Gus Van Sant on Working With Harry Styles on Gucci Film Series Amid Pandemic
Gus Van Sant may have just collaborated with Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele on a seven-part film series presentation of the fashion house’s next collection, but he isn’t looking to up his wardrobe anytime soon. “I do have a bathrobe that Alessandro sent me, but that’s all,” Van Sant tells Variety.
The first episode of the film series, “Ouverture of Something That Never Ended,” premiered on Monday to coincide with the kick-off of GucciFest. The seven parts follow Italian actor Silvia Calderoni as she runs into various international stars, including Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, Jeremy O. Harris, Paul B. Preciado, Achille Bonito Oliva, Darius Khonsary, Lu Han, Ariana Papademetropoulos, Arlo Parks, Sasha Waltz and Florence Welch.
Variety caught up with Van Sant, who was in Rome after he and Michele participated in a press conference about their collaboration.
What did you think when Alessandro called and asked you if you would make these films with him?
Last winter, we were talking about doing two specific things. One was a 10-minute piece, which was an advertising film and one was more of like what we just made. It was more of a 30-minute piece that was going to be presented in San Francisco. And I can’t remember what the exact purpose of it was, but it was much more of a story and I wrote a story for it. And then COVID hit, and then it wiped out Italy. So it kind of wiped out their travel, and then all of our travel. And then this sort of appeared a month ago. So we were already in talks doing something else. And this is like yet a whole other idea. And they had a complete look book and, you know, paragraphs of each scene. So I just started working on it with them.
Did you say you only started working on this a month ago? You made seven short films in a month?
I arrived in Rome less than a month ago, but I had worked on other films like that. “Elephant” and “Last Days” were done in 15 days. This was a 12-day shoot. They were similar in their effort. And they also didn’t have real complete screenplays. It was more like a list of ideas so I had done this a couple times before and they were kind of my favorite things to work on. So I was not in any way put off.
What kind of precautions did you take because of COVID?
I think Alessandro is probably more paranoid about COVID than I am so there was the whole operation where people locked down and there were tests every two days. A lot of the people that were acting together without masks were encouraged not to party in their rooms together at night. So it was all pretty much controlled. And there was another film here, just before us, where they did have an outbreak. It was “Mission Impossible,” which is a much larger film and they had been filming for a while. If you have a really big crew and you’re filming a long time, you’ll probably end up having troubles, but in our case, it was short and we were small and everyone was okay.
Did you all stay in one hotel in a bubble?
There were three different hotels, but most people were staying at the Excelsior.
Did it take some getting used seeing everyone in masks on set?
I had been staying in Los Angeles at the time, so I was used to masks by then. So when this project appeared, I thought, “Okay, let’s go for it.” Things had subsided a month ago, at least in Italy, and people that were here in Italy were telling me that it was kind of back to normal-ish. I kind of wanted to go to Italy because things are getting bad in the States.
What was it like working with Harry Styles?
He plays a part in episode three. I had met him briefly at one point in L.A., but I didn’t know him very well. He was amazing in “Dunkirk.” So I knew he was a great actor. And it was very quick. We had a crew go to his house. It was a very quick shoot and I was doing it remotely, which I’d never done before. It was not easy because you sort of can’t be there. So it was pretty much the director that was there at the location and Harry’s acting that made it all come together. I didn’t need to direct him too much.
Do his scenes also take place in Rome? Did you have to splice it all together?
I don’t want to divulge too much, but it’s not supposed to be Rome.
What about Billie Eilish?
I haven’t met her yet, but there’s a reason for that. I don’t want to divulge too much about that either.
What was it like working with her?
Good, really good. That’s all I could say right now.
How much collaboration did you have with Alessandro?
I was doing my thing, and he was watching me do my thing. His thing was he had constructed the original story, he cast the whole thing, and my job was to be the voice on the set and choose the shots and follow through with what was the concept.
I imagine this was probably one the chicest sets you’ve worked on with everyone wearing Gucci.
I think it was a pretty normal set. It was sometimes really amazing clothing, but I was trying to get into the motions and emotions of the characters, and get them moving so I couldn’t take too much time investigating the costumes. I had to let the stylists do their work on the set because a lot of the concern was about the way things were fitting and so forth.
I also wanted to talk to you about the impact COVID is having on filmmaking and particularly theaters. Will they be able to bounce back?
Here in Rome, people are actually going to the movies. But I have no idea. It’s very scary. It’s very concerning. It just must be so difficult for just the business in general because it’s already under strain from so much online activity. You know the people at these streaming companies, they have demographics that show that basically this is where everything is now. It’s no longer in the cinema, which I find interesting just because of the way cinema began with nickelodeons, which were small screens, and now they’re ending up back on the small screen. The reason that they were really shown on a big screen was that you could fit more people in there. But if you don’t have to fit people in one place because you have millions of projectors, maybe it’s the way it was going to go, which is very, very sad.
GucciFest, which is being broadcast on YouTube Fashion, Weibo, Gucci’s YouTube channel and GucciFest.com, runs through Nov. 22. The festival also includes fashion films featuring the work of 15 independent designers: Ahluwalia, Shanel Campbell, Stefan Cooke, Cormio, Charles De Vilmorin, Jordan Luca, Mowalola, Yueqi Qi, Rave Review, Gui Rosa, Rui, Bianca Saunders, Collina Strada, Boramy Viguier and Gareth Wrighton.