SEAN PENN (Harvey Milk)

Sean Penn’s career as an actor spans nearly three decades. He has been nominated four times for the Best Actor Academy Award, for Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking (for which he was named Best Actor at the 1996 Berlin International Film Festival), Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown, Jessie Nelson’s i am sam, and Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River. The latter performance brought him the Oscar and Golden Globe Award for Best Actor.

Mr. Penn’s feature film directorial debut came with The Indian Runner (1991), which he also wrote and produced. This was followed by The Crossing Guard (1995), which he also wrote and produced, and The Pledge (2001), which he also produced. The latter, starring Jack Nicholson, was cited as one of the year’s 10 Best by the National Board of Review.

As writer, producer and director, his most recent work was Into the Wild (2007), adapted from Jon Krakauer’s best-selling nonfiction book. Into the Wild also earned four Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for its cast, including Emile Hirsch (who also stars in Milk), and two Academy Award nominations.

GUS VAN SANT (Director)

Audiences and critics alike have taken note of Gus Van Sant’s movies since he made his feature film directorial debut in 1985 with Mala Noche, which won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for Best Independent/Experimental Film.

His body of work also includes the cult hit Drugstore Cowboy, starring Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch, the daring My Own Private Idaho, starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, the campy Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, starring Uma Thurman, and the disturbing beauty of To Die For. The latter, screened at the Cannes and Toronto International Film Festivals, earned Nicole Kidman a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress.

Mr. Van Sant’s next feature, Good Will Hunting, brought him a Best Director Academy Award nomination. The film was nominated for eight other Oscars including Best Picture, winning for Best Supporting Actor (Robin Williams) and Best Original Screenplay (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon).

He followed that up with his controversial remake of Psycho, which was the first feature shot for shot recreation of a film, and Finding Forrester before returning to his independent film roots with Gerry. He scripted the latter film with its actors, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. That filmmaking experience in turn inspired him to write and direct Elephant, shot on location in his hometown of Portland with a cast of novice actors. Elephant won both the top prize (the Palme d’Or) and the Best Director award at the 2003 Cannes International Film Festival.

At the 2005 Cannes International Film Festival, Last Days, starring Michael Pitt and Lukas Haas, was honored with the Technical Grand Prize (for Leslie Shatz’ sound design) at Cannes. Mr. Van Sant once again cast novice actors to star in his next project, Paranoid Park, which he adapted from Blake Nelson’s novel of the same name. The film earned him the 60th Anniversary Prize at the 2007 Cannes International Film Festival.

Throughout his career, he has continued to make short films. These works include an adaptation of anarchist / novelist William S. Burroughs’ short story ‘The Discipline of D.E.,’ which screened at the New York Film Festival. In 1996, he directed a short of Allen Ginsberg reading his own poem, ‘Ballad of the Skeletons,’ to the music of Paul McCartney and Philip Glass, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. His other shorts include Five Ways to Kill Yourself, Thanksgiving Prayer (a re-teaming with William S. Burroughs), ‘Le Marais’ (a segment of the feature Paris, je t’aime), and ‘Mansion on the Hill.’ The latter is part of this year’s U.N.-funded project 8, which was created to raise awareness about essential issues that our world is facing today.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Mr. Van Sant earned a B.A. at the Rhode Island School of Design before moving to Hollywood. Early in his career, he spent two years in New York creating commercials for Madison Avenue. Eventually he settled in Portland, Oregon, where in addition to directing and producing, he pursued his other talents of painting, photography, and writing.

In 1995 he released a collection of photos entitled 108 Portraits (Twelvetrees Press), and in 1997 he published his first novel, Pink (Doubleday), a satire on filmmaking. A longtime musician himself, Mr. Van Sant has directed music videos for many top recording artists including David Bowie, Elton John, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers among more.

© 2009, The Hollywood Sentinel ®