His Own Private Biopic
Kurt Cobain might well have approved the choice of Gus Van Sant as his biographer. For one thing, the Nirvana frontman is said to have adored Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. For another, the filmmaker's approach to a subject who remained elusive to the end is much less journalistic than impressionistic--if not inscrutable. Clearest by default in Last Days is the movie's climax: Van Sant appropriates the crime scene image of Cobain's lifeless, sneaker-clad foot and splayed left leg, art-directing what little we know for sure with the same morbid fastidiousness of the shower murder in his shot-by-shot Psycho remake. If Last Days' brand-new distributor, Picturehouse, is at all concerned about the commercial prospects of its maiden release, it wouldn't be because the movie stands to offend Cobain fans with what it speculates--since what it speculates is more or less limited to the theory that he made macaroni and cheese in his last days and watched a Boyz II Men video. (The film even resists asserting that Cobain ended his own life--which some chat-room commentators have fancifully construed as conspiracy theory.) The risk for Picturehouse, rather, is that this "Kurt Cobain movie" is also a bona fide art film: a rock biopic in which, Nirvana lovers might argue, nothing happens. I talked to Van Sant on the phone not long after the Cannes Film Festival, where Last Days had its suitably hazy world premiere.
City Pages: I guess you weren't too interested in making a conventional rock biopic, huh?
Gus Van Sant: I was afraid to fall into the trap of picking out the greatest-hits moments and getting lost in too much story. At one time I did start writing something that had the [Cobain] character's life as a young man, the first forming of the band, the struggles of getting their first gig, rising to the top, fighting with the record company--all the clichés. I only wrote a couple of pages, but while I was writing them I felt myself wanting to use dolls like Todd Haynes did [in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story]. I guess that was a way to distance it--to avoid falling into that trap of having actors portray real people. I'm not sure that I did avoid it, but I was trying.
CP: Distanced is the word. And yet it's interesting that Last Days seems to come a lot closer to truth than the contrived "reality" of TV news.
Van Sant: One of the reasons I chose this story is that it's sort of the rock 'n' roll suicide version of an overly reported subject like Columbine. [Cobain's] death had 24-hour coverage, at least on MTV. But I feel the way a journalist composes a story [makes it] as fictional as a fiction film. And that fiction filmmakers--those with imagination who resist making "entertainment"--are the ones who can actually go in there and bring about answers. Not that [Last Days] was meant to be a literal investigation; it's more of a poetic investigation.
CP: How important is it to you that the film reads accurately to people in psychological terms--that it makes sense as a portrait of someone who's about to kill himself?
Van Sant: I didn't really get into that--a portrait of someone who's unwinding--except for what I could imagine. I don't think I'm trying to go directly to that kind of characterization.
CP: Not going "directly" there, as you say, does seem well-suited to the depiction of someone who, offstage at least, appeared to be keeping a lot inside. Speaking as a fan, I always had the sense that [Cobain's] rage was internalized; it wasn't directed outward.
Van Sant: Yeah, I could agree with that. If you're thinking that Kurt actually did kill himself, without any outside forces coming in and assassinating him, then there's a good case to be made that his having been given whatever he asked for would have been difficult [for him]. In five years, he had gone from not being able to afford a $600 recording session to being able to demand covers on every music magazine in the world. It's not supposed to feel bad when you get what you want. And when it does, the rage can come from a really weird place. You can be pissed at yourself. You have no right [to feel angry], and yet you have no other way to feel, either. That's not a very good place to be. And maybe a troubled marriage on top of it doesn't help.
CP: Do you know what Courtney Love thinks of the film?
Van Sant: I haven't heard that she has seen it yet. So I don't know.
CP: Are you curious to hear from her about it?
Van Sant: I want her to see it, because I know her and I wanted to offer her the opportunity. She just hasn't had maybe the emotional chance to see it. I think it's a very big thing [for her]. I know that if somebody made a film about someone I knew very well who died, I wouldn't necessarily have to rush out and see it--because I have my own relationship to that person. So I can see why it might take a while. Or, you know, she might not see it at all.
CP: Your last three films [Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days] have been based on real events. The timing of this trilogy has been striking in that it has coincided with the rise of reality TV and documentary cinema. Your take on reality, though, is rather different.
Van Sant: Elephant in particular is a reaction to the news media: I had the feeling that there was room for something fictional. Usually the way it goes is you wait until everything blows over and then you make a fictional piece. With Last Days, it was 10 years [after Cobain's death], so things really did kind of blow over. Elephant started out as something like a window into the relationship between these two [killers] and then it changed into something else. Same with Gerry: It was [originally] sort of an interpretation of the relationship between two friends--one of whom ended up killing the other. Before I started making Gerry, I thought we were going to do a kind of John Cassavetes thing--a bunch of conversations in the desert. But it sort of became its own organic thing--which was more anti-conversation. It was the process of making Gerry that got me into [the style] of the other two films.
CP: The other way to characterize this trilogy is to say that it's about young death, right? What interests you about that subject?
Van Sant: I never really thought about it as young death. But now that you mention it, I see that [the characters] are young. So yes: [The films] are about young death. But that's still death.
CP: Okay. Let's say the films are about death.
Van Sant: I'm sure it has something to do with my own mortality--with turning 50. Although a lot of [my] other films have to do with death as well. Like To Die For.
CP: And Psycho.
Van Sant: Yeah. And Finding Forrester--which is a more feel-good version of it, but it's still [pauses]...a turning of the page.
CP: Do you think you've gotten that [subject] out of your system now?
Van Sant: Probably not. I have been working on an adaptation of a book called The Time Traveler's Wife, which is about a relationship--a lifelong relationship.
CP: What about the spiritual dimension of Last Days?
Van Sant: I guess you could say the film might be working on a level that's more meditative--and meditation by itself is a type of spiritual investigation. I'm not sure if the [film's] religious images are completely serious; they're sort of clichéd examples of religious imagery. Maybe it's part of the stardom baggage that the character has to deal with. A rock star is sometimes thought of as being not just a musician, but a deity--a rock god or something.
CP: "...and he's buying the stairway to heaven."
Van Sant: Yeah.
Also in this issue: Nevermind The Narrative: 'Last Days' wanders the woods of grunge by Jessica Winter.
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