“… the Way Someone Would Shoot a Film in an Architectural Magazine”: Gus Van Sant on Last Days
The below interview with Gus Van Sant originally appeared in our Summer, 2005 issue.
The subject matter of Gus Van Sant’s new film, Last Days, appears on the surface to be the stuff of a sensationalistic movie of the week. A moody, confused, perhaps drug-adled rock star Blake (Michael Pitt) — who bears more than a coincidental resemblance to Kurt Cobain — wanders aimlessly through a dilapidated mansion just before his end comes. Van Sant’s two previous films, which form a loose trilogy with Last Days, were also torn from the headlines: Gerry was inspired by a newspaper article about two men lost in the desert, and Elephant explored the tragedy of Columbine. But though Van Sant’s recent work has sampled the subject matter of the televised tragedy, his tellings remain elusive and enigmatic, his perspective — a bemused fascination with the surface of an event without any claim to understanding its meaning or mystery — perfectly Warholian.
Last Days ends with a death, but, at least as defined by that final weekend, the moments barely add up to a life. With the help of cinematographer Harris Savides and sound designer Leslie Shatz, Van Sant documents the fragmented, elliptical, often banal actions of everyday living, actions that, in Last Days, take on an unusual resonance given their proximity to celebrity. To capture this everyday life, Van Sant has in all three of these films referenced a largely European cinema that mixes metaphysical and existential themes with a structured cinematic style that emphasizes long — very long — observational shots. In addition, Van Sant, taking his cues from Chantal Akerman’s seminal narrative Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, has been evolving very different concepts of character and plot. While each film in his trilogy — much like Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman — ends in a dramatic, sometimes violent climax, the actions that precede neither anticipate, foretell or even explain that ending. Things just happen. And the fact that these things happen in stories that reflect events (a desert murder, the Columbine massacre, Kurt Cobain’s suicide) which the media demands reasons for makes their narratives’s refusal to offer up any all the more powerful.
What we see in Last Days is just the main character’s daily actions (hiking in the woods, dressing up in strange clothes, eating cereal) and the people he runs into (or, more often than not, runs away from). While the casting of Michael Pitt as a credible rock star was pivotal to the film’s production, Van Sant used a more whimsical strategy in casting other parts. Director Harmony Korine shows up in a rock club, and Sonic Youth member Kim Gordon appears as a record executive. And an actual Yellow Pages salesman who came to the production office was pulled in and cast as a Yellow Pages salesman.
Filmmaker: Last Days marks the last film in a trilogy. Was this intended from the start?
Gus Van Sant: No, I hadn’t started [by intending to make] a trilogy; that emerged. Last Days was actually going to be the first film. I thought about doing this back in 1996. It was going to be done on a low budget with me shooting in my own house. But I didn’t have an actor. Then I met Mike [Pitt] a few years later and thought he could play the part. So the idea for [doing] the film has always been going on. When we did Gerry, we were planning on doing Last Days at the same time. I remember pitching with Mike to Bingham Ray, who was at UA at that time. It wasn’t going to have a screenplay, and it was going to run alongside these other smaller films. And then we almost did it instead of Elephant. The idea of them being a trilogy came later, when I saw that they were bound by [a similar] style and subject matter.
Filmmaker: In terms of style, you have pointed to a strain of Eastern European filmmaking, especially exemplified by Béla Tarr, as your inspiration.
Van Sant: I remember going to a Béla Tarr retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Susan Sontag was there. She said she had seen [Tarr’s seven-hour film Sátátangó] 13 times, which if you count all the hours seems incredible. At drinks afterwards we had this heated discussion based on my lack of knowledge of who was president in 1898. Susan thought it was horrible that I didn’t know, but then she didn’t know either. Then I said that I had just made a Béla Tarr movie, which was Gerry, and I was going to show it the next day. As we left she spoke up: “These inspirations, they give you permission to do what you are thinking of doing. It seems like you are copping a style, but in a lot of way, you are just giving yourself permission.”
Filmmaker: Was this true? Did you have an “inner Béla Tarr”?
Van Sant: Yes, because I didn’t know that it was okay to do something until I saw someone else doing it.
Filmmaker: What other influences are there in Last Days?
Van Sant: There was also some Tarkovsky, but not so much, although some of my friends, for whom he is the “Christ filmmaker,” would die to hear that, especially since he is one of the grandfathers of the long take. But I was more intrigued by people like Miklós Jancsó, whose film The Red and the White is amazing. The camera just sits there. There are reasons why they might have shot long single shots. The rumor was that they had to pay when the camera ran. So they rehearsed for three days and then shot for 10 minutes. I am also a big fan of [Chantal Akerman’s] Jeanne Dielman, and when I was planning Last Days, Jeanne Dielman was a figure for what kind of movie I was making since it was all taking place around a home.
Filmmaker: How did this style emerge within the context of your own films?
Van Sant: There were different things that emerged from the different films. In my first film, Mala Noche, I was intercutting quite fast. I am not sure what it was influenced by, probably The Third Man or Citizen Kane. Then my next film, Drugstore Cowboy, I was using a big camera, and I couldn’t get everything [I wanted] shot because it took so much time. I spent all my time listening to too many people that needed to do things, like lighting or makeup. It was so slow. So I developed this other way of filming, a way to get five or six shots in just one shot by using a dolly. A dolly shot that got six different angles took 40 minutes to set up, while a tripod shot of just one angle also took 40 minutes. So I started shooting six shots in one. When you are looking at these shots in dailies you see these really long shots that work on their own. But as a director I was always thinking about where I could cut away and get, for example, a better entrance. I never thought about leaving the whole dolly shot there as one scene.
Filmmaker: What changed your mind in these later films?
Van Sant: Cinematographers were always telling me, “Don’t cut this [shot] — just leave it.” And I would always say, “No, no, we would never think of just leaving this.” But then I noticed that in every film I would run the whole scene from a stationary angle or with the dolly, and then I would do a reverse. It was on Good Will Hunting that [d.p.] Jean-Yves Escoffier wanted to do all the scenes in long shots. He kept saying, “Just leave it. Don’t cut it.” He was used to doing that from [shooting Leos Carax’s] Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. I hadn’t really had that in mind. Pietro Scalia edited the film without any notes, and when he looked at it Jean-Yves almost fainted. It was so cut up. When we edited it more, we slowed it down, but we never used one angle exclusively, but I realized that we could have.
Filmmaker: Last Days was obviously inspired by Kurt Cobain. Gerry and Elephant came from tabloid stories. What is the interest in these stories, especially when shot in this manner?
Van Sant: Most of my films have been based on real events, except for maybe Cowgirls and Finding Forrester. My Own Private Idaho was kind of about real people that I knew. Drugstore was really about a guy who was a member of that group. Even in Good Will Hunting, Matt and Ben had based it on real people, like Tim Affleck [Ben’s father].
Filmmaker: But the last few stories seem very much in that Lifetime docudrama style, at least in terms of their choice of subject matter.
Van Sant: Yes, but the thing about Kurt Cobain is that while his death was international news, he was also a local guy who was up here and who people knew. Courtney was from Portland, and the two of them were around, so that I met them a few times. They weren’t removed from the inner circle, and yet their story was removed. The story became this international deal.
Filmmaker: Last Days provides a very different sense of character and psychology than the tabloid media does. We have a sense of what the character is feeling, but not why he is feeling that way. There is no backstory. This is true of Gerry and Elephant as well.
Van Sant: All three films give profiles that are kind of like X-rays of the people. What really happened to Cobain [just before he died]? Probably not that much. He probably just wandered around the house. Gerry was about a friendship, but not from [the point of view] of how it came about, but from how it looked from the outside. Rather than looking at character from a kind of Shakespearean model, in which characters look at things from the inside of their own psychology, you get a look of what it looks like from the outside.
Filmmaker: In the three films, sound seems to take on an expressive function, particularly with the way Leslie Shatz’s sound design functions in Last Days. How did you develop this kind of anti-realistic sound design?
Van Sant: It was really about getting away from the complexity of production [and post-production]. In To Die For, I realized that we were running a hundred different reels simultaneously [at the mix]. You have crickets, wind, car drive — byes, water pipes in the walls, floor creaks, footsteps, ice in glasses — all playing at the same time to make the film more “realistic.” You are supposed to play [these effects] down low, so that they are there but you are not supposed to notice them. Starting with Gerry, we just [used] location sound which we recorded with a mono mike and then added some Foley later. Then we started using a specific MS mike. And on top of that in Elephant, I wanted to use musique concrete.
Filmmaker: Was there an attempt in Last Days to connect the use of the musique concrete to specific themes in the film?
Van Sant: For me it was a lot like using music. I used it when I felt that it was right, when I felt like it was time. When Mike saw the film, he thought we should use it when it was just him alone. But we didn’t do that. It is not divided up it is more like a musical score. It is not a sound that seems to be coming out of his head.
Filmmaker: How did you come up with the visual style of the film?
Van Sant: [Harris and I] had different ideas about it. Originally we were going to shoot with these little snapshot cameras that have movie modes. We did a lot of testing with them, then we tested 16mm, and then we went back to 35mm. Then day 2 and 3, when we were shooting 35mm, Harris announced that he cracked the code of Jeanne Dielman. I had never noticed myself that there was one. He had watched the film the night before and noticed that there were set angles for each room. They change a little bit, so that you have two living room angles and two kitchen angles, but it is always the same two angles. [The camera] is always placed at the same heights and the same place. We had a Steadicam ready to use, but then we decided not to. We set up a series of fixed positions. We only had to say “position 6” when we wanted to put the camera at the head of the stairs. Position 4, at the bottom of the stairs. Whenever we had a new space we had to choose a new angle, but we would always use that angle when we were in that room. Usually a room would have two or three angles. One angle would go east, one would go south, and one north, if you needed it. Usually we would only use two of those angles.
Filmmaker: What do you feel the psychological effect on the viewer is of shooting like this?
Van Sant: I think that it strips down the style. Even though it is very mechanical, I think that it is more beautiful than if you tried to get every [possible] angle, like in a William Friedkin film. It kind of reminds me of the way that somebody would shoot a film in an architectural magazine.
HOW THEY DID IT
Production Format: 35mm.
Film Stock: Kodak Vision2 500T 5229.
Editing System: Final Cut Pro.
Color Correction: Traditional color-timing in the lab.