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13 Public Facts About My Own Private Idaho

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Before Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester; before the ill-advised Psycho remake and the experimental Gerry; before the movies about Harvey Milk and Kurt Cobain, Portland-based indie auteur Gus Van Sant made My Own Private Idaho, an avant-garde drama starring River Phoenix as a narcoleptic gay hustler and Keanu Reeves as his friend and co-worker.

The film was part of a new wave of gay cinema, and it added to Phoenix's burgeoning reputation as a sensitive, brooding actor, made all the more tragic by his sudden death two years later. It changed Van Sant's life, too, putting him on the path that would lead to high-profile hits like Good Will Hunting. A quarter-century later, let's look back at the making of My Own Private Idaho and see what dreamy treasures await us.

1. IT'S A COMBINATION OF THREE STORIES, INCLUDING ONE BASED ON SHAKESPEARE.

Van Sant had three ideas rolling around his head that he smushed into one movie. One was a screenplay about street kids in Portland and was based on William Shakespeare's Henry IV. Much of the Keanu Reeves character's story comes from this part, complete with occasional Bard-like dialogue and the Falstaff-like character of Bob Pigeon. Another source (to which Van Sant had already given the title "My Own Private Idaho") was another screenplay about street hustlers, one older and one younger, who travel to Spain looking for one's mother. The third element was a short story Van Sant wrote called "In a Blue Funk," about the River Phoenix character being picked up by a German man and kept in a house.

2. GUS VAN SANT'S SCREENPLAY WAS ... PROBLEMATIC.

For one thing, it was only 70 pages long, which would translate to about a 70-minute movie. (He intended the actors to flesh it out with improvisation, which they did.) For another thing, he wrote it in a poetic, non-standard typographical format—words down the middle of the page, random capitalization, etc. That's those independent film guys for you. Always gotta be different.

3. VAN SANT LEARNED SECONDHAND THAT THE FILM WAS BEING MADE.

Any would-be filmmaker can tell you how nerve-racking it is to meet with potential producers and then wait to hear back about whether they're going to make your movie. Van Sant said he found out his producers had committed to making My Own Private Idaho when other filmmakers told him, "Congratulations, they're skipping our film to make yours.”

4. IT FEATURES A PERSON PRETENDING TO BE A STATUE.

Mike's vision of Scott cradling him at the foot of a monument called “The Coming of the White Man” takes some creative liberties. First of all, while Portland does have a monument by that name, the real one doesn't look like that. (It looks like this.)

The stag statue is somewhere else in Portland, and it's only the stag—the rider we see in the movie is not a statue, but a crew member in makeup!

5. ONE KEY SCENE WAS WRITTEN ALMOST ENTIRELY BY RIVER PHOENIX.

The way Van Sant wrote it, the scene where Mike and Scott sit around a campfire in the desert, where Mike confesses his love for Scott, was a three-page scene with no such declaration. Van Sant was leaving it ambiguous whether either of the hustlers was actually gay. But according to Van Sant, Phoenix really wanted to beef up the impact of the scene. "He had decided that that scene was his character's main scene and, with Keanu's permission, he wrote it out to say something that it wasn't already saying … It was his explanation of his character.” Now the film became, at least in part, about unrequited love, adding another tragic element to it.

6. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN VAN SANT'S SECOND MOVIE INSTEAD OF HIS THIRD, BUT IT WASN'T COMMERCIAL ENOUGH.

After getting some attention with his micro-budget debut, Mala Noche, Van Sant wanted to make My Own Private Idaho next. But everyone in Hollywood told him a story of gay hustlers was too "niche" to get any traction. So instead he made Drugstore Cowboy, about a roving band of junkies who rob pharmacies—a premise with more mainstream appeal, apparently.

7. MUCH OF THE CAST LIVED AT VAN SANT'S HOUSE DURING THE SHOOT.

Van Sant had just bought a house in Portland's west hills, and he invited Phoenix to stay there instead of a hotel. Reeves and others soon joined, and the place became an almost nonstop house party with jam sessions every night. (Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea was a cast member, after all; he and Reeves played bass while Phoenix played a guitar he picked up at a Portland music shop.) It got to be such a party, in fact, that Van Sant moved out of his own house and stayed in an apartment downtown.

8. UDO KIER'S CABARET ACT WAS INCORPORATED INTO THE FILM.

Hans, the odd German man with the intense blue eyes who cavorts with Mike and Scott, was played by Udo Kier, a veteran actor who had about 60 movie credits under his belt then and has added another 60 since. Early in his career, Kier had a cabaret act—an amusing contradiction to his filmography, which has consisted mostly of serious, sinister types. Fascinated by this side of Kier, Van Sant had him work part of his act into My Own Private Idaho, resulting in the odd moment with a lamp seen in the video above. (Van Sant said Kier originally used a blue flashlight; they changed it to a lamp to avoid comparison to Blue Velvet.) As a bonus, here’s Kier performing the same song on television in 1985.

9. THE FILM HAS SOME DOCUMENTARY ELEMENTS.

Those brief snippets where anonymous Portland street kids talk about their experiences aren't just meant to look like a documentary—they are a documentary. Van Sant knew some of the local street kids and had them on set as advisers and extras. During a lunch break one day, Van Sant turned the camera on these guys and interviewed them, hoping to inspire the cast with some authenticity. The result was so intriguing that he put some of that footage into the film.

10. THE REAL STREET HUSTLER MIKE IS BASED ON ALMOST PLAYED MIKE.

In the early stages of development, when Van Sant was still thinking as inexpensively as possible, he envisioned using non-actors to play the lead roles. That included Mike Parker, the real Portland street kid on whom Van Sant had based the Mike character. (Parker wasn't narcoleptic, though another friend of Van Sant's was.) When professional actors got involved, Parker was relegated to the ensemble (he plays a hustler named Digger), but he continued to help Phoenix research the role and understand the character.

11. PHOENIX THREW HIMSELF DANGEROUSLY INTO THE CHARACTER.

Not only did Phoenix interview real hustlers (videos are online), but according to friends, he experimented with hard drugs and even dabbled in same-sex shenanigans. He hung out with hustlers on the streets of Portland, learning the, uh, tricks of the trade. (Reeves also did similar research, though not as extensively.) He began to dress and groom himself like a grungy street kid, to the point where he was turned away from a nightclub because the bouncer thought he was a bum.

12. THE ACTOR WHO PLAYS BOB PIGEON WAS MANIPULATED INTO IT.

William Richert was a writer and director who'd made A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, in which Phoenix played the title character. For some reason, Phoenix became fixated on the idea of Richert playing Bob Pigeon in My Own Private Idaho, even though Richert was not an actor. Richert was offended by the suggestion, telling Phoenix, "It's a big fat pederast. Is this what you think of me? Is this what you think I should be playing?"

Phoenix kept trying to convince him, going so far as to bring Van Sant to Richert's house for a reading of the screenplay. Still he resisted. Finally, Phoenix called Richert from the set in Portland and said the actor who'd been hired to play Bob Pigeon had been let go. They had to shoot his scenes tomorrow. Could Richert fly up and take the part? Worn down, Richert finally relented.

13. THE TALKING MAGAZINE COVERS WERE SHOT IN A VERY LOW-TECH WAY.

To achieve the effect of magazine cover boys on the newsstand coming to life and talking to each other, Van Sant went old-school. He had the magazine covers mocked up on large panels of Plexiglass, then had the actors stand behind them. Each one was shot separately; in post-production, they were stitched together to make it look like a magazine rack.

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

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That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

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2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

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3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

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This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

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4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

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5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

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6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

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7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

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This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

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8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

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9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

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Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

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10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

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11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

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12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy chomping on your mug to worry about humans.

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13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

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14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

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15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

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16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

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17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

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18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

Buy on Amazon.

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