Think of all the takes of all the shots of all the movies ever made. Think of all the scenes and angles and alternate readings and alternate lines that were recorded on film—and then discarded in the cutting room. There are endless reels that have been perused and discarded by editors, never to be seen again. Many filmmakers would consider the discarded material worthless, but I, as an actor who has spent fifteen years in front of the camera, consider all of it valuable. They are the essence of my art. Usually each shot is taken four to ten times and, in the final edit of the film, only one of these takes, or portions of a few of these takes, will be used. At best, only one tenth of my total output is ever seen by the public. The other shots are filed away or destroyed. Sometimes these takes are inferior. But sometimes—as when they feature an actor like River Phoenix in a film like My Own Private Idaho, the best of his generation giving his best performance—every scrap is gold.
Gus Van Sant made My Own Private Idaho in 1990 and released it in 1991. All the dailies were on film, nothing digitized; when I heard that Gus had held on to the editor’s film rolls, I told him that I would do anything to see them. We spent two days in Portland watching as much as we could. While we were watching, we discussed how Gus’s movies have changed in the intervening decades. His films now are much more spare in story and dialogue; they involve longer takes and fewer cuts. We were naturally led to wonder what Idaho would be like if he made the film now, and Gus offered to let me make my own cut. It was overwhelming to be able to cut the raw material of my favorite film, a film that had moved me, that had helped shape me as a teenager. The only way I could justify cutting such material was to do what Gus and I had discussed: I cut it as if Gus had made it today.