Portland, 1988. Filmmaker Gus Van Sant shoots Drugstore Cowboy, the project that will bring he and his collaborators a formidable burst of mainstream attention. Starring Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, and Heather Graham, the film follows a roving quartet of drug addicts — and, consequently, drug thieves, especially from the businesses of the title — who wash up in Portland’s then-gritty Pearl District. A death among their own spooks the leader of the pack into trying to clean up, and an encounter with a sepulchral junkie priest does its part to convince him further. Or maybe we should call him a Junkie priest, portrayed as he is by a controversial cameo from writer William S. Burroughs. “I’m going back to the old days,” Burroughs says of his role early in the above documentary on the making of Drugstore Cowboy. “The old days when they used to give people morphine in jail. The old days before the methadone programs.”
This footage captures Van Sant on the point of transition between obscurity and fame. His previous work — semi-autobiographical shorts on Super 8 film, the unreleased fallen-actress story Alice in Hollywood, and the retroactively acclaimed grim snapshot of grim psychosexual strife Mala Noche — demonstrated that he could make universally affecting movies about kids on the skids and their potential redemption. But thrown into this $2.5 million production, he found himself in another realm entirely: a full professional cast, a full professional crew, and a photography department that could take up to twenty minutes (he says, with exasperation) to light. “I’m caught in the middle of this traveling circus,” he reflects, wearily. “This is exactly the kind of thing I didn’t want to happen: I didn’t want people hanging around, joking, drinking coffee,” he says, coffee in hand. But from this combination of collective laxness and directorial anxiety arose one of the most critically acclaimed American films of 1989. Van Sant describes it as an “anti-drug” film, but Burroughs suggests a broader message: “Say no to drug hysteria. Or any other kind of hysteria, for that matter.”
Gus Van Sant Adapts William S. Burroughs: An Early 16mm Short
William S. Burroughs’ “The Thanksgiving Prayer,” Shot by Gus Van Sant
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.
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