Gus Van Sant: My own private idiom

Gus Van Sant, the maverick who went mainstream, is back on form, says Demetrios Matheou

Last year's Cannes Film Festival may have been dubbed the worst in memory, but no one there could dispute the winner of the Palme d'Or - Gus Van Sant's Elephant. A stunning fictional take on the Columbine school massacre, it is possibly the most potent, pertinent movie about disaffected youth since A Rebel Without a Cause.

It also marked a return to form for a director whose early films, including Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, marked him out as a true American maverick, one with a flair for depicting his country's various offbeat outsiders, before Hollywood beckoned and characteristically neutered his talents.

Now he's back to what he does best - discomforting white, straight, middle-class Americans. Michael Moore's Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine had already tried to prompt a re-examination of America's high-risk penchant for firearms. But Van Sant's film - by dint of being both fictional and highly ambiguous as to the killers' motivations - is the much more daring enterprise.

"It's a very sensitive subject," the director admits, "and some people in our team worried that it could inflame controversy. Columbine and the other school shootings have been talked about a lot on the news or in documentaries. But to make a dramatic film, which is still considered an 'entertainment', about a school shooting is something different. People ask 'Why bring that up? Why talk about it, why disturb it?' That's why it's called Elephant."

Van Sant borrowed the title from the 1989 film by the late British director Alan Clarke (who himself gleaned the line from a Bernard MacLaverty story) about the then escalating violence in Northern Ireland. "Clarke called his movie Elephant because it was about something that people tended not to talk about," says Van Sant. "The Troubles was the elephant in the living room, a very large problem that the family wants to ignore, but can't."

While his film particularly evokes the incident at Columbine, the Colorado school where two boys killed 12 fellow students and a teacher, before committing suicide, the director is at pains to highlight the wider phenomenon - which saw no fewer than eight student killing sprees between 1997 and 1999.

"American school shootings had reached an all-time high," he says, "so I wanted to make something that captured the atmosphere, generally, of kids going to school in that time. The film draws from Columbine, it draws from some of the other school shootings, it draws a lot from my own days in high school, from stories I've heard - all mixed together.

"I wasn't interested in making a traditional, dramatic piece, about these two boys," he adds. "It's more about the tension between the film and the viewing audience; which is a whole different concept." By which he means that there is none of the usual Hollywood spoon-feeding of easily digestible explanations, in this case as to what made two teenagers arm themselves to the teeth and run amok like suburban Rambos.

"This is something the boys have decided to do before the film has started, so what you're watching are the machinations of the event itself. The idea is to get the audience to think about what they believe are the causes, not for the film-maker to tell you. If I did that I'd just be making a holiday movie. It would be boring."

But what does he think? "It's a big, amorphous issue, very hard to pin down. It's like saying, 'What makes evil things happen?' My personal view at the moment is that proliferation of guns didn't help, the video games didn't help, the school system didn't really help; but the [cause] was the social atmosphere in which those two kids in Columbine were placed.

"Somehow they were made to feel that they had no future; then they realised that if they had no future then they might as well kill themselves; and once they got to that point, they decided to create havoc and take other people with them. As an offensive act."

Van Sant unfolds the story over the course of a single day, flitting between the two boys preparing for their onslaught, and the rest of the school going about its business. In the process the film offers a fond, faithful rendition of everyday student life - from the classrooms to the football field to the life that teems in the hallways. It's a visually beautiful, deftly edited film. And it gains verisimilitude by Van Sant's casting of real high-school kids, who were asked to improvise and - aside from the two killers - essentially play themselves.

"Two out of every 10 people have pretty much natural ability," he suggests. "If I had a character who was a film journalist, I would happily cast a real film journalist. And that's what I've tried to do here. It's even better with teenagers, because they are so close to that period of time - when they were 12, say - when they were always pretending; so they remember quite well how to do it."

Van Sant's best work has invariably involved young people, from the Mexican immigrants and barflies of his 1985 debut Male Noche, to the drug addicts of Drugstore Cowboy and the gay hustlers of My Own Private Idaho. Those films were low-budget, gritty and wise, demonstrating an affectionate and non-judgmental attitude towards his assorted outcasts. "I've always made films with unconventional settings and characters," he says, "but I look on those characters as ordinary people."

The cross-over to big-budget glossies - films, as he says pointedly, "designed for a specific audience" - saw Van Sant lose his touch. Good Will Hunting may have garnered Oscars, but that and Finding Forrester had none of the edge and authenticity of his earlier films; while his shot-by-shot homage to Hitchcock's Psycho merely seemed like an indulgence.

He made Good Will Hunting, he says, "to see if I could actually do it. I didn't know whether I was relying too much on unconventionality in my film-making, so I tried to see if I could make a traditional piece." Having successfully returned to his low-budget indie roots with both Elephant and last year's more overtly experimental Gerry, the 51-year-old now doubts whether he will be making any more Hollywood movies.

"With my last two films I've played a lot with cinematic parameters, with different ways of telling a story. Why are we still using shots and techniques that were invented in 1915? There must be a way to break the conventions," he says, "and still find your stuff."

'Elephant' (15) is released on 30 January