Gus Van Sant interviews David Foster Wallace

American writer David Foster Wallace (1962 – 2008), East Village, Manhattan, New York City, circa 2002. (Photo by Janette Beckman/Redferns)

From May 1998:

DFW: The thing that I don’t get, and this doesn’t have to go on record, is that either you’re a total mensch, or this is some sort of very important venue, because I would have imagined that you know, you could go around being offered cocaine by the people in LA.

GVS: I’m a mensch. What does mensch mean?

DFW: What does mensch mean…?

GVS: Good guy, right?

DFW: Good, sturdy, good hearted guy.

GVS: (Pause) I thought that after we talk together I would type this up and then send it to you to approve it. Give you a…do you have a computer?

DFW: Uh…yeah. (loud unexplained bang) But I don’t have anything that, like…I make my own disks and stuff. Well, you’re a mensch, I’ll probably sign off on whatever you do as long as you don’t have me you know, confessing to pederasty or something like that (Gus laughs). Not having a passport makes me very blasé about what appears in foreign periodicals since I know I’ll never see it.

GVS: Really, so you don’t travel abroad?

DFW: I will at some point but I haven’t had a passport since I was a little boy.

GVS: Wow. (long pause) Um, well, so , um, how’s your class?

DFW: I’m on leave this year. I’m auditing a class but I’m not teaching. The class I’m auditing is a real bitch but somehow I’m holding on at a high C or low B.

GVS: What’s the class?

DFW: It’s ah, it’s advanced tax accounting, which is a long story and you probably don’t want to know about it but it’s wa-a-a-y over my little noggin’. It’s a Will Hunting class.

GVS: Oh my God.

DFW: 35 pages of incredibly dense, you know, CPA stuff at night and then you get tested on it the next day.

GVS: Wow.

DFW: Speaking of which — can I just ask — did those two guys — was that the first screenplay that they’d written?

GVS: Yeah.

DFW: Did either of them have serious math backgrounds?

GVS: Um (pause) no. But we had a guy — do you know math?

DFW: I mean I, I (breathes into phone) one of the things I majored in um, was like Philosophy of Mathematics so I know a lot of the theory of math. I’m not…

GVS: Mmhmm.

DFW: …I couldn’t do what he does.

GVS: Because we had a guy named Pat O’Donnell in Toronto who was a professor of Physics, University of Toronto, and he devised, he designed the mathematics basically and he had his own kind of like fun with it because he realized, you know, that the people that he was designing the math for were the mathematicians around the world that would see the movie.

DFW: That’s the thing — and some of it was over my head. What was the problem — it was the second problem that Will solved, um, that the grad student notices was correct on the board and that the other faculty member at MIT gets so upset about, because Will comes up with the solution and it involves joining and forming almost what looks like a horizontal tree.

GVS: Right.

DFW: What, what, do you recall the problem?

GVS: You mean the one where he insults the guy and he leaves the room, they’re doing it on the overhead projector?

DFW: Yeah, I don’t know how much of an insult it is but it’s a great moment of like academic vanity…

GVS: Yeah, he…

DFW: …the academic realism of that movie was — I don’t know that I’ve seen anything else that quite captures the…

GVS: It’s a, it’s a problem that, uh, I don’t know what that one is, I’ve forgotten literally what it is. Um. It’s a mathematical — all the, all the problems are pretty much not physics they’re mathematical and uh, that one is, is a, um, a problem that the guy is kind of known for, it’s a, the guy he’s disproving, he’s found a new way to look at it, so…

DFW: right.

GVS: …He’s kind of damaged all this work that the guy has done and that little solution that he’s putting up on the board is something (clears throat) …it was a touchy one because we wanted to have that be kind of like the most advanced problem within the film…

DFW: yeah.

GVS: …So Pat, our advisor, said that he could find a problem where, where the answer would actually be, um, like, when you’re talking to the mathematic public they’ll actually believe, you know, that what Will has written might be a solution, but if you looked into it it’s sort of a red herring and it’s not really a solution at all.

DFW: Yeah, I kept trying, ’cause here are sort of three separate problems that are explicitly done and the second one’s done in a quick montage and they cancel out some terms and then give each other a high five and that I was pretty sure was a Fourier trans- (interference)

GVS: Yeah…

DFW: — which is something that I’ve seen, um, but-but that one (dog barks) hang on, HUSH! — that one with the joint vertices I, I had recog- (chair moves loudly) …so, so in the screenplay did Damon (dog barks) and Affleck just put in a lot of math in there or something or did you…

GVS: Yeah…

DFW: …massage the screenplay?

GVS: We had to work on it because we didn’t have the math problems in the screenplay we just had (clears throat) we had uh, you know: Will looks at the problem on the board and he writes an answer. And then, the next scene would read: the professor, um, encounters the answer on the board and puts his hand on his forehead and says Oh my God!

DFW: Uh-huh.

GVS: You know, that kind of thing. There were never any literal problems and so when we started filming we realised, well — there has to be something (laughs) on the board. So we went to um…

DFW: Well that stuff was _real_ interesting.

GVS: Yeah. We went — yeah it was kind of interesting partly — um a physicist at Harvard (whose name is Shelly) um, had told us that physics and the mathematics that go along with it is not particularly something that you can go and make money with in the marketplace (sound of one of us peeing in the toilet). You need grants and that sort of thing to get by, people are not going to really want to have anything to do with you except other physicists, it’s not that valuable, and people are not going to be fighting over the guy. You needed to have — in his estimation — a combinatorial mathematician who is way more valuable and people need him to solve their problems, like to do their accounting, like doing the stuff in the class you’re taking.

DFW: Oh sure, or it was dead-on about cipher decryption, that’s like…

GVS: yeah

DFW: …that’s probably the biggest money field that there is right now.

GVS: So we changed it so he was a combinatorial mathematician.

DFW: Well that’s what Steffan Skaarsgaard was. The thing that interested me about Will — and of course this is like a stroke movie for me — is you’ve got like a total nerd who is incredibly good looking, can beat people up and has Minnie Driver in love with him, so I’m, like I saw it twice voluntarily. Most of the serious math weenies who I’ve met, and I’ve met a few, like who’ve graduated from college at 12 and stuff, they’re not all that smart in other areas. I’ve like never met any who’ve had photographic memories with respect to stuff like agrarian social histories of the American South or legal precedent in the American judicial system and stuff, and so he seemed as if he could almost have done anything that he wanted to do and that math was almost a kind of accident.

GVS: That’s the way we thought of him. But I always felt that his memory was something that was kind of like a bonus. And that mathematics was something that he had done when say he was alone as a child.

DFW: Uh-huh.

GVS: And he had learned and he had become very advanced but that his memory was maybe separate — the memory was like the trick part. So he remembered certain things that he had read in different books his retention was so phenomenal but it was almost like a trick so when he is defeating the guy in the Harvard bar by quoting from text books this sort of capitalist versus socialist…

DFW: Which trust me is every bonehead kid’s fantasy of being able to do that. (Gus laughs) Fuckwad with a pony tail in a Harvard bar, I’ve met that guy. The girl I went and saw the movie with first thought that the guy was like to icky and villainous to be realistic and I hastened to disagree with her. It was the first script they had written?

GVS: Yeah, it was.

DFW: That’s kind of amazing.

GVS: And they were really young, I mean, at the time they were like 22 and 24.

DFW: Really? …bastards.

GVW: I know, it’s crazy.

DFW: One of the great puzzles I work with is I’m basically a nerd and everybody I know are nerds and how do you make nerds interesting (Gus laughs). And I haven’t seen it done that compellingly for a while. We’ll stop talking about “Good Will Hunting” in just one second, but one thing is that I really like Skaarsgaard. I liked “Zero Kelvin” and “Breaking the Waves.” The conflict in him of discovering someone who in Whitman’s phrase “spreads the broader breast than his own” I thought was really well done and it’s a lot how it is for writing teachers. You want your student to be brilliant but not too brilliant. And particularly that scene where Damon sets the proof on fire, which could have very easily been cheesy and I thought was really moving. There were intimations that Skaarsgaard was tormented and was a student seducer. The first time we see this he’s under some sort of tent and he says “Would you join me for a drink tonight?” And the second, oh, it’s when Will is fucking with the mind of George Plimpton and outside Skaarsgaard is talking about a proof being like a symphony. But he’s doing it in a very sort of Svengali way (Gus laughts) to some nubile undergraduate. Was there more of that stuff, or…

GVS: That was the result of basically Stellan filling out his character. (clears throat) He is really a very amazing actor. He’s been in the Stockholm Shakespearean Company for like sixteen years. He has a really, like extensive background. And he is also not known in our country, so when he is over here it is nice for him because he is used to being some kind of Richard Gere of Sweden. And he was in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” as the hunky Swedish guy. So these things he added on his own after we talked about him being like a rock star version of a math professor.

DFW: Well, but also at MIT within the world of math there’s sexy math and non-sexy math, and sexy mathematicians. That was one texture that I thought the movie captured really well.

GVS: Along with that there were the questions on how he relates to his students and he thought that maybe he was attracted to some of his students, and then the question was was it just girls or was it girls and boys and so I suggested that maybe its both and we left it at that.

DFW: And you know it suggests and probably not to anyone in academia, but a professor who is that overt with his students — there’s something pathetic about it, it’s the big sign that there’s a big void, big pain, unless the guy is just Snidely Whiplash and is twirling his moustache and laughing. The thing that made me not believe it was these two kids’ screenplay was how, for me, as interesting as Will was, I thought that with Skaarsgaard and Williams, the movie was very generous (dog barking) about their own characters and their own pain and the way Will in a very kind of tangential way I thought…it didn’t seem contrived at all, kind of became an occasion for their pain to get illuminated and in certain ways worked out. That encounter the two of them have — see this is going to look like I’m totally kissing your ass — in the middle of the third act right before Will comes in, when Williams is telling Skaarsgaard to shove the medal up his ass, but its also clear that Williams is coming very much out of his incredible grief over the death of his wife, that’s when I really got impressed — the way I think of it — with the screenplay. Because when you have a male – model – nerd – cool – tough – guy – hero and it’s all about him and his conflicts and all that stuff. I thought it was Williams’ best movie. Maybe “Fisher King” was as good but he capered in that and except for one recreation of a home run he didn’t go manic in this at all. And he didn’t do his adorable, you know…

GVS: So do you have students like that in your school?

DFW: (laughs) This is the interviewer segueing isn’t it. Trying to shift the focus. Students who are like Will Hunting?

GVS: Well, yeah. Essentially. But I guess you got out of that type of class, because you started out teaching in a more advanced writing kind of graduate situation and then you went to teaching more of a literature 101.

DFW: (noncommittal) Yeah. What’s great about under grad classes and especially in the Midwest is that you’ll get kids who are talented and the ones who are educated are almost always autodidacts like Hunting simply because public education in the Midwest isn’t very sophisticated and so the kids who can write, write naturally, really sort of out of themselves so when you discover them you’re really discovering something. You’re not just checking off on a superstar student who was admitted through a highly selective process. The best under grad writing student I’ve had was this girl. I met her when she was 18, she had a three year old kid. She is from a little town, trailer park, got knocked up at fifteen and was reading “Middlemarch” on the bus trying to go to the welfare office to get her bottle of milk subsidy from the Government agency (Hindu music). You know and she didn’t…anything she knew she taught herself. And you find these kids, and it really is one of those rare moments where you understand why teaching is this incredibly magical profession because you get to be the voice of authority that gets to say nice things instead of mean things and wake them up to the fact that they’re brilliant (more Hindu music). You know this girl’s now going to the Iowa Writers Workshop, and this is one of two or three magical stories that I’ve had since I started here. But that’s why I prefer the undergrads to the grads.

GVS: What has she ended up doing?

DFW: Well she ended up doing fiction writing which actually I had dissuaded her from. I think that she is a much better critic than a fiction writer but she’s gotten accepted at Iowa and she’s going next year and Iowa is probably the MIT of creative writing (music). Not that that happens all the time but when it does and you’re the first to actually see it, it’s another reason why I really vibed well with the movie, I kinda understood, you know, why his testicles drew up when he saw that answer to the equation on the board and realized who had written it. And just the fact the writers of the screenplay are two kids that young who could also recreate the textures of blue collar Boston you know which I lived in for three years. They have got the Boston bonehead culture down perfectly — and can also realize how a teacher would feel upon making a discovery, I thought it was really rather remarkable. The film-goer cap is doffed. I hope they don’t just start being in big-budget action movies and spend all their time at the gym and retreats making…

GVS: Me too.

DFW: …hundred million dollar salaried plastic product. There was about a year when “Infinite Jest” came out and I was finishing the last thing of the book of essays, and then there were all the errors in “Infinite Jest” to correct from the hardcover and then there was the copy editing for the essay book and there were also the first serious reading tours that I did for both books for about a year. The only writing that I did was like on airplanes and it’s all like tiny little weird fragments and uh, yeah I’ve been doing some stuff that’s not really sort of — straightfoward. I don’t know where it’s going as much as I normally do but that seems like it’s all right. Everything’s kind of winding down now and there was this last little tour for the paperback and the essays and then there will descend a great silence.

GVS: Which is important right?

DFW: Well, I think to be honest, when you haven’t had much attention, ever, and you get a lot of attention, there are things about it that are nice and the more juvenile parts of me are going to miss (Gus laughs). But there’s also a lot of just absolutely unavoidable fakiness and bullshit which I’ll bet you have seen and I’m not looking forward to that.

GVS: Can you work on the road?

DFW: Well, it’s probably the same for you — there’s all kinds of signifiers.

GVS: You’re absorbing stuff on the road.

DFW: I mean I can work… it’s probably not an accident the next book that I will finish will be a book of short stuff, some of which is very very very short and I guess I’ve sort of been in a position where I’ve had to do really short things for a while. I don’t see being able to do anything long while traveling a lot simply because — it’s gotta be somewhat like making a film — at a certain point you’ve just got to develop a momentum and the thing’s got to be worked on until it’s done and you can’t really take three weeks off and go do something else and then come back to it. So I don’t know. What’s the next thing for you? You probably’ve already shot something else by now.

GVS: I want to write a book.

DFW: Do we know what we… Jesus, you’ve got a lot more direction than I do. What are you going to do?

GVS: I’ve been working on something for about a year. It’s about a Romanian kid who flees the Ceaucescu regime in the 80s for the States and becomes an American Dead Head and goes on tour. It’s mostly about the character and the people that he runs into and it does have the tour as something that he drifts in and out of. Actually he gets… there’s this Romanian family he is part of and his father is an animator who animates with wooden dowels, these animated puppets. And he is a famous animator in America but he’d started off as an industrial designer in Romania. And when they come over, his real father, as it turns out is an importer of large quantities of marijuana that he brings in from Asia.

DFW: How do you know all this stuff before you’re done with the thing?

GVS: I’ve mapped it out. I’ve been writing different chapters. I haven’t filled it all out but I’ve been bouncing from one part of it to another. You know I don’t know if this is actually how it will end up… but…

DFW: See this always happens whenever I talk to somebody else who’s writing, suddenly I feel this incredible wave of self-loathing.

GVS: (laughs) Oh-no. How come?

DFW: Well because when you’re not making really good movies, then with your left hand you’re…

GVS: But I’m a very begining writer.

DFW: Yeah, well.

GVS: Who are some of your favorite writers?

DFW: You’re really wielding the old baton on this aren’t you? To be honest… my faves?

GVS: Yeah.

DFW: Ones that people don’t know all that well? Oh, that’s right this is a British magazine so they won’t have heard of a lot of these. Cormac McCarthy, have you read “Blood Meridian”? It’s literally the western to end all westerns. Probably the most horrifying book of this century, at least fiction. But it is also, this guy, I can’t figure out he gets away with it, he basically writes King James English, I mean, he practically uses Old English thou’s and thine’s and it comes off absolutely beautifully and unmannered and ungratuitous. He’s got another one called “Suttree,” God that one, God that would make a fantastic movie.

GVS: (perks up) What’s it called?

DFW: It’s called “Suttree.”

GVS: How do you spell that?

DFW: S-u-t-t-r-e-e. It came out, oh golly, mid 70s. But it’s about a down and out college educated man named Cornelius Suttree who has kind of abandoned everything to live in a houseboat in Knoxville, Tennessee in the late 40s and early 50s and all of his friends in his entire world are derelicts and retards and twisted people. It’s about four hundred pages of the most dense lapidary prose you can imagine about characters who are at the level of functional idiots and are drinking rot-gut. “Suttree” is the book that got him a MacArthur grant and he used the MacArthur to go to Mexico and do the research for “Blood Meridian.” Okay, we’ll play. Are there any new movies coming out that you like?

GVS: I just saw Michael Moore’s film “The Big One” — I liked that quite a bit.

DFW: Have you seen “The Big Lebowski”?

GVS: I did see that, and I liked it a lot. There have been those that don’t think that it stands up to “Fargo,” but there you go. People have their opinions, and that’s OK.

DFW: Their movies are really smart but they ride or fall on their characterizations. “Fargo” had Frances McDormand who was fantastic. And “Miller’s Crossing” had Gabriel Byrne in far and away his best role. …I’m going to have to wind up here soon.

GVS: …OK…

DFW: …do something about these dogs and let them outside or they’re going to…

GVS: Okay. I’m totally done.

DFW: Something tells me, Gus, that when you start transcribing that you aren’t going to want to transcribe all this… and not to sound cheesy but good luck at the Oscar ceremony.

GVS: Thanks.

DFW: Anyway. Thanks very much, and thanks, Dazed & Confused.

Related:
Rereading David Foster Wallace w/ Mary Karr, Mark Costello, and D.T. Max
Remembering David Foster Wallace–Interview w/ Bonnie Nadell
Amy Wallace speaks about her brother
A Conversation with David Foster Wallace (2004)
David Foster Wallace on Charlie Rose
Hidden Doors– A Theory On Pynchon, DFW, and Bolaño
Everything & More: A Tribute to David Foster Wallace

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