Drugstore Cowboy: Workprint


“It wasn’t me, pal, I ain’t hit no poison shops in years!” – Matt Dillon as Bob, Drugstore Cowboy: Workprint

No film ever shot in Portland has come to personify the city like Gus Van Sant’s 1989 breakthrough feature Drugstore Cowboy. In fact, it holds such a place of prominence that the impatient are already gearing up this month to celebrate its 30th anniversary based on production instead of release date, with screenings, walking tours of locations, etc. The only screenings scheduled so far are for the normal 101-minute version. Van Sant seems to have little interest in re-visiting other cuts of the film, which is understandable. Editors exist for a reason. Anyone who has ever had to sit through an awful “restored” director’s cut understands this. Most works are harmed more than they are helped. In interviews, the sole editorial point of conflict mentioned by Van Sant was his absolute unwillingness to cut William S. Burroughs from the film, as requested by the studio. There were also several moments in his commentary for the 1999 DVD release, done with Matt Dillon, in which he questioned the necessity of a few edits or changes to the shooting script. But overall, he sounded content with his first big-budget Hollywood experience and did not come across as having compromised his vision for the sake of a larger budget.

While the original is a classic now in its own right, a rare alternate videocassette version does exist. Its provenance is sketchy. I’ve owned it for 27 years but have never been able to tell for what purpose it was originally created, and there’s no record of its existence online. It was likely a “workprint” VHS transfer of an early proposed cut, intended for editing. Or maybe it was a rejected alternate version submitted to the studio for review. Whatever its function, it adds around 20 minutes to the film’s running time, while also eliminating or using alternate takes for many scenes that were included in the final Avenue Pictures release (for clarity, I’ll call the two versions Avenue and Workprint from here on). Calling this “Van Sant’s version” would be presumptuous, since I do not know him and have no idea how he feels about the removed content. That being said, the Workprint does feel a lot more like Mala Noche–his previous feature, also shot in Portland–and makes for a grittier and rawer Drugstore Cowboy experience, with no special effects, no sophisticated jazz score, no drug paraphernalia optics, not even credits. Appropriately, the grainy print takes on the aesthetic characteristics of a 16mm afterschool TV parable about the black hole of addiction, shedding the Hollywood glamour sheen for a look that’s pure street, but still saturated in tones of green.

(SPOILERS: Remainder contains details about the added scenes.)

Before I get into the specific differences, a bit of background on the source material. James Fogle was an infamous Pacific-Northwest drug addict and pharmacy thief, and the shooting script was based on an unpublished manuscript of his, which was picked up by Delta only after the film’s success, in 1990. The book is loaded with dialogue, with some passages ridiculously long, stilted, and unnatural sounding. Van Sant and Dillon, in the original DVD commentary, discuss the copious amounts of colorful text written by Fogle and the attempts at condensing that into script form, while retaining some of his key phrases, like “poison shops,” “dope fiends,” and “T.V. babies.” I did a quick analysis, and all of the removed major scenes, and most of the dialogue therein, are present in Fogle’s novel. With the Workprint just passing the two hour mark, in an era when films were rarely over 90 minutes, the cutting of entire sequences was likely to tighten the pace. The same can’t be said for the inclusion of alternate takes and the differences in tone created by those. It seems that at some stage in the editing process, Drugstore Cowboy began to drift somewhat from Van Sant’s comedic intent. These nuances can be subtle and hard to spot; for example, a line delivered by Matt Dillon in Workprint will be hilariously paranoid, while the Avenue cut would utilize an alternate take of the same scene, but with Dillon conveying anger or hostility. Overall, there is an increased 1st-person viewpoint for the Avenue cut, while the Workprint includes more scenes for which Bob’s character would not be present, such as conversations between pharmacists and supporting characters.

Second, there’s the music. Since the videotape lacks credits, for years I struggled to find out what the songs were, and there is still one Hawaiian slack-key guitar piece that I’m unsure about. It’s unclear why some of the Workprint songs were removed from the Avenue cut. Perhaps licensing issues, or maybe they were always intended as placeholders for Elliot Goldenthal’s dissonant jazz cues, which comprised half of the original soundtrack. One sequence in particular deserves mention since it’s the best music-driven montage Van Sant has ever filmed. It occurs halfway through the police’s duplex raid, as Detective Gentry and the cops hunt for the hidden dope stash. Instead of Bob answering Gentry’s question “What’s it gonna be?”–as in, “Will you give us the drugs or will we trash your home?”–there is a long silent pause of apprehension. Then, instead of an answer, Elis Regina’s voice drops from nowhere, and her duet “Águas de Março” with Antonio Carlos Jobim continues over a montage of furniture demolition, the knifing of sofas, the emptying of cereal boxes; there is a brief exterior shot of the shadows of axes coming down in the duplex windows, then a slow pan up a landscape of leftover debris: Coca-Cola bottles, Fidel Castro’s photo, furniture legs, insulation. Van Sant takes his time; nothing is rushed. Brazilian beats and alternating staccato voices are stretched lovingly over the canvas of junky culture. In the Avenue cut, there is just a fade to black after Gentry’s question and a truncated debris shot, without music, ending with the cast sitting nude and covered in blankets for reasons that are vague (since the preceding scene of cops shredding their clothing was removed.) Approaches like this epitomize the difference between the two versions. Maybe it was Hollywood, with one eye on the editing clock. Just as they wanted William S. Burroughs removed, perhaps they trimmed all bits tangential to the storyline. But for this “Águas de Março” sequence, it’s as if, for Godard’s Band of Outsiders, a decision was made to eliminate the dance because it offered little with regard to plot progression. Other great songs forever associated with the film, like Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites”, are still present, albeit less prominently in the mix and as source music in apartment interiors, not incidental cues.

Apart from music, there are several noteworthy added sequences from the novel. Diane’s sister arrives to bring clothing and belittle Bob, which explains their ill-fitting clothes in the Avenue cut. The sister sequence also stands as a nice-if-brief antidote to Bob’s misogyny, and it’s too bad it wasn’t retained. In two other deleted sequences, Diane attempts to score drugs from a doctor, and Diane and Rick establish a plan to continue stealing following Bob’s departure to rehab. Of the alternate takes, the one at the rehab clinic when Bob is being asked questions by the social worker (brilliantly played by Beah Richards) is altogether different, with a slow French New Wave-ish back-and-forth pan as he answers her questions. Another vastly improved sequence is when Nadine asks if the crew can get a dog, thus starting the hex spiral. Canned dramatic music is inserted here, which fits the film’s aesthetic perfectly. “It’s over. We ain’t going to the coast. We ain’t going anywhere,” Bob mutters behind horns, strings, and crashing percussion that sounds like it’s ripped from an old crime procedural. Such incidental music comes up repeatedly throughout. It injects ironic humor, which is fitting since, again, Van Sant has referred to the film as a dark comedy. It’s clear that many funny elements did not survive. Odd lines from the novel that are admiringly goofy in Workprint (“Hot dawg!” is a keeper) are gone from Avenue. It seems that at some point in the editing, as the film became hyperfocused on its protagonist, the decision was made to emphasize his patriarchal toughness and redemption at the expense of junky weirdness and paranoid melodrama.

This shaky redemption is mainly conveyed through the bookending device that both begins and ends the original film. From the outset, in the ambulance, we hear Bob’s half-dead and/or mellowed-out opinions about everyone on his crew as we watch their home-movies running through his brain. We are not allowed to be introduced to the characters through their actions. We must first hear Bob’s impressions of them and how he has come to define their identities, which assigns him an omnipotent God-like quality from the beginning. Conversely, the linear Workprint cut starts in a more egalitarian manner, loud and fast with aerial car shots of the crew en route to the “epilepsy routine”, using an anachronistic Skinny Puppy song that is very far in tone from Abbey Lincoln’s “For All We Know.” It ends cold-stop, in the ambulance, with the celebrated head-shot of Matt Dillon said to be modeled on Andy Warhol’s short film Blowjob. Unlike with the Avenue cut, there’s no rehash of the home-movie at the film’s concluding credits over yet another rehash of “Israelites,” a sequence which always felt to me like a tired Hollywood editing trope, the equivalent of a blooper reel designed to uplift any audience members who may have become depressed after hours of addicts. Interestingly, according to Dillon and Van Sant, the handheld home-movie sequence was shot by the cast post-production and was designed to be used for promotional purposes. (A photo from that day, taken against the famous Lovejoy columns, became the main image on the one-sheet poster). Which begs the question: if this was done post-production and intended to provide advertising fodder, why was it edited into the final release cut? In Workprint, there is no nostalgia, no redemption, no resolution. The end is abrupt and arbitrary. In the book, Bob is dead-on-arrival. The TV Babies win. The hat hex is complete.

NOTE: Workprint version is not available in Watzek’s circulating collection. Screening restricted to Lewis & Clark College community.