Veteran director Gus Van Sant doesn’t like to do anything predictably. A publicist warned that he speaks in long extended passages but in this interview Van Sant did the opposite, providing answers that verged on terse. The 53-year-old Kentucky native rarely follows form from one film to the other. Witness the breadth of his style, ranging from films such as My Own Private Idaho to Finding Forrester to Elephant. Now as he did with the Columbine massacre, Van Sant uses actual history — the suicide of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain — as an opportunity to examine through his offbeat, oblique fashion, a real event.
The L Magazine: When did you decide to do Last Days?
Gus Van San: I thought of doing it in 1994. I was interested, at the very start, of doing something that was more of a biographical thing, about Kurt Cobain himself and not Blake [the fictional version]. I stopped working with that idea really fast, because it started to seem like The Doors.
The L: How did you write the screenplay?
GS: It was based on really small things. After thinking about it, what happened really wasn’t that interesting. He was missing and was found dead, but what had happened to him in those three days was pretty simple. He did simple things around his house. And I met Mike Pitt and was much younger when I first met him.I said I wanted to do this story about this rock star walking around his house. Mike was on board and then six years went by.
The L: Did writing the severe depression of Blake’s character affect you at all while you were forming the script?
GS: I think it does work on you as your working on it in different ways. You do sort of feel the film, but it wasn’t too terrible. I thought of him as someone who may have been frustrated and angry, but he was trying to carve out some space for himself. I don’t think it was anything he hadn’t dealt with before, but he was maybe making assumptions. At one second in his life he decided to pull the trigger, but once he did that he couldn’t get back.
The L: How did you structure the story?
GS: Originally, there were three different stories, sort of like Elephant. One of the stories was the detective, another story was Asia’s [Argento] character, and the third story was Blake’s character. Even in the writing stages, the other characters weren’t holding up, so I abbreviated those guys. We shot more footage than what was in the film, and even further abbreviated them. We tended to want to be more with the central character in Blake. In Elephant the kids had equal footing. In this film, it is more about this [one] guy, so it started to morph into something it wasn’t originally designed to.
The L: Why do you make so many films about young people?
GS: I’ve started to be asked that. I don’t really know how to answer, except the movies that weren’t about young people didn’t get financed, and the ones that were did. It’s a pretty graceful time in person’s life (under 20), so I’m attracted to that side of it. It’s also an unknown time, everyone’s most volatile time, and most important time of growing. If we were asked what our favorite music was, it would be something we were listening to at 18. There’s something about that time that we just don’t grow out of.
The L: Do your films relate to your own past experiences?
GS: In [Elephant], for instance, I could very much relate to my past high school experiences. I went to a pretty big high school. It wasn’t so much Columbine itself; it was just the whole idea of the things that made up Columbine, which I think everyone experienced (even if you went to a small high school). There were earmarks of things with that particular story. In this one as well, I think it’s about someone who is trying to get away from his own life or responsibility. Things are overtaking him in his last days, and I think I can relate to that and others can as well. Maybe it’s a long and overdrawn version of going home in a bad mood, but its sort of an epic version of that. You sort of wake up the next morning and everything’s ok, but when you first get home it’s not ok at all.
The L: Does commercial success mean much to you right now?
GS: I’m not sure if it does now or has before. I don’t think I’ve ever calculated anything. For me, calculations end up making you do something you don’t want to do in the first place. And you could lose anyway.