Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Gus van Sant at the New York Film Festival
Gus van Sant was on-hand in New York on Monday (10/8) to discuss his new film, Paranoid Park, which was screening there as part of the New York Film Festival. The following are the minutes of the conversation.
There are some spoilers below, clearly marked, as the conversation took place after the screening of the film, so proceed cautiously.
1. The film is based on a novel by Blake Nelson, who was once something of a "savage poet" of Portland but lately has been writing young adult books. van Sant was originally interested in a book called Rock Star Superstar and after expressing that to Nelson, the author sent van Sant the galleys to his book Paranoid Park and, liking it, he decided to adapt that instead. Also, since it's set in Portland, it gave van Sant "something to do in my hometown."
"He did the work," van Sant said of Blake, referring to the basic plot which the director claimed was lifted pretty directly from the source material.
He also noted that the main character is an amateur skater, and is therefore coming to the skating world that the film (and book, presumably) depicts as an outsider, "sort of like us (the audience)".
2. On the music
They edited the film on a Macintosh laptop, which also had assistant editor Eric Hill's iTunes on there. He's "also a musicologist of sorts," van Sant said, and so a lot of the music was chosen from Hill's collection, just sort of playing around in the editing process, "mixing and matching," as van Sant said. The Nino Rota material was taken from van Sant's own record collection; originally, they tried to make modern re-recordings of Rota's music but it didn't quite work out, so they contacted Rota's estate who allowed them to use the music.
3. On Long Takes (Spoiler!)
van Sant said that his whole career he has filmed "longish scenes", three to five minutes. He films scenes as a whole, not line-by-line, and also claimed "I've always worked with non-professionals (actors)." In his last few films extremely long takes have been written directly into the script; he used Elephant as an example, where he would write, say, "boys play football -- six minutes". Paranoid Park's script was only 56 pages long. (That's much shorter than the average film script! --ed.) He shot two angles for most of the dialogue scenes, one from each side of the conversation. These are edited in the film so that half the scene focuses on one character, and the other half on the other. This method of splitting, he felt, was in line with the film's motif of halfs, best expressed in the image of the man cut in half that cuts the film in half.
4. Chris Doyle
The film's cinematographer was Christopher Doyle, who also appears in a small part as the main character's "Uncle Tommy". He was already on the set and they wanted a face for that character, so they stuck him in there. van Sant saw the character of Uncle Tommy as "the gay uncle who had this beach house."
Doyle is known primarily for the work he's done with Wong Kar-Wai; characterizing the process of working with him, van Sant said it was "a lot of discussion, a lot of analyzing."
The skating sequences were shot by a "skate filmmaker", someone who makes skating videos.
5. Gabe Nevins
Someone asked if Gabe Nevins, the lead actor, ever asked critical questions about how his character behaves, or try to input his own self into the role. van Sant said no.
"Maybe he just understood the screenplay," van Sant said. "He was also very unexperienced."
"Maybe we prepped him as well," he added later.
6. The Security Guard (Spoiler!)
The moderator asked about the startling image of the man cut in half, noting that it was unexpected since van Sant's work doesn't usually feature such images.
van Sant noted it was from the book, but that the book had a different grotesque scene. (i.e. not a man cut in half.) van Sant changed it because it "fits thematically, metaphorically."
7. Hipster Horror
Someone asked if van Sant was trying to make a "Hipster Horror Film"
"Hmmmm," he responded, and after a beat answered, "young adult film, that's what I was trying to make."
8. Parallels to previous films
van Sant said the film was similar to Elephant in that it's set in a high school, but that that film was a "meditation on a horrific event I knew mostly through the news." Paranoid Park is a fictional film, so in that regard it's very different.
Someone asked about the role of fire, specifically campfires, in his oeuvre. van Sant admitted that fire has a "primal sort of meaning to me" as it's "where stories used to be told."
The scene near the end of the film in which Nevins burns the pages of the letter he's been writing was originally set in his living room, but they couldn't stage it to their liking (so that you could see Nevins' face and the fire in the same shot) that way so they moved it outside.
To cast the film, van Sant & Co. had an open casting, putting ads in local Portland media and also on MySpace. "Kids just came in," he said, about 1500 of them. They recorded them and then called people back for actual auditions, that is, to read in front of them.
The detectives were real detectives that they got because someone on the casting crew had connections to the police department.
11. Using Academy Ratio
van Sant's last few films were shot in 1.38:1, or full screen format. "Big square format" as he called it. He said he began doing this with Elephant because it was shot for HBO and 1.38:1 is television format. HBO asked him not to because they wanted to "make it seem more like a movie" by having it letterboxed, but van Sant declined. They made a deal that if they shot in 1.38:1 that HBO could show it letterboxed, that they could "cut off the top and bottom" so van Sant "had to make sure no one gets cut off too much."
He said he'd grown tired of 1.85:1 and "that wide screen." He and his directors of photography feel more like photographers, like Diane Arbus, when they can shoot in a square ratio, and it also brings them back to their 16mm student days.
Someone asked if the ending was supposed to mean "business as usual." van Sant eventually said sure. He also said it was "just a bookend of skateboarding," which is used throughout the film as interludes.
13. Different from previous work
Someone asked if he made a conscious effort to make this film different from his previous work. He said there were differences in the story, source material, and style of storytelling, which was more specifically psychological, more old-fashioned in style.
He said, "sometimes it was like Chris Doyle, Wong Kar-Wai," and said at other times it was a hybrid style, more "austere" like Elephant.
The moderator asked him if he'd ever go back to celluloid, and van Sant said all his work is celluloid. He's never used HD. How embarrassing.