Q&A with Gus Van Sant

Director discusses ‘Last Days’, his original vision of the film, and his plans for the future

Director Gus Van Sant with actor Michael Pitt on the set of 'Last Days'
Director Gus Van Sant with actor Michael Pitt on the set of 'Last Days'
Director Gus Van Sant with actor Michael Pitt on the set of ‘Last Days’

With the upcoming release of Last Days, the most recent effort by Gus Van Sant that hits theaters this Friday (July 22), a few roundtable interviews were conducted here in New York City a few weeks ago. Gus Van Sant sat down for one such roundtable, and the following is a transcript of that interview session. We thank Brad for providing it to us.

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Tail Slate: When did you think of doing Last Days?

Gus Van Sant: I thought of doing it in 1994. I was interested, at the very start, of doing something that was more of a biographical thing, which was about Kurt Cobain himself and not Blake (our fictional character). I stopped working with that idea really fast, because it started to seem like “The Doors.” Then, at one point, I wanted to do the same thing except with dolls, because I was in to dolls at that moment. It was 1992 I think. I thought we could do a real bio pic, but it wouldn’t look corny like “The Doors,” because it would be dolls. You would be distanced enough that it would be interesting. Then I wrote about 2 pages and I stopped.

TS: That’s similar to what director Todd Haynes did with Superstar: The Karen Carpenter story?

GVS: I actually did ask Todd if he would mind if I used dolls, and he said that lots of people like XXX used dolls before him and he wasn’t the original one to use dolls. But the main one I was referencing was Superstar. Then I thought I should do something not about Kurt, but about this other character. It would be interesting to do something about a time that didn’t exist and an unknown’s last couple of days as an idea.

TS: How did you go about writing the screenplay?

GVS: 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 those 3 days were pretty simple. He did simple things around his house. The first person I tried to cast was Holger Thaarup, who I saw in a short film festival. He was an actor for Thomas Vinterberg and [the film] was called The Boy Who Walked Backwards. I visited with him and met Vinterberg. It was 1995 and they were just developing dogme95. Then a couple of years later I kind of dropped the idea and didn’t get around to doing it. And I met Mike Pitt [who plays Blake], and he was much younger when I first met him. He was seventeen and he looked a lot like Holger, and he’s part Danish. I said I wanted to do this story about this rock star walking around his house. Mike was on board and 6 years went by.

TS: Does commercial success mean much to you right now?

GVS: 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.

TS: Would you characterize a lot of your movies as slow? Even though slow is not a bad word.

GVS: Well, slow enough; so that certain things happen that don’t necessarily happen when things are faster. It’s just a way to get around a style [in which] we’re sort of used to looking at things really quickly. Once we see it, we know it and off to the next thing, whether it’s a steaming cup of coffee that somebody has just poured in a restaurant, or the lead character or whatever. You don’t ever really get a chance to look at what that thing is. It’s sort of like shorthand. In order to construct a story, you’re not really pondering what you’re looking at. [This film is] just a way to do it in a little bit different way, so you’re allowed to think other things, [other] than just copy and cut.

TS: How did you cast the minor characters of Last Days such as the yellow pages guy and Mormon guys?

GVS: Well the yellow pages guy was a real yellow pages guy, and the two Mormon guys were from Aberdeen, Washington. They looked like Mormons, and we wanted them to be giving out sorts of religious paraphernalia. We didn’t know that they would be Mormons right off the bat, but as we rehearsed, we thought that would be good.

TS: Did writing the severe depression of Blake’s character affect you at all while you were forming the script?

GVS: 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.

TS: How did you structure the story?

GVS: Originally, there were 3 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. The other characters, even in the writing stages, weren’t holding up, so I kind of abbreviated those guys. We shot more footage than what was in the film, and even further abbreviated those guys. 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 [be].

TS: Do you feel Last Days dispels the notion of the rock star cliché?

GVS: I think it sort of supports it. It’s saying that the cliché is real. The cliché being, if you give someone what they want, they’ll go off the deep end. I guess that’s part of the cliché, money too. A cliché could also be Arnold Schwarzenegger running for public office. That’s a positive cliché.

TS: Are you happy with the Criterion Collection release of My Own Private Idaho?

GVS: I helped work on it. I didn’t do the design though. They’re really good, I’m really impressed.

TS: Criterion implements a lot of extra footage in their DVD releases. Do you usually have a lot of extra material in your films?

GVS: We don’t really shoot a lot of other material. I know that’s what they like to do. Elephant didn’t really have much. There was a little film that was made along side of it, but Criterion really likes to produce stuff. [In Last Days], it’s sort of other people doing similar things to what Mike (Blake) is doing. Asia takes a bath; Nicole [Vicious] wakes up. The Mormon boys go on for quite a long time. There’s like a ten minute thing with them.

TS: Is there a reason you make so many films about young people?

GVS: I don’t really know how to answer that, 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 a 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.

TS: You have made music videos in the past. Do you plan on directing them again?

GVS: I’ve tried to avoid music videos. I started to feel I didn’t have the freedom to do what I wanted to do. You were trying to sell a product. I was under the impression that they were easier to make than commercials, but commercials might, in some ways, be easier. [In music videos], the band’s the product and the product talks and thinks. If you’re selling something like Ivory liquid, at least the product itself doesn’t talk to you. The people around it do, but with the band it’s really difficult.

TS: So do you plan on directing commercials again?

GVS: No, I haven’t really done those either. I’ve been offered them, but I avoid them. It’s easier to work on stuff I really want to get done.

TS: What are you doing next?

GVS: I’m adapting The Time Traveler’s Wife [by Audrey Niffenegger]. It’s a good book.

TS: Has Nirvana or Courtney Love responded to Last Days?

GVS: They haven’t seen it, but I offered it to Krist Novoselic [former Nirvana bassist] and Courtney [Cobain’s former wife], because I know them. I talked to Courtney about it and sort of explained it to them. For me, I want them to see it because I like the film. I understand that this is a huge, traumatic thing in there life, and they had their own relationship to Kurt. They really don’t need to see a move by somebody else that’s outside of that. You also don’t want to dwell on it because it’s such a tragedy.

TS: Do your films relate to any of your own past experiences?

GVS: 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 [Last Days] 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 okay, but when you first get home it’s not okay at all. It’s that sort of thing that’s going on in “Gerry.” I very much related to that, just because I’ve been lost a couple of times in the desert.

TS: What drew you to The Time Traveler’s Wife?

GVS: Well I’ve just started so I don’t know what I can say, except that I’m attempting it. It’s just an interesting point of view of a classic love story. The time travel is interesting as well, [compared to] the literal time I’ve used in my films.

Brad Balfour

Coming Soon!

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