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The making of Gus Van Sant’s first major film 'Drugstore Cowboy'

Gus Van Sant, a prominent figure of the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s, gained mainstream recognition after the release of Drugstore Cowboy in 1989. Before then, Van Sant was a director of television commercials, as well as production assistant to filmmaker Ken Shapiro. In 1981, Van Sant made his first full-length film named Alice in Hollywood, but it was never released to the public.

Yet by 1986, Van Sant had managed to save up enough money to finance his official directorial debut Mala Noche. Shot in black and white on 16mm, the film centres around the relationship between a gay store clerk and two younger Mexican boys, and received acclaim from festivals; it was even labelled the greatest independent film of the year by the Los Angeles Times.

The success of this film led Universal to develop an interest in the filmmaker, who pitched ideas that eventually came to fruition in Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, however, the studio were not interested. Instead of being disheartened by his rejection, Van Sant moved to Oregon and developed the pitches into fully fleshed out ideas. In 1989, Van Sant released Drugstore Cowboy, which is a kind of spiritual predecessor to the director’s most acclaimed film My Own Private Idaho, whose creation wouldn’t have been possible without the success of the former, due to its script originally being turned down for being “too risky.”

Drugstore Cowboy was inspired by Van Sant’s observations of the less fortunate areas of Hollywood Boulevard populated by drug addicts, which was in stark contrast to the stereotypical ideas of Hollywood as a hub for glitz and glamour. Although Drugstore Cowboy is set in Portland, the focus on people pushed to the margins of society was akin to what Van Sant witnessed in L.A, and this theme would come to permeate a large majority of the filmmaker’s future work.

Starring Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, Heather Graham, and even one of the Beat Generation’s most prominent figures, William S. Burroughs, the film is based on an autobiographical novel of the same name by James Fogle, a career criminal. Dillon plays Bob, who, alongside his wife and another couple, rob drugstores to sustain their chronic drug addictions. However, after tragedy strikes and Bob vows to get clean, which proves harder than he thinks.

The film has been widely praised for its performances, especially by Dillon, as well as its portrayal of drug addicts, which Roger Ebert noted depicted them as not “bad people [but] sick people.” In a half-hour documentary that goes behind the scenes of the film, Van Sant discusses how Bob is an “anti-hero,” going on to say: “I think it’s an anti-drug film, it’s not a pro-drug film, it’s a story about a group of people that are addicted very heavily to drugs and something that happens to them.”

Interviews with cast and crew members reveal the intentions behind making such an important film, alongside what it was like to work with Van Sant, who was yet to break into the mainstream. Cary Brokaw explains that the film “allows the audience to see the attraction of drugs and to understand intimately, not from outside, what that lifestyle and that high, that surge, that charge means. But it also allows an audience to see consequences first-hand and to feel the destruction, and the loss that it brings about.”

Furthermore, producer Karen Murphy discusses how Van Sant was apprehensive to work with such a big crew after a past of working with much smaller teams that gave him more control over his work. Clearly, Van Sant’s experience of working as both an independent and mainstream filmmaker has paid off. Since the success of Drugstore Cowboy, which won multiple awards including four Independent Spirit Awards, and the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Director and Best Film, Van Sant has released such films as My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Elephant, and Milk.

Check out the behind the scenes documentary below.