latest film, Elephant, won the Golden Palm, the top prize at
the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. He received the Best Director prize
there, too. Although these are two of the most prestigious awards
that a filmmaker can receive, Gus Van Sant wasnt necessarily
in a celebratory mood when he agreed to chat with eKC at the
recent Toronto Film Festival.
Elephant is a controversial, experimental work that dares to
present a look at a violent, Columbine-style event without imposing
a moral or making any suppositions as to the cause of the violence.
(Indeed, Van Sant implies the unthinkable
that there is no explanation.)
Many in Toronto did not receive Van Sants detached approach
to the material warmly. In fact, some suggested that it might inspire
copycats. The edgy filmmaker was having none of it.
Producer Danny Wolf and director Gus Van
Sant from Elephant.
It can also work to prevent copycat killings, Van
Sant protested, and it can work to prevent the kind of tragedy
that it was. Its trying hard not to give ideas. Its not
trying to be inspirational in the sense that it gives you the idea
to do something like that. If kids dont already know the details
of Columbine, then theyre not going to find it in this film.
Van Sant, attempting to stretch the limits of the medium, frets that
too many people see dramatic filmmaking in narrow terms.
(Some) people consider a film entertainment and not reporting,
which Im not really sure I agree with, Van Sant asserted.
I think that film can have a hand in illuminating an event like
Columbine without promoting it.
Van Sant, the maker of mainstream Hollywood films like Good Will
Hunting and Finding Forrester, also has made well-received
independent fare like Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho
and the cinema verite offering, Gerry. Elephant is more
like the latter, structured in a non-linear style with dialogue improvised
by a largely amateur cast.
The plot of Elephant revolves around several characters at
a Portland high school on a typical school day. The title
is derived from the ancient fable about the blind men and the elephant.
Each blind man feels a portion of the creature and, from his perspective,
perceives something different. Van Sant filmed the story in a similar
manner, shooting a select series of scenes numerous times from the
differing perspectives of several students.
We were trying to get around a linear, more traditional story
because, with a traditional story, you need more traditional protagonists
or antagonists in a way that is less passive, character-wise,
Van Sant explained. The notion of having a psychological description
of your lead character that drives the story and affects the action
within the story
is a particular style of storytelling that,
Ive read, was developed by Shakespeare. Were trying to
get away from that model and back into something where it is less
proactive the characterizations. Were trying to make
people back into models youre watching rather than ego-driven
lead characters that youre attached to and youre assuming.
Its more about the audience watching it than the audience becoming
one of the characters.
This approach of detachment demands more of the audience than most
film fare, which, according to Van Sant, makes people uncomfortable.
The other part is the puzzle-like quality of the same time being
re-viewed. That was standing in for a different type of story. It
is a puzzle that keeps you attached to the visual information rather
than a device within the story.
All of this may sound like artsy mumbo-jumbo, especially to those
who want a film to have a specific point of view and give distinct
reasons for why the events occur. To Van Sant, things arent
I think Elephant is meant to be an investigation into
your own ideas of what exactly contributed to the factors that would
allow (Columbine) to happen. You can get a lot farther by not having
me tell you my one, perhaps bogus, reason why I think this happened.
Its a lot better to have you guys as audience members go through
the millions of reasons why you think this happened
have me wasting time by saying, You know what, (its) rap
music. (If youre) just getting into one issue and beating
rap music to death, then youll finally have the audience say,
You know what, I dont think its rap music.
Then its all over. They didnt get to think of anything
else. Elephant is really trying to work as a mechanism to help
the audience drift into their own ideas of what can cause such violence.
Seemingly unafraid of the consequences and willing to stick with his
unique vision, Van Sant believes that Elephant is doing something
Film is right up there with anything else as being able to promote
social change. A lot of people think that film is the main promoter
of social change.
From Van Sants point of view, hes only presented the problem.
The social change, Van Sant asserts, would be to
do something about it.