Last Days by Gus Van Sant

The indie director talks about his film trilogy, of which “Last Days” is the last chapter, draws thematic and stylistic comparisons, and addresses the issue of death of young artists like River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain.

Question: Is “Last Days” an outgrowth of “Gerry” and “Elephant”

Gus Van Sant: In some ways, yes. All three films take place in limited settings. In “Gerry,” the two characters are in a single area, the desert. In “Elephant,” the high school is the only real setting, apart from some scenes in a house. In “Last Days,” the characters are generally in one house.

The films are also similar as far as the size of the effort, with a limited cast and a limited crew. Stylistically, they are trying to get away from movie conventions, such as using multiple angles to describe scenes.

Q: Are there any themes that run through the three films

V.S.:Theyre all about death. They form a trilogy, films that are inspired by stories that were in the papers. “Gerry” was inspired by news item about two guys who got lost in the desert. “Elephant” was a way to look at the wave of school shootings, like Columbine that happened in the late 1990s. “Last Days” came out of the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994.

Q: But the films are not docudramas, they go into a different aesthetic realm. Having been inspired by factual events, how did you do it as a filmmaker

V.S.: All three films are attempts to use fiction to learn something new about those kinds of situations. All three of them are stories where people don't really know what happened, because there are missing elements. In “Gerry,” there were two guys who went into the desert, but only one came back. With school shootings, there's always the reason question “why,” or “how did this happen” With Kurt Cobain, nobody knew where he was the last couple of days, and what was going on. The inspiration for “Last Days” was not so much the immediate event, but the ensuing question of what happened, which was a media event.

Q: “Last Days” is not a psychological investigation in the conventional sense. It doesn't explain why he is in trouble

V.S.: It is not psychology through character analysis, via dialogue and action. Rather, it's the psychology that happens as you, the viewer, are ruminating on these events that youre watching. The psychology is really in the mind of the viewer; it's not being delivered to you as a thesis, as something that youre told from the screen. Because of the layering of different visual and sound elements, “Last Days” becomes a very sensory experience. It almost impacts another part of the brain.
Q: What about the style of the film

V.S.: Some of the rules I follow come from Dogme 95, but they are not really rules, they are just adopted aesthetics. In Dogme, they have rules, but we are not as dogmatic. If we need a light, well just pull in light. But we are not using lights, which is one of the Dogme rules.

One of the things that Dogme allows, which we are avoiding, is cutting. I am not cutting in a traditional manner. I am not trying to show a point of view. I am trying to do tableaux. Whereas in Dogme, you use scripts, I am not using a script. I am also trying, but sometimes failing, not to use well-known actors. I am trying to get away from the traditional grind, where you have recognizable stars and everyone is cast around them.

Q: There is music in the film

V.S.: We do have music, which is against Dogme's rules. But when I put music in, if I start a song, I have to play a whole song. I don't just use a small little music cue that just picks up. I I play a song, I try to be committed to that song. The same for the visuals: If we are looking at something, we really want to look at it. We don't want to cut away to it for a second.

Q: The film is in memory of Kurt Cobain, but it's not biographical. What affected your choices regarding the similarities and differences between the real person and the film's fictitious character, named Blake

V.S.: I just sort of imagined things. I didn't have much information except for what came out through the popular media. There were people in Portland who claimed to have stories about Kurt, but I just wanted to use my imagination and get to Blake's story that way. Youre sort of channeling whatever forces you can find.

Q: Did you do much research

V.S.: No. I didn't do the type of research that I think you would do if you were making a film about somebody specific. I felt more comfortable just making it up. I wasn't really covering that much time; the story was always limited to those two days. When Kurt died, there was real intense fascination with his last days from seemingly the entire world. Which was similar to something that I had experienced with River Phoenix not too much earlier. Somebody was in trouble and nobody could help them, and where were they and what were their last moments.

Q: What made you initially interested in Kurt Cobain's death

V.S.: I had a big old house in Portland, in the same era as Kurt and Courtney Love's house. At one time, it was a party house with different generations living there. The house had a kind of interesting vibe to it. I thought I could use my house as a location, and I could take a 16mm camera and with an actor, make a film really cheap.

It was almost exactly what this film came out to be, except the character was 14 years old and not 23 years old. There were not going to be any other characters. He was going to be at home, doing things, which were things I would do at home. They were based on ideas of what somebody like Kurt really did at homefrom stories I had heard, details like what cereal he ate.

Q: Have you ever met Cobain

V.S. I only met him once face to face

Q: Do you need to know Kurt Cobain to understand the film

V.S. I don't think you need to have any knowledge of Cobain's life. Ive shown it to different people, some who have no knowledge at all, and they respond maybe even in a better way. For people who know him as a rock star, it could be an impediment to what youre watching, or it could be a positive thing. It sort of depends. A lot of people bring assumptions with them, but you can look at it simultaneously as just a character, who is apparently returning home and sort of winding down.

Q: Do you expect to be asked to explain the circumstances that led to Cobain's suicide

V.S. I could explain it easily. It's not that hard to explain, but it sort of wrecks it if I explain. His death is a result of the things that are happening before. He's crawling away, trying to get in a space outside of his own life. The final deal is he's found dead. It's sort of like the endnote of his trying to escape, but that's pretty obvious. You see that in the film.

Q: How do you feel about premiering a rigorous and minimalist film like “Last Days” in the carnival-like media atmosphere of Cannes

V.S. I think Cannes is known for rigorous films. It's got this Riviera like, tuxedo casino thing. But that's what makes Cannes kind of fantastic. You have this elegant, red carpet, dinner party-like situation, and you have the films themselves. The films can be any type. I don't think Cannes is known for one type of film.