It's exactly 20 years since gay director Gus Van Sant won top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival
with his film Elephant based on the 1999 Columbine school shootings. The first
American to win the prestigious awards since Quentin Tarantino in 1994 for Pulp Fiction,
Gus Van Sant got both the Palme d'Or and Best Director honour. Van Sant's My Own
Private Idaho with Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix is a gay cult classic
and this sensibility is evident in his Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting.
The film he made two decades ago, based around the tragic events in Columbine, remains as upsetting and relevant
now as it did all that time ago. In the first six months of 2023 (January to June) 324 people
have lost their lives in shootings in the United States of America and over 1300 others have been injured.
Many of those incidents took place in schools, colleges and universities.
In the film Elephant Gus Van Sant went back to the more experimental roots of his fimmaking, using real high school students rather than actors.
He's been talking about the film in an exclusive interview with OutUK correspondent Ron Dicker.
Gus Van Sant's baby face is in immediate need of shade at the Cannes Film Festival. When
a beach-club worker finally gets the angle of the umbrella right, Van Sant tells a
publicist, "But we still need another one."
Van Sant has required no such shelter from the often harsh world of film-making. One of
the industry's few openly gay directors, he has danced between art-house edge and
multiplex sensibility for more than 25 years. At Cannes
this week in 2003, Van Sant earned perhaps the biggest
validation of his career. He captured the Palme d'Or (the top prize for best movie) and best director for
Elephant, his interpretation of those Columbine High School shootings.
Gus Van Sant on the beach at Cannes. Photo courtesy Karine Cohen.
Days before his surprising triumph, Van Sant was pondering the mixed reviews his movie received. He
adjusts his sun glasses with so-what-else-is-new flourish.
"The film definitely has an alternate narrative style and that could easily account
for people that aren't wanting to be there," he says.
Van Sant also shrugs off the topic of his sexual identity. Asked if being gay has affected his
filmmaking, he replies, "I think it's like, 'Does being gay affect your life?' Yeah, obviously.
It does just because it does."
Elephant tracks a day at high school with first-time actors doing everyday activities.
The camera follows them down long corridors and at play outside. Van Sant flops time for the entire film.
Elephant reveals in one moment two grim-faced boys about to enter the school, carrying
a duffel bag and wearing Army boots. Then it returns to an earlier scene in which mundane
chatter fills the halls.
Alicia Miles and John Robinson in
Gus Van Sant's HBO production Elephant.
The stock characters abound -- the jock, the hottie, the ugly
duckling who will not show her legs in gym class -- but Van Sant does not
stoop to the arc of a teen splatter movie.
The film gradually reveals more about the killers. They order an automatic rifle
through the mail. They kiss each other in the shower before the slaughter.
"I don't think our characters are gay," Van Sant says. "They're just heading to a
place where they're going to die. It doesn't matter what they do. The guys
that would kiss in the showers at that age were always straight and the guys that
wouldn't were gay."
Van Sant renders the ending in chilling verite style. He had intended to make a movie
for American television as an "agitprop response" to the tragedy, but the
subject was dismissed as taboo.
"It's just not something that is so in your face about answers and causes," Van Sant
says of his made-for-HBO feature. "It's more like a song about it."
Van Sant, is best known for Drugstore Cowboy and Good Will Hunting, and for
directing Finding Forrester, in which Sean Connery's curmudgeonly author mentors a ghetto prodigy.
Although Van Sant's film before Elephant was a slice of existential deep-dish called
Gerry, Van Sant says that with the Elephant film he is not necessarily leaving mainstream film-making.
"It might be just a departure from a conventional storytelling," he says. "I don't
think of mainstream as unable to accommodate other ways of telling a story."
A stumble in his Psycho remake notwithstanding, Van Sant has enjoyed critical
success in both indie and studio fare. The title of his next project is Day
at the Beach, a small film of which he reveals nothing. He assures that his current
run of alternative cinema is not rooted in any big-studio prejudice.
"I think it's the opposite," says Van Sant, whose boyfriend is an undisclosed actor.
"There's a social life within the Hollywood system that is very gay and
very open. And when it comes to the actual art, say I as a gay director am talking
to Barry Diller as a gay super CEO. And I propose a gay novel. He's thinking about
the marketplace. When it comes to the bottom line, it's going to be fiscal and not sexual in nature."
The democracy of money irritates Van Sant. He wishes all films got the green light
because of creative merit and earned box office because of the same. It's more than 30 years
since he made Mala Noche, his first feature, for a tidy $25,000.
A love story about a migrant worker and a liquor-store clerk, it won a Los
Angeles Film Critics Award for best experimental film and put him on track to make
1989's Drugstore Cowboy. His tale of a charismatic junkie (Matt Dillon)
chasing the next high made the industry establishment take notice.
Van Sant says as he gets older, he feels a greater responsibility to help young gay
filmmakers find their way. "I usually tell people they just have to go and
do it," he says. "That's how they learn, instead of my mentoring them. Mentoring
just means psychological comforting."
Elephant is available on both DVD and Blu-ray from
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