Van Sant originally wrote the screenplay in the 1970s, but discarded it after reading John Rechy's 1963 novel City of Night and concluding that Rechy's treatment of the subject of street hustlers was better than his own. Over the years, Van Sant rewrote the script, which comprised two stories: that of Mike and the search for his mother, and Scott's story as a modern update of the Henry IV plays. Van Sant had difficulty getting Hollywood financing, and at one point considered making the film on a minuscule budget with a cast of actual street kids. After Van Sant sent copies of his script to Reeves and then Reeves showed it to Phoenix, both agreed to star in the film on each other's behalf.
Mike, a street hustler, is standing alone on a deserted stretch of highway. He starts talking to himself and notices that the road looks “like someone’s face, like a fucked-up face.” He experiences a narcoleptic episode and dreams of his mother comforting him as he replays home movies of his childhood in his mind.
Later, after being fellated by a client in Seattle, Mike returns to his favorite spots to pick up potential clients. He is picked up by a wealthy older woman who takes him to her mansion where he meets two fellow hustlers also hired by the woman. One of them is Scott Favor, Mike’s best friend, and the other is Gary. While preparing to have sex with the woman, Mike experiences another narcoleptic fit and awakens the next day with Scott in Portland, Oregon.
Mike and Scott are soon reunited with Bob Pigeon, a middle-aged mentor to a gang of street kids and hustlers who live in an abandoned apartment building. Scott, the son of the mayor of Portland, admits to Bob in private that when he turns 21, he will inherit his father’s fortune and retire from street hustling. Mike yearns to find his mother, and he and Scott leave Portland for Idaho to visit Mike’s older brother Richard, who lives in a run-down trailer. Along this journey Mike confesses that he is in love with Scott. Richard tries to tell Mike who his real father is, but Mike says that he knows it is Richard. Richard tells Mike that their mother works as a hotel maid; when Mike and Scott visit the hotel, they find she has gone to Italy in search of her own family.
Mike and Scott travel to Italy where they find the country farmhouse where Mike’s mother worked, as a maid and as an English tutor. The young woman, Carmela, who lives there tells Mike that his mother returned to the United States months ago. Carmela and Scott fall in love and return to the U.S., leaving Mike to return home on his own, brokenhearted. Scott's father dies, and Scott inherits his fortune.
Back in Portland, Bob and his gang confront a newly reformed Scott at a fashionable restaurant, but he rejects them. That night Bob has a fatal heart attack. The next day the hustlers hold a rowdy funeral for Bob, while in the same cemetery, a few yards away, Scott attends a solemn funeral for his father. Mike is back on the deserted stretch of the Idaho highway. After falling into another narcoleptic stupor, two strangers pull up in a truck, take his backpack and shoes, and drive away. Moments later, an unidentified figure pulls up in a car, picks the unconscious Mike up, places him in the vehicle and drives away.River Phoenix as Mike Waters
Keanu Reeves as Scott Favor
James Russo as Richard Waters
Vana O'Brien as Sharon Waters
Rodney Harvey as Gary
William Richert as Bob Pigeon
Grace Zabriskie as Alena
Chiara Caselli as Carmela
Flea as Budd
Udo Kier as Hans
Jim Caviezel as Airline Clerk
Brian Wilson as Rock Promoter
Wade Evans as Wade
The origins of My Own Private Idaho came from John Rechy's 1963 novel, City of Night, which featured characters who were street hustlers who did not admit to being gay. Van Sant's original screenplay was written in the 1970s, when he was living in Hollywood. After reading Rechy's book, Van Sant realized that it was considerably better than what he was writing, so he shelved the script for years. In 1988, while editing Mala Noche, Van Sant met a street kid named Michael Parker who became a source of inspiration for the character of Mike in what would later become My Own Private Idaho. Parker also had a friend named Scott, a street kid like himself. In the script, Van Sant adapted the Scott character to that of a rich kid. The character of Scott was also fashioned after people Van Sant had met in Portland who were street hustlers.
Early drafts of the screenplay were set on Hollywood Boulevard, not Portland, with working titles such as Blue Funk and Minions of the Moon. Reading Rechy's novel had convinced Van Sant to change the setting to Portland. The script originally consisted of two separate scenarios: the first was called Modern Days and it recounted Mike's story; a second one updated the Henry IV plays with Scott's story. Van Sant realized that he could blend the two stories together in the manner of the "cut up" technique used by writer William S. Burroughs. In essence, this method involves various story fragments and ideas mixed and matched together to form a unique story. The idea to combine the two scenarios formed in Van Sant's mind after watching Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight. The director remembers, "I thought that the Henry IV plays were really a street story. I also knew this fat guy named Bob, who had always reminded me of Falstaff and who was crazy about hustler boys". Van Sant realized that Prince Hal in the plays resembled the character of Scott and the sidekick was Mike. His script ended up becoming a literal restructuring of the Henry IV plays. Van Sant got the idea for Mike's narcolepsy from a man who was a guide of sorts when the director was gathering material for the film. According to the director, he always looked like he was about to fall asleep. The film's title is derived from the song "Private Idaho" by the B-52's that Van Sant heard while visiting the state in the early 1980s.
Van Sant showed the script to an executive at 20th Century Fox who liked Shakespeare. Eventually, he toned down the Shakespeare and made the language more modern. Van Sant was also working on a short story called My Own Private Idaho which he intended to film. It was 25 pages long and was about two Latino characters on the streets of Portland who go in search of their parents and travel to a town in Spain. One of them falls in love with a girl and leaves the other behind. Van Sant had another script called The Boys of Storytown, which had the Mike and Scott characters and Mike had narcolepsy. The characters of Hans and Bob were also present. Van Sant wanted to make the film but felt that the script was not finished. While editing Drugstore Cowboy, Van Sant combined the scripts for Modern Days and Storytown with the Idaho short story.
Initially, no studio would finance the film because of its potentially controversial and off-beat subject matter. After Drugstore Cowboy received favorable critical raves and awards, studios started to show some interest. However, they all wanted their own versions made and not Van Sant's. This frustration prompted the filmmaker to attempt the feature on a shoestring budget with a cast of actual street kids filling out the roles including Michael Parker and actor Rodney Harvey, who was going to play Scott.
Van Sant faced the problem of casting the two central roles. He decided to send the script to the agents of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, figuring that their agents would reject the script. Reeves' agent was amenable to the project, but Phoenix's agent would not even show the screenplay to the young actor. Not to be deterred, Van Sant got the idea for Reeves to personally deliver the film's treatment to Phoenix at his home in Florida. Reeves did so over the Christmas holidays, riding his 1974 Norton Commando motorcycle from his family home in Canada to the Phoenix family ranch in Micanopy, Florida, outside Gainesville. Reeves was no stranger to River Phoenix or members of his family, having worked previously with River on Lawrence Kasdan's I Love You to Death and with his brother Joaquin and girlfriend Martha Plimpton on Ron Howard's Parenthood. After reading the treatment, Phoenix agreed to play the role of Scott. However, since Van Sant had already cast Reeves in the role, they had to convince River to take on the edgier role of drug-addicted hustler Mike Waters. The director promised not to make either actor do anything embarrassing. Van Sant got an offer of $2 million from an outside investor but when he put off production for nine months so that Phoenix could make Dogfight, the investor and his money disappeared. Producer Laurie Parker shopped the script around and, at the time, New Line Cinema was in the process of branching out into producing arthouse films and decided to back Van Sant's vision with a USD$2.5 million budget. In an interview in March 2012, Kiefer Sutherland said that he declined the offer by Gus Van Sant to star in the lead role because he wanted to go skiing, a decision he has said he regrets.
Phoenix arrived in Portland two weeks before principal photography was to begin in order to do research and Van Sant remembered, "He seemed to be changing into this character". One of the film's directors of photography Eric Alan Edwards recalled that the actor looked like a street kid", and "in a very raw way he wore that role. I've never seen anybody so intent on living his role". Several cast and crew members, including Michael Parker, Phoenix, Reeves and Flea lived together in a house in Portland during filming. A couple of times a week they would play music together. Due to the low budget, a typical day of shooting started at 6 am and ended at 11 pm.
The film was not storyboarded and was made without a shot list. The camp fire scene was originally a short, three-page scene that Phoenix re-wrote into an eight-page scene where Mike professes his love for Scott so that it was more apparent that his character was gay whereas Van Sant had originally made it more ambiguous. Reeves reportedly was not comfortable with this aspect of the film as he said in an interview, "I'm not against gays or anything, but I won't have sex with guys. I would never do that on film. We did a little of it in Idaho and, believe me, it was hard work. Never again".
Eric Edwards shot the time-lapse photography shots on his own. They were not in the script and the film's producer was worried that he was using up too much film. Van Sant originally had the screen go black when Mike passed out but was not satisfied with this approach. He used Edwards' footage as a way of "an altered sense of time" from Mike's perspective. Some executives at New Line were not in favor of the Shakespeare scenes and wanted Van Sant to cut them all out. However, foreign distributors wanted as much Shakespeare in the film as possible.
Songs that play during the film include:
My Own Private Idaho was first shown at the 1991 Venice Film Festival and received a gala screening at the 16th Toronto Festival of Festivals and was also screened at the 29th New York Film Festival.
The film was released theatrically on September 27, 1991 in 98 theaters. It grossed USD$6.4 million in North America, above its estimated budget of $2.5 million.
Van Sant's film achieved critical acclaim. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "The achievement of this film is that it wants to evoke that state of drifting need, and it does. There is no mechanical plot that has to grind to a Hollywood conclusion, and no contrived test for the heroes to pass." In his review for Rolling Stone magazine, Peter Travers wrote, "Van Sant's cleareyed, unsentimental approach to a plot that pivots on betrayal and death is reflected in magnetic performances from Reeves and Phoenix." Vincent Canby, in his New York Times review, praised the lead actors: "The performances, especially by the two young stars, are as surprising as they are sure. Mr. Phoenix (Dogfight) and Mr. Reeves (of the two Bill and Ted comedies) are very fine in what may be the two best roles they'll find in years. Roles of this density, for young actors, do not come by that often". In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen praised Phoenix's performance: "The campfire scene in which Mike awkwardly declares his unrequited love for Scott is a marvel of delicacy. In this, and every scene, Phoenix immerses himself so deeply inside his character you almost forget you've seen him before: it's a stunningly sensitive performance, poignant and comic at once." Entertainment Weekly gave the film an "A−" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "When Van Sant shows us speeded-up images of clouds rolling past wheat fields, the familiar device transcends cliche, because it's tied to the way that Mike, in his benumbed isolation, experiences his own life – as a running piece of surrealism. The sheer, expressive beauty of those images haunted me for days." J. Hoberman, in his review for The Village Voice, wrote, "While Phoenix vanishes with reckless triumph into his role, Reeves stands, or occasionally struts, uneasily beside his, unable to project even the self-mocking wit of Matt Dillon's star turn in Drugstore Cowboy." Hal Hinson from The Washington Post wrote “Gus Van Sant‘s sensibility is wholly original, wholly fresh. My Own Private Idaho adds a new ingredient: a kind of boho sweetness. I loved it.”
However, USA Today gave My Own Private Idaho two and half stars out of four, criticizing Van Sant's film for being "nothing but set pieces; tossed into a mix whose meaning is almost certainly private". Time magazine's Richard Schickel wrote, "What plot it has is borrowed, improbably, from Henry IV, and whenever anyone manages to speak an entire paragraph, it is usually a Shakespearean paraphrase. But this is a desperate imposition on an essentially inert film." In his review for The New Yorker, Terrence Rafferty wrote, "Van Sant has stranded the actor in a movie full of flat characters and bad ideas, but Phoenix walks through the picture, down the road after road after road, as if he were surrounded by glorious phantoms."
Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 81% rating based on 54 reviews. Metacritic gives the film a weighted average score of 77% based on 18 reviews.
My Own Private Idaho received the Showtime International Critics Award at the 1991 Toronto Film Festival. River Phoenix received the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 1991 Venice Film Festival. The actor said, in regards to winning, "I don't want more awards. Venice is the most progressive festival. Anything else would be a token". Phoenix then went on to receive Best Male Lead from the Independent Spirit Awards and Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics.
In 2005, the film was remastered by The Criterion Collection and released on a two-disc DVD set. The second disc features new interviews, outtakes and more information about the movie. This DVD set is accompanied by an illustrated 64-page-booklet featuring previously published articles and interviews with cast and crew and new essays by JT LeRoy and Amy Taubin, a 1991 article by Lance Loud and reprinted interviews with Van Sant, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. Entertainment Weekly gave the DVD a "B+" rating and wrote, "While you may enjoy watching My Own Private Idaho, whether you choose to view this two-disc Criterion edition in its entirety depends on how much you enjoy watching people talking about My Own Private Idaho", and concluded, "But with all the various interpretations and influences, this is definitely a film worth talking about".
In 2015 The Criterion Collection released the film in Blu-ray, based on a restored 4K digital transfer.