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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.