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Out gay director Gus Van Sant won top prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival with his film Elephant based on the 1999 Columbine school shootings. The first American to win the prestigious prize since Quentin Tarantino in 1994 for Pulp Fiction, Gus Van Sant got both the Palme d'Or and Best Director honour. Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho with Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix is a gay cult classic and this sensibility is evident in his Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting. In Elephant he returns to his more experimental roots using real high school students rather than actors. He's been talking about the film in an exclusive interview with OutUK correspondent Ron Dicker.

Gus Van Sant's baby face is in immediate need of shade at the Cannes Film Festival. When a beach-club worker finally gets the angle of the umbrella right, Van Sant tells a publicist, "But we still need another one."

Van Sant has required no such shelter from the often harsh world of film-making. One of the industry's few openly gay directors, he has danced between art-house edge and multiplex sensibility for more than 15 years. At Cannes, Van Sant earned perhaps the biggest validation of his career. He captured the Palme d'Or (the top prize for best movie) and best director for Elephant, his interpretation of the Columbine High School shootings in the United States. Gus Van Sant on the beach at Cannes.
Photo courtesy Karine Cohen.
Days before his surprising triumph, Van Sant was pondering the mixed reviews his movie received. He adjusts his sun glasses with so-what-else-is-new flourish.

"The film definitely has an alternate narrative style and that could easily account for people that aren't wanting to to there," he says.

Van Sant also shrugs off the topic of his sexual identity. Asked if being gay has affected his filmmaking, he replies, "I think it's like, 'Does being gay affect your life?' Yeah, obviously. It does just because it does."

Elephant tracks a day at high school with first-time actors doing everyday activities. The camera follows them down long corridors and at play outside. Van Sant flops time for the entire film. Elephant reveals in one moment two grim-faced boys about to enter the school, carrying a duffel bag and wearing Army boots. Then it returns to an earlier scene in which mundane chatter fills the halls. Alicia Miles and John Robinson in
Gus Van Sant's HBO production Elephant.
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.

 

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