Gus Van Sant: Killers in the hallways

Normally tongue-tied, Gus Van Sant treats Fiona Morrow to a verbal deluge about his film based on the Columbine massacre
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Gus Van Sant spent his childhood on the road. The son of a travelling salesman, he and and his family moved constantly from place to place. Watching his films, it's easy to imagine the young boy staring out of a car window at the clouds going by. For Van Sant loves pointing his camera at a big sky, and especially at huge, fluffy white clouds, made epic through timelapse photography.

He's been described as one of the dreamiest directors around, and that too is evident on the screen. Van Sant's characters are rarely straightforward - more usually there's something about them that sets them apart, makes them slightly out of step with the time and place in which they have found themselves.

Peopled by an assortment of drop outs and outcasts, Van Sant's films have dealt with druggies (Drugstore Cowboy), narcoleptic hustlers (My Own Private Idaho), deadly weather girls (To Die For) and untapped mathematical prodigies (Good Will Hunting).

With the exception of the last-mentioned film, which was monumentally successful - a sentimental Hollywood-by-numbers - Van Sant's hits have generally charted in the cool, cult, indy market. Flops, of course, warrant little such credibility and Van Sant has also had his fair share of those: the hippy dippy Even Cowgirls Get The Blues; the bizarre shot-by-shot remake of Psycho; and the even less interesting riff on Good Will Hunting that was Finding Forrester.

Of late, Van Sant has turned his back on the bucks, determined to reinvigorate himself with work that matters to him. First up was Gerry, an admirable folly of improvisation that saw Casey Affleck and Matt Damon lost in the desert and discovering their physical and psychological limits.

Now it's the turn of his Cannes 2003 Palme D'Or-winning Elephant, an extraordinary, sublime piece of film-making that unsettles as it enthrals. A response to the Columbine high school massacre, Elephant is that rare thing: a film that helps you ask the questions - and leaves you to find your own answers. Elephant takes place over one day. A beautiful, sunny day, apparently unremarkable. We meet and follow different students as they move around the school, listen to their conversations, muse on teenage life and its variety of banality, creativity, ennui and casual cruelty. But eventually, of course, this turns out to be a very remarkable day, a day during which two boys pick up guns and slaughter their schoolmates.

Structurally, the film is stunning: long, fluid takes that move from one character to the next as the kids' lives intersect. Time in Van Sant's hands is elastic, speeding up and slowing down in reaction to the temperature of the characters' moods. The soundtrack, too, is phenomenal, tuning in and out of conversations, turning up the personal, internal soundtracks teenagers play in their heads.

He captures brilliantly the vibrancy of adolescence, that feeling that the tiniest gesture holds huge significance, that every moment could be the one that changes you forever.

Van Sant's natural empathy with teenagers has long been evident in his films so I'm not surprised to meet a man who looks more youthful than his 50 years. I'm less prepared for his evident discomfort in talking about his work.

It takes very little time in his company to realise that Van Sant is not a "question and answer kinda guy". He listens thoughtfully enough, looks constantly for clarification of the question, then struggles to muster a coherent response. "Um," he proffers a great deal. "I don't know... I guess..."

It quickly becomes clear that such interrogation of his motives is anathema to this director: his method is to feel his way through themes and ideas, without any preconceptions, without any decision as to what the outcome might be.

If it at times makes him an infuriatingly opaque interviewee, it also makes him an extremely flexible and adaptable film-maker. In many ways his approach is more like a documentarist - beginning with a subject and willing to take anything that happens on board.

Elephant is a perfect example. When Van Sant first pitched the idea of doing a film about Columbine to producers HBO, they said no, they couldn't make Columbine - it was too obvious - but they could make Elephant, referring to the late British film-maker Alan Clarke's television film of the same name which detailed a succession of shootings in Northern Ireland without any context, condemnation or attempted justification.

Van Sant had never seen Clarke's Elephant but he knew it was the favourite film of his friend Harmony Korine (writer of Kids and director of Gummo). The pair began work on a script. "Elephant was, um, just the way we identified what we were supposed to be doing," recalls Van Sant slowly. "It was, um, an interpretation of events that described the violence that happened as opposed to the literal thing itself."

In fact, Van Sant didn't even watch Clarke's film until much later, eventually discovering he had misconstrued the British director's reason for calling his film Elephant. Van Sant thought the name came from an ancient Buddhist parable about a group of blind men and an elephant: the men each examine different parts of the beast - trunk, tail, ear etc - individually coming up with a different understanding of the animal that they each believe is true; none recognises the whole. But later, Van Sant read a quote from Clarke explaining that he was actually referring to the notion of the elephant in the living room: the problem that everyone knows about, but nobody wants to deal with.

"But when I did see Clarke's Elephant, there were things in it that were similar to some of the films I had been very influenced by of late," Van Sant goes on to acknowledge. "Mostly Satantango by Bela Tarr and Chantal Ackerman's Jeanne Dielman - films that play with pacing and time."

When it came time to shoot, Van Sant was so energised by the loose, improvisational technique he had used on Gerry, that he chose to ditch the original script and make Elephant the same way. He decided that he wanted to use actual high school kids rather than professionnal actors. From the casting, he then developed the characters with the kids, listening to their experiences of being at school and their feelings towards what happened at Columbine.

"Their opinions informed my view, but I don't know if they changed it," says Van Sant. "We had the students talking about violence from the very beginning and we found that the violence in their world was a running high school joke."

Nevertheless, when it comes to the film's bloody climax, Van Sant does everything he can not to exploit it. The violence in Elephant is curiously flat, devoid of the usual dramatic flourish that we're used to seeing at the movies. "We wanted it to be as real as possible," nods Van Sant. "Having not ever seen anyone get shot myself - I've only seen film footage... - but I am struck by how, when you do see violence, it generally has a mundane quality, and yet it's never really like that in cinema.

"If someone broke out in a fight in front of us, it would look very uncoordinated and pathetic really. But somehow, when a fight is shown in cinema, it's more choreographed and stylised - and that was something we were always fighting against."

Often the struggle was with the crew: "The people you have doing special effects are all about that," he explains. "They're all about moves and gestures and doing it the same way as T3, because that's what they know."

Yet despite his efforts not to glamorise the massacre, Elephant has still been criticised by some for being irresponsible. Van Sant shrugs the charge off: "I don't know why lacking an explanation, or asking the audience to come up with their own explanation to an event is irresponsible. I think the people who are angry about this film are as angry about the way it is made - they want a more traditional dramatic structure.

"I think we have all thought a lot about this subject for four years, that the people watching the film have an opinion already... What I'm trying to do is show different points of view and aspects that leave room for your own thoughts."

He stops abruptly, seemingly taken aback by his own prolixity, then begins again, determined to pin this particular issue down: "You can think about what you think," he begins, a little unpromisingly. "There are so many answers, I don't want to tell people what to think because I think people are smarter than me and they will come up with their own very intense answers, and if I say one thing it will be only one answer, but if I allow people to have an interactive voice there will be a hundred answers."

He pauses again, frowns and then adds: "And I think that's a good thing - if I'd limited those possibilities, that would have been irresponsible.

"American culture is obsessed by conformity," he continues, finally warming up. "My peer group - I'm 50 - they drive SUVs, they want their kids to be over-achievers, on the football team, A-grade students. There's this pressure to stand out and have a great life when you're young. And the killers in Columbine were just like that: they were in the Shakespeare club and chess club. They were kind of brainy kids.

"People don't want to accept that you can't tell a killer when they're walking in the hall, you can't tell a loser," Van Sant argues. "I think it's a comment on the kind of facile desire of the community to encourage students to be recognised. And in being recognised, you're elevated. If you're not recognised, then somehow you're lost. And if you're lost, you're going to be lost forever. The rule, in fact, is the opposite - when you've got it all going on in high school, then you spend your life reliving high school. If high school sucks for you, you're going to have it all going on when you're 25."

Not that Elephant would presume to take that explicit view. "I wasn't interested in getting specifics laid out like that," reiterates Van Sant. "I like that explanation, but it also starts becoming too confining.

"In the end," he says, "it's all coincidences. If you walk this way, you live. That way, you die."

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