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Shooting without answers

Director Gus Van Sant's 'Elephant' examines -- but doesn't explain -- a Columbine-like shooting. He says the film is more like a poem than a detective story.

October 19, 2003|Andre Chautard | Special to The Times

Gus VAN SANT has made acclaimed films about thieving junkies ("Drugstore Cowboy"), young male hustlers ("My Own Private Idaho") and one ice-cold, fame-seeking murderess ("To Die For"), but he knew that dramatizing a Columbine-like school 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," Van Sant says. "We think of it as entertainment, and I've never really thought of it as strictly entertainment."

The news media reported the 1999 Columbine attack in grisly detail and commentators rushed to assign blame. The shooters' faces adorned the cover of Time magazine. Last year's controversial Oscar-winning documentary, "Bowling for Columbine," even included surveillance footage of the shooting from inside the high school.

Van Sant says his new film, "Elephant," is "not so much a cry against journalistic practices, but if journalistic practices allow this, then why not dramatic practices?" The techniques, he notes, are often similar.

"Elephant" quietly observes, from multiple points of view, several students who cross paths in the hallways of a suburban American high school on a seemingly normal weekday that culminates in a massacre. It's a provocative film that resolutely refuses to preach, an approach that has frustrated and even angered some of its audience.

Never shy about being provocative, the jury at the Cannes Film Festival in May certainly wasn't put off; it awarded both the Palme d'Or and the best director prizes to "Elephant," a surprise to most festival handicappers in the wake of the film's mixed post-screening buzz and high-profile trashings by American critics. (The film opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday.)

Van Sant, who was Oscar-nominated for directing the sleeper box-office hit "Good Will Hunting," has weathered bad reviews before, especially for "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" and his audacious but widely panned shot-by-shot color remake of "Psycho" in 1998. Following that with the mildly received "Finding Forrester," Van Sant seemingly solidified the transition from indie adventurousness to studio mainstream, which some early fans saw as selling out.

But then Van Sant switched gears again, leaping toward the avant-garde with the experimental (and little-seen) "Gerry," released this year, and now "Elephant," which was cast with real students; both films were low-budget and mostly improvised.

"I had been through lots of different styles of filmmaking," says the soft-spoken Van Sant, 51, sitting poolside at a trendy Beverly Hills hotel, huddled in a black corduroy "Psycho" crew jacket and nursing a bad cough. "I wanted to do anything that just didn't bespeak of a style that I thought was something that belonged in another century, a historic style, a style that had outgrown itself and became repetitive."

"Gus is the same to me from when we were doing the bigger films to this film," says "Elephant" producer Dany Wolf, who has worked with the director since "Psycho." "I know the films are different, but he's very true to his creative instincts, and I think he has come back to what he likes and prefers."

The art-school-educated Van Sant, whose other creative endeavors included painting, music, writing and photography, is working on another improvisational, experimental film to shoot next year. He's "getting to do what he wants, and I think what we're getting to see with 'Gerry' and with 'Elephant' is a very pure, unfiltered director's vision," Wolf says.

Originally, Van Sant conceived of "Elephant" as a relatively 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, whether the shooting was shown or not. He approached an executive he knew at the USA cable network but quickly found that the subject was too volatile; the executives of the broadcast networks were meeting that week with then-President Clinton about violence on television.

Van Sant later discussed the idea with Diane Keaton, with whom he shares an agent, and she suggested HBO. Colin Callender, president of HBO Films, was enthusiastic but interested not in a factual re-creation of Columbine but an approximation of the event, the way Alan Clarke's 1989 BBC film "Elephant" portrayed the futility of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

"We had been [pitched] in the early days certain Columbine movies that seemed to me to be slightly ambulance-chasing," Callender says. But "a filmmaker of Gus' stature, who had over the years so insightfully explored youth culture in different sorts of ways, the idea that he would take this on in an interesting and unusual way, frankly, defines the sort of film that we want to make."

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