James Franco, Gus Van Sant and re-cutting ‘Idaho’

James Franco's re-cut of "My Own Private Idaho" focused on River Phoenix./Courtesy of Hollywood Theatre

By Brian Libby

When Gus Van Sant’s film “My Own Private Idaho” originally premiered in 1991, it did not receive the consistently positive reviews as the director’s preceding film, 1989’s “Drugstore Cowboy.” That one won the New York Film Critics’ Circle award and rekindled the career of its star, Matt Dillon. But over time, history has made “Idaho” with its career-best performance from River Phoenix, who died just two years later from a drug overdose, the more beloved classic of grunge-era independent cinema.

The reverence for Phoenix and “Idaho” 20 years after its premiere was evident Sunday from actor James Franco, who was at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre with Van Sant to present two screenings of  “My Own Private River,” a feature-length alternate edit of “Idaho” culled from a massive 25 hours of footage originally shot for the movie.

“I was a teenager when it came out,” Franco said of the original, which starred Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as gay Portland street hustlers (but was also based loosely on Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”). “It became my favorite movie.”

Franco is no stranger to the story of a charismatic actor. After first gaining notice on the TV show “Freaks and Geeks”, he has appeared in a wide range of films over the past decade, from the rebooted “Spider Man” series to Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” to an award-winning turn as James Dean. Earlier this year he co-hosted the Academy Awards. Between all these endeavors, the 33-year-old also is enrolled in a literature Ph.D. program at Yale as well as in digital media  at the Rhode Island School of Design (where Van Sant studied), and he teaches at New York University.

Yet Franco still expresses awe for Phoenix. “It’s his best performance in my opinion,” Franco said. “The thing about River that stands out for me is he seemed to make every role his own. It was just something he had that would expand every role he did. It’s something I wouldn’t do because I wouldn’t know how.”

After Franco and Van Sant worked together on the 2008 movie “Milk,” the director invited the actor to Portland for a charity event and wound up showing him the outtake footage. Franco encouraged Van Sant to have all of the film reels digitized, and even lined up a sponsor (Gucci).

“It wasn’t a done deal” that Franco would edit the material at first. “It felt like I almost had to justify to myself my working on it.” Van Sant allowed him access to the footage but reserved the right not to have it shown publicly if he didn’t like it. “I think he thought that was going to happen,” Franco laughed.

“My Own Private River” was previously exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery and PS1 in New York, as well as at a gallery in Toronto as part of the film festival there. Carrie Brownstein of the “Portlandia” TV show and rock band Sleater-Kinney was involved in organizing the showing in Portland, in part as a fundraiser for the nonprofit Hollywood Theatre where the screenings (two on Sunday afternoon) took place.

“It seemed like the raw material of your youth and of your dreams,” Franco said about working with Van Sant’s footage over about two months. “But I didn’t like the idea of putting myself in there. I didn’t want to make it like I would like it, but how Gus would today.”

He referenced how Van Sant’s filmmaking style has changed over time, with longer takes. “We’d stay with the takes and not cut it as much. I wanted it not to compete with the original or even to be entertainment. It’s not a movie you’d go and see like ‘Transformers 3.’ The subtitle of this was ‘Memories of a Movie That Was Never Made.’ It was important that we present it as an exploration.”

“My Own Private River,” as its title suggests, has the late actor in nearly every shot. It retains the bare bones the original narrative but leaves principal players such as Keanu Reeves, Phoenix’s costar, largely silent. It’s one perspective of many that could have been culled from the 25 hours of outtakes.

But for fans of the late River Phoenix, or even those for whom his memory has waned, the film offers a much-expanded view of the actor, a kind of Generation X James Dean. Even with famous actors like Keanu Reeves alongside, Phoenix in the film displays gargantuan charisma, at once a powder keg of pent-up energy (as seen in the opening shot, in which he spastically dances in Washington Park) and with the tenderness of a young child. Phoenix seemed to dive into the role of a young hustler as a young, doomed salmon swimming upstream — almost as if knowing it would be the role of his lifetime.

Franco’s new edit also provides a time capsule of 1990 Portland. Much like the original “Idaho,” it is full of time-lapse photography and panoramic views of Portland landmarks like the Hawthorne Bridge, the US Bancorp Tower, Washington Park, the St. Johns Bridge, and businesses like the Lotus Café. One scene in Franco’s re-edit, for example, looks down at Reeves and Phoenix riding a motorcycle in circles in an Old Town parking lot, cutting to a point-of-view shot from Reeve’s handlebars with the US Bancorp Tower passing in and out of the frame every few seconds (a much shorter version appeared in the original). Both films also include a scene of a derelict building that is the now long-since-restored Governor Hotel.

More than any particular local landmark, “River,” like the original film, also captures a grittier Portland that has largely disappeared to gentrification and urban infill, full of homelessness, prostitution and drug abuse. That these unromantic struggles take on such poetry in both the original “Idaho” and Franco’s edit is perhaps a testament to Van Sant’s particular vision.

Of “Idaho”, Van Sant remembered that he originally planned to cast non-actors in the two lead roles. But he decided first to give his script to his first two choices among Hollywood actors, Phoenix and Reeves. “Both of them said yes, so it sort of changed our game plan,” he told the audience.

Van Sant recalled giving a copy of the book “City of Night” by John Renchy, which inspired “Idaho,” to both Phoenix and Reeves before filming the movie. “Whereas River read half of the first page of the novel — I think he really felt like he knew the character — Keanu read ‘City of Night’ and all five of his other books,” he recalled.

Also screening with “My Own Private River” on Sunday was a one-hour video Franco directed that was based on an earlier version of Van Sant’s film. “My Own Private Idaho” in its final version combined what had been three projects: one called “Idaho” but portraying two Mexican-American Portland men who travel to Spain; another story called “In A Blue Funk”; and a rendition of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV.”

Franco’s new version of that earlier “Idaho” treatment, he told the audience Sunday, starred two young men he thought were non-actors, but one of whom turned out to be the godson of Leonardo DiCaprio. Van Sant confessed that he had never seen Franco’s “Idaho” until that day’s screening, about to occur as they talked. “It’s good,” Franco answered cheekily, drawing laughter.After opening the talk to audience questions, one person asked Franco and Van Sant if they’d work together in a movie again. “Yeah, will we work together again?” Franco asked Van Sant, smiling.

“Not after this,” the director deadpanned, eliciting more laughs. But to a more opportunistic questioner just afterward, who nervously asked Franco and Van Sant to have a look at his short story, the director was more accommodating.

“That’s a good idea,” he said. After all, the solicitation was — in “Idaho” fashion, of sorts — a kind of hustle.

One Response.

  1. Sue Widder says:

    Nice, insightful review.

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