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, best known for Drugstore Cowboy and Good Will Hunting, recently
directed 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 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. More than
17 years have passed 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."
The Riviera sun moves, and Van Sant again looks for cover. Basking in his victory
at Cannes will require a lot less fuss.