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“Agitating the Information”: Director Gus Van Sant on his Long-Take Columbine Drama, Elephant


The following interview was originally published in our Fall, 2003 print edition.

When I first interviewed Gus Van Sant, he had just finished editing his feature Gerry and was preparing to launch it at the Sundance Film Festival. A radical left turn from the two studio films, Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, that preceded it, Gerry mixed together movie stars (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck), the “long-take” style of such filmmakers as Béla Tarr and Chantal Akerman and a simple yet metaphorically rich scenario taken from the news headlines. Working without a formal script but with the remarkable director of photography Harris Savides and a score consisting of music by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, Van Sant made an absurdly humorous yet profoundly moving film that also challenged viewers lulled into complacency by too much convention within the independent film world.

After Gerry, Van Sant might have returned to another big Hollywood star vehicle. His new feature, Elephant, however, demonstrates that Gerry was not a one-off experiment but rather the beginning of a fascinating new chapter in his career. Sharing Gerry’s long, hypnotic tracking shots, sparse dialogue and meditation on morality, Elephant applies the creative lessons learned on that film to more deliberately provocative subject matter. Basing the story on the events of the 1999 Columbine massacre, Van Sant has made perhaps the contemporary high school movie. By depicting the most notorious episode of American teen violence, the film peels open the psychological and emotional underpinnings of adolescent life within our school system. Shot in the square 1:1:33 aspect ratio (like, as Van Sant has noted, high school educational films), Elephant resists easy interpretation. Operating within a culture obsessed with the chronicling and comprehending of tragedy, it respects the essential mystery at the core of its main event.

Part of its extraordinary success — the film was a surprise winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and Van Sant also won for best director — comes from the film’s top-to-bottom freshness: an empathetic group of nonprofessional actors, stunningly choreographed camerawork from Savides, an audacious musique concrete score, and an overall tone that is both merciless and compassionate. Like its namesake, the identically titled Alan Clarke film about violence in Northern Ireland, Elephant masterfully succeeds at its goal of, as Van Sant says below, “agitating the information.” Of course, the film was financed not by one of the big mini-majors but by HBO Films, whose president, Colin Callendar, suggested to Van Sant that the formal strategies of the original Elephant might allow him a way into the more recent horrors of Columbine.

Filmmaker: Even though Gerry is based on a true story, there’s something about two guys alone in the desert that allows the viewers to project their own personal meanings onto it. Elephant, on the other hand, is in some ways tied to the real event of Columbine. How important was it for you to directly reference Columbine in the way you told the story?

Gus Van Sant: Well, both Gerry and Elephant were originally just ordinary projects where we took an incident that we’d read about in the papers and used it as an influence on a story that we decided could go in any direction. To Die For was another headline instance, one that Joyce Maynard had written a novel about. Gerry and Elephant were also one-liner ideas you saw in the headlines, and in both cases I thought they were interesting encasements for a feature film project.

In the case of Gerry, two friends walk through the desert, get lost, one kills the other and makes his way to a road, not realizing that they were never really very far from the road in the first place. That was the one-liner, but you could read things into it. Were they inexperienced hikers? Were they intelligent? Where did they come from? We kind of ignored a lot of the details because we didn’t want to get too wrapped up in the reality of the situation, but also, nobody actually had the real story. There was only one witness, and he was delirious. And so far, the same with Columbine. They do have surveillance tapes, lots of witnesses, a lot of information about the kids. Bu the actual thing that went on in the atmosphere of the school and in the heads of the kids who did it — even with the 30 hours of videotapes that they did in their basement and the things that they wrote and posted on the Internet — it’s still very, very hard to figure out what happened.

I remember when [Columbine] first occurred thinking that dramatists should get in there and do something right away, as opposed to waiting 10 years. That’s against convention — whenever something intense happens, the dramatic pieces usually wait until there is more perspective. I was pitching it around, trying to go immediately. I wanted it to be a TV movie because that’s where all the mainstream media is. I pitched it to a couple different people who were in power and who have broadcast stations. I just went to the top guys and said, “I need you to back me on this and tried to gain their trust for something that would ‘agitate the information.’” And I very quickly learned that the broadcasters] had problems of their own. They were flying to Washington to have censorship meetings and stuff with [the Clinton administration]. They didn’t know if they were still going to be able to film their cop shows, much less make something that refers to [Columbine] itself. It was such a big incident that these guys were saying, “No way, we’ll never do that.”

The person who did actually see a way to do it was [HBO Films president] Colin [Callendar]. He referred to Elephant, the original Alan Clarke film, as a way to address the issue. Clarke had addressed the issue of [violence in Northern Ireland], which was as heated an issue in Britain when he made his film. And he hadn’t done it in a traditional way, and that’s what I think Colin was referring to. Harmony [Korine] had told me about Elephant — he claimed it was his favorite film and had explained every shot to me — so even though I hadn’t seen it, I understood what Colin meant. It wasn’t necessarily the style of Elephant; it’s that [the film] wasn’t specific — it wasn’t called The Columbine Massacre, it was something else.

Filmmaker: How long ago was this?

Van Sant: This was after Good Will Hunting and before Gerry. I had originally been thinking of doing a real traditional TV movie about these two kids, and we asked Harmony to write it, but nothing came up. A year and a half went by and I was working with JT Leroy on Sarah, and I said, “Maybe you should write the script.” I didn’t know what he was going to write — he was free to write whatever he wanted. What he wrote was not even about a school shooting, it was about different types of high school violence. There was some bullying, there was a kid carrying around a gun in a book. There was a girl who had been cutting her legs and her arms, so she wore these long pants in gym class and the teacher was angry at her for wearing long ants. There were flashbacks of Indian torture and things like that that this girl had in her head. There was a huge piece in the middle, like a 30-minute scene of a very animated teacher who gets the class into a huge discussion about school violence. The script was called Tommy Gun, and it was delivered when Gerry was playing at Sundance. Diane [Keaton] was doing a really good job of being the producer by nudging me and saying, “We’re ready to shoot! What are you doing now? And if you’re not doing anything, let’s do this.” Then I realized that I didn’t think that I could do this particular script. JT was always on the phone with me because we were trying to work on Sarah, and he also wanted Tommy Gun to go, very badly. We wound up giving him an associate producer credit [on Elephant] because he became one of those guys bartering on the phone between me, Diane and HBO. He would tell Diane and HBO everything I was telling him, which was smart because I never would have told them certain things — like that I didn’t want to use a script at all. Eventually, I went to [HBO] for a meeting and they already knew all the stuff I was going to say, which was that the movie might be very, very slow, it might be in black and white, it won’t have a script, and there won’t be any stars in it. Colin was very funny. He said, “I know you are trying to get out of this, but we are interested, and I think all these things you mentioned are perfect for this material. An unconventional method of presenting something as devastating as the Columbine massacres is a good way to go.”

Filmmaker: You said earlier that people usually wait until years after these events to get some sort of perspective, but isn’t it also because when one is very close to such an event, the “ending” of the event is very unclear? It takes a certain amount of years before there is a kind of generally or historically accepted interpretation of the events.

Van Sant: Like that there was some kind of nuclear waste drop next to the school!

Filmmaker: Right. But this also has something to do with the concept of narrative storytelling, because often these “reasons” provide an end of the story.

Van Sant: Like the scene in Psycho where the guy just explains, “Well, basically what happened is this…”

Filmmaker: Yes. What’s interesting about Elephant is that the story references a lot of things — like a fascination with Hitler — that people might point to as causes of these kids’ actions. But ultimately, because of the style of the film, the way it doesn’t artificially add “drama,” these explanations deliberately wind up feeling very insubstantial.

Van Sant: The violent video game, ordering guns over the Internet, the character grabbing his head: these are all generalizations. Maybe he’s grabbing his head because there’s something wrong with it — he’s crazy. Or he gets hit with a spitball. It’s a tiny, tiny example of bullying. “Oh, maybe that’s what it is!” Or the violent video game — “Maybe that’s it!” The TV [footage of Nazi Germany] was just another one of those things, which is like, “Maybe it’s stuff on TV?”

Filmmaker: I had heard about the Nazi scene before I saw the movie, and I thought the kids were going to be watching tapes of Hitler talking, like a Hitler speech. And when I saw the movie, I was really struck that it was a documentary about Hitler and about how German society fell under the spell of Nazi ideology, which seemed to me to be something completely different than just a tape of a speech.

Van Sant: I had a choice of [footage]: Somalian massacres, military stuff — we had a library of television violence to choose from. And even though the Nazi war film is a cliché, it still had more of a ring to it as far as television programming goes. There was a New York Times article about three months ago about Nazi films. [The article] was trying to say that Hitler is popular; he makes money. And that’s sort of what the Nazi film is doing there. [Cable channels] have found that Hitler actually does the trick; he puts their ratings a little higher. And it’s a different type of violence. It’s not a cop movie where they’re shooting each other over cars in a parking lot. I could have shown that too, but I felt I could only show one thing, so I showed [the Hitler documentary] even though it’s the hugest buzzword of all time.

What [the documentary is] saying about book burning and the controlling of the media, that’s also a great thing to have [in the film]. But the other thing is that [the kids] are not really watching it. They don’t really know who [Hitler] is. They just idly turned it on. And I think that was the thing that I was basically saying, that you just click it on and lots of violence is right there on the screen.

Filmmaker: What about the other “hot button” moment in the film — the kiss?

Van Sant: Even though a kiss between two boys is a huge buzzword too, I didn’t think it was inappropriate. The two boys spent a year alone in a basement. If they kiss before they’re on their way to their deaths, it’s just a kiss; it’s not like they’re fucking each other in the shower. For me, it was just part of their world, and I thought it maybe would show that they were human. It’s something to me that means a lot of different things. I showed the film to one particular friend who was like an adviser to the film and said, “What do you think about the kiss?” And he said, “Why would you take it out? Because people might think they’re gay Nazis?” And we laughed. Nah, nobody could think that because that would be stupid! And of course [some people] do think that!

Filmmaker: In terms of cinematography, how did you design the choreography of the shots, particularly in relation to how the film was lit? The shots travel through such long expanses, both indoors and outdoors.

Van Sant: We had already done that in Gerry, but it was all outdoors. And in Elephant, we were all of a sudden dealing with extras. During the planning stage, we were at the school, and [Harris Savides, the d.p. and I] said, “We want the camera to go from here [the football field] all the way into the office.” And Dany [Wolf], who was acting as the production manager, first a.d. and producer, said, “That means we have to have the entire extras for the whole school! We have to bring them all in.” The day players in the office had to be there at the same time as the football players, that kind of thing. And I said, “Well, I guess so. I guess that’s what it means.” But in the end it really wasn’t as hard as it on the surface seemed. Harris found a really great film stock, a stock the Japanese liked a lot, and it tested really well. It’s a fast film, like 500 ASA, and it’s fine-grain. This particular film was so great because there were never any total blacks and there were hardly ever any total whites, which is phenomenal because the stop difference was really vast between outside and inside.

Filmmaker: Where you blasting lights through the windows?

Van Sant: No. We did have a few lights in the library up at the top, coming in through the windows jut to raise the level. Otherwise it was mostly a metering job; there weren’t any lights anywhere. We just used practicals. There was some changing of the bulbs, like in the hallways. We could have used the bulbs as they were, but it was just like an extra little tweak to change to [Harris’s] liking. The lighting department was mainly concerned with working on the practicals, like the lights on the darkroom enlargers, getting the bulbs in there. I think the thing about the balance of the light is partly due to the latitude of the film.

Filmmaker: When did you decide to score the movie with musique concrete?

Van Sant: In the editing. I was thinking of using a jazz score, but the score started to come out of the piano — by chance, Alex [Frost, who plays “Alex”] was playing the piano in the school [during production]. He was wearing his combat gear and taking a break [from shooting]. He wandered over to a piano, played the song, and I thought, wow! It had this really spooky element to it, and he was really good. I said, “We should at least have a piano in your room,” and he said, “Yeah, and I can play ‘Moonlight Sonata’ too.” So we rushed the piano over to his room, and [playing music] became something he did in the film. The music came out of what he knew on the piano as opposed to music coming from what kids listen to or what I might have wanted in a score. Musique concrete I’ve used before in Good Will Hunting during the fight sequence, but I never really got to use it to my liking. Some [pieces used in the film] came from a collection that was made for Good Will Hunting by Richard Francis, who has a radio show here in Portland, [Ore.], on KBOO. I put them in under the football scene — the guys walking across the football field to the office — and I really liked it. To me it was sort of an amazing thing, and I would show it to people and everybody liked it, so I used it elsewhere.

Filmmaker: When it’s used, you almost don’t even notice when it comes in. I always found myself noticing the ambience of the school, and then by the end of the scene I’d notice that the musique concrete had taken over, like it had become the internal soundtrack for the character.

Van Sant: It is like that. As for the sound, since everything was in long takes, we were able to mic in MS stereo, where you use two mics and can dial the stereo in and out when you want it. There was always a stereo mic right above the camera following us around. So whatever we were doing, we were recording the real stuff that normally you try to get rid of, like traffic, camera noise and stuff like that. The wheels of the camera sounded cool, so I just left them in. Every [scene] literally had stereo sound right where you were. You don’t usually do that in a film where you are cutting back and forth because the sound will shift, but in this case we were able to do that.

Filmmaker: You mentioned that having one of the killers play “Fur Elise” comes from that actor actually playing that song on the set. When you work improvisationally I’m sure there are thousands of things like that that you could pluck out and make part of the movie. How does that in-the-moment decision-making happen in your mind? Like if it was another song, do you think you would have put the other song in the movie, or is there some reason?

Van Sant: Yeah, there was resonance at the moment. I think I recognized the song. But it’s the type of song that you learn for recital when you’re 12. You could tell that he knew it because it’s the tip of song he would learn. These types of ideas, when I like them and go for them, I can’t explain it. There are like 100 other ideas connected to [these on-the-spot decisions], so it’s hard to justify them, especially on the set. Something that happens when you’re working with actors is that they say, “Why would I do that?” And you go, “Well, just do it okay? Trust me!” I don’t know why, but I just sort of feel my way through rather than intellectualize my way through. But we did things like that all along. Like the way Alex shot Eric at the end was added. I just thought, This could happen.

Filmmaker: That was added when you were shooting?

Van Sant: Yeah. Which was a little controversial on the set because he’s killing his friend. But there was this thing with the real incident where they weren’t sure if one guy had killed the other guy and then killed himself or not. So that’s what I was kind of getting at, or that was my justification. But it was a way to say that [the kids] were killing themselves; they’re not going to get away. Kind of alike a “crime doesn’t pay” moment [laughs].

Filmmaker: But it also, in a good way, takes the film out of that very obvious Bonnie and Clyde or Butch Cassidy model.

Van Sant: I think we’d actually shot an ending where everyone was outside looking at the school, and some students were crying. While we were shooting it, Harris, who was usually the conscience of the movie, looked over and said, “What are we shooting exactly?” He kind of realized that we were off track, that we didn’t know why we were shooting [this scene] even though it was part of the outline. Maybe it was the way it was blocked, but we couldn’t find what we were trying to say. Maybe it’s because the audience would already be doing it for us — we were shooting the audience. There was something odd about it, but we shot it. A lot of times I use the d.p. as a sounding board, and Harris in particular is very smart. When it’s not working, he has a certain expression on his face, and I usually use that as my guide as to whether things are working or not. So Eric being killed was possibly a reaction to this question of how to finish the story. If it doesn’t end outside [the school], how does it end in here? Originally there was a SWAT team that comes in and kind of feels its way down the hall toward the library. But we used a real SWAT team, and thy said they would never creep down the hall — they would move very fast. So we went with the authenticity and shot them very fast, and we didn’t really get dramatically what was in my mind.

Filmmaker: Your recent films have been influenced by the work of Béla Tarr. What did you take from him?

Van Sant: When Béla Tarr came to New York to do his retrospective, I told him, “I’ve made a Béla Tarr movie.” Susan Sontag was there, and as we were leaving the table, she said this srot of profound thing: she said she thought that that type of [expression] of imitation was giving yourself permission to do something. I guess what she was thinking was that there is no such thing as imitation, there are only influences. So Jacques Tati movies, Tarkovsky movies, Warhol movies, The Mother and the Whore — I realized that there are hundreds of influence that have occurred to me, but I never tried [making a film based on them]. But somehow Sátántangó, probably because it was so beautiful, seemed different from those other films. And Gerry was a perfect opportunity, a perfect subject to have Sátántangó be an influence. When we started [thinking about Gerry], it was going to be a handheld Cassavetes kind of dialogue-laden film, but then during the actual filming, the concept changed. During the process of creating it it changed into something that I hadn’t really labeled.

Filmmaker: But what was it about Béla’s work specifically that caused you to want to make movies in a similar style?

Van Sant: I wrote a piece in the [New York] Museum of Modern Art Béla Tarr retrospective catalog that was my reaction to Béla’s film, and I wrote that he had seemed to dial back to a period before Birth of a Nation, a period before that time in the late teens where everything started to become the cinema language that we’ve been using for the past 70 years. It looked to me like Béla was doing a reaction to what I started to call industrial cinema. I hadn’t really talked to him about this, and I asked him if he agreed with the theory. And he said, “Yeah, sure” — which could mean that it’s one theory among millions, so “Yeah, sure.” Or that he didn’t actually get around to reading [the piece], so “Yeah, sure” — it was an answer that would get him by [laughs]. I thought that this [cinema language] existed because [filmmaking] was an industry and that this [language] existed because it served the industry well. It was a way to get the story across. It was what Marshall McLuhan would label as “borrowing from the previous art” — borrowing from theater and literature. I started thinking about all of this when we were making Gerry, and now I think about it all the time. I’ve gotten better, but I was at the point where I couldn’t read scripts or watch something like a Steve Martin comedy without noticing that it was just using the language of medium shot/wide shot/close-up without really knowing it was using it. The film’s cinema part was just a method that the director used to get the humor, comedy and the story across.

Filmmaker: Reacting negatively to that kind of film language rules out a lot of contemporary movies.

Van Sant: A lot. But then there are the other ways people use that [method]. I was watching The Stationmaster’s Wife, a Fassbinder film, and to a great extent it was very independent, very studied, but it had its own version of getting around. Fassbinder generally did that, but he also didn’t use the camera just to pump out the story.

Production Format: 35mm.
Camera Manufacturer and Model: Arricam Studio; Arricam Light for Steadicam work. Zeiss Superspeed lenses.
Film Stock: Kodak 5263. Printed on Kodak Vision Premiere.
Editing System: Conventional 35mm KEM film editing.
Color Correction Process: Conventional film answer printing.

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