A foredoomed day in the life of an American high school, Elephant (currently in theaters) achieves a cool, unnerving verisimilitude, and credit to Gus Van Sant for going straight to the source. The director recruited his teenage actors—unknown nonpros all—from Portland, Oregon-area schools and interviewed the cast to generate ideas for the screenplay. “I told them everything that was going on with my life, my friends, my family,” says 18-year-old John Robinson, who portrays baby-faced towhead John. “Gus wanted to collect all these stories to write the script.”
Or rather, the raw materials of a script: “We would have a premise to work with, certain emotions and actions that Gus wanted, and go from there,” explains 17-year-old Nathan Tyson, who plays football hunk Nathan. “Every scene was improvised,” Robinson adds—including the disorienting first sequence, in which a car blunders down a residential street with John’s drunken father (Dubya double Timothy Bottoms) behind the wheel. “We came up with that scene together—Gus really includes your opinion no matter what you say,” says Robinson (who’s since been recruited for a supporting role in Asia Argento’s adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things by JT Leroy). “Alcoholism is part of my own family, so I was able to put the emotions of my life into the movie,” Robinson says. “My character really proves that you can’t know a kid—everything that could be going on in his life—just from what you see.”
Elephant implicitly asks what appearances can and can’t tell us, fixing its searching yet detached gaze on the last hours before two students launch a Columbine-like shooting spree. Robinson recalls that after the 1999 massacre, “in my school, people were judging other kids, trying to figure out who has the potential for doing something like that, but people were afraid to really talk about it.” Fittingly, Van Sant’s impassive essay, rather than prescribing a cheap antidote for school violence, instead offers a springboard for discussion. “The film isn’t about searching for different answers but just observing the day,” Tyson maintains. “The responsibility is on you, to ask yourself hard questions, which for some wasn’t the best way to go about it.”
“Some” would include Variety critic Todd McCarthy, who surmised in a Cannes dispatch that Elephant diagnoses its murderous duo as “gay-inclined Nazis.” “At Cannes the critics were coming up with all sorts of crazy stuff,” Tyson says. “I really hope people approach the movie with an open mind—not expecting to come out knowing but come out wondering.” Of course, Elephant went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, where Robinson enjoyed the unique honor of sitting next to Vincent Gallo and Chloë Sevigny at the infamous world premiere of The Brown Bunny (Robinson’s verdict: “not so horrendous”).
Both actors have a year or two of high school yet to go, though it seems the making of Elephant has afforded them a certain analytical distance. “The movie is really good at capturing those fake ‘Hey how’s it going, I’m your best friend’ kind of moments that happen every day,” Robinson says. For Tyson, the scene that most crystallizes the high school experience involves Michelle (Kristen Hicks), a stooped, bespectacled target for viperish alpha girls. “When she purposefully takes the long way around to get into the locker room so she doesn’t have to go in with the other girls, and instead she walks through the empty gym, you really feel that strong, familiar sense of social isolation, and also introspection—shuffling around in a dark gym with your head down,” Tyson says. “It’s quite the feeling of loneliness.”
J. Hoberman’s review of Elephant