River Phoenix was often compared to the late James Dean. The comparisons reportedly began during Stand by Me (1986) and continued throughout his life. Gus Van Sant says, "many times during production I heard someone say to River, 'hey, that was great. You're like the next James Dean.' And every time River very politely thanked them, before stating that he'd never seen a James Dean movie. He didn't grow up with movies and television like most people. He grew up on the road with his family. I believe he died without ever having seen a James Dean movie. The haircut he wore in our film probably didn't do anything to quiet the comparisons."
Many members of the cast (including River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, Flea, and Michael Parker) moved into director Gus Van Sant's large old house in Portland, Oregon during filming. They apparently caused such a disturbance (staying up late, getting drunk, partying, and playing music) and overtook the house to such an extent that Van Sant eventually had to move out of his own house and stay with a friend in order to get some sleep.
Because River Phoenix's agent refused to show him the film treatment for 'My Own Private Idaho', in late 1990 Keanu Reeves rode his motorcycle from Canada to Phoenix's hometown of Gainesville in Florida to hand deliver it himself.
Filmmaker and critic Todd Haynes told Gus Van Sant, in an interview for the Criterion Collection, that the campfire scene was critical to the film's success. "Before the scene it's almost like the kids are all victims of homosexuality. There's the scene where they all sit around telling their stories of being raped and abused. It's not until River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves sit around the camp fire that you see one of the hustlers being gay in an all natural environment, with no money changing hands."
River Phoenix was absent from the New York premiere of the film. He disliked flying and traveled mostly everywhere by car or train. Attempting to drive from his home town in Florida to New York, he didn't leave himself enough time and was still making the journey as the premiere took place without him.
River Phoenix wrote the campfire scene in private, on little scraps of paper. Gus Van Sant was under the impression that he had been writing song lyrics and was surprised when River told him he'd rewritten the scene. Van Sant liked what River presented, but didn't know if Keanu Reeves would be up for it. River assured him that he'd already privately talked to Keanu about it and he was fine with everything. Gus Van Sant says he's he had to give complete faith to River, since he was completely left out of the loop on the whole scene.
My Own Private Idaho was the result of three projects coming together. The first was a modern adaptation of Henry IV called Howling At The Moon, which was about street kids in Portland and was told entirely in William Shakespearean verse. The second was called In A Blue Funk, and was about two Spanish cousins, living on the streets of Las Vegas, who decide to go to Spain after seeing their last name on a Spanish map and wanting to find out about themselves and their family. The third was actually titled My Own Private Idaho and was about an early version of the Mike character as a hustler who gets picked up by a German auto parts salesman and "kept" at his house. Gus Van Sant had trouble finishing the scripts, so he merged them together into the finished form.
Gus Van Sant gave copies of John Rechy's novel City Of Night to River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves to help get them into the mindset of street hustlers. Keanu found the book very useful, and went on to read five other Rechy novels. River reportedly stopped reading after the first paragraph. "He had his own background to draw on," Gus Van Sant later said. "I think River had an entire youth spent traveling with his family, no connections to society, no roots, no permanence. He crafted that character himself."
The scene with all the boys on the cover of the porno magazines coming to life and interacting was not done with any computers; at the time of production, CGI was still a very expensive tool. The individual pieces were filmed with the actors standing behind large pieces of plexi-glass with the mock-magazine cover on front. Later, optical effects, similar to those used in matte painting, were used to composite them together on the "magazine rack."
Keanu Reeves' character was partially based on a hustler named Scott whom Gus Van Sant met. The real Scott was an acquaintance of the real Mike, and like in the film, Scott came from an upper-middle class family. Van Sant says he "was very taken with the odd juxtaposition of all these poor, cast-off street children being peers with a boy who could quote Fyodor Dostoevsky."
During the press junket at the Cannes film festival the actors were bombarded with questions about how playing gay street hustlers could harm their careers. Flea eventually got fed up and said, "Hey, some of my best friends are street hustlers and I've seen more hustling going on at this festival than I've ever seen with them." This, however, only resulted in even more questions.
When Scott and Mike first appear in Portland, they sit beneath a statue of an elk with an American Indian riding atop it. The statue is real, and still exists in Portland. However, the rider was added by Gus Van Sant. It was really a production assistant covered in grease paint and sitting perfectly still atop the elk statue.
The abandoned building where the hustlers squat was shot at several locations that were edited to appear contiguous. The actors would be filmed walking into a doorway at one location, then finish going through the door at another. River Phoenix challenged himself by walking through doorways while doing an unscripted action (coughing, spinning, tripping) that he would be forced to finish days later at the second location.
The executives at New Line Cinema hated the Shakespearian dialogue and wanted it cut to as little as possible. The foreign distributors, however, loved the William Shakespeare and wanted as much as possible. Pressure from the distributors convinced New Line to keep the dialogue intact.
While writing, Gus Van Sant was inspired by Stanley Kubrick. "I'd heard stories about Kubrick, how he'd always rewrite his scripts into a different format. These were reading scripts, of course, not shooting scripts. But he'd write one version as a play, and another with, like, all the directions in a column down the middle of the page and the dialogue off to the sides. It made the project fun to work on, but confused the hell out of the studios. If it's not in 12 point courier font they can't imagine it'll ever be a movie. I made sure to fix that by the final shooting draft and everything was okay."
Keanu Reeves drew on his encounters with street kids in his native Toronto for his character of Scott. He saw many of them were living on the street to be cool, rather than because of any social or economical problems in their lives.
On the rooftop when Mike is waking up and Bob is returning to the city with Budd, Matt Dillon's voice can be heard on a television in the distance. The scene which can be heard is from Drugstore Cowboy (1989), an earlier film by Gus Van Sant.
The time-lapse footage is meant to represent the dreams/flashbacks of River Phoenix' character during his narcoleptic episodes. The old super-8 footage was written into the script, but the time-lapse footage of nature was not. Cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards shot it himself using unused film left over from the day's shooting. Gus Van Sant didn't learn about it until production was nearly complete.
Gus Van Sant said "Flea was the only actor who would really go all out. As in, like, do anything. Have you ever seen Suburbia (1983)? He wrapped his throat around a live rat. Nothing was off limits for him."
Gus Van Sant was very thankful for the time-lapse photography Eric Alan Edwards shot. He realized in editing that the William Shakespeare language felt very out of place next to the hard reality of other scenes. Cutting in the time-lapse footage gave the film an element of surreality where the antiquated dialogue fit right in.
The song that Udo Kier sings along to was part of Kier's cabaret act. Usually, he would sing along to the tape while using a flashlight as a microphone. Gus Van Sant changed it to avoid comparisons to Blue Velvet (1986).
Mike's narcolepsy was inspired by George Eliot's classic novel Silas Marner. The opening chapters of that novel have the title character Silas framed for a crime committed while he was passed out from a seizure.
Gus Van Sant was very pleased that his movie was being produced and would be distributed by New Line Cinema, a major studio. He wanted the movie to have a wide release and "play in shopping malls." Just after production, New Line created Fine Line Features, it's special "art house" label. This resulted in the movie having a very limited number of prints struck and only playing in select art house theaters. Van Sant says he might as well have made the movie independently.
One early draft of the script had the Mike character as "an inveterate pot smoker who had some sort of memory disease, and looked it. A fact which he used to control his environment and minimize his responsibility." These traits would later be exaggerated and become more tragic for the final film.
The character of Bob has a slight English accent that comes and goes throughout the film. This was intentional, done to show that he had spent significant time in England (another nod to Falstaff), and that his voice would go back there where he was fully involved in the moment.
Scott has a swig from a beer bottle branded "Falstaff". This is a nod to the Shakespearean character named "Falstaff" from the play "Henry IV." which served as inspiration for this movie. "Falstaff" also served as inspiration for the character of Bob Pidgeon.
In a deleted scene, presented "unrestored" on the DVD, there is an additional Falstaff tribute. Scott and Bob recreate Hal and Falstaff's role-playing from Henry IV Part I Act 2 Scene 4, where Falstaff/Bob tries to describe himself from another's viewpoint, and Hal/Scott gives him a sharp wake up call.
A short scene was cut from the end. It showed that the driver of the car that picked up Mike was his brother, and that Mike would be safe with his family. "I cut that end bit," Gus Van Sant says, "for a couple of reasons. First, it really tied everything up in a nice little bow. I think it works much better with the ambiguity. Second, I realized in editing that the movie was about making your own families, not being tied to the one your born with. And Mike's brother had been portrayed as kind of a dick, so maybe ending up with his family isn't for the best. Who knows who's in that car? It could be the love of his life who takes him to Italy. I don't know."
Elements of Scott's storyline were taken from William Shakespeare's plays "Henry IV Part 1" and "Henry IV Part 2" (a young man tries to avoid following in his father's footsteps as a governmental leader by keeping disreputable company) and "Henry V" (after the father's death, the young man abandons his carousing friends, becomes respectable, goes to a European country where he doesn't speak the language and brings back a wife, and starts a political career). In several scenes the characters' dialogue is taken straight from these plays. For instance, at one point, Bob tells his companion that "We have heard the chimes at midnight." This line was spoken by the character Falstaff in "Henry IV Part II". The very next shot shows Keanu Reeves character drinking a Falstaff beer. Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight (1965) was used specifically as a template for these scenes.