Elephant: Director Van Sant on his Controversial Movie

On Writing and Directing Elephant

Gus Van Sant: I have sort of avoided it for a really long time. I think the last time I did anything like “Gerry” or “Elephant” was “My Own Private Idaho.” Every other film has some kind of other connection to another medium. “Mala Noche,” my first film, was from a novella by a Portland poet. “Drugstore Cowboy” was from an unpublished novel by James Fogel. “Even Cowgirls Have the Blues” was from the Tom Robbins Book. “To Die For” was from a book by Joyce Maynard. “Good Will Hunting” was original script by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The only other film that relates to these two movies is “Idaho,” in that I sort of conceived it and written it.

On Film and Journalism

The news media reported the 1999 Columbine attack in grisly detail, and commentators rushed to assign blame. The shooters’ faces decorated the cover of Time magazine. Then Michael Moore made the Oscar-winning documentary, “Bowling for Columbine,” which included surveillance footage of the shooting from inside the high school.

Crossing the Line

I knew that dramatizing a Columbine-like shooting would cross a line with some filmgoers. An event like Columbine is so grotesque that the taste level of doing a dramatic piece on something like that is brought into question, because of the way we think of drama itself. We think of it as entertainment. But I have never really thought of it as strictly entertainment.

Strategic Approach

My film observes from multiple points of view several students who cross paths in the hallways of a suburban American school on a seemingly normal weekday that culminates in a massacre. The film may be provocative but it refuses to preach or to explain. It’s an approach that frustrates and even angers some of the audience.

Too Volatile a Subject

Originally, I thought of “Elephant” as a relative immediate response to Columbine, a TV movie to air the month after the attack that would be a psychological examination of two boys who commit a school shooting. I approached an executive at the USA cable network but quickly found that the subject was too volatile; it just happened that the executives of the broadcast networks were meeting that week with then-President Clinton about violence on television.

Critics Response

The film’s refraining from giving answers drew reprobation from American film critics in Cannes, especially those from L.A. The scathing Variety review called the film ‘gross and exploitative,’ and ‘pointless at best and irresponsible at worst.’ The L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote after the film won the Palme d’or at Cannes that the jury confused ‘artful vacuousness with genuine art.’

Poem rather than Mystery

Elephant is more like a poem about Columbine than a detective story. I am not surprised by the critical response. I was jettisoning theatrical conventions most moviegoers (and critics) assume a film is supposed to have. I think that critics have their viewpoints and their viewpoints are valid. Really, the film is meant to be looked at and commented on. It’s not meant to be commented on favorably.

Making the Film

Elephant was shot on a $3.5 million over 20 days in November 2002 in a recently decommissioned high school in Portland, where an open casting call attracted thousands of students. I sat in on casting director Mali Finn’s sessions, where we interviewed the teenagers about their real-life struggles.

Nonprofessional Actors

They are all nonprofessional actors, and they are high school students from Portland, Oregon. Three of the cast members are here with me. There are more kids that we didn’t bring because it’s just a big groupI think there are about 15 leads in the film.

Casting the Killers

The difficult part was casting the shooters, Alex and Eric. The kids that I cast claimed that they could easily imagine carrying through an attack on their fellow students. They hated school so much. But I think imagining it is a lot different than doing it. I think we all probably have moments where you say, ‘I want to kill them.’ But it’s an imagination, it’s not reality. And the difference between what really happened and imagining it is where the gray area lies.

Film’s Title

Alan Clarke movie ‘Elephant’ was titled after the proverbial elephant in the living room. But when I decided to name my film after Clarke’s, I thought the title referred to the Buddhist parable about a group of blind men who each touch a different part of an elephant, each concluding it’s something different since none sees the whole. It was an apt metaphor for the way our society tends to look for a single answer to a problem.

Solutions in American Culture

I think in our country, and I’m one of them too, we always think that there are causes for things. In other countries, they have words for somebody who runs amok; they just go crazy. In our culture, we don’t allow that. People don’t just go crazy. There’s a reason why. But I’m not positive there actually is a reason. People don’t understand what insanity is, so they push it aside.

World premiering in the Cannes Festival

I have always wanted to go to Cannes. I entered way back, “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho,” but I never could get in. I did go to Cannes with “To Die For,” for the Special Gala screening, but I’ve never been In Competition. And whenever I canwhenever the schedule is rightI always try and enter. So it’s great to be part of this year because I always seem to not get in.

On the Paucity of American Films in Canes

I read an article already that said all these films that might have gone are not finished. But there’s an interesting mix: Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, Vincenet Gallo. I think the festival might also have been edging from the American films because of the war effort and edging back from the glitziness, though they do have “The Matrix.” I am happy for Keanu (Reeves), who was in my film “My Own Private Idaho.”

Appeal of Elephant to the Cannes Programmers

I didn’t know what to expect. We just finished the film, and we didn’t really know if they would like it. I didn’t know whether anyone would like it. We tried to get in with “Gerry” last year, and they claimed they weren’t taking anything from Sundance, but I’m not sure if that was an excuse.

Reaction of International Audiences to American Topic

Elephant is a very American movie that deals with high school violence, but I think it something that can appeal to an international audience. High schools throughout the world have this thing going on. So you can relate to it if you are from another country, and if you have gone to any public (educational) institution. It’s kind of abstract, in the way it’s put together, and its intentions. It’s more like somewhat of a poem about the lives of these high school kids.

Navigating between Small Indies and Studio Movies

I just wanted to work a little smaller and in a more personal way. I’ve been trying to play around a little more. And if the project is smaller, I just feel a little less guilty spending a bunch of money on something that might not work. I also like to work with a little more creative freedom, and that means you’ll be working smaller. I like the idea of spending a small amount of money on a film, and “Gerry” and Elephant” both had really short shooting schedules, and I like that.

On Digital Filmmaking

I haven’t worked digitally yet. But I’m most interested in doing anything for super, super cheap. I am always sort of looking into digital. I did make one digital piece, which was 30-minute-long, in order to see what shooting digitally was like. Really soon, digital will be very much like film. In some ways it already is. I just haven’t quite gone there yet. I’ve been having so much fun shooting 35mm that it’s not in the equation yet.

A Follow-up to “Elephant”

I haven’t really figured out what that would be. There are things I’ve been thinking about, but I just haven’t decided. I would probably entertain other ideas. It depends on what I expect from the end product. Gerry and Elephant are designed to not cost a lot, in that they have one location. I’m sure I could come up with an idea that might cost a lot. “Elephant” is not so much a cry against journalistic practices, but if journalistic practices allow this, then why not dramatic practices