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Film: Good talent-hunting

Gus Van Sant talks to David Eimer about his new film, `Good Will Hunting' - up for for five big Oscars - about Matt Damon, its hot new star, and about the late River Phoenix
GUS VAN SANT made his reputation with determindedly idiosyncratic films like Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991). Since the delicious To Die For in 1995, however, he has been edging towards something more conventional; and with his latest movie, Good Will Hunting, he's positively charging into the mainstream.

The tale of a stroppy genius, Will Hunting, who works as a cleaner at MIT but can solve maths problems with an ease that horrifies the professor who discovers him, it's a coming-of-age movie with the warm, feelgood quality that appeals to both audiences and the people who vote for the Oscars. It has been nominated for no fewer than five major awards: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actor (Matt Damon), Best Supporting Actress (Minnie Driver) and Best Supporting Actor for Robin Williams as the counsellor who helps knock off the chips that lurk on both of Will Hunting's shoulders. It's a shock to see Robin Williams in a Gus Van Sant film.

Van Sant, a guarded and rather dry 45-year-old, doesn't see the film as anything other than the latest entry in a career that began with Mala Noche (1985). "I would definitely have made this a few years ago. There's a lot of things that I would have made, if they had panned out, that would have surprised you," he insists in a soft voice. "I think I've always been interested in all kinds of budgets and settings."

And yet, more attention has been paid to the authors of the screenplay than to the story itself. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were struggling young actors from Boston when they wrote Good Will Hunting three years ago, mainly as a way of ensuring themselves decent parts. Although both are now fielding more job offers than they could possibly take, it's the fresh-faced Damon, who plays Will Hunting, who's receiving the most attention.

"Once in a while somebody is really amazing," recalls Van Sant, who first came across Damon while casting To Die For. "I was giving my kind of directions, which are kind of odd - and he was able to completely focus. He obviously wanted the job terribly, and when he focuses, it's a really charming thing that he has. When he left the room we thought, `this guy could be a huge movie star'. Unfortunately he was too movie star-ish for our role, and he was too old, but in my mind I was trying to justify using Matt Damon."

So, for Good Will Hunting, Van Sant was delighted to have the 27-year- old Damon. "I was totally into that; more than Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio, I wanted him to play it. I think other people in the movie community didn't have the same outlook because they hadn't seen him work and they didn't know him." Francis Ford Coppola subsequently cast Damon in The Rainmaker and he'll also be seen in the title role of Steven Spielberg's upcoming Saving Private Ryan.

Good Will Hunting came along at just the right time for Van Sant. He has had problems setting up his own scripts ever since his adaptation of Tom Robbins's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues bombed at the box office in 1993; when he made To Die For , he was working as a director for hire. "I've been writing screenplays but they just didn't go. I had this small one called Binky that I had been shopping around but the money fell through. I didn't want to show the company the script and I didn't want them to have anything to do with it, I just wanted them to give me the money and then I would give them the film when it was done, so the bargain was difficult."

He's also been working on a novel, Pink, published in Britain earlier this year. It's very much a semi-autobiographical piece. Many of the characters are thinly-veiled portraits of people Van Sant knows or knew from living in Portland, the laid-back town in the Pacific North-West where moved in the early 1980s after six unfruitful years in LA. Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love pop up in it, and the novel's narrator, Spunky, is Van Sant back in the days when he toiled in an advertising agency and spent his spare time hanging out with Portland's small community of film- makers.

"The word still has the power over film because basically, the author is free to do what he likes. A film-maker has to be selective. An independent film-maker like Jim Jarmusch isn't going to be able to set his film on a rocket that's going to space, like an Apollo 13. He probably wants to; it's just that he knows he'll have to put the characters in a car going across country and it's a limitation. As the budget gets bigger, that means there has to be a broader appeal, which affects the material you're writing."

Controversially, Pink also enables him to address the subject of River Phoenix, who appears as a character called Felix Arroyo. Arroyo is Spanish for "dried-up river"; Felix Arroyo's fate mirrors that of Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose two years after starring in My Own Private Idaho. Rumours that the set of the film was awash with narcotics, and that Phoenix's descent into drug use dates from that time, have plagued Van Sant ever since.

It's a painful topic for him, and he remains convinced that his death was nothing more than a tragic accident. "I think it was a big mistake; he didn't intend anything like that to happen," he states flatly. "People think there had to be a dark side that nobody knew about, which I don't really think was the case. It was just the same dark side that everyone has, which isn't so dark exactly. It could have happened to anybody." Perhaps the ultimate rebuttal to those who hold Van Sant partially responsible is that River's brother, Joaquin Phoenix, subsequently starred in To Die For.

Good Will Hunting is a breakthrough for Gus Van Sant. It's his most commercially successful film yet, and has given him the leverage in Hollywood that he's always lacked. Now, all he has to do is to convert that leverage into celluloid.

`Good Will Hunting' (15) opens 6 Mar.