Dialogue: Gus Van Sant

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Review of "Paranoid Park"

In recent years, Gus Van Sant has turned his back on Hollywood -- and been embraced by Europeans in the process. His latest film, "Paranoid Park," continues the increasingly experimental take on alienation seen in his previous three features, the silent journey in the desert "Gerry," the pseudo-Kurt Cobain biopic "Last Days" and the Columbine-inspired "Elephant," which won the Palme d'Or in 2003. Shot in Super 8 and 35mm "Paranoid Park," the story of a skateboarding teen involved in a deadly incident, features teenage amateurs from the director's Portland hometown recruited through MySpace.com. Van Sant speaks about his fascination with nonlinear narrative and gives his take on the film industry.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did "Paranoid Park" develop?

Gus Van Sant: It came from a book by Blake Nelson, who's an Oregon writer. I know him originally from Portland about 10 years ago. He's been writing young adult novels.

THR: How close does the film follow the novel?

Van Sant: There was almost no improvisation. We added a couple scenes that weren't heavy dialogue scenes. It's pretty much all from the book, but it's not in the order of the book. The book was pretty linear -- the film is not very linear.

THR: Why did you decide to take a nonlinear approach?

Van Sant: Reading the book, it was an interesting way to tell the story. We're sort of following one character through a day. He's a very strong lead character.

THR: By taking a nonlinear approach, do you want the audience to experience the same sense of dislocation as the main character?

Van Sant: It wasn't calculated -- it's just the way I think and people think. I think that's how we experience our lives. You can come in at the middle of the story -- all of a sudden you realize you're remembering things from the past. Even in a conversation like ours, we may jump backward or forward to a topic, and I think that's the way we communicate as an audience

THR: It seems to be kind of a risky move -- you could risk alienating the audience.

Van Sant: Well, some of the greatest films like Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" were told in flashback with scenes jumping back and forth in time. I think with video games, people are taking a more disjointed way of looking at things.

THR: How does this work continue some of the themes and filmmaking approach you were using in "Elephant"?

Van Sant: It's similar to "Elephant" in that it's high schoolers in Portland and they're almost all non-actors. They're kids that were in high school when we shot and are still in high school right now as we're talking, all local Portland kids. It's not as intense of a catastrophy (as "Elephant" depicted). It's much smaller, even though it's very important in this kid's life. It's fictional, and it wasn't really made up as a improvisational piece. What happened with "Elephant" was kind of weird because we did have a screenplay. We started off with a design, whereas this one had an adapted screenplay. The casting process was very similar in that we had a big open call and chose people from the open call. I'd never really worked with people that age in a professional sense.

THR: Was that to achieve a certain sense of authenticity?

Van Sant: If you dealt with professionals, they might have had a style that might be not so good for what we're trying to do. I think all teenagers at that age are acting to a certain degree, so it worked for the film.

THR:
Tell me about the film's plot. It involves a skateboarder and a dead body?

Van Sant: It's about a guy who has an impulsive accident and doesn't know who to tell. He goes through the day not knowing where to turn.

THR: How did you relate to that premise?

Van Sant: I think it's something that happens to everyone when they're growing up. Something they're not sure what to do about that they keep to themselves. Something catastrophic happens and they don't know where to turn. I relate to that.

THR: What do you hope people take away from the movie?

Van Sant: I hope each person takes away something different.

THR: Does it explore skateboarder culture?

Van Sant: No, I think it's about a kid's life and shows how teens interact, or don't. But it does take place in that world and uses it as a backdrop.

THR: How long do these experimental projects take to shoot?

Van Sant: The last 3 films were kind of similar in that their shooting schedules were all really short. "Gerry" was somewhat longer -- we had some location changes -- at about 25 days. The other ones were all 18 days and about $3 million each.

THR:
Why have you taken on that challenge of shooting so quickly?

Van Sant: It was a choice, but also it was the result of not really trying to overshoot so much. We were trying to narrow it down in both the screenplay area and also the plan, but also the idea of making a movie right on the set rather than waiting until you're in the editing room, where you shoot a whole bunch of angles and figure out later what's going to happen. We just shot the angles we wanted to use.

THR: Do you intend to continue in the vein of the recent cycle of experimental films you've made?

Van Sant: There are no plans right now for any projects. I'm just thinking about things and seeing what happens. It's sort of like each project has its own life and so there isn't really a type of project I'm favoring.

THR: Have you been offered Hollywood films and turned them down? Is it difficult at all choosing independence over a bigger salary?

Van Sant: It's been pretty easy. There are usually things that are there that seem interesting, but in some cases I don't like the script. It just stops right there. They don't want me to rewrite it -- they want me to shoot what is there. They kind of realize I'm not just their hired gun. It's not really about the movie so much as getting it done and not changing it. It's always a problem with big projects -- there's always going to be chasing after actors, whatever aspects were very appealing about the project to a studio may change and be different than what was appealing one month earlier. ... It sort of defies common sense at times. Without a lot of financing, you do gain a lot more freedom, and that's a worthwhile tradeoff for me.

THR: How do you feel about coming back to Cannes on the occasion of the fest's 60th anniversary?

Van Sant: It feels very comfortable coming back -- seeing the same filmmakers again. It's like going back to camp. There's sort of a group of people who've been going to festivals all the time. One of the first festivals I went to in '85 was Berlin, and then later I was in Toronto when Michael Moore first showed "Roger & Me." It's almost like seeing the same reporters and sales agents and financiers all over again.

THR: So what are you looking for in a domestic distributor to best handle the release of the film?

Van Sant: Whoever is going to give us a lot of money. Maybe they'll shelve it afterwards, but that wouldn't be so bad.


VITAL STATS:

Nationality: American; born: July 24, 1952

Selected filmography: "Drugstore Cowboy" (1989), "My Own Private Idaho" (1991), "To Die For" (1995), "Good Will Hunting" (1997), "Elephant" (2003)

Notable awards: Best director, Palme d'Or and Cinema Prize of the French National Education System in Cannes for "Elephant" (2003), Best director and best screenplay (with Daniel Yost) from the National Society of Film Critics for "Drugstore Cowboy" (1989), International Critics' Award (FIPRESCI) for "My Own Private Idaho" (1991) at the Toronto International Film Festival
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