The Couple Most Likely To…:
Gus Van Zant and Diane Keaton Pair for Elephant

by Tony Phillips

High School is chock full of unlikely couples. Remember Carrie White and Tommy Ross? Their improbable date in the film Carrie took them all the way to prom king and queen before descending into pig’s blood tragedy. Next to Carrie and Tommy, Elephant director Gus Van Zant and his producer Diane Keaton seem a much less bewildering pair, but still far from a sure thing. Together, they’ve created one of the most visually arresting films of the year. Elephant has already aced the Palm d’Or and Best Director prizes at Cannes. Its long tracking shots and multiple viewpoints relay the last fifteen-minutes in the cut short lives that populate a typical American high school. The film, in turn, reestablishes a visual brilliance that’s been missing from Van Zant’s late-middle period (Finding Forrester, anyone?) peppering the tale with indelible images the auteur hasn’t fooled with since experimental fare like Mala Noche, My Own Private Idaho and last year’s Gerry. The irony of the Van Zant/Keaton partnership is it not only takes them back to the fertile ground of high school, but it also ups the Carrie White tragic factor by pulling the Elephant high school massacre from today’s news headlines. Meeting for a morning coffee at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan, Van Zant comes to the table wearing a gray tee-shirt with a dark green tweed blazer over it. Keaton is head-to-toe in a brown suede suit, black kid gloves cover her hands while a black turtleneck hides her throat. The whole thing is battened down by her trademark floppy hat. She’s showing less skin than most Muslim women. Just a bit of flesh across her exposed eye zone, but even that area’s muted by her signature frames with their gray smoked lenses. Gus and Diane. They look less like friends of J.T. LeRoy — who penned the first draft of the Elephant script and now shares an Associate Producer credit on the film — and more like a chicer version of your parents.

“I don’t know how I would have been cast,” Keaton begins, “but I know who I saw myself as, which is Kristen, for sure. I really felt like an outsider. I really felt I was not up to par and so I really felt for her. I mean, gym? Spare me the gym class. It was the worse thing imaginable.” We haven’t really moved on from high school. Rather, Keaton is entertaining the question of whom from the Elephant cast of teens she most identifies. That she picks the nerdy girl, Michelle, agonizingly portrayed navigating lunchroom politics and skirting gym dress code by first-time actor Kristen Hicks, is hardly surprising. Hicks made an appearance earlier in the day wearing a floral depression-era dress capped by a hat with large floppy flower attached. Clearly, the girls have done some shopping. What is surprising is that Hicks is the only one out of the batch of non-actors Van Zant discovered for Elephant who isn’t pursuing her craft. When asked if she doesn’t want to just shake Hicks for not realizing how enormously talented she is, Keaton deadpans, “I don’t know if I want to encourage anyone about acting, honestly.” Van Zant is more straightforward. After dodging the party boy question — practically brushing the whole thing off on Larry Clark — and another cast member admitting his first impression of the director was his overwhelming shyness, Van Zant casts himself as Eli, the extroverted, but popular yearbook photographer. “Eli was the one I was always relating to because I was the high school yearbook photographer in school,” Van Zant recalls, “I held the position twice. There was a big school I went to and then a smaller school.”

All this reminiscing begs the question how different is the high school experience of today compared to Keaton and Vant Zant’s alma maters? Both mention the presence of gay straight alliances in schools as distinctly 2000s. But did Van Zant’s own identity force this issue into his film? “I think that goes with whatever point of view your speaking from,” Van Zant explains, “if you’re speaking from a gay point of view, which you sort of can’t help if you’re gay, then you’re speaking from that point of view. I kind of play with that point of view myself, but only so much as you can. Amy Taubin wrote a piece on Elephant in Film Comment and one of her central ideas was only a gay man could have made this film. I was trying to talk her out of that concept, but I think ultimately, when you step back, yes, you’re speaking from your point of view. I think straight directors could include a gay straight meeting in their films. It might not have occurred to them. It’s somewhat common in high schools today, but for a 50-year-old filmmaker, because they went to high school in the 60s, it might just be something that wouldn’t have occurred right off the bat to them. I think I put that in because it is relatively common in high schools today and it wasn’t when I was in high school, and that’s part of my fascination with it. I cast it with people who were part of the gay straight alliance in their high school. Or then there’s Earnest Trully, the art teacher with the earrings. He runs the gay straight alliance in his school in Portland, Oregon. So we’re filming something that I was never part of and yet it exists in high schools today. That fascination probably comes from the fact that I am gay.”

A far thornier issue than any gay straight alliance is the kiss exchanged by the two young men who subsequently go on a shooting spree in their school. “Yeah, I don’t understand that,” Keaton begins of the imminent flap over this unholy alliance, “I don’t understand the issue at all because my feeling about this movie is that the point is to raise questions, not to answer. And by doing that you allow people to cram their heads with all kinds of thoughts and they can come to their own conclusions. The kiss is just another point along the path of a very complex issue, a very haunting problem that we have with ourselves — the violence we all carry within us — and why do people in this particular instance go so far? Why is the important question. And that’s what’s so great about Gus’ movie. It asks those questions, it doesn’t give you the answers and that’s something we’re going to need more than ever now when people are just ramming answers down our throats all the time and these answers are frequently very simpleminded and beg no questions. I feel like thank God, it’s refreshing to have something like this around. We need it. It’s not even refreshing, that’s the wrong word. It’s something we need.” So even though this kiss takes place in the shower between two high school aged boys, it’s not a gay kiss, got it? Or at least that’s the party line HBO is prepared to tow.

“When I wrote it,” Van Zant explains of the non-gay, gay kiss, “I didn’t know if one scene would stand out above other scenes, but as soon as HBO pointed it out, I realized the reason.” Van Zant goes onto explain that although HBO wasn’t objecting to the kiss, they were anticipating what the public’s reaction to it would be when it aired. “That’s really the wrong way to go about thinking about your movie,” Van Zant continues, “you’re trying to express yourself, if you’re going to be editorializing because you’re already guessing what the audience response will be it’s a bad way to go about it. So I said, let’s just include it. We’ll shoot it and see later if it works. I intended it as almost a confusing little moment before they die.” At this point, Keaton can’t help but interjecting passionately, “Well why wouldn’t there be a confusing little moment? What they’re going to do is they’re going to die!” Van Zant picks up her point, “Nothing really matters at that moment in their lives. There were a lot of things that led me to write that. And it was me. It was me trying to imagine what it would be like to be those guys. The reasons for not including it were always the wrong reasons — fear of not being politically correct — five people misunderstanding it because the kiss is not particularly a gay kiss, but if you have a very basic knee-jerk reaction, the audience could conceive of it as a gay kiss or that the filmmaker is saying that these kids should be in the gay straight alliance. If they were, maybe they wouldn’t have carried through their plan, but I never really thought of it like that. I thought of the kids in high school when I was in high school. The kids that kissed in the showers were always the straight kids. The boys that kissed each other at a party would be the two most popular boys because they could do whatever they want because nobody was challenging them.”