An Interview with Gus Van Sant
This year, the American film director Gus Van Sant created his first stage production called Trouble, a musical about Andy Warhol. The origins of Trouble trace back to the 1990s. At that time, Van Sant wrote a film about the life of Andy Warhol, with River Phoenix in the leading role. But the project was abandoned when Phoenix died. On the invitation of Portugal’s BoCA Biennial, Van Sant returned to that original idea. On the occasion of the premiere in De Singel in Antwerp, Sabzian has a conversation with Van Sant to talk about four films that marked a period of formal experimentation in his oeuvre: Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005) and Paranoid Park (2007). This interview is appearing on the occasion of a series of screenings of Paranoid Park organized by Sabzian.
Gerard-Jan Claes and Nina de Vroome: Gerry announces a period of films that focus on youth but are also driven by formal experimentation. Could you describe what brought you to this way of making films?
Gus Van Sant: The idea for Gerry came out of a meeting with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. We lived together in New York, and we were out for dinner. Matt had a production company – he wanted to make films. And that evening he told the story of two guys who became lost in the desert. It was something he had read about in a newspaper. We decided to take this incident as our inspiration. It was a mystery because one of the guys that got lost killed the other one. It was hard to figure out why, whether they were delusional from a lack of water or if there was some other reason. So we had this story, and I decided to do it without a screenplay. Matt and Casey were so good at improvising that I felt they could just make it up. I wrote down an outline, we had meetings and finally made the film. The style of the movie comes from the absence of a screenplay. The evolution of the improvisation in the desert with the two guys also changed quite a bit. When we started filming in the desert, things turned out very differently. I was trying to apply a stylistic idea that rendered a dynamic of what was going on with the rehearsals. It started like a John Cassavetes film, because I thought there was going to be a lot of dialogue, but it ended more like Béla Tarr or Chantal Akerman because there was less and less dialogue as we proceeded with the improvisations. As we walked the areas we were going to shoot, it started to change, and the film you see is the result of all the changes we were allowed to make since there was no script at the basis. Usually there’s a screenplay and you don’t change very much because there’s the script. In this case we could do anything we wanted.
After that I wanted to do another film like that. I was interested enough to do it in a similar fashion. The Columbine story Elephant was the next film that was kind of ready. I told the producers at HBO that I didn’t want a screenplay. I also wanted to work with an unknown cast. There were these ideas that came from working on Gerry. I assumed they didn’t want to make this film anymore and I could move on. But actually, they were into all the strange stylistic ideas I had. It was done in a similar way to Gerry with the DOP Harris Savides. Yet there were differences because the films had completely different subjects, different settings, and stem from different desires. In Gerry, it was a mysterious story which had an unknown element, which made it possible to improvise in a way where you are trying to find an answer to the mystery. Columbine did have a mystery – specifically, why these kids took big guns and shot their classmates. At the time the Columbine shooting happened, there was a journalistic desire to find the answer to why they went crazy and shot their fellow students. I thought there was an area for a dramatic interpretation as a way to search for the answer. Yet the media companies were very afraid of that, because it was a dramatic film, it was like entertainment. So to do a dramatic film so soon after a tragedy was sort of the point I was making. But the production was delayed and eventually made four years later under a different name. It was called Elephant, not specifically labeling the Columbine shooting.
By then we had the style going. Because of the success of Elephant, HBO was interested in making another film, and I made Last Days. There wasn’t a script but instead a list of things I wanted to do.
How did it work on set not to have a script? Elephant is constructed through complex camerawork, a precise choreography moving through the school hallways. How do you keep the balance between keeping it open and structuring the work for your team on set?
There was a list of scenes that I wrote in a poetic fashion. In the case of Elephant, the scenes were not rehearsed or improvised beforehand. We had only done improvisation in the casting session. We had a very good casting director, Mali Finn, who was involved in a school in the Midwest where she taught improvisation. We did a lot of scenes that involved high school violence, and Mali would let the people in and say, ‘I’m your mom, you haven’t done your homework, and you’re going to lie to me that you have done it.’ They would do a scene and you could see very quickly how the students would deal with simple moments of improvisation. They were really good at it; they were only 14. They were still close to games of pretending, so they had no problem with improvising. Some of them had stories they’d gotten into. John Robinson, the lead guy with the blond hair, told a story of his father who was an alcoholic. They wouldn’t know very well how to handle him, and he’d drive to school drunk. We’d use this story for the film.
A couple of weeks before the shooting I improvised and wrote down the script which followed five or six school kids during their routine. At the end of the day, there’s the attack on the school. I fitted in improvisations from the casting sessions but also had a roadmap of where the students are. We drew a map where, for example, character A moves from the soccer field and they walk all the way to the office. Character B walks from the office all the way to a teacher’s lounge. Another student starts outside of the school and goes inside. Then we found a school that could be the location. The school had been evacuated very quickly because of mold. In Oregon there is a lot of mold because there’s a lot of rain. For some reason they thought the mold was so unhealthy that the students couldn’t go back to school the next day. So the lockers still had the students clothes in them. Things that they posted in their lockers, student books, were still there. There was equipment, the gym had all the stuff, in the office was still a jacket hanging. In the pockets were late-slips from students. So, everything was perfectly set-decorated and already there, which is a rule of Dogma 95. It’s also a rule of low-budget filmmaking as you find the location and you move into it. The location was there, we did have some art direction like in the library, which we had to stock with books. We spent 15 days following our map and improvising what the students are doing during their day. When they pass each other in the hall, when a father drives his son to school… Then in the middle of it were the two boys who were the perpetrators of the attack, and we showed them having their day. They were the ones that were bullied, and we showed them hanging out together, playing video games and buying guns online. It was a combination of improvisation and following maps.
The script had sentences like “six boys play ball in a field” and then it would have a time, like five minutes. Then under it was “one of the players is called to the office and he walks to the office, 4 minutes”, and then it would say, “follow another student”, “John is riding in the car with his father, and his father is not driving very well, 3 minutes”. It went on like that, and it was only 30 sentences. The time that was written for each of them dictated how long the improvisation would be, or the shot. There would be 30 shots.
You worked with improvisation within the framework of a rudimentary structure. How do you keep track of the overall composition of the film once you leave the structure of a scripted story behind? How do you create the narrative composition of the film and work with the actors, the camera and sound?
I worked like this in all my films, except Mala Noche, which had a storyboard. We’d block a scene as if it’s a play and when the actors know what they’re doing, you choose the camera angels. Sometimes there’s just one camera angle that would continue, like in Elephant, Last Days, Gerry and Paranoid Park, where there were a minimal number of angles. But whether there are many angles or little, there is this blocking in which there’s movement like a dance and then there’s the filming of the dance.
But the blocking itself is the main feature of the scene. When you’re using a storyboard, you’re adapting the locations and the actors to the storyboard, which is already fixed when the characters come in the frame. This is the main reason I started to work without a storyboard because the characters can work the scene better. They can make things happen within that timeframe as opposed to working with single shots.
In Paranoid Park the specific use of image and sound plays a very important role. The way you use slow-motion or the way you work with lenses contributes in a strong way to the overall composition of the film. It transcends the work with the blocking of a scene and working with the actors. You are working as an experimental filmmaker. How did you develop this approach?
The DOP of Paranoid Park was Chris Doyle, who also worked with Wong Kar-Wai. Working with him they never knew what they were going to shoot. They had money to shoot for a week and they’d start and make things up. They’d wait for more money and shoot for another couple weeks. Chris made it sound like they never knew what they were doing. The way they’d keep track of the shooting was to remember what they’d done. For example, in a certain scene a particular thing happens and you know as a storyteller that you need a scene where something else happens. You don’t have it in the script but in your mind as a story and so you know how to continue it. I remember there was trouble with another filmmaker who was working with Chris shooting somewhere in Florida. The filmmaker was calling me, saying that Chris was out of control, that he talks about scenes and characters that aren’t in the script. That’s how he’s used to working. It’s like in a documentary film where you also don’t know what you are going to get, but as soon as you get it, you know how to construct something with it. So whatever piece you have, you can arrange it like a flower arrangement into the film.
In Paranoid Park the camera often seems distracted, moving away from the character or moving out of focus. But still there is a strong sense of experience. Can you talk about the work you did with Christopher Doyle and how you found this approach?
Before, Chris Doyle and I had worked on Psycho, which is a copy of the film by Hitchcock, so there was no improvisation. During the shoot of Paranoid Park, there were a lot of things that happened that were very funny and almost dysfunctional. We had a camera assistant named Rain Kathy Li. Chris called her his muse and his alter ego. He taught everything he knew to her. He was busy collecting information about every scene. Chris had the scenario in a binder to which he added text and sticky notes. He had the film divided over four binders because it had so many notes. This is for somebody who is mostly making things up. But because he wanted to teach Rain, he would be very specific about what he was doing. He was talking Chinese a lot, so everything became chaotic as they had many discussions about what he was teaching her and they would be very stubborn.
But it worked out very well. For example, there is the scene where the main character has this guilt and he ends up in the shower. That scene is amazing. The shower space was very tiny, so you couldn’t have many people in there. Chris said, “we’ll just go in and Rain will hold the light and I’ll shoot Gabe in the shower.” Basically, Gabe [Nevins, actor playing the lead character Alex] was in the water, and they were shooting at a fast rate. It was slow motion; the camera was moving and the light was moving and the door was closed. They were just by themselves shooting the scene. This was the best scenario for Chris, when he can do whatever he wants. The other scenes were shot in a similar way. There was a story element, and he’d figure out what he wanted to do. That scene was an example of functional improvisation. He’s very meticulous and he usually works very closely with the crew. And they have meetings, discussions and plans, and at the same time he’s very free-form. With control and without control at the same time. I never saw anybody work in the same way. He’s quite volatile, funny and loud too.
The way you work with sound in Paranoid Park is interesting. It often coincides with the intention of the scene, but very often it doesn’t. There is often a discrepancy between what we see, what this scene evokes and how the sound or music completely shifts our reading while we are looking. For example, when Alex is interviewed by the police inspector, we hear the scream of the railway security inspector, which is out of context at that moment in the film. On the other hand, during the scene when the railway security inspector dies, we hear an aria. So sometimes there is a disconnection, while at other times there is an exaggerated amplification of the dramatic moment in the scene. Can you tell us something more about how you think about sound in different stages of the process, during recording and post-production?
First of all, I edited Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park myself, and also the sound. I used a lot of musique concrète. I used musique concrète composers from all around the world, primarily French Canada and France, a little bit of the US. There was a musique concrète scene in Portland where I was growing up, so I knew what it was. I used these compositions which are music, but made of sounds. In the films they are often used as music, plus I’d put music on top. And there’s the stereo sound of the location sound. Most of this was suggested by my sound editor, Leslie Schatz. Leslie wanted to use stereo location recording, which you usually don’t do, because your shots aren’t long enough and they cut back and forth, so you tend to use mono sounds for that. But if your shots are long enough you can use a stereo mic, and we also had lavaliers on the actors, so we had several channels of sound.
We used the speakers of the cinema as solo speakers. They were not used in the “proper” way. Usually, you put stereo music in the stereo speakers and then for dialogue you put mono dialogue coming from the center. But in our case, not in Gerry but in Elephant and the other films, we did it differently. One character would be on the right side of the screen, the other character on the left side of the screen, and the track of the right character would be on the left side and the left character would be on the right side. This is usually changed in your mix, you put all the voices in the middle. But we liked the way the sound was all over the place. It makes it more psychedelic and disorienting.
There is a disorientation of reality but at the same time there is an intensified listening attitude. Is that also something you worked on, this play with the perception of the spectator? How did you develop your view on sound?
In Elephant we were using the stereo microphone on set and we had very long takes. What you heard with the stereo mic was like being there, like virtual reality. The stereo movement of the camera affects everything. The subtleties of the location were there. On top of that we’d put musique concrète which was also recorded with a stereo mic, so it was stereo on top of stereo. Some filmmakers would hire my sound editor before they quickly firing him because it was too chaotic. They liked the things we did in Elephant, but they didn’t like it in their own film.
You’ve edited all those films yourself. You described your working method as an editor once as that of a “bedroom producer”. Could you explain what that meant exactly in terms of editing?
The editing room is very controlled. You have the screen, and you are always in a very removed space, like in a spaceship. What happens usually in films, after you have finished the edit, you hand it over to sound editors. And usually in Hollywood they are so traditional that the first thing they do is throw away the stereo sound, which they did on Sea of Trees, they said “we can’t do it”, but you can do it, you just have to have the patience. But since they are unionized, they say “this is not the way I do it”. They have this tradition of the mono in the center and stereo in the stereo speakers and the surround and subwoofer speaker, so you have the five speakers. What we could do when we didn’t have a large crew was to break those rules of sound.
Images from Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2007)
Milestones: Paranoid park takes place on Thursday 8 April 2022 at 20:15 in De Cinema, Antwerp. You can find more information on the event here.