'A Cinema That Might Have Existed'

Culture
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 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.

So where did this account come from?

Just in my imagination.

So it's fiction.

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

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?

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.

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?

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.

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

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...

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.

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

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.

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

A little heavy-handed.

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.

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.

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.

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

The first time I saw the scene where Blake passes out, sitting against the door, and Asia Argento opens it and he falls, and then you see it again from another perspective, it took me a second to register that it was the same scene. Why this non-linear approach to this experience?

It's similar to the way that we did Elephant, and there were different time spaces that people were having that would sometimes cross and you would see, "Oh, this guy was developing the picture at the same time as the other kid was getting dropped off at the office and they converged." I got the idea from a Béla Tarr movie called Sátántángo, which happens in much larger pieces. An hour and a half of film will go by and then it will cross, and another hour an a half will go by, and at two and a half hours, there will be this crossing and you go, "Oh my God, this is the same period of time," but it's much more profound because it's such a big film. I'd done, like, a mini-version in Elephant and in the original script for Last Days we were following each character separately. It got changed in the editing. I guess Blake's character was more powerful so we wanted to be with him more. But originally Asia had her own journey and the detective [played by Ricky Jay] had his own piece of time, a 20-minute thing.

When we see that scene with Blake and Asia played a second time, it actually plays differently. Is it like a memory as opposed to some objective presentation of reality?

Yeah, it's not like we're using two different cameras. But the whole point of doing it that way is just a way to tell a story. Instead of an objective for a character, instead of a quest or a goal for the lead character, it's just another type of thing to occupy the audience as they are seeing this other thing. It's a story technique, really, filmically. It's also the way I think our lives are. We go through a day and when we check in with our friends, you hear, "Oh, I was actually there at the same time," and they might have seen the same thing. So you retrace your day and piece it together from different points of view around the dinner table. So it's sort of the way we understand reality, I think. Goals are also another way we understand reality. It's a convention, a cinematic convention. Instead of, say, in Lord of the Rings, the quest for the ring is the goal of the characters, which I guess is like a MacGuffin in a Hitchcock movie.

As you pointed out, there were also conflicting reports about those last days. Is this a comment upon those conflicting perspectives?

They were just different points of view. I don't think that they were ever conflicting. There were always just little pieces of what just happened. Somebody saw him [Cobain] in the park. We left that out but used the park. We didn't show someone actually stopping and seeing him but we showed him go to a park, seemingly next door to his house.

There were these touch and go instances of things that I'd heard, that he had been in a club. I'm not sure where that story came from. I had written down as a list of things that Kurt Cobain liked to do or maybe had done in the last couple days. Making macaroni and cheese is not something that somebody said he did then, but it was something somebody said he did at other times in his life.

There is a disturbing sense of isolation and alienation throughout the picture. In parts, it is a powerful portrait of extreme depression, to the point where Blake literally flees from everyone around him, but it's disturbing the way everyone avoids him. It feels like he's been abandoned emotionally by everyone around him at the time he most needs some contact.

That was what I was assuming he would be doing, partly because of, perhaps, drugs, but also because he was "the master of the house," so the other people were steering clear of him. Or maybe it's just the way they were used to acting in the house. They were also people that he would maybe jam with; they weren't necessarily people he didn't talk to.

It's just that he was actually in hiding because he had apparently left rehab prematurely. He was supposed to spend 28 days in, but he left after two days, so he was hiding out in his own house and avoiding people who might be looking for him. He had done something wrong, he had left prematurely, and there were people calling and saying, "Why did you leave?" and he didn't want to listen to that. I mean, this is me imagining it. So they were helping him hide out and keeping out of his way.

And I think he was maybe used to doing that, he was maybe used to being alone so he could think and write and do the stuff that you normally would do during the day. I think it's a typical kind of scenario for an artist or a writer or a painter, that they have to go off into their world to create. And not necessarily being apart from the people in the house because of, say, just drugs. As far as I know, what really happened might have been something far different.

It seemed to me that there was more going on than simply avoiding him because of that. When Asia opens the door and he falls onto the floor, practically out cold, she doesn't help, she walks away from him.

Because she thinks he's dead. That's what I'm inferring. She's thinking, "Oh, it's happened," and then she just goes upstairs and says, "Scott, somebody's at the door." She doesn't want to be the one that finds him. She's freaked out and she leaves before the others figure out what's going on.

Who is the woman who visits Blake and asks him if he's spoken to his daughter [played by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth]?

She's like a manager or sort of a fix-it person that the record company has. Or she might be somebody that's connected to him or she might just be a friend. But she's somebody he really likes and she goes up and says, "Hey, get it together." Probably nothing like that happened during those two days but I threw it in there.

I wondered if she was a real person at all. She never interacted with anyone else. She just appears and then disappears, basically bucking him up but not doing anything physically to help him. She gives him some emotional support but she doesn't try to get him out of there.

I think that's the way it would be. There were accounts of interventions that had gone on that might be more like what really happened, like a group of people sitting down, a much different type of thing. This was just one person coming up and saying, "I can help. We can leave."

Your last three films have gone in a completely different direction than pretty much everything in mainstream cinema. They've moved away from traditional storytelling and narrative structures and become more about capturing textures and emotional states. What inspired you to move into this direction?

I think I was ticked off when I saw Sátántángo. Susan Sontag was a very big supporter of Béla Tarr's and she was at a Museum of Modern Art presentation of all of his movies. He introduced Sátántángo and she was there in the front row and she watched this six hour movie for, like, the thirteenth time.

Afterwards we all went out had some drinks and talked and as we were leaving I told Susan that I'd made a Béla Tarr movie, I'd made Gerry. You could call it inspiration or you could call it copying, but she thought it was like you were given permission by somebody to do something you had wanted to do, and I guess that's kind of what it is. I mean, I've lived with Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman since 1975, which this has more in common with than a Béla Tarr movie, but I never really did anything like it. Always thought about it, never actually tried to do anything like that, but always really admired that movie and never knew why, never examined it enough because it was so rarely shown.

Even from the very beginning, we were always shooting things in big, long takes. In order to cover scenes that were, say, five minutes long, we would do five-minute takes and I would move it from one angle and then another angle and a third angle, all these different angles, and then I would cut them together. And we were always moving around, as a way to combine set-ups. And in the dailies you watch those, you watch the single takes, and it never dawns on you to actually use one of those takes by itself, for whatever reason. I guess it's because it's not a cinema that we're used to seeing. In Eastern Europe it's a cinema that they are used to seeing, but in our cinema, even if you're watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's not necessarily a cinema we're used to thinking up or executing.

So I always intercut it, even though we were shooting in those long takes. Gerry was specifically these big long takes; it was different, but then in Last Days, they literally are just are one side of things. We would normally shoot three different sides and cut them together. Like with Blake talking to Kim Gordon, we would shoot his side, and then Kim's, and you would cut together your favorite parts of both performances, which in itself is starting to combine different time frames.

One side would actually be shot an hour later or whatever. So you were combining a 2:30 shoot with a 4:30 shoot and back to 2:30 and back to 4:30 and then a 3:30 shot, and it kind of looks like that.

You sense it, even if you don't quite intellectualize it; you actually feel these mixed-up times. It's just the cinema that we actually are used to, but as soon as you don't do that, there's a whole different type of cinema going on, which related to something I felt when I was watching Béla's movies, related to a cinema that might have existed as a parallel cinema that grew up along side, say, D.W. Griffith's cinema. It's sort of an evolution of what already is happening but never allowed to happen, never having permission to let it happen. So we're just doing it. They're also cheap movies so we're not betting the bank on them.

Keeping these on very low budgets, at least by industry standards, seems to have given you a tremendous amount of freedom to take on very uncommercial projects, to take a chance on them. This is the third one on a row. Because these are so small, what kind of success do you need from them to continue on in this vein?

They've been successful on their own, so we're still able to produce them. We haven't crashed and burned. They've made enough money to sustain them.

You've lived in Portland for the past 20 years or so, far from the hub of Hollywood. Why do you stay in Portland?

Mostly to stay away from stuff that happens in LA. If I'm in LA, I start to read and see and hear the same things that everybody else does, so you start to have a limited point of view. It starts to be LA-centric. If you're here, you have a different point of view of life. That's probably the main reason, but it's also a nice place. My family is from Kentucky and I grew up kind of on the road, but we ended up in Portland when I was in high school. I can live basically anywhere so I just went back to where I came from.

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