Interview with Gus Van Sant and Diane Keaton

Feature and roundtable interviews by Carlo Cavagna



USA, 2003. Rated R. 81 minutes.

Cast: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain, Alicia Miles, Kristen Hicks, Bennie Dixon, Nathan Tyson, Timothy Bottoms, Matt Malloy, Ellis E. Williams, Chantelle Chriestenson
Writer: Gus Van Sant
Director: Gus Van Sant


  [Read the AboutFilm review of Elephant]

With films like My Own Private Idaho, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Good Will Hunting, and Finding Forrester, writer/director Gus Van Sant has explored what it is to be young and searching for an identity. His latest, Elephant, winner of the Palme d'Or and Best Director prizes at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, takes audiences inside an American high school on what appears to be an ordinary day.

What occurs is far from ordinary, however. Van Sant has modeled his story on the infamous events at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, when disaffected teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold used explosives and semi-automatic weapons to kill thirteen people and wound a couple dozen more before turning the guns on themselves. More controversially, Van Sant's sparsely dispassionate storytelling offers no explanation for what transpires.

As with Van Sant's previous film, Gerry, the dialogue is entirely improvised, except that instead of using professional actors, Van Sant has relied a cast full of real high school kids in order to recreate a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the Columbine tragedy, which he has reinterpreted as a fictional incident in Portland, Oregon. In so doing, Van Sant has created one of the most realistic portrayals of high school ever filmed.
Alex Frost, Dany Wolf, Gus Van Sant
Left to right: Alex Frost, producer Dany Wolf, and Gus Van Sant on the set of Elephant

In October 2003, Gus Van Sant and executive producer Diane Keaton held a roundtable interview to discuss the making of Elephant.

Question: With Gerry and Elephant, you may be responsible for bringing back the verité film. Is this a type of filmmaking that you prefer over traditional narrative?

Van Sant: At this point it's something I've been exploring. Yeah, I prefer it. Definitely. I'm going in a really weird I-don't-know-where direction, but I prefer anything [different] from how standardized filmmaking has become.

Question: What does it mean to you knowing that a lot of people out there aren't going to get these movies, but that they're going to hit a very striking chord with people they do touch?

Van Sant: Well, with Gerry, we made it as a really low budget movie, with the idea that we didn't have to be so self-conscious about how to make that movie's money back. We didn't have to be self-conscious about what we were doing; we could do whatever we wanted. There's a whole lot of films I've made that have always had the idea that not everyone's going to go. There were some films I made with the idea that we wanted everyone to go—Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, they were designed to bring them all in. But even so, Good Hill Hunting isn't an action movie. In the end result, if you want every single person to go—little kids, older kids, you know, everybody—then you have to just basically make an action movie.

Question: Good Will Hunting was a crowd pleaser and paid off at the box office, so how did you feel at the time when the studio heads were telling you to make it more commercial? It sounded like there were insisting on some script changes. Wasn't Good Will Hunting commercial-sounding enough on the page?

Van Sant: Oh no, that was just people playing around with the script. The original one I read was fine. We made very small changes. I can't really talk about it, but there were certain people that thought we needed— Like, there's that old joke, "How many film executives does it take to change a light bulb?" And the answer is, "Does it have to be a light bulb?" It's like they all have to quote-unquote pee on the script. It was that kind of stuff going on. It wasn't about the script not being good.

Question: So, tell us how you got started with Elephant.

Van Sant: Well, we wanted early on to make a film about—we thought it was going to be about Columbine High School. Diane [Keaton] and [executive producer] Bill Robinson brought me to HBO—

Keaton: That was an interesting journey in itself, because we had this agent who represented Gus at the time, and he said, "Okay, look, why don't you hook up with Gus?" Well, that was a no-brainer. Yeah, course, we wanted to do that. And so, we actually did, which is odder still, because I've never really known Gus in all my time of being around. We never really got to hook up. So that was a really serendipitous moment for us.

Question: What type of movie were you thinking of creating in the early stages?
Alicia Miles and John Robinson
Alicia Miles comforts John Robinson in Elephant

Keaton: Well, I think we wanted it to have something to do with violence in schools. But, you know, it was a broad-based general idea like I bet everybody else in the country was having at the same time. It wasn't anything specific. Then when we hooked up with Gus that all changed, because really, Gus is an artist, and we were really lucky. It was just one of those great moments that just never happen.

Question: How did you feel after winning at Cannes?

Keaton: How did I feel? I was utterly shocked. I was just blown away. I was in a jet heading to Southhampton to do the end of Nancy Meyers' movie [Something's Gotta Give], so you can imagine, I wasn't even thinking about it. And then I get this call out of nowhere saying that this had happened. I was like, "That's not possible!" [To Gus:] Were you surprised?

Van Sant: Yeah, very surprised.

Keaton: But well-deserved, by the way. In my opinion.

Question: What did you think when you heard about Columbine? What was your immediate visceral reaction?

Keaton: My immediate reaction is, why? That's it. Why why why why why why why? I think this movie, as well as Bowling for Columbine, actually tries to deal with the whys of it in its own way. What's interesting to me about Gus's movie is that he's not trying to say, "It's because of this!" He forces you to sit there and watch it unfold before you in this amazing way, and you have the responsibility of your own thoughts. You have to sit there with your own fucking thoughts and think about it. That was astonishing, because for me it was something, for Bill it was something else, for Gus it was something else. For me, it was about being a parent, because I'm a parent. Personally, it was devastating to watch how nobody listens. Just really, nobody listens. And it's hard to listen when no one's talking anyway. It drove me crazy, and I was really hit hard by it. And the pace— Enough of me talking! Because I can just rattle on.

Question: And the dialogue was all improvised?

Van Sant: Yeah, in fact, everything that everybody says—every single thing—is an ad lib or an improv by the actors. There's a good example—the girls talking in the lunchroom [Nicole George, Jordan Taylor, and Brittany Mountain] were pretty much able to do that easily. As long as you said, "Well, touch on this subject, I liked when you talked about your mom going through your stuff," it was easy. And they were able to. There was one funny moment, when Nicole and Jordan, who are best friends— Brittany was a new friend of theirs, but Nicole and Jordan were already best friends for three years. They had already done an improv where we said, "Do you guys ever have an argument?" They went, "Yes." And we said, "Well, what would you argue about?" And Jordan said, "It would probably be about your boyfriend." So they did an improv where they argued about Nicole's boyfriend. They got into this thing where they were saying, "Well, you spend, like, more than, like, seventy-five percent of all your time with him. It should be more like fifty percent." When we were [shooting], I wanted them to talk in percentages, because they hadn't been doing that. I wanted to hear the actual percentages. And Nicole [said], "Why!? Because you want to laugh at us?" And I said, "Nooo. Not exactly."
Alex Frost in ELEPHANT
Alex Frost in Elephant

Keaton: She's not stupid!

Van Sant: I said no, but it was a funny thing about the way in which she was rationalizing the percentages. But the more revealing improv was the jock and his girlfriend [Nathan Tyson and Carrie Finklea] talking about the camping thing. All I needed them to talk about in the script was something that the audience can't figure out, but it's something that's concerning the two of them gravely, something that's scaring them. I just said, "Talk about anything you want." It's probably the hardest thing to do, ever, for any actor, but since these kids weren't actors, they didn't know it was hard, which was great.

Keaton: Well, you know, an interesting quality of the movie is that with most improv movies, it's just yakkity yakkity yakkity yak. Like, Cassavetes is talkity talk talk, endless talk talk. And I thought in the back of my head, "Oh, there'll probably be a lot of that." But that's what's so interesting about how Gus does it. It isn't about a lot of talk. And it is very well thought out, as you can see from how specifically he's explaining what he was going for. That is fascinating to me. I've never seen an improv movie like this. Or like Gerry, either. I also loved Gerry, really loved Gerry.

Question: Did you have scripts that you discarded?

Van Sant: In both cases there was some sort of script at some point. In the case of Gerry we burnt the script because we needed paper to start fires, because it was cold in the cabin where we were. [laughter] We had decided not to use the script, which is kind of crazy, because Matt [Damon] and Casey [Affleck] hated the script. So I said, "Okay, we won't need it. We can use this now to start the fire, because we're not going to need this in the future, right guys?" "Yeah. Hate it. Don't want it." So, after we burnt it all up, it was the first day of shooting—"Where's that script?" We had to remember it. It was in their heads, and [though] we had it on computer, we had to reconstruct it. Then, in the case of Elephant, there was an outline. It said certain things, and it actually had the girls' dialogue, but it was my version. It was me pretending I was different girls talking about shopping and boys and that kind of thing. So what they did was do it the way they normally would do it. Most of the characters were playing people close to themselves. The improvs came from the things they really would say.

Question: You've really taken some risks, though. How do you trust that the audience is able to interpret? Did you ever doubt your choices when you were filming Gerry and Elephant?

Van Sant: When you're on a film and you're doubting something, it's usually because you don't think the audience is going to like it. So we got rid of that element. I got rid of that element in my head. Like, it doesn't matter. Doubt for what? Doubt that the scene is going to be successful? To who? What I could see was always something that I understood without the element of trying to make it specifically for the audience. You can imagine any number of different types of audiences. It could be an audience of your friends, and probably I never got that audience out of my head. But the audience of, like, unseen moviegoers sitting in a cinema in Oklahoma—you can't think of that audience, because you probably wouldn't do any of the stuff we did with either film.

Question: How do you think Elephant is relevant to kids? I can understand the relevance for people who don't have teens in their life; there's people who don't know American high schools very well. But what about kids in American high schools? What do you think of them watching a movie like this, where it's something of a mirror? They might be thinking, "Oh this is a movie to explain why," but there's not necessarily answers.

Van Sant: I think that kids will probably be the best audience, because I think that they recognize the quote-unquote answers as scapegoats or red herrings. They know, since they live in this situation, that the answer is way more unpredictable. You can say, "Well, you know, these are the signs to look for. If you look for these signs, you will be safe. Or, if you look for these signs, you can fix it before it happens." They're smarter than that, I think. They already know they have to do a little more thinking, and that it's less curable than just [watching for] the warning signs. And they live with it. Since they're in high school, they live with this day to day; they live inside of it. When you talk to them, they can play the part of the student who is just playing up to the adult, pretending they know all the things they should be saying about school shootings, or they can be themselves, and they can just tell you that they're sick of the whole thing—adults don't get it, and it's their own world, and leave them alone, basically.

Question: Why does it seem like kids are having many more problems today in high school than they were ten or twenty years ago?

Keaton: Are they? Or is there just more access to guns and weapons? I think that kids have always had problems in high school. I also think now we have so much more access to information, because of the Internet and television and everything. Our lives are just surrounded with information.

Van Sant: And there's more kids, and bigger schools. In the Sixties, when I was in high school, the problems were [different]. I was petrified because all my friends would be going to Washington, DC, to protest. I was sixteen, and I was like, "I don't think I'll be going with you guys," just because I was scared. Then you saw the news, and cops—not students in schools with guns—cops are killing sixteen year old protesters on the news. To me that was more horrifying, to have the authority figures actually killing people on the evening news, than to have another student firing a gun.

Question: Is the lack of sensitive teachers also part of the problem? The lack of role models, or of positive authority figures?

Keaton: Yeah, sure, I think all that's part of it.

Question [to Van Sant]: What are you going to do next?

Van Sant: Uh…I don't know yet. Still formulating… Thank you guys.

  [Read the AboutFilm review of Elephant]

Article and interviews © November 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Fine Line Features. All Rights Reserved.

Related Materials:  

  Talk about Elephant on the boards
  Official site
  IMDB page
  MRQE page
  Rotten Tomatoes page