Life Imitating Art Imitating Life – Gus van Sant’s Elephant


Gus van Sant has always been a filmmaker who likes to push boundaries and create conversation.

Lambasted for his shot for shot remake of Psycho he has in turn directed critically acclaimed films such as My Private Idaho (starring the late River Phoenix) and the award-winning Milk.

None of his efforts was more controversial than 2003’s Elephant, which bore striking resemblances to the Columbine high school shootings in 1999.

Although the film isn’t an adaptation of the real-life tragedy, the Director has gone on to say the pseudo-documentary style was a social commentary about gun violence. The title of the film refers to the disconnect that the killers have to their counterparts, aka the elephants in the room.

Van Sant tried a style of guerilla filmmaking using non-actors in the majority of the roles of the high school kids and a lot of the action improvised.

Because of its documentary style and frequent use of the Steadicam, Elephant feels very detached and although short at just 80 minutes its chilling finale is unflinching at leaves a mark on audiences long after the credits roll.

The film was a critical success winning the Palm d’Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival and receiving generally warm reviews despite being a box office flop.

Gus van Sant talked to Filmmaker Magazine about Elephant in 2003, saying,

“I remember when Columbine first occurred thinking that dramatists should get in there and do something right away, as opposed to waiting 10 years. That’s against convention – whenever something intense happens, the dramatic pieces usually wait until there is more perspective.”

When the real-life shootings took place in Colorado now 20 years ago it became the worst mass murder shooting in American history, but today sadly mass shootings are commonplace right across America with over 250 incidents in 2019 alone.

Have you seen Gus van Sant’s Elephant? Please let us know your thoughts on the film in the comments.


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