Gus Van Sant looks up from the table at the Pacific Way Cafe in downtown Gearhart. "Do you think there'll be a storm?" he asks.
It's a Thursday afternoon in late September in the tiny coastal community, and summer is refusing to go without a fight. A cool breeze kicks in from the Pacific and gray clouds obscure the sun, serving as a not-so-subtle reminder that winter is on the way.
But the filmmaker, who splits his time between Portland and the coast, isn't referring to the weather. The anticipated tempest Van Sant alludes to is a storm of controversy whipping up around his latest film, Elephant, a fictional account of two teenage boys on a murderous rampage at their Portland high school.
Scheduled to open next month, the film has so far had only a limited number of screenings at international festivals and press previews, but it has already divided audiences. This weekend, Elephant will have a special Portland premiere to benefit Outside In, a nonprofit agency that helps homeless teens.
Some say the movie, clearly inspired by the 1999 killings at Columbine High School in Colorado, is little more than a snuff film. Todd McCarthy, lead critic for Variety, described it as "gross and exploitative." Then there's the nonjudgmental depiction of the killers, who seal their murderous pact with a kiss, prompting McCarthy to describe them as "gay-inclined Nazis." But most disturbing is Van Sant's refusal to offer any sort of explanation for the murderous outbreak, leaving viewers unsure what the director thinks about the images he's created.
Sitting in the cafe, it's hard to tell what Van Sant thinks about the impending storm, as well. But then, it's always been hard to get a read on the enigmatic Van Sant. "I'm prepared for whatever," he says in a cool, unassuming tone. "I guess."
As Woody Allen is to New York and as John Waters is to Baltimore, Van Sant is to Portland--an artist whose unique, stylish vision has become part of the city's personality. His first three feature films, Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho--often referred to as "the Portland trilogy"--not only were instrumental in defining Van Sant as a filmmaker, they also helped to give Portland a cinematic identity.
"Anytime you have a filmmaker of Gus' caliber, working and living in Portland, it has a tremendous impact on people's perception," says Liza McQuade of the Oregon Film and Video Office.
Before Van Sant's movies, Portland was just another generic backdrop for movies like Last Innocent Man and Permanent Record. Van Sant took this Anywhere, U.S.A., and turned Portland into a supporting character. The underbelly of the city, with its rain-soaked streets, became his muse, and the junkies and hustlers who inhabit that world became his heroes. The dark, depressing milieu of alienation became part of his cinematic palette. "He captured that as a professional voyeur," says friend Chris Monlux, who describes Van Sant as someone always observing the world around him.
Like many other directors, his films grew bigger, his budgets higher, his stars more recognizable. With commercial success and an Oscar nomination came the inevitable criticism that a leading figure in American independent cinema had sold out to the studio system. When he left Portland for New York three years ago, it indeed appeared the independent spirit that had defined the director for so long was gone.
But his return to Oregon two years ago and the upcoming debut of Elephant prove that Gus Van Sant is far from being a corporate stooge. At age 52 he is, in fact, one of the most provocative and daring filmmakers working.
"Gus is experimental in the true sense of the word," says longtime friend Bill Foster, the executive director of the Northwest Film Center. "What's great about him is he does it his way, with an outstanding openness and the curiosity to follow his instinct. He synthesizes things the way a painter would."
Portland in the '70s and '80s was home to a small, tightknit film community, including Don Gronquist, director of Unhinged; Will Vinton, the Oscar-winning animator who'd later hit it big with singing raisins; Penny Allen, a political activist turned filmmaker; cinematographer Eric Edwards; and a Catlin Gabel grad named Gus Van Sant Jr.
After graduating from the prestigious private high school in 1971, Van Sant attended the Rhode Island School of Design, then spent several years in New York and Los Angeles. But he would often return to Portland to work with others on their projects, including Allen's landmark 1977 film, Property, on which he served as soundman.
After struggling unsuccessfully to break into Hollywood, Van Sant moved back to Portland in 1983. He brought with him a copy of Mala Noche, a book by local writer Walt Curtis, given to him years earlier by Allen. He was determined to turn Curtis' book into his first feature-length film, and within two years he had achieved his goal.
Produced for $25,000, Mala Noche is an uncompromising tale of love and lust centered around a gay convenience-store clerk who falls for a Mexican immigrant. Hailed by the Los Angeles Times as "Best Independent Film" of the year, Mala Noche was a critical success.
The praise received for Mala Noche was unfortunately not enough to dislodge Van Sant from the furthest fringes of the independent scene. That would change, however, four years later, when Drugstore Cowboy catapulted the director into the national limelight, placing him in the league of celebrated directors like Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee and John Sayles. His third feature, My Own Private Idaho, solidified his reputation as a director who works magic with actors. (See "A Gus Primer, page 21.)
Despite all the success surrounding Van Sant by the early '90s, the man was still wrapped in a shroud of mystery. While filmmakers like Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino basked in the glory of their celebrity, often writing themselves into their own movies and seeking out the press, Van Sant seemed determined to remain at least partially in the shadows. Aside from his sexuality--he is openly gay--he became best known for being little known.
His closest friends say that what others mistake for an enigmatic mystery man stems from a natural introverted shyness. Others who've worked with him suspect that there's at least a degree of calculation in his detached cool. Either way, he's come to be viewed as a carefree eccentric so immersed in his world of creativity,that he appears to be oblivious to everything else--an Andy Warhol in flannel.
"I don't really like the idea of doing press, because then you are recognized," says Van Sant, who carefully chooses each word as if it were a limited resource. You can almost see the gears in his brain turning as he contemplates a question.
"Am I hard to get to know?" he mutters to himself quietly, repeating the question that has just been posed. "Maybe for some people--it depends on who it is," he finally says.
After a time, it becomes clear that verbal communication may not be the best way to read Van Sant--a glint in his eye or a subtle twitch at the corners of the mouth, as if he's trying to suppress a smile, may be all he delivers.
Even on location, he's reserved. To see Gus Van Sant in action on the set of his movies, you might not know he's the director. He's not the maniacal ringmaster barking orders at his crew or screaming at his actors. Rather, he stands back and quietly observes what is going on around him, pulling people aside for private consultations when he has a suggested change, but mainly staying out of people's way.
"I've found that working with Gus, he doesn't say anything to you if you're doing what he wants," says costumer Marychris Mass, describing the director, who works closely with his actors, watching them as they rehearse and allowing them to develop their characters. "It frustrates people who don't really know him, or need reinforcement.
"He's a great listener," says Mass, who worked on Drugstore Cowboy and has an acting role in Elephant. "That's why he's such a great filmmaker."
Van Sant is aware that his guarded nature invites speculation and typecasting. And he seems to relish it.
"My name evokes a certain image for people--it's like a pirate's name or something like that. I make these dark films about drug addicts and male prostitutes in Portland, Oregon, and you have this sort of image, like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Carribean, or just some sort of weird gay pirate guy," Van Sant laughs. But, he adds, "I don't want to get trapped inside my own image. That, in itself, doesn't have anything to do with me. Why not screw with the audience? That would be the most fun thing for me. You're making a film for other reasons--it's not just about your image."
The Portland captured in the early films of Gus Van Sant no longer exists. The seedy market in Mala Noche has been replaced by the upscale restaurant Lush. The industrial wasteland of Drugstore Cowboy has been transformed into trendy Pearl District galleries and lofts. And the derelict building that served as home to an army of street kids in My Own Private Idaho is now the refurbished Governor Hotel.
The changes that transformed Portland are reflections of Van Sant's own metamorphosis. Perhaps it was his guarded nature that made Van Sant's career shifts seem so abrupt. Perhaps it was simply that he embodied the spirit of independent cinema more than other directors. Or perhaps it was the fact that he was from Portland, a city that, like any indie outpost, views artist growth and commercial success as a mortal sin.
Whatever the reason, indie-film purists began to paint Van Sant with a scarlet "S." Disturbing films featuring hustlers and junkies gave way to the feel-good Good Will Hunting, with box-office draw Robin Williams. Where there once was an underground director who made Mala Noche for 25 grand and was ignored by the trade press, there was now an Oscar-nominated director with a $43 million budget and Sean Connery for Finding Forrester.
But then, just as his critics thought they had Gus Van Sant figured out--an independent wunderkind who'd sold his soul to the corporate Hollywood devil--his actions once again defied prediction. Twenty years after Van Sant came to Portland to scrape up the cash to film Mala Noche, he returned to Oregon, purchasing a $500,000 condo in Northwest Portland in late 2001, then a million-dollar home at the coast last year.
Not only was Gus physically back in Oregon, but creatively he was returning to the daring filmmaking that defined his early work. "He got shoved along by the Hollywood industry and, for a time, caught up in the industry," Monlux says. "That's why people thought he sold out. But he got the power and the money, and went right back to what he was doing before."
Last year Van Sant surprised the world with Gerry, an experimental tale of two hikers (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) hopelessly lost in the desert. The film was a vast departure from Van Sant's earlier work, even the unconventional My Own Private Idaho. On an artistic level, the low-budget Gerry was a brilliant achievement and the first step in a bold new direction for Van Sant that would lead to what promises to be the biggest controversy of his career--Elephant.
Shunning the conventional aesthetic and style of contemporary cinema, Elephant is poised to be the most provocative American film since Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Told with a minimal amount of dialogue, the film highlights different high-school students as they go about the mundane business of their day, culminating with two heavily armed students on a murderous rampage.
But while Van Sant shows you what is happening, his film is all surface. He never delves deeper into any of the characters to explain who they are, how they feel or why they do what they do. Instead, Van Sant and director of photography Harris Savides transform the camera into a silent observer, allowing the audience to slip, with discomfiting ease, into the role of shameless voyeur, watching the falling bodies with morbid curiosity.
"I'm treating it like my version of a journalistic report," says Van Sant, "and not trying to dramatically convey something that would be a scapegoat."
There's no answer to the question "why" in Elephant. No heart-wrenching estrangement from parents. No ego-shattering bullying from classmates. Is, as Michael Moore proposes in Bowling for Columbine, our gun culture to blame? Or, as Bill O'Reilly would suggest, is it rap music? Van Sant isn't saying.
"If I say these things flat-out, I'm basically wasting your time with a thesis," he says. "There are more important things going on--all the combinations that can be evoked from the audience while they're basically thinking about the event."
Ultimately, Elephant asks for more from the audience than it delivers. By not taking a moral stand on high-school violence, and by refusing to offer any sort of explanation as to why this particular incident has occurred, Van Sant forces the audiences to search for their own reasoning. "There are answers, but the answers work in conjunction with the viewer," explains Van Sant. "The answers tend to be more profound answers, if you're able to actually have the film influence you."
Elephant offers no moral compass for audiences weaned on movies (including Van Sant's own Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester) that, through music cues and heavy-handed expository dialogue, tell you how to think and feel at every point in the film. Rather than unfolding like a traditional movie, where an audience generally reacts to offerings from a cinematic bag of tricks, Elephant demands a more participatory involvement, much the way literature requires readers to use their imagination.
"We're not necessarily used to our films being more like poetry," Van Sant says, "where it's not about specifying so much, it's more about ruminating, allowing your imagination to help, as opposed to getting rid of the imagination part and just having an explanation."
In short, Van Sant wants audiences to think and feel, without being told what to think and feel. It's the latest endeavor from a surprising filmmaker whose insistence on following his own vision has put him in the eye of a storm.
Some will love Elephant. Others will hate it. And some just won't understand.
"I don't want this to suck, basically," admits Van Sant. "But as far as I'm concerned, if there's a small contingent that really likes Elephant, and a huge contingent that says, 'Well, it's not a Good Will Hunting,' that's OK."
A GUS PRIMER
Van Sant's nine previous films
Mala Noche (1985): Based on a book by local writer Walt Curtis, this was the first feature film from Gus Van Sant. He had spent several years trying to get it produced in Hollywood, only to return to Portland and finance the film himself. Critically acclaimed, the story of a gay convenience-store clerk obsessed with a Mexican immigrant helped to introduce Van Sant to the burgeoning independent scene of the 1980s.
Drugstore Cowboy (1989): Van Sant's career took off with the story of a gang of junkies who resort to theft to stay high. The film offered a breakthrough performance by Matt Dillon, who until then was largely thought of as a teen heartthrob for his work in movies such as The Outsiders. More important was the way the film placed Van Sant and Portland on the cinematic map.
My Own Private Idaho (1991): Further exploring themes of alienation and championing the fringe dwellers of society, Van Sant again took a couple of pretty faces and showed they could act. River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves star as two street hustlers searching for greater meaning in their existence in a film that established Van Sant as a filmmaker willing to take risks.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993): Based on the book by Tom Robbins, this film would prove to be Van Sant's biggest critical failure. Whether it was the studio meddling with the creative process or rumored drug use during production, the film proved an ambitious but disjointed experiment that never comes together (though it isn't nearly as bad as most critics claim).
To Die For (1995): Undaunted by the brutal reviews of Cowgirls, Van Sant returned with one of the best films of his career, a wonderful black comedy penned by Buck Henry. Marrying the offbeat, cutting-edge quirkiness of his early work with the more mainstream fare that was to come, To Die For features Nicole Kidman as a deranged housewife obsessed with fame. Like Orson Welles' The Stranger, it was proof that Van Sant could work under the constraints of a studio.
Good Will Hunting (1997): Van Sant crossed over into mainstream with this film and earned his first Oscar nomination. Written by stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the film represents Van Sant's transition to studio filmmaking and proved to be his biggest financial success. Robin Williams won an Oscar for his supporting role; so did writers Damon and Affleck, who with this film were cemented--for better or worse--as Hollywood stars.
Psycho (1998): Few filmmakers have endured more personal attacks than Van Sant did for his shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's classic. Van Sant kept his cool and played the whole thing off as an artistic experiment. More likely, Universal was curious how such a remake would do at the box office, hoping they could pilfer their own catalog for "new" material. Fortunately for filmgoers, the remake barely broke even.
Finding Forrester (2000): As if Psycho never happened, Van Sant returned with another "feel good" film (written by local scribe Mike Rich) often erroneously called a remake of Good Will Hunting. Working with his biggest budget ($43 million) and his biggest star (Sean Connery), Van Sant appeared to be firmly entrenched in the Hollywood studio system.
Gerry (2002): This cinematic equivalent to a sucker-punch distanced Van Sant from mainstream cinema more than anyone could possibly imagine. Critics and fans were split over the experimental art project, which featured long tracking shots of stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck silently wandering through the desert.
's premiere to benefit Outside In will be held at 8 pm Saturday, Oct. 4, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, 224-4400. $32-$47.75 advance (Ticket-master).
Elephant was produced for broadcast on HBO and was never intended to be released theatrically. But plans changed after the film won two awards--the Palme d'Or and the Best Director Award--at the Cannes Film Festival.
Elephant is one of the few films ever to win more than one award at Cannes. The last was Barton Fink in 1991.
Elephant was filmed over the course of 20 days at the empty former Whitaker Middle School (also formerly Adams High School) in Northeast Portland.
The title Elephant comes from a 1989 British film of the same name by Alan Clarke. Clarke's title came from the old saying referring to problems being as easy to ignore as an elephant in your living room.
In describing his next film, which is rumored to be about Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, Van Sant says, "The next project is about a Northwest rock star. He isn't Cobain, but then, Elephant isn't Columbine."
In the years since Gus Van Sant came to the forefront of American independent cinema, his career has taken many twists and turns. In addition to film, he has explored painting and photography, written the novel Pink, and recorded several albums.