Promised Land: How Van Sant Directs Actors

For Promised Land, Gus Van Sant’s process with cinematographer Linus Sandgren was to keep the look subdued, with little bursts of color here and there as the story progresses. The director says, “I have a policy of having no palette at all, but I know that the crew might find it easier to organize with one.”

The color scheme – or, lack of same – was hewed to by costume designer Juliet Polcsa and her department, coordinating with Clancy and his. She offers, “I live in a small town in upstate New York, so the script rang very true to me. “We went with what I called a ‘comfortable palette.’ The clothes being worn by the residents of McKinley couldn’t look too new, bright, or crisp.”

The costume designer’s department, in trying to convey current economic realities, bumped up against current fashion realities. Polcsa comments, “Current trends of bright color were all wrong for the look of this movie. “I went to a lot of thrift stores, but they weren’t always selling apparel that looked well-worn and ripped and so forth. You have to be careful with ‘aging’ clothing on-screen, or flecking it with dirt; that can easily look fake.”

Polcsa took inspiration closer to home – literally: Frank Yates’ signature vest “belonged to my husband,” she confides. “It was a win/win situation for me, because I got something truly worn-in for a character and I got to clean out my husband’s closet. He thinks he’s getting it back, but…he’s not.”

Taking a cue from extras, principal cast members’ personal wardrobe was also pressed into service. Polcsa remembers, “Gus had the idea of having actors wear their own clothes. When you’re comfortable in something of your own, it makes you a little bit more comfortable in your character.” She spoke with actors to find out what they owned that might work, and that they would be willing to use, for the movie.

It was the veteran actor in the cast who set the tone. Polcsa remembers, “My husband’s vest turned out to be one of the few things for Frank Yates to wear that didn’t already belong to Hal Holbrook. He told me that he had this old pair of jeans and this rundown shirt that he wasn’t quite ready to throw out, so he had been using them for chores and gardening.

“He sent them over to me, and I got them ready to incorporate into Frank’s look. Gus came to Hal’s fitting, and he put on his jeans and shirt and I put the vest on him – and the character emerged pretty quickly.” To hone his characterization of Steve Butler, Matt Damon hewed to his longstanding process of incorporating elements that would inform the authenticity of his portrayal without being necessarily evident to the audience. He availed himself of Polcsa’s research, given that Steve is first seen in corporate settings before settling into McKinley.

“We discussed ‘corporate casual’ as well as ‘casual Friday,’” notes Polcsa. “Steve’s clothing evolution had to be more of a quick change, reflecting his sales instincts.” The script called for Steve to be clad in high-end new cowboy boots. A pair was readied, yet Polcsa and Damon were concerned that they weren’t quite right for the character to be wearing in and around McKinley. The script was modified, and so Polcsa picked up a pair of work boots.

But, a few days before filming, Polcsa “looked inside and found they were made in Bangladesh. The revised script reference was to them being made in America. So now I needed something vintage-looking and made in America. I bought a pair of Red Wing boots on eBay, crossed my fingers that we got them on time – which we did – and Matt literally stepped into them right before filming. “They couldn’t have been better if I had designed and aged them. They’re a part of who Steve is; you don’t design a character and cut him off at the knees.”

Clancy’s department stayed consistent with Polcsa’s “comfortable palette” on vehicles, furniture, and sets both interior and exterior. He notes, “It’s like an Andrew Wyeth painting; the yellows, browns, and greens are muted, to show a kind of decay. The colors that pop in are mostly red, white, and blue – marking a subtle theme.

“Gus wanted a realistic look with evident age, nothing over-stylized. We used a lot of paneling – what was at hand – to keep it authentic, nothing too pretty.” An element that is more overtly worked into the film is water, a precious life-sustaining resource that can no longer be taken for granted, including in a small town itself trying to stay afloat. Clancy remarks, “We put water in wherever we could. You see ponds on the farms, kids playing with hoses, Steve splashing water on his face, and him and Sue always carrying bottled water. There’s also outboard motors in fields. The motel – the interiors of which are an Avonmore boarding house that we redressed and for which the owners now want to keep our modifications – is named the Miller Falls Motel.”

Furthermore, while many directors would have seen the rain which dogged the shoot as a disruption, Van Sant welcomed it as enhancing the pervasive motif. Overall, Van Sant “is one of those directors that don’t open their mouth until they have something to say – and when they do, people listen,” states Frances McDormand.

The director will let actors and crew run with their talents before stepping in to tweak the specifics. This engenders a tremendous collaborative spirit on his films. Moore reflects, “After several movies together, Gus and Matt have a great relationship and they’re both laid-back. As director and star, they set the tempo and the pace.

“But people come back to work for Gus Van Sant over and over again whether they are actors or crew members. He possesses a quiet humility at the same time that he exhibits strong convictions. He is supportive and kind and funny. He propagates trust.”

Matt Damon says, “I trust the guy implicitly. He has empathy to spare. With him, as an actor, you’re always in such great hands. You need only to look at the performances in his movies to see that.” Moore remarks, “His movies capture place, time, and character. I’d say he is a student of humanity.” Damon adds, “He doesn’t favor artifice. The first day I came to the set, he said, ‘Are you wearing make-up?’ I said, ‘Well, yeah, they put a little bit on.’ He made me take it off.” “Gus is incredibly confident,” observes Krasinski. “He’s soft-spoken and quiet because the process is happening in his head while he is expecting people to be doing their jobs.” Holbrook comments, “He doesn’t seem to have his mind all made up in advance about how it should be. He does seem to be ready and open to whatever you come up with.”

DeWitt elaborates, “The actors and crew are empowered. Gus is attuned to whatever dynamic is happening. Everything informs a scene for him, making it more true. He sits right next to the camera.” Sandgren remembers, “We would block the scenes and then discuss ideas and instincts. The motivation for what the camera was going to do in a scene came from the actors. It’s something that Gus pointed out to me from director Bernardo Bertolucci and cinematographer Vittorio] Storaro’s 1970s films.
“Gus doesn’t want to watch a movie; he wants to watch the real thing.”

McNairy adds, “Gus is looking at you, not at a monitor. My first question on the set to him was ‘Where’s video village?’ ‘There’s no video village here.’ ‘Really?’ “It’s a great atmosphere to work in, giving you more ability to explore, because you don’t have people hovering around a monitor and spending time on playback.”

The movie was made on a brisk 30-day shooting schedule. Moore notes, “As a producer, I’ve noticed how Gus understands both the production process and the creative process. “My first big movie was Good Will Hunting, and I’ve wanted every shoot since to be more like a Gus Van Sant shoot. Gus will make decisions with the crew in mind, and will not waste time shooting stuff he doesn’t need.”

On his most recent films, Van Sant has been applying a technique that he credits to director Terrence Malick: silent takes. This entails shooting scenes with the actors in which no dialogue is spoken, letting the actors run through all their lines internally and expressing their emotions through their faces. “Terry uses them in perhaps a different way, but they have become very valuable to me,” says Van Sant.

DeWitt elaborates, “This is something that’s done after Gus feels like we’ve found the scene and are about to move on to another scene. He will then do the silent take. It’s wordless, but it’s not pantomime. It means we have to be thinking the characters’ thoughts or feeling their feelings. You have to engage with another actor doing the same thing. I found it really fun to do.”

McDormand offers, “The larger idea is, since you don’t have the exposition, you can get at a larger framework for the scene.” “I think the silent takes have made me a better actor,” states Titus Welliver. “Playing a scene without dialogue, you have to find the subtlety without the ability to use language. You have to listen on an emotional level because nothing’s being said. “As an actor, it’s a big leap of faith. But once I did it, I found it to be something I’d like to do again.”