Gus Van Sant on Returning to the Filmmaking Style of ‘Elephant’ for His New Shorts

Eric Kohn
·8 min read

Many filmmakers scrambled to get work done under the strange, unpredictable circumstances of 2020, but few worked faster than Gus Van Sant. The “Milk” auteur was preparing to shoot the Will Ferrell drama “Prince of Fashion,” an Amazon-backed project adapted from Michael Chabon’s GQ article, during the first half of the year.

When that fell apart, Van Sant spent the summer trying to sort out his next move. In early October, he was he was approached by Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele about fast-tracking a new project. With Paris Fashion Week canceled, the label was gearing up for GucciFest, an online showcase of new designs comprised of short films.

Van Sant ended up traveling to Rome for rapid-fire 12-day shoot to showcase Gucci’s upcoming collection, “OUVERTURE of Something that Never Ended.” Van Sant co-directed a series of seven short films under the same title, each of which follows non-binary actress Silvia Calderoni through a surreal set of encounters over the course of a very strange day around the city, as she runs into everyone from Billie Eilish to Harry Styles and playwright Jeremy O. Harris.

Above all, the peculiar shorts provide a welcome return to form for Van Sant, whose enigmatic approach to solitary characters and oblique narrative style yielded some of his most distinctive filmmaking excursions. But even as “OVERTURE” bears some resemblance to Van Sant’s less conventional films, it also speaks to a long-dormant relationship to the world of fashion finally coming together. Back home in Los Angeles, Van Sant spoke by phone about how the project impacted him, why “Prince of Fashion” fell apart, and how the Trump era changed the way stories are told.

How long have you been interested in working in the fashion space?

I had tried to do a few fashion shoots over the years that didn’t work out. I went to Paris Fashion Week in June a couple years ago, which did influence me. I’d been present for the creation fo the fashion show. I was a guest videographer, so I knew the system and the world.

The shorts hark back to your minimalist period — films like “Elephant,” “Gerry,” and “Last Days.” When this opportunity came your way, when did you start to realize that it was a chance to return to this style of filmmaking?

I had actually talked to Gucci last winter about doing something just before COVID hit. The projects were canceled, but we were already talking. This one came up a month and a half ago. The concept reminded me of those things I’d made. I thought, oh, I know how to do what they’re asking for. They wanted to make something long, but there were some problems with how much time we had. When the company I’m with started working on it, it was overwhelming how fast we had to go. But I was comfortable with the limitations of the shoot and edit, more than my company was. They were like, “This is going to crash and burn!” I was like, “No, no, I know how it can work.” It wasn’t that daunting because of the other projects I’d made really quickly. Their intention was to go in that direction.

Which of your prior films did it bring to mind the most?

I intended it to be a little more like “Elephant” than the others because I thought we could do it all with single takes. Part of the concept had evolved from an earlier desire to make something even longer, something that was seven hours. The incarnation I was going to be involved with was going to be two-and-a-half hours long. It wound up being 80 minutes total. We used two cameras for one of them. It changed from something that was long single takes to something that involved cutting. That just happened as we were shooting it.

How do you save time on set?

There wasn’t any real trick to it. If you’re moving quickly, you can accomplish a lot in one day. Even on smaller-budget films with fewer days — like “Elephant” was 15 days and this was 12 days — I remember when Roger Corman made “Little Shop of Horrors,” it was rumored to take four days. Location-wise and story-wise, it’s an ordinary movie. You don’t have to rush to condense things. You just don’t spend all day on a two-minute scene.

Two years ago, you made “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot” with movie stars and support from Amazon. Do you miss having those resources when working on a smaller scale?

There are some conventional storytelling styles that have a lot in common with each other. They are all made on 50-day shooting schedules, and you have a 120-page script that your scenes are running from and you know why they’re running that way. It can make your 50-day schedule look like somebody else’s. There has been an expectation of what a two-hour or hour-and-half movie has to be like. It doesn’t have to be exactly that thing.

It doesn’t have to be done that way, conceptually. I had sort of experienced that on “Gerry,” “Elephant,” and “Last Days.” With “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot,” that was a 25-day schedule, so it was pretty fast but done in a relatively traditional way.

Before you ended up making fashion shorts, you were actually working on another Amazon project with a logical connection to the Gucci project — “Prince of Fashion” — at the start of the year. What happened to that?

I was working on the script for that and it was supposed to shoot in April of this year. But COVID impacted and that we lost our budget — like, Amazon has a lot of money, but apparently they didn’t have a lot of money to do it. [laughs] So our budget fell out, COVID hit, and right now it’s at Amazon but I’m not sure we’ll be able to make it there.

Did that have anything to do with Amazon Studios executive Ted Hope leaving the company around that time?

Yeah, I’m sure it had a lot to do with that. Ted was leaving all the way through last fall. Probably the reason we didn’t have the money was because he was on his way out.

How has this experience informed the way you want to work going forward?

Having done this, I’m definitely inspired by revisiting the way I had worked earlier in my career. Meanwhile, theatrical exhibition is imploding and things are going directly online like these shorts did. It’s starting to change quickly, so I’m not sure what it’ll mean to me as far as other projects but it was definitely fun to go back to this approach.

So what do you expect to do next?

I’m not sure, but there are a couple of ideas I’ve been shown that other people have written, and I have a couple of things on my own. I’m working on a play, but I’m not sure if “Prince of Fashion” might come back together.

As a filmmaker, how do you expect to respond to the Trump era?

There are many stories to be told about the last four years, but I haven’t seen any projects come to me yet that are about that. My co-writer and I were working on a TV project at one point about a gay president, but that was just before Trump took office. That project and a lot of others about presidents — Trump just wiped them off the map. His presidency was so different from any other, which made satires and political projects have less weight than the actual events happening before our eyes.

What did you make of Mayor Pete’s candidacy?

I was hopeful about it. He didn’t last, but he did sort of resemble our character for our show. Our guy was actually a tech guy though.

So many of your films deal with the divisive nature of American society, and in the wake of the presidential election, it’s clearer than ever that this country is in a very divided state. What do you make of where we’re at right now?

I’ve made films that have addressed certain political issues, fracking being one of them, that were coming from other people. John Krasinksi was the motor behind “Promised Land,” and “Milk” was always an amazing political story about the advance of a gay revolution. These are things I’ve participated in, but I followed this year in politics much more closely than I have before. While we were shooting, I was just watching CNN all the time. But that was because it was Trump’s desire that we watch: For four years, he wanted us to watch this whole thing; it was like he was creating things so we would watch them.

GucciFest runs through November 22. Watch the entire series of short films here.

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