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Past Article

Gus Van Sant: "A cinema that might have existed"
By Sean Axmaker
August 3, 2005 - 1:02 AM PDT

"That moment is where all of it just stopped abruptly."

Last Days, a film "inspired by" the last days of Kurt Cobain, made its world premiere at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, but director Gus Van Sant appropriately gave the honors for North American premiere to Seattle, the city where Cobain first made his music and found his fame, and where he took his life in 1994. It's something of a homecoming for Van Sant as well, who has made his home in Portland, Oregon, some 200 hundred miles south of Seattle, for over 20 years.

Michael Pitt is undeniably Cobain-like as Blake, a reclusive, accidental grunge rock icon, under long shaggy locks and behind hazy eyes. He looks like he's coming off a decade-long high as he mumbles and stumbles through his decaying manor in woods, dodging phone calls and ducking housemates while mumbling incoherently and periodically passing out. The story is pure speculation, Van Sant's fantasy on what might have happened during those final days of self-isolation, but he loads the film with distinctive imagery - from Pitt's wardrobe to the architecture to the damp, murky forest that envelopes them all like some primeval landscape - that makes a definitive connection to the real events and complicates any kind of reading of the film.

Subject matter aside, the film forms a kind of trilogy with Gerry and his award-winning 2003 drama Elephant, experiments in narrative deconstruction and reconstruction. Van Sant once again takes an impressionistic, non-linear approach, the better to plunge us into the experience. The film slips and stutters back and forth through the story, often so subtly that it takes a while to register, creating a queasy disorientation. The film soon feels out of time and suspended in the atmosphere of decay and deterioration and emotional disconnection. It's a defiantly uncommercial, individualistic mode of expression that Van Sant has been exploring with great success. Last Days is the epitome of these explorations and a beautiful marriage of subject matter and style.

Just hours before the film unspooled as the Closing Night event of the 2005 Seattle International Film Festival (where it not only divided audiences with its impressionistic, non-linear style, and its defiant refusal to provide any answers, but gave fresh fuel to Seattle's notorious Cobain conspiracy nut Richard Lee, whose grand design has been amended to implicate Gus Van Sant in Cobain's death), Van Sant sat down for an interview with me to discuss the film and his inspirations.

Sean Axmaker: Why is Last Days "inspired by" rather than "based on" the death of Kurt Cobain?

Gus Van Sant: There was this idea to do a biopic, like The Doors, that would have the story and maybe the Kurt and Courtney relationship and the band and they would be arguing over their recording of "Never Mind" or arguing with Butch Vig [the album's producer]. That was my instant conception, which was probably about a year after he died.

And then I guess I just changed it and decided that it would be maybe something I could do on a low budget at my house. I had a house that was kind of like their house, a 1905 Arts and Crafts house in Portland. I thought I could shoot it in 16mm and I would cast someone that wasn't like him. I was going to cast this 14-year-old kid who was in an early Thomas Vinterberg film called The Boy Who Walked Backwards. Then I decided that it would be just these last couple days that were just sort of missing, where nobody knew what had happened to him, that it wouldn't literally be about him. It would be a poetic piece, I guess.

And then, as time went on, it changed back. I was obsessing over locale and Mike [Michael Pitt] decided that his hair should be long and blonde. So that changed it a lot, because when I first met Mike, he looked kind of like the 14-year-old Vinterberg actor. He was 17 and he didn't look like Kurt, which was one of the reasons that I cast him. But as time went by he grew older and everything became something else. So there is a striking resemblance, although there still isn't an account of what happened on those particular days. There are certain accounts from, say, the detective, from his point of view, but then everyone else is not there.

SA: So where did this account come from?

GVS: Just in my imagination.

SA: So it's fiction.

GVS: Yeah, so that's another reason why it wasn't really a straight biopic.

SA: Within the fiction, there are certainly a number of very striking parallels to the real life events. The house, for instance, and the setting. By the time you add in the hair and the eccentric wardrobe, it's hard to think of Blake as anyone else by Kurt Cobain. Why did you put all these very specific signifiers into the film?

GVS: As well as imagining it, there were some things that I was familiar with. And Mike was doing his own thing. The whole idea of looking like Kurt was really his. I was afraid of that and I was going "Yeah, but it's corny and it'll be like a hair movie," and he was like "I can always change it." And then I started to like it.

SA: And there is his whole performance. The way he shuffles and mumbles, it's such a complete transformation of character that it's creepy. Was that your conception of the character, or was it Michael's?

GVS: No, it was Mike's. He was just doing his own thing. I would say "That's too much" or "A little more," but it wasn't really about me directing him. That's him creating the guy.

SA: What is it about the suicide of Kurt Cobain that so resonated with you that made you want to make this film?

GVS: Being from Portland, we sort of lived in the shadow of that music. Whenever I would go to Europe, especially around '91, people would ask about the music and they would want to know about that, which I really didn't know that much about, although I was in a band in Portland in 1988. And I have a friend who was a rock promoter who promoted most of the alternative shows here [in Seattle] and in Portland. So I had some reference, but it wasn't like I was at all of the shows and was digging the music. So I can only give a partial answer. But I think that moment [Cobain's death] is where all of it just stopped abruptly. There was this big thing that came out of the sky and stopped alternative music. And it became fake alternative music the day after. It was so abrupt. Even though none of that is in the movie, it was probably the impetus: the notoriety of this character and what it meant. That was probably one thing, having been part of something similar myself in Portland, having gotten something going and having stayed in Portland and having had an awkward relationship to my own city where I came from, and having bought a house that cost a lot of money, which he had also done. He had done these things that were similar. Living in LA some of the time, going back and forth, all that stuff. I guess I just drew parallels.

SA: Why did you shoot the film in New York rather than in the Northwest?

GVS: We looked at a lot of houses here. We asked the people who owned Kurt and Courtney's house. We looked at a lot of houses that resembled Boston area houses on the water in Portland. But we could never find the right house. They would all be kind of weird and new inside and, even if it was old, it didn't seem right as far as being a movie version, a fictional version. The one that we shot in, in Garrison, New York, was one of the first houses that we scouted. There were a lot of mansions like that in the area that were old, railroad tycoon or Wall Street tycoon summer houses. We had one in Portland we were actually going to shoot in, a house that I had actually lived in at one time, owned by a friend of mine, but they had started to get cold feet. They wondered if they could still have the garden club on Tuesdays and we realized it wasn't going to be something they were used to, so I thought, "What about that house in Garrison?" So we went back. We really tried to stay in the Northwest because we cast there.

SA: You mentioned the decay inside. That sense of decay really pervades the film.

GVS: A little heavy-handed.

SA: Even out in the forest, which is boggy and wild with underbrush, there is a primeval quality. It's like the house is being reclaimed by the wild.

GVS: I wanted to make a film about John Muir a long time ago. I'd heard that Ken Kesey had written a script about him and there are a lot of different things named after John Muir in Portland. I'd read some of his books and I was fascinated with a character that walked across the United States, walked up and down the west coast, walked around the globe, and created a lot of the parks. And as it turned out, really just by coincidence, the house that we shot in was owned by the son of the railroad tycoon who was actually the president of the Natural History Museum in New York and had introduced John Muir to Teddy Roosevelt. Muir had actually written a lot of his book right there on that hill. Not at that house. He had spent time in that house that we shot in, but there was another house over the hill. I learned this while were we in the middle of shooting. I think he's walking through the woods partly because he's doing a John Muir thing. It's almost as if he's walking from some distant place all the way up the coast to Washington. Who knows where he was walking from? It used to be he was walking from a facility, rehab or something.

SA: It felt to me like a walkabout, that he had left the house to get away and into nature. But you never see where he came from.

GVS: It wasn't explained. There are a lot of things that aren't explained.

next >>>

"That moment is where all of it just stopped abruptly."
"We haven't crashed and burned."

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Sean Axmaker
A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.

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