The Making of Drugstore Cowboy, Gus Van Sant’s First Major Film (1989)

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.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

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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