACTOR WHO PLAYS BOB PIGEON WAS MANIPULATED INTO IT.
William Richert was a writer and director who'd made A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, in which Phoenix played the title character. For some reason, Phoenix became fixated on the idea of Richert playing Bob Pigeon in My Own Private Idaho, even though Richert was not an actor. Richert was offended by the suggestion, telling Phoenix, "It's a big fat pederast. Is this what you think of me? Is this what you think I should be playing?"
Phoenix kept trying to convince him, going so far as to bring Van Sant to Richert's house for a reading of the screenplay. Still he resisted. Finally, Phoenix called Richert from the set in Portland and said the actor who'd been hired to play Bob Pigeon had been let go. They had to shoot his scenes tomorrow. Could Richert fly up and take the part? Worn down, Richert finally relented.
13. THE TALKING MAGAZINE COVERS WERE SHOT IN A VERY LOW-TECH WAY.
To achieve the effect of magazine cover boys on the newsstand coming to life and talking to each other, Van Sant went old-school. He had the magazine covers mocked up on large panels of Plexiglass, then had the actors stand behind them. Each one was shot separately; in post-production, they were stitched together to make it look like a magazine rack.
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