Cannes: Gus Van Sant on Casting McConaughey, Exploring Suicide in 'The Sea of Trees'

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The Palme d’Or winner discusses his competition entry, how he got the nickname "Goose" and what he does to avoid "Cannes-itis."

At 62, Gus Van Sant is a certified Cannes veteran: Having won the Palme d’Or with his very first competition entry, 2003’s Elephant, he’s making his fourth visit to the competition lineup with his newest film, The Sea of Trees, which Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions will distribute stateside.

Never one to repeat himself, this time the director guides Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe through an existential drama set in a forest full of metaphoric meaning near the base of Japan’s Mt. Fuji. (Naomi Watts also stars.)

Van Sant spoke with THR about why he cast Oscar winner McConaughey, orchestrating tricky stunts and the Cannes routine he’s developed over the years.

The Sea of Trees is named after a forest in Japan called Aokigahara (Suicide Forest), where people go to take their lives. Why were you interested in taking on the subject of suicide?

It’s more about it being institutionalized in this way. It’s curious. [Screenwriter] Chris [Sparling] had created a story using that location about a guy who was mourning his wife and had made a promise that he would die in a beautiful place.

What is the overall message of the film? 

It’s sort of a puzzle piece, because it’s going in and out of two points of time. It’s about mourning and finding another person that’s going through the same thing, and the two of them helping each other. The overall feeling is of two souls helping each other.

Are you worried that audiences will find it too depressing?

I’m personally not worried about that, but we’ll see how it goes.

You’ve never worked with McConaughey before. Why did you choose him? 

He was somebody that reminded us of the character. It was a hunch. I usually just visually think, “Ah, that person is right.” It’s more of a gestalt than an intellectual process for me.

Did he have to change a lot physically for the part? 

Not in the way he did for Dallas Buyers Club, but his demeanor is definitely different. He’s quite unique in this movie. He plays a physics professor. I don’t think I’ve seen him play a character quite this serious before.

Were you able to shoot in the actual forest in Japan?

No. We weren’t able to shoot in the actual forest because they aren’t particularly proud of this area. But there was a place right next to it where we were able to film. We mainly shot in Massachusetts, where the actual woods did resemble the Japanese forest quite a bit.

Was there a particularly challenging moment? 

There was one. I’ve never shot people falling from cliffs before. We had a stunt crew; the only other stunt crew I’ve worked with was for cars. It was very acrobatic, and there were a lot of safety wires and ropes. Luckily, nothing went wrong.

What are you doing next? 

I’m working on a couple of things, but I haven’t exactly formulated what I’m doing. I did just work with Jenji Kohan on an HBO pilot, The Devil You Know. The opportunities for doing drama are shiftŠing to television and out of theaters.

Your last film, Promised Land, a drama about fracking starring Matt Damon and John Krasinski, failed at the box office. Do you think fracking lobbyists succeeded in hurting the movie?

I’m not sure. It could have partly been a result of that, or it could have been seen as more of a documentary because there were other documentaries at the time about fracking. It’s always hard to tell why people don’t turn out as much as you were expecting.

Were you surprised at how well John Krasinski could do drama? 

Yes, he was fantastic. But [off-camera], pretty much everything was hilarious between John and Matt. There was always talk of pranks, but I don’t remember if they pulled any off. Matt and the first assistant director had been around for a lot of George Clooney pranks [on previous films].

Is McConaughey a prankster? 

No, but sometimes he calls me Goose. Or maybe all of the time. I think it was something Casey Affl“eck pinned on me during To Die For. It’s one of the Dutch pronunciations of Gus.

What is your routine in Cannes? 

I try to not do a lot of press. I think this time we will only be going for a couple of days, so I will do one day. But if I am going for a bunch of days, I will try to limit press to four hours. You get Cannes-itis if you are doing too much. And if you are going to too many parties and dinners, you usually don’t get much sleep. Usually I’ll try to go to sleep at 10 p.m.