Elephant's Proud Parents

By Adam Blair

Writer/director Gus Van Sant and actress Diane Keaton might seem an odd couple, but Elephant is an odd, and oddly compelling, movie - a purposefully undramatic, documentary-style look at an ordinary day in an ordinary high school - but one that ends with a Columbine-type shooting spree. Keaton is one of the executive producers and an unabashed fan of both the film and Van Sant, who has carved out a film career that's veered between personal indie films (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) and more mainstream fare (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester). Keaton and Van Sant talked to Grin without a Cat's Editor-in-Chief Adam Blair about the birthing process of Elephant, Van Sant's directing style, and what the film's controversial same-sex kiss has to say about American society and politics.

Q: Talk about how you two got together, to work together.

DIANE KEATON: It's an intimate story.

GUS VAN SANT: It was only about three weeks after Columbine happened, and I was looking for help in making a film about it. We had dinner, and I told Diane about it, and you had the idea to go to HBO.

KEATON: It's very serendipitous.

Q: When you had that first meeting, did you get into an analysis of what you thought happened, what was the motivation?

KEATON: Of course, everybody was devastated by that. At the time I was just flailing about, thinking about gun control of course as one simple solution, which is all the more reason I love Gus' movie. Because it really begs for questions as opposed to answers. I think we need that - it's a great starting point for people to have discussions about what they feel, about violence in schools, guns, about how we deal with our depression. It brings up so much, I'm so proud to be attached to it.

Q: Diane, Do you have any experience with kids who have been bullied at school, who have been through the whole horror that motivated these two kids?

KEATON: Yeah, actually I do have intimate experience. My brother was one of these kids who was constantly bullied and had a hard time in school. I'm very sensitive to these problems, because it stems from our own family, so naturally I identify with it a lot.

Q: In terms of the Columbine incident, was there much thought to the homophobia when conceiving the film, that that aspect pushed these kids into it?

VAN SANT: I think that was a result of conceptions in the school - because they were clique-y and wore black trenchcoats - I'm guessing, I don't know. They're called faggots because the jocks are calling them that, because they're just weird, creepy kids that wear black and stand at the end of the hall.

KEATON: I remember in junior high school that Thursday was queer day - I didn't even know what queer meant. I think you're just saying these things because other people are saying them, half the time you don't even know what it means. Which brings me back to my favorite point, which is, when do we all get together and form some kind of community?

Q: Do you find that now that you've made this movie, people are coming out of the woodwork and telling you their own stories, about being bullied, and their own experiences.

KEATON: I haven't found that, because I'm a very isolated person, so unfortunately I don't have a lot of connection with a lot of people.

VAN SANT: Are you serious?

KEATON: Yeah, I'm isolated.

VAN SANT: That's because you live in Beverly Hills.

Q: Gus, how much of your own childhood was informed by torture from other kids?

VAN SANT: When you mentioned it - I was thinking, I was never - I think if I had been surrounded by bullies and pushed around, I think that would have sent me over the edge. I think that would have really upset me. I don't remember there being bullies. Later in life I had been mugged - that was sort of the closest that I came. But through high school and junior high school, there wasn't really that type of thing. We had our own clique, which probably resembled the kids that were bullied.

KEATON: I have to interject about Gus. Gus has one amazing quality, and it's a quality that's very rare. He is a very good listener. I think this probably has been with Gus all his life; it encourages people to reveal things about themselves to him, and trust him. I think that that can't be overestimated or congratulated more. To me, the problem is that most people spit things out - there's no place for them to find somebody that will actually listen, which has encouraged a kind of honor as an artist. He's followed his path, which most people wouldn't have if they hadn't been listeners.

Q: You've spoken about how you picked the kids for the movie, that you gave them the opportunity to evolve their characters, and that involves listening. In terms of the kids you picked, was it because they came in with good ideas about what they wanted to do?

VAN SANT: We had a casting director, Mali Finn, and she was way more proactive in working with the kids in a conversation. Sometimes I directed the interviews - we had interviews for starters, they just sat in front of the camera - if I was conducting the interview, it would be pretty much about their ordinary lives and so forth. But if Mali was conducting it, within about two minutes she would have them talking about running away from home, really huge things in their lives, because of where she goes. With ordinary kids like we were working with, talking about high school violence, she wanted to know about things that they knew that she didn't know. She was usually searching for almost anything, even if it was just not doing your homework at night and hiding that from your parents.

When we got to the filming process, and the structuring of the school, there was a complete - as with other films I've made - I don't know about listening, but observing, thing that goes on, where the actor sort of can do no wrong, whatever they do, as a choice.

KEATON: But how about how unusual that is? I just want to say as an actor I know a lot about this, and it's rare. Usually directors want something, and they want it very specific, and what they do is kill your impulses. To be party to someone who is actually just sort of encouraging them to just reveal themselves, and to say O.K., whatever you're giving me is something - I think it lends a kind of trust, and that trust makes them feel comfortable. Who else does that? Gus does it, I think Altman does it, I think Woody does it a bit - I think that's really a wonderful directorial trait.

Q: Gus, your most recent two films [Gerry, Elephant] have been deconstructionist compared to the two Hollywood films that preceded them [Finding Forrester, the Psycho remake]. Are you changing your style of directing, your attitudes on directing?

VAN SANT: For the moment, I have been changing my style of filmmaking. I don't know about directing, I'm directing the same way. It's the intention of the structure, the way you use the film itself and the camera. For instance, when we were shooting Gerry and Elephant, we knew we weren't going to do reverse shots, so on the set we already know that. We use the camera knowing that we're never going to cut to a reverse or a wide. That's a stylistic, filmic choice, but when you're directing the scene, you're still basically directing the same way. Also with Gerry and with Elephant there was no dialogue written down, so that's another structural thing. Stylistically, the deconstruction comes with the way you're using the actual medium, or the way you're preparing the medium. With both of those films, there wasn't a prepared script. Which other people have done before.

KEATON: As you know, when other people do this, it frequently becomes a gabfest. You look at Cassavetes, they're great movies, but it's a very different kind of experience. There's so much talk jammed in, wall-to-wall talk. With this particular movie, it was sort of a musical experience. There would be these long spells, [then] these little in-betweens where there would be a gabfest, with the girls going to the bathroom, or the therapy session. The experience is really kind of new as an audience member, I felt I was experiencing something.

Q: Are you more interested in making these kinds of films more than "Hollywood" films?

VAN SANT: I think my line on the Hollywood film - I think you have to look way back to what film was doing when it started, before there were such things as stars. They had nickelodeons, you put your nickel in and you'd see something, and they discovered that people wanted to see the same people again. Whoever the audience was, they wanted to see Rudolph Valentino again, or somebody else like that - and it was a phenomenon, they really didn't know about it. It was related to the theater, so [film] started to become a theatrical thing. They said, get that guy back into another adventure. This thing was created, a thing that D.W. Griffith didn't like - that Mary Pickford had more cachet than he did, and so all of a sudden they broke up, which kind of doomed Griffith.

Then sound showed up, and everything started to standardize itself in a certain way, with close-up, medium shot, long shot and the technique of combining that in the editing room. I think that was an industrial invention, it helped the industry - you could editorialize and get your point across mechanically and serve the front office. It helped the industry, and it was the industrial revolution, that our cinema has grown up so dominated by an industry. I never really noticed that until I started watching Eastern European films in the last few years - that stylistically the way we're working started so long ago and hasn't really changed, it's a standardized thing. The last couple of my movies have been informed by just the thought of trying anything that's not that. Whatever you're trying, it's just not that - working on a set to get material that you will later rework in an editing room.

Q: I'm going to bring up the smooch [the kiss between the two killers, Alex and Eric, before the shooting spree]. Was that something you let the actors run with?

VAN SANT: No, that was something that was in an outline - when I was casting Eric and Alex, I thought they were the right guys to play the role of the two boys who attack the school, but I knew that I wanted this kiss, and I knew they weren't going to like it. I brought them to the location to talk about the movie, but also to sell them the kiss. When I got around to saying, there's just one thing I haven't told you guys about, which is, there's a scene in the bathroom, Alex is saying 'I knew it, it was just too good to be true.' But Eric's response was, 'Do we get paid more?' I said yeah, of course - because I just didn't want them to drop out. No, it was not their idea - it was me imposing that scene on the story.

Q: Did you want to push it further? Was the original outline to have them do more?

VAN SANT: No, it was just a kiss.

Q: When you actually came to shooting it, did they go through with it pretty happily?

VAN SANT: Yeah, because they were getting paid more and it was Friday. We scheduled it that afternoon, I said this afternoon I think we can fit in the kiss, and then it looked like it wasn't going to happen, and they got all mad, because they wanted to get the extra money.

KEATON: This says more about American culture than anything. This is why Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governor of California.

Q: You let one of the gay boys bite it, by the way. What was the reason for letting that happen?

VAN SANT: It was the gay-straight alliance, how do you know he was gay?

Q: Well, pro-gay, gay-supportive.

VAN SANT: It was pretty much that the people getting shot were the innocents, whether it was the football player, Kristen restocking the library shelves or one of the kids in the GSA. I was showing innocent victims of the shooting, so he was one of them. I guess in the end he finds the jock [who teased him] but I thought part of the idea was that the plan was misconceived, and it was going in the wrong direction, even though they thought they were going to chase down people on their list. It ended up places where innocent people were killed.

Q: Gus, do you have something you hope the audience takes away from the movie? Diane talked about the film having questions, not answers.

VAN SANT: I think the audience goes through an experience. I hope the film can act as meditative thinking, like a kaleidoscope - that they can look into and help go over thoughts they have been carrying around with them, or new thoughts they're putting together as they're watching the film. So the taking away is a result of going through that process, not necessarily taking away something I'm handing them directly, or a literal idea or doctrine or information I'm passing on.

The film can act as a Rashomon, because there's so much space within the different thoughts that what your mind is hopefully doing is thinking about the subject, and that the present of the film is hopefully strong enough to keep you there and keep you thinking about it. The other thing that can happen is you can start going through your to-do list for tomorrow - if that's happening, the film's not really working for that person, and they're just drifting, and they're bored. But there's so much space that the thought that you're having within that space will definitely be different than the person next to you is having.

I can still watch the movie, because it's not a result-oriented movie, where you're trying to get the audience to see the sacrifice of one character for another, it's not a sentimental situation or a heroic saving situation, it's something that is conjuring thoughts. I actually can watch it, even though I made it, and new thoughts will appear.

KEATON: What I would like for this movie - I just wish this is a movie that could be shown in high schools throughout the U.S., across this whole country, and that parents and kids see this movie, and that they're forced to have focus groups afterward. I think it's all about discussing. Even in those moments where you think you're going through your laundry list, sometimes you get your best ideas, sometimes things resonate to you then more than any time. I think that in America right now everything is the sound bite - nobody is looking for a real discussion about really important issues, about our feelings, violence, all of it. That would be my fondest wish for this movie.

Click here to read a review of Elephant.


Director Gus Van Sant

Photo Credit: Scott Green/HBO Films/Fine Line Features

 

"I love Gus' movie. Because it really
begs for questions
as opposed to
answers. I think
we need that - it's
a great starting
point for people to
have discussions
about what they
feel, about violence
in schools, guns,
about how we
deal with our
depression.
It brings up so
much." -Diane Keaton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"As an actor I
know a lot about
this, and it's rare.
Usually directors
want something,
and they want it
very specific, and
what they do is kill
your impulses.
To be party to
someone who is
actually just sort
of encouraging
[actors] to just
reveal themselves,
and to say O.K.,
whatever you're
giving me is
something - I think
it lends a kind of
trust, and that
trust makes them
feel comfortable.
Who else does that?
Gus does it, I think
Altman does it, I
think Woody does
it a bit - I think
that's really a
wonderful
directorial trait."
-Diane Keaton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Our cinema has grown up so dominated by an industry. I never really noticed that until I started watching Eastern European films in the last few years - that stylistically the way we're working started so long ago and hasn't really changed, it's a standardized thing. The last couple of my movies have been informed by just the thought of trying anything that's not that." -Gus Van Sant

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I can still watch
the movie, because
it's not a result-
oriented movie,
where you're trying
to get the audience
to see the sacrifice
of one character
for another, it's
not a sentimental
situation or a
heroic saving
situation, it's
something that is
conjuring thoughts.
I actually can
watch it, even
though I made it,
and new thoughts
will appear."
-Gus Van Sant

Film | Theater | Books  | Home Entertainment | Feature Article | Contact
Grin without a Cat (adamblairviews.com) is wholly owned by Adam Blair
All content Copyright 2004 Adam Blair. All Rights Reserved.
Site Design: C2K Multimedia