1995: When Gus Van Sant Hit Cannes With 'To Die For'

Associated Press/Laurent Rebours
Gus Van Sant and his 'To Die For' star Nicole Kidman in Cannes in May 1995.

Twenty years ago, the director screened the Nicole Kidman film out of competition at Cannes.

Two years before Gus Van Sant made household names out of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon with Good Will Hunting (and nabbed nine Oscar nominations and two wins), he directed 1995's To Die For, a black comedy loosely based on the notorious case of a New Hampshire woman who had convinced her 15-year-old student and lover to murder her husband five years earlier.

Adapted from Joyce Maynard’s book of the same name and with a screenplay from Buck Henry (The Graduate), the film centered on Suzanne Stone Maretto, a fame hungry small-town weather girl. In the novel, Suzanne says she wants "that actress that just got married to Tom Cruise in real life" to play her in the movie version of her story. She got her wish when Van Sant cast a then-28-year-old Nicole Kidman.

After Suzanne's husband (Matt Dillon) gets in the way of her success, she convinces an impressionable teen (Joaquin Phoenix) and his friends to murder him. Little known at the time, Phoenix was identified in most reviews as "brother to the late and lamented River." Illeana Douglas, who played Dillon's sister in the film, remembers Van Sant as a director who was quiet, understated and confident in his vision.

After filming an emotionally exhausting scene at a frozen lake, Van Sant told Douglas they needed to reshoot because of a lens issue and gave her time to prepare, ignoring the executives who wanted to move on.

"I put my Walkman on and skated around, and I'm looking at producers pointing at their watches and with their heads in their hands, but Gus was just unruled," Douglas tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Van Sant, who studied painting at RISD in the 1970s, left such an impression on her that Douglas devoted an entire chapter to him in her upcoming memoir, I Blame Dennis Hopper (out Nov. 3). After Douglas broke her thumb while horsing around with Dillon, Van Sant made it work.

"There was this big debate about if they should show my cast," she says. "Gus was like, 'It's real! She's an ice skater! She fell while ice skating.' Later on, we did a scene where I fainted, and we decided that's where I broke my thumb."

Twenty years after screening To Die For out of competition at Cannes, Van Sant, 62, who won the Palme d'Or for Elephant in 2003, returned with The Sea of Trees, which premiered May 17.

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