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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

Van Sant asked "Gummo" director Harmony Korine, who had told Van Sant that Clarke's "Elephant" was his favorite film, to write a script, but Korine became focused on other work and never finished a draft. So Van Sant turned to cult author J.T. LeRoy, whose novel "Sarah" Van Sant was adapting into a screenplay. LeRoy wrote a script titled "Tommy Gun" that connected fictional vignettes of high school students' lives -- bullying, gym class, a classroom discussion of violence in schools -- all witnessed by Tommy, a scrawny 14-year-old who carried a gun around school inside a book. At the end, whether Tommy would actually shoot anyone was left ambiguous.

However, Van Sant, invigorated by the unorthodox methods he employed in making "Gerry," decided that if he were to make a film dealing with Columbine, he wanted to shoot without a screenplay, in black and white (although he ultimately opted to film "Elephant" in color) and with nonprofessional actors in Portland, Ore., where he lives.

"Things changed for Gus when he did 'Gerry,' " says Keaton, noting that he didn't want scripts anymore. (She executive-produced "Elephant" with partner Bill Robinson through their company, Blue Relief.) Van Sant was afraid to lay out his conditions to his producers and HBO, but LeRoy ran interference and Callender, to Van Sant's surprise, approved. Vestiges of LeRoy's script remain in "Elephant," and the author, who was kept involved in the film, is credited as an associate producer.

Callender says there wasn't a plan to whether "Elephant" would premiere on HBO or first be distributed theatrically, but a decision to do the latter was firmed at Cannes and "Elephant" is being released as part of HBO's distribution deal with Time Warner sibling Fine Line Features.

No easy answers

Inspired by LeRoy's script, Van Sant decided to expand his focus to the lives of the shooters' classmates and their problems. He also decided against offering any concrete psychological motivations for the shooting because, in the several years since Columbine, he realized many of the explanations given were insufficient.

"I think it would have just been a little passion play about two kids that get mixed up and have a death wish and attack their fellow students," he says. "I didn't think that that was going to help anything." Van Sant alludes in the film to a litany of possible influences on the shooters -- bullying, video games, the Internet, access to guns, homosexuality, Hitler, Satan, parental absence, television -- without committing to any of them. Instead, he wants the audience to review their own opinions about Columbine's causes.

"Elephant," Van Sant says, is more like a poem about Columbine than a detective story. The film's refraining from giving answers drew reprobation from American film critics in Cannes, especially those from L.A.

The scathing Variety review called "Elephant" "gross and exploitative" and "pointless at best and irresponsible at worst," while in this newspaper Kenneth Turan wrote that the Cannes jury had confused "artful vacuousness with genuine art." Van Sant says he isn't surprised by the critical reception since he was jettisoning theatrical conventions most moviegoers assume a film is supposed to have. "I think that [critics] have their viewpoints and their viewpoints are valid. Really, the film is meant to be looked at and commented on. It's not meant to be commented on particularly favorably."

"Elephant's" dialogue was mostly improvised by high schoolers who played themselves or characters close to themselves, with most using their real first names on screen; Van Sant wanted to place viewers "in this verisimilitude of high school," he says. (There were only three professional actors, including Timothy Bottoms, who were cast to play the adult roles.)

The film was shot on a $3.5-million budget over 20 days last November in a recently decommissioned high school in Portland, where an open casting call attracted thousands of students. Van Sant sat in on casting director Mali Finn's sessions, where she interviewed the teenagers about their real-life struggles.

"She'll find very quickly something that might be upsetting the person she's talking to," he says, "and those interviews tended to have lots of different things that we were making our film about."

Van Sant held improvisation sessions to find out which students could act and then wrote the story around the cast he selected, incorporating what he remembered reading and hearing about Columbine and other school shootings, as well as taking inspiration from his friends' and his own high school experiences.

Who would play them?

The difficult part was casting the shooters, Alex and Eric. "The kids that I cast claimed that they could easily imagine carrying through an attack on their fellow students. They hated school so much," Van Sant says.

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