Van Sant sound

I’ve been on a Gus Van Sant kick lately. He’s one of those oddities who can do mainstream, then dip into arthouse, then re-emerge into the mainstream without skipping a beat. I watched Milk the other night, which was kind of an interesting intersection of the two. The content was arty and gutsy but the aesthetics, for the most part, were big Hollywood studio drama.

Last night I watched Elephant (hey, that oughta confuse the Google search bots!). This is the third time I’ve seen it and I always manage to fall right into it. One of the really interesting differences between his mainstream and alternative films is the way he handles sound and music. Milk, composed by Danny Elfman, is very Hollywood. Elephant, with its combination of natural sound, subjective ambience, and musique concrete, is not. This difference is magnified in the murder scenes. Elephant‘s violence is cold, dry, devoid of emotional guidance. Harvey Milk’s assassination is dramatic, sad, and has a grandiose quality. This difference in emotion is directed in large part by sound and music, or lack thereof.

I started scanning the internet, looking for interviews about Van Sant’s sound designer, Leslie Shatz. I found one of the best interviews about sound I’ve ever read. Here’s what he says about story, style, and the all-too-common ignorance many in the industry have about sound:

People in Hollywood, they’re just like everybody: they cling onto trends. After I did Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I would get these phone calls from people saying they wanted “a Dracula soundtrack.” … I didn’t want to say it, but if you want a Dracula soundtrack than you have to make a Dracula movie.


This is one of the suggestions I make to directors: if you think of sound when you’re writing the script, then you’ve really integrated it into your movie. It’s easy to do that since sound is so suggestive and so capable of creating imagery. … I think what happens with Gus’s films and other films we talked about is that you take a sound that’s a complete juxtaposition of what’s going on in the image and it forces you to listen — you have to look to the sound for the cues of what’s going on. Even if the sound doesn’t give you a specific direction, it gives you a sort of broader experience than if it was just the dialogue being repeated over and over again. I think that filmmakers are having trouble making this break. They think of film as a visual medium. I’ve worked with a director recently who said, “I want a soundtrack like Elephant.” I said, “Fine, but you gotta be ready for what that means.” This was a studio film, and I thought, the studio isn’t going to go for this. Sure enough, they didn’t.

Yep, nicely said.

4 Responses to “Van Sant sound”

  1. I really liked Milk. I was 13 years old at the time when it was going on, when my mother exiled me to my father’s in San Jose, from my one stoplight Florida hometown.

    Gonna download Elephant tonight.

  2. I barely, barely remember it. But for some reason I remember Jonestown, which happened around the same time. What a weird time for San Francisco.

    I liked seeing all the SF footage in that movie. I dated a girl who lived in the Castro, so I spent a good chunk of time there. It was cool to see how they re-designed the location and set it back a few decades. And I once played a black-tie gig right on the main floor of city hall where Sean Penn ran up the stairs every day. Pretty cool seeing all that stuff.

  3. Milk should have won best picture. The way he weaved newsfootage into the movie was brilliant. He really recreated SF in the 70’s.
    The scene, a kind of montage with Bowie’s Queen Bitch playing was so cool.
    I blogged a lot about vansant and milk last month. I’ve rewatched milk several times and it gets better everytime. Cleave Jones!

    Elephant was part of that so called trilogy. I really liked Gerry. Especially the ‘rock marooned’ scene, but I didn’t like Last Days.

    Drugstore Cowboy is another really great indy film, not so artsy, but really deep.

  4. Cool blog bravo…

    Yeah, Van Sant’s “death trilogy.” I didn’t like Gerry as much as the other two, but maybe I should see it again. Elephant’s probably my favorite of the three.

    Next up for me is “Paranoid Park.”

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