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Short Excerpt from J. J. Murphy’s Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work (New York: Continuum, 2007)

Chapter 8: The Temporal Complexity of Elephant

There is no doubt that most of the dullness of our movies is concocted in advance in the so-called heads of the so-called scriptwriters. Not only the dullness: They also perpetuate the standardized film constructions, dialogues, plots. They follow closely their textbooks of “good” screenwriting. Shoot all scriptwriters, and we may yet have a rebirth of American cinema.
– Jonas Mekas, Village Voice (November 25, 1959)

    Jonas Mekas’s desire to shoot all screenwriters had to do with the fact that they “perpetuate the standardized film constructions, dialogues, plot” by following “their textbooks of ‘good’ screenwriting.”1 The issue of even whether to use a screenplay in making an independent film goes back to the controversy surrounding John Cassavetes’ first feature Shadows. Appearing on the Jean Shepherd radio show “Night People” to promote Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City (1957), in which he acted, Cassavetes boasted that he could make an even better film if he only had the funds.2 The gesture elicited $2500 in contributions from listeners. This unexpected response led Cassavetes to attempt additional fundraising, which resulted in his securing an initial film budget of $20,000. He managed to get together an ensemble group of actor friends, and they began work on the project. Cassavetes describes his working methods: “Shadows from beginning to end was a creative accident. We got the things we did because we had nothing to begin with and had to create it, had to improvise it. If we had had a writer, we would have used a script. I invented or conceived the characters of Shadows, rather than the story line.”3 Cassavetes went on to add: “The script, as such, did not exist until after the film was over. Then we made one up just for copyright reasons.”4

    Shadows was released in two different versions. The 1958 version was based on improvisation, but, according to Ray Carney, the 1959 version was actually scripted because Cassavetes believed the earlier improvised film had been a failure.5 Not everyone, however, was pleased with the “new and improved” second version. Mekas, who was then editor of Film Culture magazine, as well as film critic for the influential Village Voice, felt betrayed. He had effusively praised the first version, which he had called “the most frontier-breaking American feature film in at least a decade.”6 Film Culture had awarded Shadows its First Independent Film Award in early 1959 for being “able to break out of conventional molds and traps and retain original freshness” and lauded its sense of “improvisation, spontaneity, and free inspiration.”7 To Mekas, the scripted version was “just another Hollywood film.” For him, it was the first version of Shadows that represented an important and radical breakthrough. “Rightly understood and properly presented,” he wrote in his Village Voice column, “it could influence and change the tone, subject matter, and style of the entire independent cinema.”8

    Gus Van Sant has suggested that abandoning the use of a traditional screenplay in Elephant (2003) provided him with a greater sense of freedom during the actual production. He told Screenwriter Magazine:

For me, the screenplay’s always been something that you work on in private, and then you use that on the set. You basically copy it. You transfer it, and in that transferring period, you’re very busy interpreting the actual screenplay and there’s not a lot of room for extra stuff – the fun stuff – that’s outside the screenplay. So when I got rid of the screenplay, I found that there was only the fun stuff.9

The fun stuff includes being able to improvise scenes that rely on what Van Sant calls “ordinary conversations rather than scripted conversations.”10 The elimination of scripted dialogue permitted him the flexibility to approach the narrative in more formal and visual terms. According to Van Sant, his written outline gradually transformed into a map: “The sentences became, actually, lines on a map. And the map was the footprint of the school.”11 In order to create his structural blueprint, Van Sant drew heavily on an Eastern European art-cinema tradition of utilizing long takes and intricate camera movements found in films by Miklós Jancsó and Béla Tarr. For much of Elephant, Van Sant uses extended tracking shots to follow his teenage characters as they traverse the seemingly endless and intersecting corridors of a suburban high school. These tracking shots provide the formal basis for temporally linking together the various scenes that comprise the story of two youths who methodically gun down their unsuspecting high school classmates.

    Van Sant had been interested in making a film about the Columbine shootings ever since the tragedy occurred on April 20, 1999. He had approached Harmony Korine initially to write a screenplay for a fictional film that dealt with Columbine and the issue of high school violence, but Korine wound up getting side-tracked by other projects and never actually produced a script. Van Sant then turned to the novelist JT LeRoy, whose first novel, Sarah (2001), he was also attempting to make into a film.12 In developing the script for what would become Elephant, LeRoy conceived of the Home Box Office-produced film as “a series of interconnecting vignettes, with one story leading to another.”13 Van Sant describes the end result:

What he [LeRoy] wrote was not even about a school shooting, it was about different types of high school violence. There was some bullying, there was a kid carrying around a gun in a book. There was a girl who had been cutting her legs and her arms, so she wore these long pants to gym class and the teacher was angry with her for wearing long pants. There were flashbacks to Indian torture and things like that that this girl had in her head. There was a huge piece in the middle, like a 30-minute scene of a very animated teacher who gets the class into a huge discussion about school violence.14

With pressure coming from the film’s producer, Diane Keaton, to begin production on the project, Van Sant told Filmmaker that he didn’t think he could proceed with “this particular script.”15 Consequently, he decided to abandon LeRoy’s screenplay in favor of a more improvisational and structural approach to the Columbine material, one that he had already experimented with in his previous film, Gerry (2002). Instead of a script, Van Sant relied on a written outline: “I pretty much had it in my head, but there was [an] outline. But the outline [of] the day’s shooting would be something like a sentence, maybe a few sentences, and not a number of pages.”16 In addition, Van Sant allowed his non-professional cast of Portland teenagers to improvise their lines, thereby collapsing the divide between actor and role – a technique pioneered by John Cassavetes in Shadows and later utilized by Richard Linklater in Slacker. He also created an intricate and complex temporal structure that weaves together the lives of the various characters, sometimes repeating the same event from another character’s perspective in a manner similar to what occurs in Doug Liman’s Go (1999).

  1. Jonas Mekas, “Shoot The Screenwriters,” Village Voice (25 November 1959). Reprinted in Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, 1959– 1971 (New York: Collier Books, 1972), 6-7.
  2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Savage Eye/Shadows,” in The American New Wave 1958– 1967 (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1982), 32.
  3. Cassavetes quoted in Stephanie Watson, “Spontaneous Cinema? In the Shadows with John Cassavetes,” in Naked Lens: Beat Cinema, ed. Jack Sargeant (London: Creation Books, 1997), 61-62. Watson cites Colin Young and Gideon Brachmann [sic] in “New Wave – Or Gesture,” Film Quarterly, 14, 3 (Spring 1961): 7.
  4. Ibid., 62
  5. Ray Carney, “No Exit: John Cassavetes’ Shadows,” in Beat Culture and the New America 1950-1965, ed. Lisa Phillips (New York and Paris: Whitney Museum of American Art in Association with Flammarion, 1995), 236.
  6. Jonas Mekas, “Two Versions of Shadows,” Village Voice (27 January 1960) reprinted in Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, 1959– 1971, 10. Although the missing first version has finally been located, the only version available remains the second version. For a discussion of the continuing controversy surrounding Shadows, see Tom Charity, “Open Ear Open Eye,” Sight & Sound, 14, 3 (March, 2004): 26– 28. According to Charity, Mekas has softened his position on the second version.
  7. “The First Independent Film Award” in Appendix, Film Culture Reader, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York and Washington: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 423.
  8. Mekas, “Two Versions of Shadows,” 10.
  9. Van Sant quoted in Jeffrey M. Somogyi, “Flying Blind,” Screenwriter Magazine, XII, 4: 28.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. In October of 2005, JT LeRoy was revealed to be a literary hoax. Rather than a gay teenage literary sensation, LeRoy turns out to be a pseudonym for an older woman named Laura Alpert. See Stephen Beachy, “Who Is the Real JT LeRoy?” New York Magazine 38, 36 (17 October 2005): 30.
  13. See “Conception,” Elephant Publicity Materials, http://www.elephantmovie.com/production /2conception.html. http://www.elephantmvie.com/
  14. Van Sant quoted in Scott Macaulay, “Tracking Shots,” Filmmaker, 12, 1 (Fall 2003): 44.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Van Sant quoted in Somogyi, 28.
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